Recording Ethiopia’s Red Terror


Friday, 7 August 2009

In the late 1970s Ethiopia’s Marxist military rulers tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands in brutal repressions. Now, one survivor is trying to create a permanent online archive of the so-called Red Terror using the documents the Communist regime, known as the Derg, left behind, reports the BBC’s Elizabeth Blunt.

Hirut Abebe-Jiri was in her early teens when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown.

She had had a happy and privileged childhood, part of a well-off and well-connected family.

But the revolution made people like them liable to be viewed as suspicious. Read more.

Related Book Excerpt:
My Rediscovery of Ethiopia by Rebecca Haile

Publisher’s Note

Rebecca Haile was born in Ethiopia in 1965 and lived there until she was eleven years old. When the Emperor was deposed by a military coup, Rebecca’s father, a leading academic in Addis Ababa, was shot while “resisting arrest.” Barely surviving, he escaped with his family and settled in central Minnesota where they struggled with the cultural and financial strain of their drastically changed circumstances.

Rebecca grew up in America harboring her precious childhood memories, but in time saw herself as more American than Ethiopian. She attended Williams College and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. In 2001, she was the first member of her family to return to Ethiopia.

The following is an excerpt from her book Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia (Academy Chicago Publishers, Paper, 183pp, $17.95, 0-89733-556-2).


“I want the two of you to pack some clothes tonight because this weekend we’re going to drive to Nazareth town to visit Ababa Haile and Tye Emete. If we don’t do that, we will probably take a plane to join your mother and father in America.”

With those casual words, my Aunt Mimi tried to prepare my sister Sossina and me to leave Ethiopia even as she downplayed the voyage by equating it with a Sunday drive to my grandparents’ home in the country. Mimi dared not promise us the trip to the United States, much less name a specific date. Those were unpredictable days in Ethiopia—days when people who disagreed with the regime didn’t know whether they would see the sun rise the following morning, days when, my uncle Tadesse swore, you couldn’t trust your own shadow. By then, government soldiers had nearly killed my father, and my parents had fled the country. How could my aunt and uncle assure us that no one would block our family’s reunion?

Now, twenty-five years after those final tense days, I am on an overnight flight back to Addis Ababa. I am sitting next to my husband, Jean, staring restlessly out the window at the inky ground below. As we cross from southern Egypt into northern Ethiopia, an hour or so before we are to land, the horizon finally begins to lighten. Soon, the sky over the vast highland plateau is awash in a deep, clay red. Jetlagged and on edge, uncertain what to expect from the country I am not sure I can still call home, I am grateful for this beautiful prologue to the month that lies ahead.

I left Ethiopia in 1976, two years after the army deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and sent a powerful wave of turmoil and state-sponsored violence crashing across the country. Along with countless others, my parents were swept up in that wave and soon the life they had built together had been completely washed away. In the summer of 1976, my parents, my sisters and I found ourselves abruptly deposited in the United States, stripped of our possessions and expectations and left to start over financially, professionally and emotionally. I was ten when it became clear we could not stay in Addis Ababa and had just turned eleven when my sisters and I reunited with our parents in a small central Minnesota town. That first summer, as we watched our host country celebrate its bicentennial birthday with fireworks and cheers of freedom along the banks of the Mississippi, not one of us imagined how long it would be before we would see Ethiopia again. When I returned in the spring of 2001, I was the first in my family to do so.

From Held at a Distance by Rebecca Haile. Copyright (c) 2007 Rebecca Haile, Published by Academy Chicago Publishers, all rights reserved.

Related Video: Court sentences Mengistu to death

9 Responses to “Recording Ethiopia’s Red Terror”

  1. 1 Ketta Aug 8th, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    We all share the saddest time of the brutal regime of Menghistu; who killed and tortured our innocent citizens/ sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers.Woe to these killers. But happy to see alive Rebecca Haile.

  2. 2 d Aug 8th, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I feel sorry for your loss and the loss of privileged families like yours but Mengistu’s communist policies were the best thing that ever happened to Ethiopia’s peasant population. Mengistu was the only one in Ethiopian history who truly provided a system of equality in terms of education and geography. The main reason for Ethiopia’s problem with modernization is that for too long the vast majority of the Ethiopian population who are peasants were never given a true voice. Most of the stories like these have been told through the perspective of rich families who lost their privilege when Mengistu came to power. Believe it or not, there are tens of millions of peasant Ethiopians who saw their lives improve through education, land rights etc unfortunately they have always been the silent majority.

  3. 3 Rachel Yohannes Aug 9th, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Yes, indeed. Some of us were lucky, we left right before the revolution but our family left behind suffered more. I consider myself lucky. I left right before the revolution for 10 days and never went back. I was 14 years old at that time. My two younger brothers and sisters were left behind. It was 10 years of nightmare. Most of my good friends suffered more than I did in retrospect. At least both my parents were alive. My father was in prison for 6 1/2 years. He suffered and has not been the same since that time but he was alive. We share painful experience. I feel that people who were there during the red terror suffered more.
    Mengistu was truly a mad man. I cannot believe he ruled for 17 years!

  4. 4 Teodros Aug 10th, 2009 at 3:08 am

    I find it difficult that some of the comments here try to clean up Menigistu’s image from the tyrannical despot to the now popular “nationalist” tag. In quoting that “Mengistu was the only one in Ethiopian history who truly provided a system of equality in terms of education and geography…” you should look at the outcome of this “successful” education policy. Where did Ethiopia excel? What good did it do for the economy and the social fabric of the country? Where are the signs of development brought about by the newly educated? It is easy to slap a class warfare tag on this issue. But is is not about class! It is about the ambition of a country broken by a mass murderer!

    Although Mengistu and his backers profess a large number of graduates of the literacy campaign, there is no data to prove that the lives of ordinary Ethiopians was in anyway impacted by his education policies. As far as education was concerned, my grandmother is one of the people that supposedly learned how to read and write after the Zemetcha campaign. You can rest assured that she did neither.

    To give credit where it is due, Emperor Haile Selassie and Emperor Menelik were highly active in bringing about modern education to Ethiopia. While Emperor Haile Selassie was not Jesus Christ, he did the best he could to encourage and create opportunities for education given the cantankerous nature of us Ethiopians.

    My father was one of the people chosen to go and learn abroad. Our family was from the “peasant north” in the Gonder region (I prefer to call it the philosophically sophisticated north). My father’s friends who traveled with him were all from the various regions of Ethiopia. But all were on a personal mission from their country, their families and the emperor “to learn as much as possible and bring back knowledge”. As far as I am concerned, the only contribution Mengistu did was murder hundreds of thousands and handicap our development by generations.

    I left Ethiopia as a teenager in 1977. I have lost many members of my family during the Dergue regime. I have slowly learned to accept that I am now an Ethio-American with the bonds of love and family in America married to an African American. As I appreciate the richness and strength of my wife’s heritage, I still agonize over a genetic responsibility to contribute to my country’s growth in some manner. Rebecca’s book brings it all back in my face and confronts me with the two worlds I straddle and the pain of the early days.

  5. 5 Selam Aug 28th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I read this book from page to page twice ….it brought the nightmare of the long forgone years . I lived not far from the authors house …so I do remember that night of shooting , screams and nightmare as we children were put under a bed to protect us . It feels as if it was a bad dream …alas it was real . Many of my school mates and yesefer lijoch, family members were killed in the name of red terror …imagine 16,17 ,13 years old against an army ….God rest them in peace. Ms Jiri’s effort is much appreciated .


  6. 6 koster Nov 14th, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Mengistu did a lot to Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Unfortunately we did not realize it in time and were being used by foreign forces and those with hidden motives.
    From my years of experience about American foreign policy, a leader who is hated by the WEST does good to their people and his country. The WEST loves what they call “friendly tyrants” like Meles who does not hesitate to kill his own people and sell his country.

  7. 7 Abera M. Dec 2nd, 2009 at 10:22 am

    The problem in Ethiopia from time immemorial is the lack of the rule of law. There was no independent judiciary system during the Emperor’s time, during Mengistu’s time, and sadly in the 21st century; in the current regime. The Hailselassie regime was a backward feudal regime where the selected few were given the opportunity to enjoy life while the masses were suffering. I don’t think the supporters of the Haile Sellasie regime realized the seriousness of the 1974 famine in the back drop of excesses by the king and his collaborators. What Mengistu did was all wrong; but he should not have been in that spot if there was a ruke of law and an organized system of government. Those who escape Mengistu’s tyrany were mostly childrens of the well to do families who were denied their “birth right” to live in abundance and above the poor majority; they were denied to continue as their fore fsthers do, sorry for them; although most of them complain about the injustices Mengistu did; they never criticize Haile selassie for the wrongs he did. Unfortunately Ethiopia has never been led by a visionary leader, we always have tyrants; be it Haile Selassie, Mengistu, or Meles; they were all tyrants. Although he wanted to change his country by killing those who opposed him Mengistu is better than Haile Selassie and Meles, and Meles is the worst leader we have in our history, atleast Haile Selassie and Mengistu didn’t hate their country.
    The main question is why dwell on the past when we have an urgent problem in the country NOW? Yes we have to listen to everyone’s memory or perspective, but what would it give us for the current problem we are having. Somebody might think they were priviledged and they should continue to be priviledged, so what? Who said they were right to have that priviledge? The then intellectuals who were educated abroad by the tax dollars of the peasants of Ethiopia and on their return they would strengthen the oppression and amass property for themselves. Were they morally right? Meles and his comrades were part of that generation, a generation who does no good for the country, a generation who is confused and didn’t pass on a good culture or civility for the next generation, a generation who wouldn’t let go the politics of the country, a generation who still argue about whom is right, I would call it the LOST GENERATION THAT WAS NO GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY.

  8. 8 Sera H Mar 30th, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    I have not read the book, but anything that tries to shade a light in that dark part of Ethiopian history should always be welcome- and weighed for truth. I read some of the comments here and I thought…
    Why is it that people equate
    coming in to your home breaking your door, hitting your mom, Taking you away, tying you upside down, beating you up and throwing you on the street and shooting you in cold blood in thousands, in hundred of thousands!!!, and … then asking your mom for the price of the bullet… and then tell your mom, she is NOT allowed to cry…, happening every day, for days , months and years…, and in Gondar, and In Jimma, and in Assalla, and in Debre Markos… and in Desse, and…for years later on to be asked for papers out side your own homes to be taken by force to the training forcefully not even being given a chance to say goood bye, and to die in thousands, in hunderds of thousands——-….

    if you beleive the worst of what theses people are saying killing 300 young men- who didn’t knoow any better after they went out face to face against an untrained police force!! Instigated by the same people who did the above killing!! Poor young men and women whose crime is the fact that they didnot have money and knowledge…

    Every life is precious!! A life lost is a life lost wheather it is during red terror or in may 2005!! But please spare us the comparison- Every single one of you- who were part of the Terror- and Mengistu’s great Ethiopia Dreamers just to be in power and kill more- every single one of you are no better than Hitler’s Nazi/SS/Gestapo elites living out their last days in South America. As is the case with the third reich, your dream of Ethiopia where few kill others at their will is going away… slowly… very slowly but surely.

  1. 1 Ephs Reporting From Abroad : EphBlog Pingback on Aug 9th, 2009 at 4:39 pm
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