In an earlier post, I mentioned that Helen and I had “visited a museum” today. Most casual readers would not be particularly interested in a museum review by a pair of foreign tourists, but read on. This is no ordinary museum. It is a searing monument to a tragic episode in modern political history.
Most Americans are only dimly aware, if at all, of the modern history of this ancient country. For most of the 20th Century, Ethiopia was ruled by one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, Emperor Hailie Selassie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hailie Selassie responded to increasing political unrest with increasingly repressive measures. When the great famine hit Ethiopia in 1973, the world was treated to intensive journalistic coverage of people starving in the countryside. Selassie’s government was ineffective in dealing with the famine. The combination of famine, photojournalism, administrative incompetence, and public anger led to a popular revolt against his rule. This revolt was eventually co-opted by a Military Coordinating Committee made up of police and military officers. They were known as The Derg (Amharic for “Committee). The Emperor was forced to abdicate on September 12, 1974 and The Derg took over as the rulers of Ethiopia.
The most important member of this ruling cabal was Major Mengistu Haile Maryam, who systematically eliminated his rivals within the Derg by assassination and execution. Mengistu was a communist who was strongly backed by the Soviet Union. Mengistu turned Ethiopia into a classic Stalinist state and instituted a reign of terror, slaughtering anyone he suspected of opposing him. It is generally believed that Mengistu killed Haile Selassie personally by smothering the aged Emperor with a pillow in his bed.
Mengistu and The Derg ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until 1991. During this period at least 500,000 men, women and children were killed by The Derg, a genocide largely overlooked in the West. Shortly after The Derg came to power, rural opposition to their rule started, mainly in the north in Eritrea (now an independent country, then part of Ethiopia) and in Tigray, of which Mekelle is the capital. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front begin a guerilla war against the Derg which gradually gained momentum as people from other regions of Ethiopia joined in the struggle for freedom. In 1991, the combined Peoples Liberation Armies overthrew the government, which had largely lost its Soviet backing when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Mengistu fled the country, taking refuge in Zimbabwe as a guest of the equally repressive government of Robart Mugabe, where he still lives.
The “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum is in the heart of Addis Ababa, a short walk from the Hilton Hotel, right on the edge of Meskel Square. It was opened in March, 2010 by Kebebushe Admasu, a mother whose four children were slaughtered by The Derg together in one day. The museum is a testament to the Mengistu holocaust and is funded by private donations. We were taken around by a somber middle-aged man wearing a white lab coat. He had been a prisoner of The Derg for 8 years after being arrested while a student at University
. The museum is filled with walls of pictures of those who were killed for their opposition—or suspected opposition—to Mengistu and his henchmen. Many were brutally tortured during their imprisonment and many were executed and buried in mass graves. One particularly chilling exhibit is a ceiling-high glass cabinet stacked full of skulls and bones that were excavated from some of these mass graves after the overthrow of the regime.
The “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum documents a period in history that will not be forgotten in Ethiopia and should be remembered around the world.