My former student Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu and Tesfamichael Tekle, a highly articulate and gregarious fellow with a bright smile and affable manner, have been close friends since their students days at Haile Selassie University. They were professional colleagues at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency (now the Civil Service Commission), and they both spent time in prison under the military dictatorship – the Derg – that succeeded Emperor Haile Selassie. The following excerpts are from the written account that Tesfamichael sent me of his experience prior to and under the Derg.
The Beginning of My Radicalization
My radicalization started way back in high school during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. The clash of college students with the police at the Arat Kilo Science Faculty spilled over, causing major disturbances at my nearby high school, Menelik II. I was beaten along with other high school and college students by police who had jumped into our school compound chasing students, and I was taken to Police Station #1 for detention when I was a tenth grader. If I recall correctly, this happened in 1965.
My joining college students in protests against the feudal regime of the Emperor (“land to the tiller” and freedom of speech, etc.) was understandable when you consider my background. As tenants living on the land of an Addis Ababa landlord, my poor parents, who lived in constant fear of eviction, were subjected to harsh oppression. For example, my parents were forced to plant trees on the landlord’s empty land, which he was preparing for the construction of rental houses. The landlord’s continuous and abrupt threats to evict us are imprinted in my mind, and are the source of my bitter hatred of the then-system and of my rebellious attitude. When he was almost blinded, which he believed was due to my father’s curse, the landlord came to my father to ask for forgiveness for all the mental suffering that he’d inflicted on my parents, but it was too late to make any difference; the old regime was collapsing.
Why I Opposed the Derg
Although the Derg did solve the land to the tiller issue that we students were fighting for, it was clear early-on that the military junta would never bring about the freedom of speech, press, and assembly that we passionately desired. This was all too obvious when the Derg killed around 60 former high ranking government officials without a fair trial to consolidate its power. Arbitrary arrests and detention soon grew common, so many of us students joined the EPRP (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party) and went underground. Many of my colleagues involved in the movement were brutally killed in the streets of Addis Ababa, including close friends.
The sound of gun shots was common in Addis Ababa. It was customary to see the corpses of victims in the morning when going to work – a horrible, but very common sight. You can imagine the mental suffering we endured, never knowing what would happen to us in those terrible times.
My Prison Experience
From January to July, 1978 I was an inmate at Higher 18 Prison in the eastern part of Addis Ababa. I’d been taken away from my office one morning, having been surrounded by camouflaged “revolutionary guards” armed with machine guns. Immediately upon arrival, I was seriously warned time and again during my interrogation that I’d be in serious danger if I concealed facts that were later uncovered. Thanks to the absence of modern technology, like the computer, it was extremely difficult to cross-check or verify the results of interrogations. Had they been able to, they would have found lots of discrepancies that would have led to further interrogation and torture and more executions.
At the time I entered Higher 18, there were over 1000 prisoners. We all slept in a corrugated iron building on mattresses in rows on the floor. As the heat intensified, it was suffocating. I heard the crying of tortured people practically every night for more than a week until they moved us to other smaller rooms. The torture, of course, continued the same way even after we were moved. In the mornings when I woke up, I used to see tortured people unable to move because of their severe wounds.
I’ll never forget how horrifying it was to wake up one night to see armed men (who when they saw me signaled that I should remain quiet in bed) searching for a fellow sleeping only three or four prisoners from me, whom they took out and executed. We were told the next morning that the fellow I’d seen taken out was one of twelve prison mates who had been executed that night.
My Feelings About the Derg Period
Those days were really terrible to me and my generation. It disturbs me even now to think about that time under the Derg, when I lost a brother and close friends. Remembering those days sickens me, so I try to avoid thinking about that time and substitute more positive thoughts. One thing that sticks in my mind vividly is the reflection of the early morning sun in the blood of executed people. They used to leave the corpses lying in the open for hours as a way of intimidating people. What a government! I am very bitter about it. As I said, I try to keep memories of those terrible times out of my thoughts. Even writing this down brings back the horror and is really painful.
4 thoughts on “Tesfamichael’s Story”
What a powerful, gut-wrenching story! Reading this makes me treasure our Constitutional Rights even more.
I really appreciate your comments. Yes, Tesfamichael’s story is gut-wrenching, and there are more on the way. Thanks for commenting.
A powerful insight into how well-meaning protests for redress of legitimate grievances can be highjacked by ruthless and callous leaders. I have heard and read similar accounts of how the students of Peace Corps teachers suffered, endured, and survived the Derg’s murderous regime. I know there is an exceptionally rich store of such stories, which should be collected, preserved, and studied, so that future generations of Ethiopians will understand how their country arrived at what they see. Think of what Ethiopians endured under the Italian tyranny and what we have lost by not having their memories.
The Ethiopian transition for Emperor Haile Selassie was, indeed, highjacked by a brutal regime that has set back the country’s development tremendously. This blog will continue to feature true stories of Ethiopians under the Derg, including those who remained in Ethiopia and others who have relocated to the States.