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Ethiopia’s Long War

London Review of Book | Maaza Mengiste

I have​ a hazy childhood memory of soldiers breaking into our house. They had come to question my grandfather, who they believed was hiding someone they wanted to arrest. It was not long after the start of the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia that would depose Emperor Haile Selassie and install a military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The new regime, which called itself the Derg, was hunting down dissidents deemed ‘enemies of the state’. There were nightly gun battles near our home in Addis Ababa between rebel groups and government forces.

I was standing next to my grandfather in the dining area when the door burst open and three soldiers forced their way in. I remember one of them distinctly. He was slender-faced and young, his eyes so wild that he, too, might have been scared. My mind has superimposed his face on the other two men, so that when the memory arises, as it often does, the soldiers are identical triplets screaming at us in unison. My grandmother shouted for me and my grandfather shoved me behind him. I was shaking and I remember his hand reaching back to steady me as I pressed against his leg. I watched the young soldier advance. He pushed my grandfather aside and dropped to his knees on the ground in front of me. He had a downy moustache on his upper lip. He bent close, smiled, and all harshness left his voice: ‘Is there someone else here?’

There was someone else in our house, a stranger hiding in a small room that was normally used for storage. I had been forbidden from going near there, but that hadn’t stopped me. One day, when the door had been left slightly ajar, I peeked in and – if memory serves – made eye contact with an injured man, wrapped in bandages. I knew the answer to the soldier’s question, but I also knew that wasn’t what I should say. I shook my head. The soldiers left and went to another house. In the silence that followed, my grandparents embraced me and assured me we were safe. Then they both insisted we would never talk about what had happened. And we didn’t. I never learned who the man was, or what happened to him.

In the years since, I’ve tried to make sense of that moment. My grandparents are dead. My parents weren’t at home when it happened. There is no one left but me to carry the memory, which has grown heavier over the years. I have had to wade through the many events that separate it from everything that came afterwards. The revolution swept through my family. Some relatives were jailed, others were killed. The Derg didn’t allow funeral rites for those it called enemies. Silence and fear worked together to keep grief so contained that it was not until the summer of 2005, while driving with my mother in Addis Ababa, that I learned I had three uncles who died during the revolution. We were stuck in traffic behind a police truck. Several young men, a few of them with bruised and beaten faces, stared at us from the back of the open bed. ‘I have seen so many of these,’ my mother said. Then she told me about her brothers and the games they used to play. Later, when I asked her to tell me more about her favourite brother, she sang a childhood song, tears running down her face.

A few years ago, I went to see the African Union’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa, an impressive building with a grand auditorium, funded by China. It has a memorial to victims of human rights abuses, which acknowledges that the AU is built on the site of Akaki Prison, Ethiopia’s central jail, known as Alem Bekagn, or ‘Goodbye to the World’. The date of its construction is unclear, but it outlasted a succession of rulers: fascist, monarchical, dictatorial and authoritarian, until it was permanently closed in 2004 under Meles Zenawi. It gained notoriety in 1937 during the Italian occupation, when an assassination attempt on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani led to the retaliatory Yekatit 12 massacre. An estimated 30,000 people were killed during these brutal reprisals. Unknown numbers of innocent people were imprisoned, tortured and executed in Akaki or sent from there to concentration camps.

The details we have from that period come from personal recollections and family stories, but these accounts were largely set aside in 1941, when Haile Selassie reclaimed the throne and the occupation ended. He directed Ethiopians to look to the future, to forgive the Italian invaders and leave the past behind. There was no reckoning with the aftermath of the war. There was no attempt to address – and perhaps alleviate – the deep social and ethnic divisions that continued after the Italians had left and were exacerbated by each successive ruler. Haile Selassie used the prison to hold criminals and political opponents, as did the Derg. (Meles Zenawi used another notorious detention centre, Maekelawi.) The memorial’s website correctly calls it a ‘citadel of oppression’, but despite the decades of deaths and disappearances at Alem Bekagn there has been no attempt at reparative justice to honour those incarcerated there, only the relentless narrative of national progress and uncolonised independence.

Ethiopia has seen nothing comparable to the work that took place in Rwanda after the genocide or in South Africa under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The perpetrators of the worst crimes of the Derg era have not been properly punished. The stories from this period have been suppressed – partly out of fear and trauma, but also as a consequence of a culturally accepted unwillingness to show weakness. The weight of historical trauma can feel overwhelming. After the Italian occupation and the Derg years, it was easier just to keep moving forward, as my family and so many other families have done. But then in 2018, Abiy Ahmed was named prime minister and with him came unprecedented optimism and the possibility of reconciliation through political reform. To understand the momentousness of that moment, and the disappointment that has followed in its wake, requires a confrontation with the past.

In the 1970s, early in the revolution, Meles Zenawi, then a medical student at Addis Ababa University, fled to Tigray to continue the struggle against the Derg. He joined the armed resistance that was solidifying around a political ideology grounded in ethno-nationalism – the nascent Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The civil war lasted more than fifteen years; by the time the Derg was overthrown in 1991 the country was shattered – socially, economically, culturally. At least half a million people had been killed. Untold thousands had been imprisoned or had gone into exile, and millions more had lived in fear, suspicion and under constant threat of violence. A decade and a half of censorship and the total suppression of dissent had brought the press to a standstill and constrained all natural expressions of grief, anger and other emotions.

Meles, who led the transitional government set up in 1991, was prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012. The TPLF dominated a four-party, multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Under Meles, Ethiopians saw economic progress and greater freedoms. But those years were tainted by the uneven distribution of wealth, increasing ethnic strife, and government crackdowns on the media, political activists and civil society.

In the months before the 2005 elections, the EPRDF and the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, among others, waged a vigorous and heated campaign across the country. There were televised debates, and the final week witnessed huge rallies. Some polling sites in Addis Ababa were forced to stay open for 24 hours to accommodate the vast queues. On the evening of 16 May, while results were still being counted, Meles declared a thirty-day ban on large gatherings and took direct control of police and militia forces. The EPRDF claimed it had won a majority; the opposition insisted it had won more seats than the official tally. Amid allegations of electoral fraud, young people in cities across Ethiopia defied the ban and demonstrated.

Protests swept the country. On 6 June, government forces arrested thousands of demonstrators, most of them students, in Addis Ababa alone. On 8 June, security forces opened fire on large groups of unarmed protesters, killing at least 22 and wounding more than a hundred. Crackdowns continued, and later that summer, when my mother and I were stuck in traffic behind that police truck full of young men who had clearly been beaten, we were certain we were staring at political prisoners. It wasn’t surprising that the events of 2005 should have taken us back to the Derg years, or that those young men should have reminded my mother of the brothers she had lost. By November, at least 200 people had been killed, 800 wounded and 30,000 arrested, including leaders of the opposition. Thousands fled Ethiopia, many paying traffickers to take them to Libya where they would try to find a way to cross the Mediterranean and enter Italy alive.

Meles’s successor in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn, faced a vocal and unflinching movement that demanded greater representation and rejected the EPRDF’s development plan for Addis Ababa, which would have encroached on Oromo ancestral land and villages. The Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have also been one of its most marginalised and politically underrepresented. The protests, led by young Oromo people, were largely peaceful; they were met with excessive and lethal force. The government crackdown included more restrictions on media freedom. Through it all, the protesters refused to back down, their defiance gaining them worldwide attention. In early 2018, Hailemariam Desalegn resigned.

Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, was elected by parliament to become the next prime minister. The 41-year-old former lieutenant colonel (and gifted orator) was heralded as a reformist. He released thousands of political prisoners, including journalists and opposition party members. He took steps to improve the relationship between government and opposition groups. He increased the number of women in the cabinet and acknowledged the widespread use of torture by previous administrations. Under his leadership, a truce was declared between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was an unprecedented series of reforms, unfolded at blinding speed in a country that often moved at a creeping pace. As I watched from New York, where I live, the irony of Ethiopia’s opening up politically as America descended into Trumpism wasn’t lost on me.

In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the twenty-year conflict with Eritrea; within a year, he was in the middle of a new clash with the TPLF, a struggle between the former political power and its successor. After gaining office, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF coalition and merged its constituent groups to form a new Prosperity Party. The TPLF declined to join. The power of regions such as Tigray is enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution, written by the EPRDF in 1994, in order to protect ethnic groups in the event of authoritarian rule. Elections were due to be held in August 2020 but they were delayed last May, in the midst of the worsening pandemic (they are now scheduled for June 2021). The TPLF accused Abiy of governing illegitimately and in September went ahead with unconstitutional regional elections. Tensions grew. The Tigrayan regional government prevented a general appointed by Abiy from taking up his post. Some members of parliament proposed designating the TPLF a terrorist organisation, though so far this has been rejected by the government as a whole.

On 4 November, in response to a TPLF attack on government troops in the Tigray region, Abiy began a military operation against the TPFL. The date seemed familiar. I looked through some old notes and saw that on 4 November 1935, 120,000 Italian troops were advancing towards Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital. Tigray had also been the site of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, when Emperor Menelik II defeated Italy’s first attempt at colonisation. The city – and the region – were symbolic for Mussolini. He was determined that his country’s wounded pride should be satisfied there. The northern highlands of Ethiopia are rocky and mountainous, the population stubborn. Though Mussolini declared victory in 1936, the war wasn’t over. Ethiopian fighters took to the mountains, living in caves and carrying on a guerrilla war that eventually ousted the Italians in 1941.

It is likely that some of the residents of the northern highlands who experienced life under the Derg would have remembered, either from direct experience or family accounts, the bloodshed inflicted by the Italians forty years earlier. It is also likely that some of those who are experiencing today’s conflict carry with them memories from the Derg years. To understand what is happening now requires a long lens, but Ethiopia’s pride in its uninterrupted national durée, as evidenced by references in the Bible, the Iliad, Herodotus’ Histories and other ancient texts, can be an impediment to reckoning with that history. It is not enough simply to preface accounts of the current conflict with ancient historical descriptions.

As the fighting continued last November, refugee camps were filling up. Amnesty International reported a massacre of Amhara civilians in Maicadra by Tigrayan militia, which was followed by news of other civilian massacres, Tigrayan and Amhara. Eritrean soldiers were said to have joined the conflict. Scattered accounts of sexual violence against women and girls hinted at more systematic crimes. The government’s communications blackout made it nearly impossible to ascertain exactly what was happening. In the absence of verifiable details, journalists relied on eyewitness testimony from refugees that painted scenes of horrifying cruelty and humiliation. Some of those accounts were refuted on social media. The present seemed to be as confounding as the past. There could be no doubt, however, about the mass displacements and the terror of ordinary people caught in circumstances beyond their control.

Abiy has stressed repeatedly that this is a conflict, not a war, yet in many respects it has proceeded with all the destructive force of war. The federal government has declared victory in Tigray and some of the one million displaced residents of the region are returning home, though others still feel unsafe. Telephone and internet connections have been partially restored. Security has been tightened and international humanitarian convoys have begun to distribute aid. There is an attempt to return to normal, but in the aftermath of this conflict, other conflicts simmer, waiting to erupt. What exactly is normal?

Everything is at stake in discussions of Ethiopia’s political present; not only our future, but our past. What might justice look like? At such a volatile moment, it seems impossible – and naive – to plead for multilateral discussions, to imagine the potential benefits of negotiation. Yet it is difficult to conceive of another way forward that does not, sooner or later, include more bloodshed. Dialogue would be an unprecedented response to conflict in a nation that has built its identity on confrontation and conquest. It would require the audacity and the optimism of Abiy’s early rule. It would require hope and the willingness and courage to delve into the past. Otherwise, what do we do with all that history – all that rage, all these memories? A young soldier with a slender face. Bruised and beaten men in the back of a truck. The site of a prison, a plaque on a wall. A new conflict shrouded in silence. The question is not where to begin, but how.