Not fade away

Cover story While most Ethiopians have kept scrupulously silent about the terror they endured under the Derg regime, Hirut Abebe-Jiri has made loud remembrance her life's work.

Hirut Abebe, who is setting up an archive of documents from the Red Terror: "People had moved on. They'd forgotten about that time. They wanted change. I was stuck, like time had never moved."
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While most Ethiopians have kept scrupulously silent about the terror they endured under the Derg regime, Hirut Abebe-Jiri has made loud remembrance her life's work. Andrew Rice on the struggle to build the Red Terror archive Hirut Abebe-Jiri was born in April 1960, in the 29th year of the reign of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. It was in that year that the monarchy began to crumble. In December, the emperor was briefly overthrown in a palace coup, during which his son took to the radio airwaves, promising to put an end to what he decried as three millennia of stagnation. But Haile Selassie returned from an overseas trip and put down the rebellion, hanging the chief plotters in public. For the next decade or so, public discontent was stifled, and kept out of the sight of children like Hirut. Hirut - Ethiopians are formally called by their first names - was raised within the comfortable confines of the aristocratic elite. Her grandfather, a large landowner, had been a confidante of Emperor Menelik II, one of Haile Selassie's predecessors. Her mother, a canny businesswoman, had made a fortune of her own. Hirut's father was a prominent attorney and genteel reformer who penned anonymous letters to Haile Selassie's ministers, protesting Ethiopia's manifold injustices: the poor lacked food, the rich monopolised the land, and the ageing emperor was growing ever more despotic and disconnected. But his class treachery was mainly rhetorical. The family had a summer house, a car and a television set. Hirut, the youngest of six children, was chauffeured each morning to a British-run private school. "In 1974, when the revolution started, I was 14 years old," Hirut recalled. This time, it was the army that rose up against the emperor. Soldiers came to the royal palace, informed Haile Selassie that he'd been deposed, and took him to prison. Many cabinet ministers and members of the royal family were also rounded up. Hirut was related to some of these men; others were friends of her father's or the parents of her own friends. One night in November 1974, she said, she went to a party with some of the children of the arrested men: they danced and socialised as if nothing had happened. "The next morning this march comes on the radio," Hirut said. With it came an announcement: 59 members of the emperor's inner circle had been executed by a firing squad. "Imagine that you are sitting and talking with me, and you are hearing that your father is killed," Hirut said. "It's shocking. Why did they do it that way? I think to terrorise the people. That day, I think it put something inside the people." There had been a brief, flowering moment during which it had appeared that the slogans of the revolution - "Ethiopia First! ? Land to the Tiller!" - might actually give rise to a democratic form of government. The executions put an end to that delusion. The new leadership, a committee of military officers known as the Derg, confiscated the assets of elite families, including Hirut's. Her father wrote one of his anonymous missives, warning that if the military persisted in its abuses it would "melt like a candle." Somehow, the government figured out that he was the author and arrested him. Suddenly poor, Hirut's mother had to sell the car and some furniture to make ends meet. At 16, Hirut was forced to drop out of private school, and went to work for a cousin's business as a clerk. Every Sunday, she visited her father at the capital's high-security prison, where he remained for years. After a period of plots and purges, a diminutive, low-born, unknown major by the name of Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the leader of the Derg. He declared his allegiance to the Soviet Union, abolished private land ownership, and imposed a new communist-inspired administrative system. The house across the street from Hirut's family, the residence of a wealthy man, was seized and turned into the headquarters of the local kebele, or neighbourhood council. The new authorities formed a militia, recruiting familiar faces from the street corners, the kind of poor young labourers who'd once done odd jobs for the neighbourhood's rich families. One of those who started hanging around the kebele headquarters was a man named Negussie, who'd once been married to one of Hirut's aunts. Though they'd had a child together, Negussie had never been invited to family gatherings - he was from a lower class. The revolution was making its natural progression toward entropy. Originally, it had drawn popular strength from student radicals, but they had grown disenchanted with military rule. An underground left-wing organisation, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), began a campaign of assassinations, targeting officials of the urban kebeles. At a 1977 rally in Addis Ababa's main square, Mengistu shattered a glass bottle filled with crimson liquid - some say it was real blood - and declared "Red Terror" against the regime's enemies. The kebele militias were mobilised. The leader of the forces in Hirut's area, a ruthless functionary named Kelbessa Negewo, began to strut around the neighbourhood with a machine gun strapped across his chest. Each morning, a fresh batch of corpses would appear on the city's streets, marked with signs bearing warning messages from the Derg. One evening in 1977, Hirut was walking home from work when she was stopped outside the kebele headquarters by a militiaman, who demanded to search her bag. He found nothing incriminating, but ordered her to come inside the walled compound anyway. She was taken into a cramped, sweltering shed, where guards ordered her to sit on the dirt floor and accused her of belonging to the EPRP. Hirut fit their profile of a terrorist: she was young and educated, and her family was associated with the old guard. After a while, Hirut was brought into the main building, where she was detained outside an office, listening as another young man - a friend of her older brother - was interrogated and tortured by Kelbessa. Later, her brother's friend was removed from the office; he then tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in a pit latrine. Covered with raw sewage, the young man was left out in the sun on display for the other prisoners. After many hours of misery, he was shot. Hirut was released after about two weeks. It fell to her to visit the young man's family, to tell them to stop sending food and clothes to the kebele for their son. Hirut went back to work and tried to keep out of the authorities' sights, but her reprieve turned out to be temporary. A few weeks after she was released, a knock came at the gate as she was getting ready for bed one night. Armed men entered the house and announced to Hirut's mother that two of her daughters were wanted for questioning; Hirut and one of her sisters were escorted across the street to the kebele headquarters. This time, Hirut was taken directly into the main room, the one where her brother's friend had been tortured. Inside a boy was being held, a neighbour no older than about 12. Wearing nothing but his underwear, his hands and feet were lashed together and he was hanging upside-down from a stick suspended between two desks. "Which one?" the interrogators asked the bloodied prisoner. The boy gestured in Hirut's direction. Her sister was taken out of the room, as was the boy, and then Hirut was stripped, strung up, and lashed with electrical wires. Negussie, her aunt's ex-husband, was one of the men administering the beatings. Kelbessa Negewo, sitting behind one of the desks, kept asking her, "Where is the gun?" They were looking for a weapon that had been used in several EPRP attacks. Hirut had no idea where it was, but after a few rounds of beating, she was ready to confess anything. After several hours of torture, Hirut was slipping in and out of consciousness, so the guards took her down. Kelbessa wanted to shoot her immediately, but a subordinate appealed to him to wait - they still hadn't recovered the gun. Handcuffed and unable to walk because the soles of her feet had been whipped to shreds, Hirut was carried to a basement storage room, where around 20 other female prisoners were being held in a tiny space. None of them would talk to Hirut - they were afraid to, and they assumed she was already as good as dead. For several weeks, Hirut was held in that basement room, listening through the floorboards to the torment that was being inflicted above her. Eventually, she and another young man were tied together and taken to another interrogation facility, in one of Haile Selassie's old palaces. The young man asked Hirut why she was being held, and she told him about the phantom gun. He said not to worry. The young man told the authorities that he had disposed of the gun. He was killed, and Hirut was released.

When she crossed the street back to her family home, Hirut could hardly walk, and much of her hair had been hacked off with a broken bottle. Her mother welcomed her home without a single serious question. "This was the hardest part," Hirut said. "We never talked about it. She saw the scar on my hand. She never asked me what went on - never, never. I can't ? I'm trying to explain her side, but it's very hard to explain why she didn't ask me. Why she didn't want to talk? "One thing I remember, when I left prison, when they let me go, when I came home, she'd already invited all of my cousins over, to say that she was happy to see me. And I was mad that day. You know why I was mad? Why are you happy? Because I've been tortured - I can't even walk. But she was happy because I wasn't killed. A lot of kids were killed. You see it's all relative, what makes you happy. Because my torture was nothing relative to my death to her. She didn't lose her kid - that was the way she saw it." Eventually, Hirut's physical wounds healed. In a portrait taken around this time, she wears an afro and smiles brightly beneath a tilted beret - a small radical flourish. But Hirut lived in fear of being arrested again. She felt like she couldn't trust anyone, and after a while, she decided she had to flee. She talked it over with her boyfriend, a football player, and he recruited one of his teammates into the scheme. They devised a plan to cross Ethiopia's northeastern Danakil fdesert, one of the hottest places on earth, into Djibouti. They found a middleman who set them up with a caravan of Somali nomads, who said they would be willing to guide them across the desert for a fee. Disguised in Somali robes, Hirut and her friends hiked at night and slept through the heat. Several days into their journey, they were shaken awake by their guides, who demanded more money. When the Ethiopians said they didn't have it, the nomads beat them up and abandoned them to die in the middle of the desert. Somehow, though, Hirut and her friends managed to follow the paths of smugglers into Djibouti. They made it to a refugee camp run by a Canadian charity. Eventually, Hirut was relocated to Ontario. There Hirut did everything she could to banish Ethiopia from her mind. She got married, opened a restaurant, went to school and earned a degree in engineering design. Eventually, she took an office job in Canada's defence department. Still, she suffered through constant depression, which she fought by working harder - haste and exhaustion kept her dark thoughts at bay. Hirut never had a child, because she felt she could never be certain of its safety. Her personal relationships suffered. After a while, she and her husband divorced. One day in 1990, Hirut received a phone call from her old friend Elizabeth, who'd grown up in her neighbourhood and now lived in the United States. Elizabeth had also been imprisoned at the kebele headquarters, right around the time Hirut was released. Her father, a Supreme Court justice, had been murdered on the street by Kelbessa Negewo's men. Elizabeth told Hirut that a friend of hers, who was waiting tables at a hotel restaurant in Atlanta, had run into Kelbessa. He was working at the same hotel, as a bellhop. Elizabeth's friend was talking to some American lawyers, who said that it might be possible for Kelbessa's victims to sue him in a US federal court for the abuses he'd committed back in Ethiopia. Hirut flew down to Atlanta, talked to the attorneys, and paid a covert visit to the hotel, to make sure it was really Kelbessa. She was taken aback to see by how humble her tormentor looked in his bellhop's uniform.

A lawsuit was filed in federal court in Atlanta. At trial, Hirut and two other plaintiffs testified about what Kelbessa had done to them. "It changed me a lot," Hirut told the court. "I was a young girl. I should enjoy my life. I don't. Most of the time I'm depressed. I cry a lot. ? I think always it will be with me. I always remember the crying out. I cannot eliminate the crying out, the people that [were] crying and screaming. That went into my mind. It's very easy, [the] physical scar, but [the] mental scar, it's impossible to eliminate it." Powerful as Hirut's testimony was, it was Kelbessa's own words that did him in. In 1991, two years before the trial, Mengistu's government had fallen to a rebel army. It had left behind a vast trove of documents that catalogued what seemed like every execution ordered and every bullet spent, in keeping with dictatorship's universal impulse toward bureaucratic self-incrimination. Hirut learnt about this archive from her lawyers, who had been able to locate memorandums authored by Kelbessa in which he boasted of his brutal measures against alleged counter-revolutionaries like Hirut. The judge found for the plaintiffs, awarding them $1.5 million (Dh5.5 million). That was just the beginning of a long legal odyssey. The three women never collected any significant portion of the court award, but they used the judgment to argue that the US government should deport Kelbessa back to Ethiopia, where he faced a trial before a special tribunal appointed to prosecute those who'd committed atrocities under the Derg. Over the coming years, there'd be a succession of appeals, hearings, setbacks and advances. The case awakened something inside Hirut: she formed close friendships with her lawyers, tirelessly prodded a succession of prosecutors, and for the first time found herself able to talk about the terrible things she'd suffered during the Red Terror. Among the three plaintiffs, Hirut took on the role of spokeswoman and found that it suited her. She was forthright, impassioned and warm, and people didn't want to fail her. In early 2006, while working on a magazine article about Kelbessa Negewo's deportation case, I went to meet Hirut in the snow-covered suburb of Ottawa where she lived. She welcomed me into her home, decorated with ornate iron Ethiopian crosses, and introduced me to her companion, a rambunctious little puppy named Cookie. A small woman with a singsong voice, her face rounded and unlined, she told me that confronting Kelbessa, and her history, had changed her profoundly. "When you don't talk about it, when it is inside, you never put it in the right perspective," Hirut said. "So it helped me in a lot of ways. It is a therapy, in a way." Then she let out a laugh: a high, girlish, liberated giggle. One person who had never heard the story was Hirut's mother, who had died a few years earlier. She lived to see Kelbessa put on trial, but she hadn't approved of the case. Hirut told me that her mother thought it was a "crazy" undertaking. She had been dismayed to find that many other Ethiopian émigrés were equally sceptical. "They'd rather forget about it, as I see it," Hirut said. "They used to tell me, 'Do you think you will win the case? What do you think you will get? Nothing will happen to him.' That was their attitude: Nothing will happen to him. But at least it is history... For the record, it will be written there: this happened."

On the splintery sash above the door, you could still see a faint slogan, written in Amharic: "Above Everything, The Revolution". It was a drizzly day in June of this year, the rainy season in Addis Ababa. Hirut had brought me to this place so I could understand what she had endured - what the whole nation had gone through - and why it was so important that it be remembered. Behind this door, around the back of a building now painted a cheerful shade of teal, was the basement storage room where she'd been imprisoned. We walked up a grassy hill that ran along the side of the building, which still belonged to the local government. Hirut showed me inside, and we walked down a darkened, narrow hallway, to an unassuming office. "This was the room where I was tortured," she said. In the three years since we'd last met, Kelbessa Negewo had finally been deported from the United States, and was now serving a life sentence in a prison on the outskirts of the capital. Across a muddy dirt road, behind a metal gate, stood her family's old house. It is now a modest hotel. Hirut and I took a seat inside its bar, which was decorated with portraits of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, who is now revered by many Ethiopians; time, and the power of comparison, works strange effects. As the waitress poured me a Coke, Hirut explained the problem, as she saw it: few Ethiopians had an interest in preserving the memory of the Red Terror. This was something she always had trouble explaining to people who weren't Ethiopian. To those who suffered during the Red Terror, the past was too painful. To those who were implicated, it was too dangerous. Though the special tribunal had prosecuted around 1,000 alleged participants in the killing, a great many more wrongdoers remained at large in Ethiopia, because there was too little evidence against them, or lived safely in exile, beyond the reach of judgment. In places like Canada, there was a tradition of commemorating atrocities, faithfully returning to them like medieval pilgrims, but in Ethiopia, people were inclined to just keep moving forward, quietly resisting any urge to double back. "This used to be our dining room," Hirut told me. She recalled how she had run to her bedroom to change out of her pyjamas when Kelbessa's men came to fetch her, how she and her sister had held hands, shaking, as they crossed the street. Hirut told me that she and her sister had only recently begun to broach the subject of what had happened that night.A few years earlier, her sister, who now lives in the United States, had been staying in Addis Ababa, and Hirut had come to visit her. It was 2005, and a fiercely contested election campaign was underway, with the ruling party of the prime minister, Meles Zenawi - a rebel leader who had overthrown Mengistu - facing a stiff challenge. Meles prevailed amid allegations of fraud, and in the aftermath of the election opposition leaders were arrested and protesters took to the streets, where some of them were killed by security forces. "You could hear gunshots, lots of gunshots, and I remember my niece, she was here, and she said, can we go back?" Hirut said. Her niece was half-American. "It's fine, I said to her, relax, let's talk. She said, 'Why aren't you scared?' I said, did you know that I was arrested at that time and tortured?" Many of Hirut's nieces and nephews joined the conversation. None of them had ever been told the story of the Red Terror in any detail - their parents wouldn't discuss it. "It was 8:30 in the evening when we started talking, and do you know what time we finished? In the morning, six o'clock," Hirut said. "They didn't know that their mother was tortured. I said, let me tell you something: your father has a bullet inside him." In the turmoil that followed the disputed election, it had become fashionable for people to say that things in Ethiopia were worse than ever before. Hirut wasn't a government apologist, but she thought it was ridiculous to compare Meles, who at least held elections and permitted some measure of dissent, to the bloody repression of the Red Terror. "We are free now to talk. We were arrested at that time for thinking," Hirut told me. "Everybody, they were saying this government is worse than Derg. I said what happened to you? People had moved on. They'd forgotten about that time. They wanted change. I was stuck, like time had never moved." It was my first time visiting Addis Ababa, and Hirut wanted me to see all the landmarks in her story: the monument to the 59 imperial loyalists executed by the Derg; Meskel Square, where Mengistu had declared Red Terror, and where runners were now practicing callisthenics on a vast staircase; the domed Orthodox church where her mother had prayed for her release, crawling on her knees in a gesture of desperate supplication; the palace where she'd been taken for interrogation, which was now the prime minister's residence. There was even an intact monument built by the Derg, a tower topped by a red star and flanked by friezes in the socialist realist style. "They protected it," Hirut explained as we stood in the plaza, empty save for a few stray dogs, and gazed at the image of Mengistu, holding a heroic fist in the air. "They said, 'that's our history,' and I respect that, because Mengistu tried to erase everything."

The night that she told her nieces and nephews what had happened to her, and listened to their expressions of disbelief, Hirut made a resolution. Even before Kelbessa was finally deported and sentenced, her mind had begun to move on, to all those files in the Derg's archives, the ones that had provided her lawyers with such incriminating evidence: millions of sheets of paper, each holding a tiny increment of history. She talked about the documents when I first met her, and over the years, in long phone conversations with me and impassioned e-mails, she elaborated on a plan to preserve them. Gradually, against considerable odds, what began as an idealistic notion had evolved into a real initiative, something she called the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Center. Hirut was hoping to turn the archive into a library where victims of torture, the families of those murdered, and historians could all readily access the secrets of the Derg. The task proved to be much more arduous than she expected. For one thing, Hirut was a Canadian civil servant. She didn't know anything about running - or funding - a library in Africa. For another, she had to overcome a certain ingrained opacity in Ethiopian society, perhaps a legacy of its history of dictatorship. The first reflex of authority was always to keep secrets closely guarded, even if their disclosure posed no threat. But Hirut had thrown herself into the project with her usual energy, employing persistence and the strength of her life story to win the support of Canadian politicians, African scholars, and international human rights activists. Somehow, she managed to convince the Ethiopian government to back her, to give her possession of the archives, and even the use of the public building where they were kept, which was to be her library. "At first they thought I wouldn't go that far, they thought I am one person coming in and asking," Hirut said. "Now they know I am serious."

One afternoon, Hirut took me to see the archive, in an ageing public building near Addis Ababa University. She led me through a deserted hallway that smelled faintly of formaldehyde, down a set of basement stairs, and opened a thick, padlocked, metal door. "Look at all the documents," she said, her voice a little awestruck. In the dim warren before us, there were files spilling out of boxes; dusty binders crammed onto bookshelves; folders stuffed into cabinets, bursting with dog-eared pages. From a haphazard pile, Hirut picked up a small green booklet, marked with a hammer and sickle on the cover: an ID card belonging to one of the agents of the Red Terror. "If it was not for this organisation," Hirut said, "they would be throwing it out." The documents had been amassed by the office of a special tribunal investigating the crimes of the Derg, which had occupied the building until recently, when it had wrapped up its work. Yosef Kiros, the tribunal's former chief prosecutor, who was now working with Hirut, led us through the cluttered room, explaining that the documents had been trucked over to this building from many locations after the fall of the Derg. Some of them had been used in prosecutions, for instance against Kelbessa Negewo. The most notable case had been that of Mengistu himself, who was convicted of genocide in absentia in 2006. (He currently lives securely in exile, in sympathetic Zimbabwe.) The trials had lingered on for years, hampered by a lack of funding and - some would argue - political will on the part of the Meles government, but now, finally, they were completed. Until Hirut came along, no clear provision had been made to keep the files for posterity. The volume of paper was such that many documents had never been indexed, or even reviewed. Hirut picked up one memorandum at random: a list, made by hand on notebook paper, of the names of 11 people subjected to "Red Terror action" - killed, in other words. At another location, she told me, she found a cache of photos - "before" and "after" shots of victims taken by their executioners, which she hoped to exhibit. "The first day I saw them, I couldn't control myself," Hirut said. "I had to go outside and breathe." In the case file for the Mengistu prosecution was perhaps the most famous of the documents: the actual minutes of the meeting where army officers resolved to murder the imprisoned Emperor Haile Selassie, reputedly by strangulation in his bed. The task of cataloguing and preserving the documents, Hirut realised, would be both expensive and technically challenging. She'd formed tentative partnerships with the University of North Dakota and a Finnish web design firm, which were offering her pro-bono technical expertise, but she still faced the challenge of raising the roughly $1.7 million she estimated would be necessary to get the project up and running. Though she'd made approaches to several potential funders, such as the United Nations Development Program and the Open Society Institute, she'd had little luck. For now, she was bankrolling the centre with money that she'd saved from her job back in Canada. Moreover, the ingrained impulse to bury the past was not easy to break. After leaving the archive, we drove past the blockish building that had once housed the headquarters of the Derg, which now served the same purpose for Meles' ruling party. Hirut mentioned that there was a secure storage facility there, built by the East Germans, which contained voluminous files dating back to the Derg era on Communist party members. Those were still off-limits. Driving by one of the emperor's old palaces, Hirut told me that not long before, she'd received a call from the government, asking her to come to Addis Ababa to inspect a newly excavated, unmarked grave that had been found on the grounds. She had arrived with her camera, ready to document the discovery, but higher authorities had barred her from the scene. "They didn't allow me!" she said. "After I went through all that." Still, Hirut was undaunted, full of ambitious ideas. She wanted to digitise the archives, translate them into English, and make them available online. She was going to publish a newspaper that would that focus on the fates of individual Red Terror victims. She was thinking about a mobile museum, which would take history to the countryside. She was considering a trip to Zimbabwe, to agitate for the return of Mengistu himself. She spoke ceaselessly, with frenetic enthusiasm, as if she was making up for many silent years. "I couldn't scream. I screamed inside, but nobody listened to that sound," Hirut said. "This is the screaming that I am doing now - it's loud."

Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.