Look here, come closer,’ the man says severely. I come closer and read what’s on the paper as the man begins to tell what’s there and how ‘it’ works. You sit down on the floor and pull up your knees, your arms go over your knees and then a stick passes under your knees, from which you are then hung. So you hang in the burning sun for a while. Then the torture begins. Among the martyrs there is a competition to find out who can get the most secrets out of someone, so then the questioning starts to win the competition from the other martyrs. You will be whipped under your feet with a whip. For hours. Until you start telling secrets. The more, the better. If you keep your mouth shut, a pair of tongs will come out and one by one your toe and fingernails will be pulled out. I look at the steps on the paper, this is only step two of the eight or twelve, but I feel that the blood is pulling out of my face. I can’t stand this story very well. With every step the guide becomes a fanatic and a fanatic in his story. As if he was there. I have to sit down,’ I say to Myrthe, with whom I visit this museum. This story is terrible and I realize that I know too little about the history of Ethiopia, the country where I landed just today.
Myrthe & Chris
I am visiting Myrthe and Chris who moved to Ethiopia last June. I am the first guest to visit them. I have just come from Australia and brought TimTam’s for them, the Australian equivalent of the syrup waffle for the Netherlands.
They live in a beautiful house in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. That I find surprisingly liveable – Addis Ababa I mean. I’d expected more high buildings and more chaos, and they say there is, but I think it’s not too bad in the neighbourhood they live in and what I see on the first day of the city.
We start the first day well, we have lunch with Chris, who we pick up at his work at the Dutch Embassy, where we walk around to see the beautiful building. Coincidentally, the architect of the Dutch embassy happens to be there that day, but unfortunately we don’t see him.
During lunch we discuss the history of Ethiopia and Chris tells more about the status of the country. Ethiopia is stable, but not so stable that you can be sure that nothing will happen. There are many groups in the country that can make each other’s lives more than difficult, but for the time being there are very good developments in the country. He is positive about the president, but more about that later, first history. I like to know more about the history of the country I am visiting. That way I can better understand where I am.
It is always difficult to determine where to start describing the history of a country, but let me start with Haile Selassi who was the emperor of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1974. Eritrea was then also part of Ethiopia. It was a province of Ethiopia. This was not all without a struggle. In 1936 Selassi had to flee, because the Italians invaded the country. They make the country part of the larger area they already have in their hands in the horn of Africa. In 1940 Italy declared war with France and England, leading to a war on African territory between the English and the Italians. The Italians lost and in 1942 Ethiopia was a sovereign country under pressure from the English and Americans.
In 1973 there was a great famine which eventually led to a military coup in 1975 and 82-year-old Selassi was forced to resign. A year later he will die of prostate cancer.
Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam
And so we come back to the Red Terror Matyrs Memorial museum and the horrors that the man can so vividly tell. The Red Terror stands for terror in the years 1977 and 1978, but in the museum starts in 1974 when the military take over power from Selassi.
The museum is mainly about the reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Derg, the group in power in 1977 and 1978. From 1978 to 1991 Mengistu was the leader of Ethiopia and responsible for the atrocities in the country.
Two million dead
Upon entering the museum there is a large poster on the wall of Mengistu on which he holds a bottle of blood in his hand. He did this once when he was in power and spoke to a large group of people. He threw the bottle of blood to pieces in front of the crowd to show that he doesn’t shrink from using violence against people who don’t agree with him.
The number of deaths under his regime is estimated between half and two million. Including many ministers, intellectuals and artists. It is not the first leader to kill the young intellectual generation.
Past of Mengistu
I do not want to dwell on his past for too long, but to cut a long story short, he is already young in the army, is even being trained for another six months in the United States to fight better, where he hates the country developed because of the discrimination he experiences there. He comes back to Ethiopia and he stands out with the general so that he can work his way up within the army and eventually becomes the leader of the Derg and then becomes the leader of Ethiopia.
Turning point in 1991
What happened in 1991 is not entirely clear to me, but 1991 will see new forces – the suggestion is made that the United States has helped the opposition a little – which will force Mengistu to flee to his friend and also dictator Mugabe.
I realise that I am not very neutral when I use the word dictator, but I think you could call both Mugabe – the leader of Zimbabwe – and Mengistu dictators. Both are responsible for many deaths and have been in power for a long time. I think it is not healthy for politicians and administrators to rule for too long. The two terms of office for a president in America are also there for the same reason.
Mengistu is popular again
One last remark about Mengistu, the crazy thing is that he is still or maybe again very popular among part of the population. People do not want to see the torture or the dead. I do not know. I am too brief here for that, but I am surprised.
It may be that not everything we see in the museum is true. A friend of Myrthe and Chris said that someone whispered to him not to believe everything there was to see in the museum before he wanted to go inside. Facts, truth, fake news. It always remains difficult.
In any case, the fact is that Mengistu has been convicted by Ethiopia’s Supreme Court for his actions, but as long as he does not return to Ethiopia and Zimbabwe to protect him by not extraditing him to Ethiopia, nothing happens.
Hyatt & the village ‘Addis’
After visiting the museum we cross the street to the just opened Hyatt. The Hyatt hotel is very beautiful and modern. The bar is completely full, despite the fact that it is only open for three weeks, with rich, modern Ethiopians and diplomats.
Addis Ababa is the city where the African Union (AU) is located, so there are also international organisations, NGOs and many diplomats in the city. It is the Brussels of Africa.
What strikes me – and what I knew nothing – is that a small world is where everyone knows each other. Everywhere we go we see other diplomats or people from that world who know Myrthe or Chris. Myrthe tells me that it’s also because everyone goes to the same restaurants and cafés, but still, going out on the streets anonymously is not an option here. I don’t mind and neither do I think Chris and Myrthe. It is very cosy. That also makes Addis not feel like the capital of Ethiopia, but rather like a village where everyone seems to know each other.
Time to Sleep
Late in the evening Chris comes to pick us up to drive home together. It’s not that it’s very unsafe in Addis, but you shouldn’t do stupid things either. And then I feel how tired I am and after a day of – no idea how many hours, but I’ve certainly didn’t sleep for two nights – and I fall asleep in a nice clean bed with white bedding. I love it!