Ethiopia After the Revolution: Vultures Return to the Land of Sheba - Rolling Stone
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Ethiopia After the Revolution: Vultures Return to the Land of Sheba

The fate of Ethiopia’s most promising generation in the brutal aftermath of its revolution

Ethiopian Soldier, Addis Ababa, EthiopiaEthiopian Soldier, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

An Ethiopian Soldier Poses Next To An Image Drawing Unit For The Popular Struggle On The Front Of The Ogaden Against Somalia In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 27, 1978.


“The vultures will first peck out your eyes and then tear out your livers.”
–Ernest Hemingway to American journalists, in Ethiopia, 1935

Dogs bark all night in Addis Ababa, a sprawling city that rides high (some 8,000 feet) on the western crest of Ethiopia’s central highland. On my first night here I thought I heard gunshots above the yelping of dogs, but the dizzying altitude and sleeplessness from two days of travel left me unsure. At 4 a.m. I walked onto the balcony of the huge, empty Addis Hilton and searched the horizon for the vultures I’d been told returned to the old land of Sheba after many years to feed off the refuse of revolution.

I was staring into the twilight, watching the colors change on the sides of the mountains, when I heard a strange, cadent sound, a sort of muffled slapping that was soon louder than the incessant barking. After several minutes I went down to the street and stood behind a wall in the receding darkness. I saw columns of young children – most of them under 10 years old – being herded through the thin air at gunpoint. They looked straight ahead, hoisting their knees high, as children do when they march, then slapping their bare feet to the pavement in unison. The men leading them shouted commands in Amharic (dominant among the four Semitic languages spoken in Ethiopia), and the children began to run, looking like tall, graceful machines despite their ragged clothes.

I later found out that children all over Ethiopia are kept in prisons at night and then marched through the streets at dawn. They are undergoing “political reeducation” conducted by a four-year-old government that feels their homes lacked the proper atmosphere for them to become good revolutionaries. Residents of Addis reported that the marching had been going on for several months. They said these children were lucky to be involved in “revolutionary training” because it was more than likely their families were already dead.

I arrived in Addis on a certain Ethiopian Airlines flight – a condition of my visa, which had been granted suddenly. There were no messages at the hotel, so I called diplomatic contacts who told me that this seemed strange and that I should expect to be contacted and followed if I left my room.

The phone rang once that night. A voice asked, “Are you black?” When I said no, the caller hung up. At 6 a.m. the next morning, a 21-gun salute began the “spontaneous celebration” of Ethiopia’s Victory Day. The morning paper promised that “the broad masses of Ethiopia will celebrate the 37th anniversary of victory over the Italian fascists with popular enthusiasm and patriotic sentiment.” The streets of the capital were filled with children being gently led toward a full day of “patriotic fervor.”

The parade appeared to encompass most colors and all shades of khaki. There were peasant lancers from the countryside and fierce-looking Shoan (a highland province) warriors on short, powerful horses occasionally breaking the long lines of troops, camouflaged jeeps, and thousands of unarmed “urban dwellers” who seemed to be arranged by height. Cripples struggled to maintain formation, wincing in determined denial of pain.

Men, women and children filed by with rifles slung backward and upside down over their slender shoulders; many of them pressed their palms over the tops of the weapons and stuck their fingers in the hole at the end. One teenaged soldier asked me to touch his carbine for luck because a “white curse” had been placed on it when he was fighting in the desert. He jabbed the barrel within an inch of my chest and smiled.

A prominent resident of Addis had agreed to meet me at the rally under a tree. The pained lines across the man’s forehead told of the difficult changes in his life over the past few years. He said that many of his old friends were dead. “It was always a kids’ revolution,” he whispered under his breath, watching the chanting crowd, “but look into their eyes now. Look at those faces and see that they no longer believe in anything. If you can’t see it now, you will before you leave. Children with guns – it makes me ache. The revolution was supposed to be so much better than this.”

Forty-three years ago Benito Mussolini drove deep into this mysterious highland kingdom, and six years later Ethiopian and Allied forces drove him out again. Victory Day used to be celebrated in early May, on the day Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa from exile in England to reclaim the throne. Ethiopia’s new rulers moved the event from a day that marked the return of “the royal family from Bath in England where they lived a pompous and luxurious life” to a day when “the broad masses entered the city.”

The abandoned and surprisingly unpretentious royal palace has been empty since the fall of the emperor, Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, and Elect of God. The diminutive autocrat had ruled Ethiopia for 57 years, the longest absolutist reign in contemporary history. But by 1973, the world surrounding Haile Selassie’s empire had changed so drastically that he’d become a kind of anachronistic figurine who continued to rule the ancient amalgam of kingdoms and sultanates, never doubting the myth of his own invulnerability. He imported prestigious international organizations (the Organization of African Unity headquarters, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa) to Addis, but 90 percent of the people continued to live in a social system that closely resembled slavery.

During his reign, Selassie not only lorded over Ethiopia, but according to documents produced by his successors, never distinguished between the public treasury and his own and the entire output of Ethiopia’s only gold mine ended up in his Swiss bank vaults. Of the total arable land in the huge country (equal to the size of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico combined) 65 percent was owned by Selassie, members of his family or the feudal nobility, and 30 percent by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which he held in his fee. One family controlled 6.4 million acres and the 700,000 peasants who worked them. The remaining 5 percent of the land was owned by a small minority of the 33 million Ethiopians.

Nearly half the babies born on Selassie’s huge nation-farm died during their first year. The average lifespan was 36 years, partly because there were around three doctors for every million inhabitants. Less than 5 percent of Haile Selassie’s subjects could read.

Selassie used to throw bread out the window of his limousine and the children and dogs would fight over it. In one of his last decrees the emperor spent great sums stringing traffic lights through Addis in order – as he’d always promised – to bring Ethiopia into the 20th century. The “old man” never doubted that his people loved him.

In late 1972, 2 million people were suffering from a famine while Selassie continued to export the paltry quantities of grain and vegetables that the arid land produced. Entire villages perished. Living skeletons crawled from the countryside to the villages and hundreds died in the dust on the main road. When the hardier ones arrived in Addis looking for food, troops set up barricades to keep them away. For six months, Haile Selassie censored reports of the famine because, as he reminded the peasants, these kinds of things had been happening for centuries in Ethiopia and were obviously an edict from God.

Of the more than 200,000 subjects who died during that time, many didn’t even know that Ethiopia had a government. After 3,000 years of feudalism, they were only aware of their landlords and the land they could see when the sun was up. Ethiopia was an empire, and the peasantry had never participated in a postwar struggle for independence as had the rest of Africa. For them there were no politics.

For 15 years, Selassie sat on a tiny student movement that opposed his autocratic rule; he made them all write letters of apology when they once mustered the courage to stage a protest march. But when the students at Ethiopia’s only university heard about Selassie’s cover-up of the famine in February 1973, there were violent demonstrations. The students produced the first political leaflets ever seen in Ethiopia, and their leaders employed the methodology of agitation they’d picked up at Berkeley, Wisconsin and the Sorbonne. Then all Ethiopia’s 17,000 teachers – half of the country’s high school-educated stratum – went on strike and brought the country to a standstill. The trade unions called the first successful general strike in the history of independent Africa, and eventually the armed forces joined the uprising. Junior officers threw their commanders into the brig and joined the students in the street. The revolt soon reached the outlying provinces and became a full-blown revolution – not a palace coup d’etat or a foreign-supported guerrilla invasion – but the most radical revolution since the Bolsheviks.

The army brought down Selassie’s cabinet and executed the more powerful among them while the students stood outside the palace and chanted “the fish rots from the head.” Thus, in September of 1974, the little 83-year-old man was escorted out of his palace and into a Volkswagen that drove him from the place (as he believed) God had reserved for him in history.

Peasants chased landlords into the forests while people chanted and danced in the streets of the towns. Ethiopians congregated and discussed their future, and women joined them in the daylight, many of them out in public for the first time. A revolutionary generation briefly celebrated, but within two years they would be running for their lives and within three years most of them would be dead.

Mengistu Haile Mariam, chairman of Ethiopia’s military junta, emerged as the living symbol of the “new dawn.” A short, charismatic man, the son of a former slave, he has made himself a more imperial presence than the old emperor himself; his very name – “Mengistu” – when spoken slowly, means “the government.” Many Ethiopians believe he sleeps in a tank.

Mengistu came to power at the age of 36 by the sheer force of his personality, his brilliant oratorical abilities and his habit of shooting anyone who got in his way – including the two previous chairmen of the government. He became the leader of an illiterate band of soldiers who, whatever their intentions, were unable to find any of their fellow revolutionaries worthy of sharing the power.

Everyone calls these soldiers the Dergue – “the Committee.” They operate under the aegis of a coarse, sadistic philosophy they believe is Marxist Leninism – with a vocabulary acceptable to the readers of Pravda and a method worthy of the most bloodthirsty French Revolutionary. “These poor soldiers,” the man under the tree said as we listened to different members of the Dergue warn that the revolution was being attacked from all sides. “There were 120 of them after the revolution, now there are around 40. They’ve killed each other off. They’ve bumped into things they’d never seen or imagined before. They knew nothing of government, of socialism – Cubans and Russians – and to this day still don’t. One in a hundred of them has even read Marx. They tried taking lessons in Marxism at six in the morning at the beginning. You got a sense that right after the revolt they really wanted to do something good.”

Toward the middle of last year, Mengistu pulled out all the stops. “It is an historical obligation,” he said then, “to clean up vigilantly using the revolutionary sword.” He announced that the shooting was about to start and that anyone in the middle would be caught in the cross fire. In what came to be known as the “Red Terror,” he proceeded to round up all those who opposed the military regime. According to Amnesty International, the Dergue killed over 10,000 people by the end of the year. One anti-government party, mostly made up of students and teachers, was singled out as “the opposition.”

The Red Terror operated quietly and efficiently under the media cover provided by a vicious desert war that started when Somalia invaded eastern Ethiopia 10 months ago. Around this time, President Carter abandoned a long-term military agreement with Ethiopia on the stated grounds of “gross and systematic human rights violations,” and Cuban soldiers and Russian arms poured in to protect and “consolidate the gains” of the revolution.

By the time the Somalis were finally chased from Ethiopia’s eastern front two weeks before I arrived, the politics of the revolution had been further obscured by Mengistu’s determination to fight yet another war against secessionists in the country’s northern province of Eritrea.

After months of killing Ethiopian youth along with assorted Somalis and Eritreans, Mengistu declared to the world that the “anti-people forces who had lined us up for their lunch – we have had them for breakfast.”


“A belt fastened while running will become undone while running.”
–old Ethiopian proverb

There are jails all over Addis. The number of political prisoners in a given jail can be estimated by the number of women who wait outside at lunch time. It is an Ethiopian tradition for a prisoner’s family to take responsibility for sustaining him. If a whole family is in prison, then friends must help by bringing food. Sometimes families arrived at a prison and were handed a bundle of clothing and told not to return. There are around 320 prisons in Addis alone, with capacities between 20 and several thousand. They are all filled.

The French daily Le Monde estimated recently that there are well over 100,000 political prisoners in Ethiopia. They are all people who have been associated with opposition to the regime and thus accused of being members of the underground Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary party – the EPRP – an organization made up largely of the students and teachers who brought down the emperor.

A few days before I arrived in Addis, the Red Terror campaign had been briefly stepped up after a four-week lull. The Red Terror had become more discreet since the open street battles. But discretion meant only that there were fewer bodies of young people left on the streets in the morning. The bodies were often adorned with signs that noted revolutionary crimes: “This is for revenge” or “The Red Terror will triumph,” or sometimes, “This killing was the result of mistaken identity.”

I met a middle-aged worker during my first week in Addis who spoke impeccable English. He agreed to show me around. I warned him that I might be followed, but he just smiled. His attitude toward me seemed to vacillate between camaraderie and contempt. When we’d pass a particularly ravaged beggar he’d stare at me for a reaction then snort through his nose and shake his head. One time he pointed to a young man being led away at gunpoint and said, “Welcome to Africa, brother.”

Addis Ababa is a bizarre city. There is no centralized slum. From the air it looks a bit like Miami, but if you look closely you see that each villa, embassy, bank, office building or ministry is ringed by unparalleled squalor. There are green patches of scrub throughout this capital where oxen and cows led by ragged tenders graze and occasionally laze through the streets. Just before I arrived in Addis, the government lifted its unspoken ban on public mourning dress and the streets were full of women dressed in black.

We walked to the old market district, the largest open market in Africa, and strolled amid the spice stands and colorful cloth. A few years ago, you could buy hand grenades in this mercado. It is now considered EPRP territory and has recently been the scene of many shootings.

Each time we crossed one of the wider roads, my companion would say, “Now we are in Higher 12, Kebele 16,” or, “This is Higher 2, Kebele 12.” Ethiopia has been subdivided into 2,000-3,000-person units. In the cities, the units are called kebeles (pronounced “keh-bellies”). The term refers to both the new well-demarcated geographical areas of a city and the organizational association that is supposed to be democratically run by elected officials. There are 289 kebeles in Addis. The kebele associations serve as city hall, district court and local place of business. Literacy campaigns, hygienic programs and communal shop systems are all run out of the kebele. All members of a kebele receive intensive political indoctrination through the cadres in the organization.

As with so many other accouterments of the revolution, however, something happened at the kebeles. Each house in a kebele district has a number on it, and strict tabs are kept on movements – day and night. If anyone sleeps over at your house or you are out for a night – the kebele must know. Absences from official demonstrations and community activities are carefully noted. Each kebele has a defense squad whose job it is to protect the revolution. They patrol the streets of their district at night and have pledged to shoot people out after the midnight curfew.

Last year, when Mengistu put the revolution “on the offensive,” the kebeles became the Dergue’s instrument of the Red Terror. The young toughs of the kebele defense squads were issued rifles and told to kill for the revolution. Group executions continued every night through the spring of last year. Those who said the wrong things at kebele political meetings were sometimes shot in the back of the head before they finished their sentences.

Telephone numbers were publicized so that citizens could turn people in secretly. Children informed on their parents. The young defense squad members killed people over girlfriends and for simple revenge. The power within each kebele shifted to its most bitter and violent members. People who had never exercised power or control over anything were suddenly given guns.

The killing became so arbitrary and indiscreet that the Dergue recently ordered the kebeles to be less blatant. When some of the more active kebeles in Addis wouldn’t stop the open exterminations, the Dergue decided to make an example of six kebele chairmen. They were hung last year in a public ceremony replete with spectators.

“A few months ago,” my guide said as we stood outside the gate of his own kebele before a meeting one evening, “they decided they wanted confessions. The kebele would assemble, and a man would get up and explain that he had a list of EPRP operatives and sympathizers in his hand and that everyone had to confess. For those who did not confess and make a public exposure, the revolutionary justice would be more severe. You can imagine – people were turning themselves in everywhere.

“Some of the confessions are so emotional now that everyone cries. A man stood up a few days ago and confessed to being an EPRP hitman who had killed 24 people – including several of my friends. He was a former secretary of the teacher’s union. He went for rehabilitation and is learning to defend the revolution. . . .”

He kept looking at me for my reaction. “I’ll tell you another thing that is just beginning,” he said. “I’ve seen people announce to the kebele that they cannot change their belief, that the Dergue is fascist and should come down. They ask for revolutionary justice. So the bodies that end up on the street these days are no surprise to anyone. For most people now this revolution is about survival, not commitment.”

On more than one occasion, I was told the tragic story of Mr. Henno Kiffle as an example of the state of the kebele system and a sort of parable for the revolution. Henno was a young man whose uncle was a member of Haile Selassie’s inner circle. Thus Henno worked hard to be a good kebele member to assure people of his loyalty. He was eventually asked to run for kebele office. He immediately received letters from the EPRP underground warning him that if he ran for a post they would kill him, but when he then told the kebele he would rather not run, they questioned his loyalty. Despite several subsequent beatings by EPRP men, he ran and was elected to office and later became the kebele chairman. He ran his end of the Red Terror with zeal. One night he went so far as to kill nine “counterrevolutionaries” and gouge out their eyes. Then Henno was executed by a higher kebele authority. The nature of the crimes that led to his death had nothing to do with his overzealous defense of the revolution – he was killed for having proven ties to the Selassie regime.

After several days in Addis, I became preoccupied with the question of why the Dergue had wanted me to see the “gains of the Ethiopian revolution.” The thought of accounting for myself had me scared. I decided to check in with the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia and find out what was going on.

I was searched and led past the armed guards into the lobby of the modern foreign ministry building located across the street from the hotel. As I was looking around for the right office, I noticed a long series of posters adorning one wall. There were numerous dark squares spread across sheets of paper in an orthogonal pattern. As I walked up to the posters I realized that there were hundreds of small photographs of young men and women arranged over the surface of the posters.

“I think we got most of them,” a man standing next to me mumbled, then proceeded to explain that the wall represented a giant wanted poster.

“What happened to them?” I asked.

“Revolutionary justice,” he said and drew his hand across his neck.

“I thought they were photos from a college yearbook,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied as he walked toward the staircase, “I think they are.”

The Addis Hilton, the comrade Hilton, sits on a hill overlooking the old imperial palace. The hotel was built to coincide with Ethiopia’s entrance into the 20th century as a tourists’ paradise. It still boasts a staff of over 200, even though there are few guests. The Dergue gives the Hilton some business by holding meetings there, despite the fact that they consider the Hilton the source of most rumors and much decadence. A Muzak version of “Power to the People” echoes through the halls at all hours. Among the few paying guests were two or three Dutch and German businessmen and their bevy of teenaged hookers, the foreign minister of the Polisario, the revolutionary guerrilla group working out of the Western Sahara, and an American AID worker who was due to be shipped to Indonesia in six days. The American refused to leave the hotel, saying that he’d “made it this far” and “wasn’t about to risk it all now.”

“It’s the French Revolution out there,” he declared one day from the chair in the lobby he never seemed to leave. “Lenin would roll over if he saw this; it’s the goddamned French Revolution.”

One night toward the end of my stay, a famous reporter called from his room and asked to “shoot the breeze.” I told him about the upheaval I’d been observing, and he gave me a lecture on the principles of “journalistic cooperation” and kept insisting that he could be of great help if I’d convince my skittish contacts to talk, but none would agree.

He later went on a short, government-controlled visit to a kebele and had conversations with diplomats, engineers, veterinarians and various other wealthy Ethiopians. His observations later appeared in the New Yorker.

The Germans at the hotel ordered their women around unmercifully, continually announcing to the others at the pool that they would take the girls “back upstairs” if they didn’t openly contend that Germans are better in bed than Ethiopians – something the women refused to do.

The hotel guests were usually joined at the pool by some of the fellow-traveler expatriates in Addis who have come to live near an honest-to-god revolution. There were some European flyboys, former Air America gunrunners and spray pilots, among a host of other tradesmen, war jockeys and latter-day sutlers who hang on the edges of brush-fire wars and revolutions.

The second-rate colonial scene was supplemented by the arrival of French women in bikinis – most of them teachers or wives of diplomats – who endeavor to make even the most turbulent hellhole appear as a scene out of Emanuelle.

You need a pass to leave Addis and as I didn’t even have one to stay there, I was hesitant to apply. However, due to some fortuitous assistance and the fact that I was able to duck down behind the seat of the jeep at the checkpoint, I headed south out of the city one glorious day into the hay-colored countryside of the great Abyssinian highlands.

People were being herded along the road at gunpoint everywhere we went. They were poorer and more primitive the further we traveled from Addis. We began to roam the countryside in search of the great lost virtue of the motherland’s revolution or at least some Cuban soldiers, who tend to keep away from the cities. We searched by day and at night sat around killing mosquitoes the size of horseflies with a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (the sarcastic – if not racist – novel published in the Thirties that includes vivid descriptions of white journalists covering a war in Abyssinia) and watching spiders the size of birds. An American mercenary, an old Africa hand, once told me that in Ethiopia there is a spider that eats only living flesh. It’s called the camel spider and is equipped with a prong on its back that emits a local anesthetic. He told me that at night the camel spider descends while you sleep, gives you a shot, and eats your lips. I slept with my hand over my mouth.

I was staring into a big brown lagoon near Langano, around 200 miles south of Addis, when I was surrounded by 15 peasants with rifles. A small man wearing robes and holding a sten gun approached me and pinned a paper badge on my shirt.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Visiting.” I answered.

“You must be a communist then,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied nervously and there were smiles all around.

“We are revolutionary guerrilla fighters, the defense squad of our peasants’ association,” the man continued. “We want you to help us.”

In March of 1975, the Dergue proclaimed a transformation that was more radical than anything in China, Cuba or Vietnam. It dispossessed all landlords, nationalized Ethiopia’s 457,256 square miles and then redistributed the land to the people. The act electrified the peasants and confronted them with a concept of politics and radical change they never could have imagined. So the Dergue closed the high schools and the university and sent the students and teachers to the countryside to explain it to them. They called it the zemacha; 60,000 students and teachers operated like a radical peace corps – same 3,000 of them died at the beginning, often because they refused to go and sometimes because the peasants they went to teach were less than receptive. When the students left, the Ethiopian provinces were subdivided into 27,000 small units that parallel the kebeles in Addis.

As we walked down the beach, one of the peasants told me about the counterrevolutionary they’d killed the night before and another showed off his new Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifle. He cradled the weapon lovingly, then shouldered it with a snap and a smile. The defense squad wanted to nationalize a motorboat that was sitting on the beach. It belonged to a bald Englishman I’d run into earlier that day. We had had a short unpleasant conversation.

“I’ve been vacationing in Ethiopia for years,” the man had said, “and I’m not about to stop because of some revolution.”

“You really must love the country,” I said.

“I do,” he sniffed, “except for all the blacks.”

The peasants asked me if I could figure out how fast the boat could go. I told them I thought it was quite fast.

“It isn’t,” the Englishman whined, “besides, it’s mine.”

“You’re in Ethiopia,” one of the men said proudly. “There is no private property.” They all smiled and nodded in agreement.

I suggested that the boat was fast enough but that it was rather small for all of them. They agreed and decided to set off on foot. I asked the young man with the sten gun what it was like for him before the revolution. “Before the revolution,” he said, “I would have called that white man ‘master.’ “

While I was in Ethiopia there was increasing evidence of friction between the provincial socialist units and the Dergue in Addis. There had been two major call-ups of peasants to join the mammoth people’s militia in the wars in Eritrea and the Ogaden Desert. A third call-up had recently been announced, but after observing that no one had returned from the wars, many of the peasants refused to go.

On the way back to Addis we encountered the largest military convoy I’ve ever seen, made up of the men who taught the peasant militia how to fight, the men who Brzezinski refers to as “the surrogates.” Near the Debre Zeyt air base, with its parking lot filled with gleaming MiGs, the road was filled with Cuban troops escorting looming cannons, multiple rocket launchers and electrical generators the size of houses down the thin road. The Cubans stood near the road looking almost chic in their cowboy hats, green T-shirts and baggy pants. They acted weary but friendly. Some peasants had told me that at night the Cubans sing sad Spanish songs, which the Ethiopians had taken to be religious, or mystical. They seemed to understand the Cubans’ songs about as well as they understood their magical weapons. To people who previously considered a strong stick a formidable offensive tool, the Cubans’ Russian-made weaponry may as well have been death rays.

Members of the 40,000-man Ethiopian regular army seem proud that they have never fought directly with the Cubans. The American-trained regular Ethiopian troops contend that they are offended by the Cubans’ rowdy battle style. The regulars think the Cubans are well suited to training and fighting alongside the peasants – which is probably true and is probably why the Cubans’ battle record on foreign excursions is so much better than ours.

Immediately after the battles for the Ogaden cities of Harar and Dire Dawa there were pictures of locals kissing Cubans as they climbed down from their tanks. But by the time I got to Ethiopia there were rumors of Cubans raping Ethiopian women and disrupting kebele authority.

I asked a man in a jeep why he fought another country’s battle. He looked at me with exasperation. “Because, comrado,” he said, “I am a revolutionary.”

Eritrea, the northernmost province, has been in a state of open insurrection since it became part of Ethiopia in 1962. Mengistu has vowed to crush the powerful secession armies that control 90 percent of the region and nearly 100 percent of the public support (largely as a result of the atrocities committed on civilians by Mengistu’s troops in the region).

Eritrea provides Ethiopia’s sole access to the sea; without it, the country is reduced to a vast, underdeveloped landlocked state. Mengistu considers the Eritrean rebel forces to be “separatist bandits” and announced from Cuba as I was leaving Ethiopia that as he takes on the guerrillas “the Cuban masses will be with us.” Mengistu has pursued the Eritrean war more ruthlessly than Selassie ever did. He has ordered two quixotic if not suicidal peasant marches into the region since taking power. In both cases his troops were cut to pieces by the determined hill-based guerrillas. When his army scattered, he had the commanding officer shot. South Yemeni pilots in Russian MiGs spotted by Cuban ground troops have been dropping Israeli napalm and bombs on the guerrillas for weeks with no discernible results.

Cuban diplomats clearly imply that they don’t want to fight Mengistu’s battle there. The Cubans were friendly to the Eritreans; they trained their guerrilla leaders in Cuba in 1969 and ’70, and eyewitnesses say the liberation forces still paste Fidel Castro’s picture on the inside of their tanks.

“The Eritreans are just like you,” I said to one of the Cuban soldiers, “how can you kill them?”

“I hope I don’t,” he said.

A few days after I left Addis, the Cuban ambassador and his friendly first secretary, Frank Ortiz, attempted to insist that the Dergue, among other things, begin to negotiate a political settlement in Eritrea. Both men were expelled.

The Eritrean rebels are among the toughest, most fanatical fighters in the world. Old Italian soldiers still tell stories of tribal warriors who fought alongside the Eritreans wearing their enemy’s genitalia around their necks as souvenirs.

“Let the Cubans and Russians come and fight in Eritrea,” said one Eritrean spokesman, “for it will be their Vietnam.”


Beware Imperialism Is Not Dead Yet
–banner near Addis’ Revolution Square

Professor Korovan, late of Moscow State University, rose to the sound of a collectivist sigh. Over one hundred Addis University students waited for him to fluff his gray hair and straighten his gray sport coat and tie, before he began to read from an article about capitalism written by Frederick Engels. The students kept turning to each other in disgust during the reading, asking their friends what in the world Korovan was saying. The professor paused occasionally to search, with a meaningful look on his face, for the right English word  – it was usually “emerge.” He went on to speak of the “natural laws of ee-oh-lay-shun.”

One of the students said, “What?” and then others started in, and finally the whole class was saying, “What! What! What!” less as a question than a protest, like inmates banging their cups in a prison film.

“You all know these word,” Korovan said. “You all know it  – ee-oh-lay-shun.”

“No,” they chanted. “No. What. No.” Korovan turned to the blackboard. “Ee-oh-lay-shun,” he barked, then he wrote the word “volition” on the board.

The Soviets are not unaware of the language problems the Russian professors who have virtually taken over Addis University are encountering. They have even suggested a remedy for the situation  – that Russian be taught to all Ethiopian children in secondary school.

Before sitting in on Dr. Korovan’s class in Marxism, I’d gone to see the vice-president of the university to extend regards from an American professor who once taught there. When the man heard that I was a journalist he seemed delighted. “You see,” he said, “Ethiopia is not a closed society after all.” He said that he was hurt that American academics had not given proper support to the continuing revolution. “Sure, we’ve made big mistakes, but our friends haven’t come to our aid. Where are the people who sympathized with us under Haile Selassie? As soon as the Russians are involved we are forgotten.” As I left his office he assured me that the campus was now safe. “The university,” he declared, “is now stabilized.”

Two waves of student executions took several hundred lives this year. So the students have adopted a look of studied lethargy that they hope will keep them alive. “It’s fairly clear that two-thirds of the students were against the Dergue,” one of the students later ventured, “one-third supported them. Of that original two-thirds against them  – I’d say half are dead.”

Since Korovan’s lecture of the day had concerned the class conflict that occurs at the heights of capitalism, I later asked him if Ethiopia hadn’t experienced a mighty short bout with capitalism to have reached its highest stage. He smirked and suggested that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I then asked him what he likes about Ethiopia. “I must admit I’m a romantic about it; you know, I missed my revolution.” His eyes drifted up to a portrait of Lenin that hung over his desk. “I’d only known about revolution from books, but here  – here, I’ve seen something here.”

The Russians make much rhetorical use of the “obvious parallels” between the Ethiopian and Bolshevik revolutions. I asked Dr. Korovan to be specific. He thought for a minute, then raised one finger. “The Red Terror,” he said, “there’s something.”

Ethiopians say the Russians have contributed to the rise in prices and believe they have “stolen” Ethiopia’s coffee crop for years to come in exchange for arms. They are called the Ethiopian word for selfish  – one of the worst qualities a human being can have in this culture. “Watch them ignore the beggars,” one woman suggested, “or watch them buy like children in the stores. They buy everything  – all their clothes are new.”

Mengistu himself is said to mistrust the Soviets. He has apparently never forgiven them for telling him to move the Third Armored Division away from the Ogaden Desert to the Sudanese border in March 1977, a move that precipitated an invasion by the Somali army that threatened Ethiopia’s existence.

After the Somalis invaded, the Russians made amends for their bad advice to Mengistu by planning a counteroffensive. Those who witnessed the Ogaden campaign say that the Russians were out for more than victory. They contend that Mengistu was told to move his division away from the Somali border only after a meeting in Aden in early March of last year. Somali leader Siad Barre had apparently promised not to attack Ethiopia in front of Nikolai Podgorny and Fidel Castro  – and you don’t break promises made among those kinds of comrades. The Russians airlifted nearly a billion dollars’ worth of weapons. Troops and tanks were dropped behind Somali lines and the final artillery assault on the Somali stronghold at Jijiga has been compared to Marshal Zhukov’s attack on Berlin at the end of WW II  – during which the general is said to have read his Pravda by the light of artillery explosions for several days.

“I think the Russians are going to regret this commitment very soon,” a longtime observer noted. “This country has a history of great suspicion of foreigners of all descriptions. Foreigners in Ethiopia usually get their asses kicked.”


“The Future of Revolutionary Ethiopia Is in the Hands of its Sons and Daughters”
–banner headline from the Ethiopian Herald

At the age of 24, Adano considers himself a survivor of his generation. When it was safe to talk I asked him how many of his friends were dead from political violence. He counted his fingers twice before looking up. “There’s only one left now. One of my best friends from school even worked for a kebele on the other side from us. One night an EP unit killed him, so it comes from all sides.”

The hunted members of the underground proved surprisingly accessible. I had stood in the shadow of the bread line as I’d been told and was ready when the young man with primal Amharic good looks and bell-bottom blue jeans approached me and asked me to follow him at a distance and not to speak. We began to travel through parts of Addis I hadn’t seen. We went into buses and out the back; through churches and into sewage gullies. We strolled through a muddy depression lined with shanty huts, where a swarm of partially clad children streamed out of the dwellings and surrounded me, reaching with obvious fascination toward my conspicuous red hair. They were shouting “faranj! faranj!”  – “foreigner foreigner.”

Past the row of huts, the fellow turned to me nervously, “So you want to know about the party?”

“Are you in the EPRP?” I asked.

He gasped at the initials. “Please don’t say that; don’t say that again. Please whisper,” he said.

Adano had just been released from prison after six months of reeducation. “I got off with some beatings, but others were tortured. They whipped people with metal cables, poured hot oil in their ears, and even stuck hot wires through peoples’ hands.” There were other reports in Addis and by Amnesty International that people are chained to poles and left to die in the sun and that hot iron bars have been inserted in young girls’ vaginas.

The raging power of the kebeles during the Red Terror had made life in the underground impossible, so public confession and subsequent political “reeducation” had become a key to staying alive for people like Adano. You just memorize the right slogans and hope that you never slip. Adano emerged from prison having signed a pledge of loyalty to the revolution and carrying both a certificate attesting to his rehabilitation and a warning that his next mistake will be his last.

He spoke with pride of the 25-year-old member of the EPRP’s Central Committee who had avoided capture by jumping to his death from a building two days earlier. The Dergue has been unable to capture any of the underground leaders of the EPRP.

Things had changed considerably since the disillusioned students and teachers returned from their “zemacha” in the countryside to challenge the military regime  – usually by joining the EPRP, the underground party of the opposition and, they insist, the first party of any sort in Ethiopia’s history.

When they’d first returned to the cities they’d led innumerable marches, and students used to give lectures in bars and raise critical placards at public events. But last year, the EPRP and the Dergue went to war. It’s not clear if the EPRP’s “white terror” preceded the Dergue’s Red Terror. The EPRP did demand that power pass to the civilian party, and the Dergue did say no. The EPRP had beaten people who supported the Dergue, bombed installations and assassinated some of the Dergue’s functionaries. The Dergue fought back through the kebeles and massacred at random. Every day the Ethiopian Herald boasts that “the Red Terror Continues to Bear Fruit,” listing more deaths of “the anti-people forces of the so-called EPRP.” They publish photographs of captured EPRP weapons; one showed a table full of typewriters.

Adano says he drinks now to muster the courage to continue. “If you get drunk enough, you don’t choke,” he explained. “And if you are picked up you have cover from your drunkenness. Many of the drunks and beggars on the streets of Addis at night are ours.

“I am in the communications section. I take messages through the city and distribute our information. The EPRP is broken into five units: mine, the women’s group, two organizational recruiting wings and the military unit.”

He contended that certain strategic information the EPRP obtains comes from sources near or in the Dergue itself and that arms come to them easily from Somalia, despite the kebele‘s almost daily house-to-house searches for guns.

His mission the night before had been to write, “The time is now for a government of the people” on a wall, but some trouble with license plates had caused him to fail.

He seemed unsure of his mettle and kept asking me if I thought he was a brave man. He seemed genuinely ashamed when he told me he’d never killed one of the “fascist enemy.” “But I know this city,” he said, “I know where they look and where they don’t. I could take you with us  – a white man like you  – for days and they’d never know what was going on. I’m a warrior.” It seemed that all the death he’d seen had left him feeling guilty  – at the age of 24  – for being alive.

We continued through the city. He signaled to me at intervals and told me not to talk and even left me at one point and rejoined me in a different part of town. We passed the large red palace that houses the Dergue, and I said something and pointed up at the wall.

“Don’t,” he hissed, “don’t point, don’t even look.” He was scared.

We walked into the old lion zoo and watched a cheetah stalk his shadow in his tiny cage. Adano spoke in a resonant whisper, stopping when a guard passed nearby. He wanted to know where I went to college and asked if I’d ever heard of the University of Michigan where some EPRP colleagues had gone to school. He kept staring at the cheetah. “They’re dead now.”

Adano went on to tell numerous tales of the Dergue’s activities. Based on his information, I was later able to confirm that there are at least two rural concentration camps in Ethiopia with 4,000-5,000 detainees each. Reports indicate that the death rate is up to several hundred a day from dysentery. The people in the camp are largely students.

“It was really fantastic at first,” he said after a long silence. “There was this solidarity. I saw the change when I came back from the south where I’d worked with the peasants. I still have my contacts there. The peasants understand the EPRP; they know we can’t have a military dictatorship in Ethiopia.”

“We used to have these meetings in Teglammon Square. We had big plans. . . .” I asked him how he describes himself politically. “I’m a democrat,” he answered.

I had already made plans to see Adano the next afternoon when the Foreign Ministry asked me to come to a meeting that was billed as a political inquisition. I made a reservation to leave Addis the day after the meeting and tried not to consider the possibility that they knew of my EPRP guided tour of Addis.

I had identified myself to the Ethiopian authorities several days earlier in order to ask for an interview with Chairman Lieutenant Colonel Comrade Mengistu. I submitted written questions that a man at the Ministry of Information and National Guidance considered inappropriate  – especially, for some reason, the one in which I asked Mengistu if his military training in Savannah, Georgia, had helped prepare him to lead the nation.

I was seated in a room at the Foreign Ministry with five young men in dark suits. Two were from the Foreign Ministry, one was from the Ministry of Information, and one represented the mysterious Ethiopian Revolutionary Information Committee – known as ERIC.

The men began asking me about the political nature of ROLLING STONE and admitted that it had been the subject of some debate. I’d heard of the man from ERIC and began asking him questions about the American roots of the split between the EPRP and the original pro-Dergue students. I’d been told that the man had been president of one of the factions when he studied in the States. We talked about an EPRP fund-raising event he had attended at Columbia University in 1975. He seemed uncomfortable discussing the days before classroom arguments turned into killing.

Until this year, the government and anti-government students and intellectuals were roughly divided by the source of their foreign education. The leaders of the EPRP are (were) mostly American educated, and the leaders of the group called the Meisone are (were) mostly European-educated Marxists. The Meisone supplied the Dergue with ideology and advice for some time. The kebele system was largely their idea, as was, according to some accounts, the Red Terror. It is said that they turned their backs on most of their former classmates in favor of the Dergue so they could play the role of the Bolsheviks with them when the time was right. But Mengistu had other plans for his erstwhile tutors. Under the cover of the Somali war most of them were imprisoned or killed.

One of the men said, “Who is this Joseph Kraft?” referring to the well-known reporter who was staying at the Hilton. “He keeps demanding a car and driver and we’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s famous,” I said. “He was a friend of John F. Kennedy’s.” The man who asked the question rolled his eyes.

I was asked during the meeting if I would stay in Ethiopia another week for an official tour. I then admitted that I’d seen the countryside already and felt that I had a strong sense of the gains of the revolution. One of the men laughed, the others didn’t.

I lied openly when they asked me my impressions of the revolution, all the while flashing on the variety of faces I’d seen, from the man who’d shown me his kebele to the peasants at the lake; from the soldiers to the prominent man who had prophesied that I would “see what the revolution can mean in terms of the sacrifices borne by the common man”; and I repeatedly focused on Adano, with his studied look, dispassionate yet despairing; with his bent dialectic and belief in variations of white men’s ideas from the last century. . . .

H.L. Mencken once wrote that any journalist who rates “spats and a walking stick” should cover at least one revolution and one lynching. Somehow I’d missed the part of the Ethiopian revolution that featured the only activist students to come out of the Sixties and successfully change a society  – and had arrived in time for a modern variation on their lynchings. I’d also felt the cheapness in the air long enough to have been altered by it. I thought about Adano and realized I’d lost touch with the idea of risk as I continued to fabricate and taunt in the government office. There was this nagging bitterness attending my frustration: that covering the backside of Third World revolutions had become a process of evaluating relative levels of horror rather than chronicling increments of human liberation.

The revolution in Ethiopia had begun in order to allow people who had never been free to partake of those endeavors that have come to be considered part of being a human being in the modern world. It vowed at the beginning to establish a “completely free society devoid of exploitation, oppression, injustice and differences based on religion, tribe or sex.”

Mengistu has argued that despite everything the only “objective” way to look at Ethiopia today is in comparison “with past injustices and oppression.” It is significant that the peasants I saw plowing the light, cracked dirt with long sticks or walking 10 miles across a plain to fill a small gourd with water still live only if they never stop working  – but now they do it for themselves. Yet, I kept thinking about the term ishi gitaye, words I learned in Addis that mean “yes master.” It died out for a while after the uprising but has lately reappeared in conversations between Ethiopians and their kebele chairmen.

What the Dergue has done to its children  – wiping out the only generation that could have run Ethiopia with skill or vision through the end of this century  – reaches a level of masochism that is defined by totalitarian ferocity, unprincipled and insane.

“Mr. Katz,” one of the men finally said at the end of the meeting, “we’re sorry but this was a mistake. There are certain times that are more conducive than others to have observers at a revolution  – and this is not a particularly good time.”

I stood up and told them I had one more request. I wanted to know why my visa had been granted.

“We don’t know,” one of them said.

“Then can you tell me who authorized it?”

“We’re looking for that person,” the man at the door said as he opened it wide.


There was reason to fear that
the revolution, like Saturn, might devour
in turn each of its children.

After an involved series of messages, I again made contact with Adano. He seemed genuinely glad to see me but agreed that I should leave after hearing of my meeting with the government representatives.

We walked through Addis until dusk, talking about what had happened in Ethiopia. We discussed the work of the great Ethiopian writer Daniachew Worku, the poet of the generational divide. “It had a lot to do with the war between the ancients and moderns,” Adano said, “and a lot to do with the problems of fathers and sons. Daniachew understood it.”

Adano was born in a rocky place near Menx in the north. “You need a mule to get there. My father is a peasant who tries to farm in rock. He doesn’t understand very much.” He shook his head. He’d once tried to get out of Addis and go back home but his kebele wouldn’t allow him to leave. They are afraid that young people who leave Addis will return to the scene of their zemacha to incite the peasantry.

“I was going to be a pharmacologist. You have them in America?”

I nodded.

After he gave me directions, we parted in a northern section of the city. “Write a good article about what has happened,” he said, “about those stupid people with their guns. . . .” Then the late sun broke across his face, and I saw that he was beginning to cry. And more than the guns or even the fear, I still remember the look on his face. “I’m weeping,” he said, blinking. “I’m sorry. . . . We’ll fight, you know. The vision of the revolution was better than this. Ethiopia shouldn’t be a dictatorship. We’re too good for that.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Ethiopia


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