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Ethiopia: When People Used to Be Only Numbers

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Part one

‘Dagnaw Manew’ is the title of a book written in Amharic, published and distributed in Ethiopia recently. The meaning is ‘Who is the judge?’ and narrates the life of Taddelech Haile Michael, one of the members of that famous generation of youths who stormed the country in the nineteen seventies and were a huge challenge for the then military junta that ruled over the nation for seventeen long and tortuous year. Anyone who lived during that period, be it at their young age or even more mature, will never forget what hectic, dangerous and stressful years they were. The book is, hence, very timely and worth reading.

The book deals with very intense years full of emotions. The issue of life or death was hung on a fine string notwithstanding one’s position in politics, in the students’ movement, in neighbourhood activities or even in schools. More aged people were of course seen even with more suspicion because everything was weighed or judged against the backdrop of ‘the revolution’.

The stand one had on the revolution was the key to save their life. It was enough to be suspected of even speaking badly of the revolution and that could have constituted a serious threat to one’s life. If anyone showed any form of sympathy with the students’ thoughts or may have been seen with a pamphlet or flier that was alleged to have been distributed or stenciled by them, it was reason enough to be at least thrown in jail. And the chances of being forgotten there for years were high. They may risk not to be solicited to appear in court and face a trial or respond to their acts. The only procedure that was usual was to take the arrested people and subject them to harrowing cycles of investigations. Those famous ‘interrogations’ would result in the collapse of the suspects due to the intensity of the whipping and beating by professional henchmen.

The accounts we have come to know from those who almost miraculously survived those sessions of torture are to say the least inhuman and disgusting to learn about because they even had the air of sadism not worthy of a human being. That is why Taddelech asks ‘Dagnaw Manew,’ who is the judge?

Books have been written about those interrogations and there would not be any more appetite for any reader to know more details of those. But they need to be condemned in the strongest terms because there are similar accounts albeit rare even in our present day. This can be taken as one of the ugliest facets of governments all over the world which we rarely talk about.

There are legal limitations to the use of torture during investigations, but still there are such inhuman methods practiced by especially dictatorial regimes with little accountability to the laws of the country.

During the period Taddelech talks about in her book, the people who carried out those notorious ‘investigations’ were given ‘carte blanche’, full authority, to decide which manners they thought fit. Few restrictions limited them regarding the duration and intensity of the methods. Taddelech tells us about what she was witness to and what she felt besides the accounts of direct witnesses she talked to.

The stories of these episodes may have been told by several writers before this specific account. But what makes this special is that it rotates mainly on the top leadership of the movement. The husband of the author was the person widely considered as one of the most influential leaders of the party, architect of the ideology the party followed: Berhane Meskel Redda. One of the most famous slogans of the entire student movement ‘land to the tiller’ or ‘mereet l’earashu’ was reportedly coined or propagated by him.

Taddelech had several and extended occasions to know this person deeply and sheds some light on his personality not revealed earlier. She dismisses some of the assumptions many have made about his personality and in that sense has carried out her historic responsibility of putting the records straight, at least to honor his memory and give the deserved credit. In this respect, it can be said that his family is relieved of whatever negativity was aired against him by some of his once close allies and even friends later on rivals or even enemies.

“Dagnaw Manew?” is also about feelings and emotions that rotate around love and family life. It describes at length what the author’s family had to undergo for being what she was and her association with so many of the historical leaders of the movement such as Dr.Tesfaye Debessay.

Taddelech also tries to outline the major activities of what went on during those twelve and more years she spent in the central prison in Addis in her already very voluminous book. The details had to be limited or the book would be even bigger and too large to be only one book.

But Taddelech does describe the major events of the story including how she got involved in the movement and how she met with Behane Meskel. She describes the moments when she slowly got drifted to a love story and eventually decide to marry him. She talks about her family and the background on her initial feelings and her subsequent transformation by the influence of the youths’ leaders she first met in Switzerland while she was a university student. She elaborates well on the unexpected twists and turns in her personal and professional life for being involved in the dynamics of the students association until she got overwhelmed by it making it the raison d’etre of her life.

Authoritative historians have determined that there is no doubt that the book is a major historical document especially when it comes to the details she put in it regarding the life and mentality of the leaders of the students from a close range. She has shed some light on some of the doubts or misconceptions written or speculated about some of the students’ leaders, particularly about Berhane Meskel.

Just as Hiwot Tefera, another female student of the epoch, had written some eight years ago on another prominent leader of the movement called Getachew Maru with whom she had fallen in love in her English book ‘Tower in the Sky’, so has Taddelech in ‘Dagnaw Manew?’ about the love of her life and how things ultimately ended up: tragically. In fact, very few of those leaders exceptionally managed to survive and tell the predicaments of their lives.

‘Dagnaw Manew’ does some justice to the memory of Berhane Meskel and many others who followed his path. It clears them from some of the deliberate apparent character assassination that was widely practiced by whoever was on the other side of the alignment. It was common in those days. Enemies or presumed ones were to be fought in all fronts without any restrictions or restraints. Physical elimination was even the best option but character assassination was also another one so that the person loses every ounce of credibility and prestige she may have had.

From a neutral point of view, it is good to avail as many accounts as possible on those days from which every perspective one might take it. As long as they are based on facts and not mere speculations or deliberate assumptions or inventions made to advance this of that idea, they are all welcome. There are indications that some of our present day problems we face today in our society, particularly in our political discourse, derive their profound origin from misunderstandings and misperceptions of those years.