Inside the museum keeping Ethiopia's brutal past alive

Saturday November 18 2023

The Statue of Agony at the entrance of the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. PHOTO | FRED OLUOCH | NMG


On entering the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa, one might mistake the brass statue of three women on the right side of the entrance for one of those exotic sculptures common in museums all over the world. It is only after reaching the lobby that one realises its significance.

The statue depicts three girls huddled together with tears streaming down their cheeks, a symbolic representation of the victims of a massacre that occurred under military ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam. It represents the victims of the period of repression known as “Red Terror,” between 1976 and 1978, in which more than 500,000 people were brutally murdered.

The massacre was overshadowed by the 1994 Rwanda Genocide against the Tutsi and the atrocities of Apartheid in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

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The Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, located at the intersection of the historical Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, was unveiled in March 2010 as a stark reminder of the atrocities committed by the “Derg” led by Mengistu after he overthrew Emperor Haile Sellasie in 1974. It was one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa at the time.

At the lobby is a plaque that explains how the museum was inspired by the tragedy of one woman, Kebebushe Adamsu, whose four children were killed in one day.


“As if I bore them all in one night, they slew them in a single night,” reads Adamsu’s statement, which reveals the agony of the mother whose loss ate her up for up to 30 years, but who was lucky enough to be alive to officially open the museum that is central to the memory of her lost children.

The museum was set up by the government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ousted Mengistu in 1991 after years of military campaign. The words “Never Again” are prominently displayed both in English and Amharic.

The museum has displays of torture instruments, skulls and bones, coffins, bloody clothes and photographs of more than 500,00 victims. Most of the remains belonged to the 4,855 martyrs that were dug out from 725 mass graves by the Special Prosecutor from different parts of the country.

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Mulune Haile, a 66-year-old tour guide at the museum who witnessed the beginning of “Derg” as a 10th-grade student, said that his work makes him live the memories every day but he has an obligation to explain to the young generation how their forefathers suffered for freedom. The picture of his brother, Sebsebe Haile, who was also killed for opposing Mengistu’s dictatorship, is among the thousands plastered over the walls.

Mr Mulune explains that their family was continuously harassed, even after his brother was killed for joining the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), the opposition party that accused the Derg of betraying the revolution.

To demonstrate how Mengistu viewed his opponents, one of the pictures on the wall shows him, while declaring EPRP “the enemy of the state,” throwing a bottle filled with blood in front of a huge crowd at Meskel Square in 1976. It was a warning of things to come.

The display at the museum is divided into three sections; the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie; the 17 years of Derg rule and the trial of those who committed genocide.

Mr Mulune says it used to attract 2,000 foreign visitors a month, but the numbers have reduced since Covid and the war in Tigray and Amhara.

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“Even though we have a high number of students visiting during holidays, we are continuously sending messages to schools, so that the youth who have no knowledge of its existence can come and learn about the country’s brutal past. It is unfortunate that a good number of people associate the museum with the former EPRDF instead of a place to learn about the past to avoid future atrocities,” he said.

Despite the museum being about the atrocities during the Derg, the displays also give an impression that life under Emperor Selassie, who is celebrated in Africa as one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity, was equally oppressive.

One of the pictures includes Brigadier-General Mengistu Neway, who staged a failed coup in December 1960.

In an announcement on Radio Ethiopia on December 14, 1960, Gen Neway said: “Gone is the era of oppression."

The era of right justice and the right constitution has come to all Ethiopians.”

After being sentenced to death in 1961 together with his brother Girmane, Brig-Gen Neway said: "I have accepted the death sentence you judges have passed on me without any appeal. I shall not appeal. If Ethiopian people were the ones to whom I shall appeal, I would have wanted to do so. But since I know this is not to be, I am not willing to see the face of Haile Selassie in appeal”.

That face is seen in the 1974 picture showing the emperor being hustled away to the military barracks in a blue Volkswagen after the coup. About 200 dignitaries including Selassie’s former cabinet ministers were executed.

The administration of emperor Haile Selassie, which started in 1930, faced a public discontent as a consequence of the hungers between 1972 and 1974. This motivated a group of dissenting military officials led by Mengistu under the Provisional Military Administrative Council, known as “Derg” to overthrow him in 1974 and declared Ethiopia a Socialist/Marxist state.

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The manner in which the emperor was killed remains controversial. While the Derg government maintained that the 82-year-old emperor died naturally out of old age, it was later revealed during the trial of 67 former members of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta that he was strangled to death in August 1975 after staying under house arrest for months.

Mengistu buried him beneath his office in the National Palace, where it later emerged that the dictator was working from a desk on top of his grave. In February 1992, Ethiopian Radio announced the discovery that the remains of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie were exhumed from beneath his office.

His remains were kept in Ba'ata Mariam Church near the tomb of Menelik II, lying in a box on a shelf in a glass-fronted case until the burial ceremony on November 5, 200 during the 100th anniversary of his birth—25 years after his death.

After his ouster in 1991, Mengistu—known as ‘the butcher of Addis”—fled to Zimbabwe and was given asylum by former president Robert Mugabe where he lived in a luxury villa in Harare.

Ethiopia’s Supreme Court in 2008 declared Mengistu guilty of genocide and sentenced Mengistu to death in absentia. It was a surprise that in 2018, former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself and Mengistu in Harare when he was in the country as part of the African Union Observer Mission.

The photo of both former leaders smiling and having a good time caused an uproar in Ethiopia and in the diaspora and Mr Desalegn later pulled it down.