A look at the book titled "The memories of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam"
I heard that someone had written a book that was based on interviews with the former military rulers of Ethiopia, including the former president himself, Lt. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. It is not a surprise that Genet Ayalew Anbesse's "The Memories of Lt. Mengistu Haile Mariam" was a sensational hit the minute it arrived at the bookstores. It is now a topic that is very much discussed among the Ethiopian community. Like many in the Ethiopian community, I too was curious to know what the colonel and his colleagues had to say about those 17 years. Luckily, the book was being sold at the annual North American Ethiopian soccer tournament, which was held here in Washington, D.C. I bought the book, which was written in Amharic.
I have to say that the author has done an incredible job. Not only does she lure the reader with her sensational writing, but also she was able to ask so many important questions. After saying that, however, I was very disappointed with the answers that were given by the former derg officials, including the former president himself. In one instance Mengistu Haile Mariam questions the number of people who were killed during the "Red Terror." He claims that those who were killed were probably less than two thousand. That number would have been correct if we were talking about one village in Ethiopia. Sadly, the mass graves that were dug up recently indicate that tens of thousands were killed during those years. It was a dark period in Ethiopia's history where parents had to pay for the bullets that were used to kill their children in order to get their bodies.
Interestingly, the Colonel seems to be fond of his socialist days, he still refers to his colleagues as comrades and talks passionately about his socialist party. Unfortunately, what the colonel does not realize is that he had single handedly made Ethiopia a Russian colony. We were forced to sideline our own heroes, such as the great warriors that had defeated the Italians in 1896, and were told to embrace three foreigners: Marx, Engels and Lenin. The red communist flag flew along side the Ethiopian flag, which had survived the fascists and other enemies of Ethiopia. The green yellow, and red had now become second to the socialist flag. A country that had once prided itself of being the only African nation that had not been colonized had willingly become a colony of the former USSR.
What I found interesting was the fact that the derg was a committee of low ranking soldiers, who lacked an agenda to begin with. All 108 (once thought to be 120) members would meet without having an agenda. In fact, several members, including colonel Mengistu, admit to the fact that the fate of the former officials was decided without any serious thought or consideration. It so happened that some of the members brought up the issue in passing while the derg was deciding the fate of the then President, General Amman Andom. What I found interesting is the accounts of the former president and his colleagues regarding the role that was played by professor Mesfin Woldemariam in deciding the fate of the former officials. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam and Dr. Bereket Habteselassie were heading a commission that was created to investigate the former officials of Emperor Haile Selassie. What surprised me was the claim of what the good professor had said. I quote, "We only have the power of the pen, while you have guns." It is so ironic that professor Mesfin Woldemariam is the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council.
The book sheds light on the process that led to how power was wrestled away from the committee. A very crafty colonel would slowly eliminate his foes and was finally able to assert himself in the leadership position. A member who was against the colonel would be eliminated. According to Mengistu, it was either kill or be killed.
The interview also focused on the war between government forces and the EPRDF and the EPLF, rebel movements that are now in control of Ethiopia and Eritrea respectively. To begin with, there seems to be a lack of accountability, which seems to be the theme of the colonel's interview. All but the former president is blamed for the defeat of the Ethiopian army. Interestingly, Mengistu blames the same commanders that he had promoted to the rank of General. Growing up, I remember people talking about how low ranking officers were promoted to the rank of a General just because they were loyal to Mengistu. The next thing you know, the 'Generals' are asked to go ahead and win a war. The situation was more like asking a nurse to go ahead and perform surgery on a patient. While both are in the medical business, the nurse will not be able to perform the task of a doctor. Similarly, even though both are in the military a low ranking officer (dressed in Generals uniform) cannot fulfill the duties of a General. According to Mengistu, those who were seen to have lost the war, were gunned down in front of the entire army. I wonder what the moral was like with Ethiopian soldiers after seeing one of their own being gunned down in front of their eyes.
All in all, the writer has done a marvelous job by presenting such an interesting book to the public. Not only has she filled some of the gaps that were missing during those years, but she has also done a great service to the Ethiopian people. Through the discussions, the Ethiopian people have finally began the healing process. So many, who had bottled up their feelings about those days, are now being seen openly discussing their own experiences of the Mengistu years. It never seemed that those days would come to an end. Yet, here we are looking back at 17 years of unimaginable terror and sadness. We should be thankful that the darkest part of Ethiopian history is finally behind us, and may God rest the souls of all who have perished during those years.