|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
Survivors of an Ethiopian massacre 20 years ago revisited
22 June 2008
It is 20 years since my first journey to Hausien. Back then I had been waiting in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, with an assortment of aid workers. After a few weeks most of them had gone elsewhere. Without warning I was allowed to go on. I crossed the border into Ethiopia and joined a group of fighters from the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). We travelled on lorries from the cross-border operation, always at night because of the risk of attack from the air. Nobody asked for my passport - the border was controlled by Tigrayan partisans.
In a few days I came to Zabangadena where I met Teklewoini, who ran the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). My purpose was to report on the aid effort in this part of Ethiopia cut off by war. Teklewoini asked if I wanted to report on a major war crime which had occurred months before in Hausien, a town further to the east. He was clear there was some danger since the Derg had issued a warning that any ferengis, as locals call foreigners, caught with the fighters would be treated without mercy. I was young enough to imagine it would never happen to me. Besides, I was in an area where most people lived under the same sentence of death. The next day I set off for Hausien with a handful of fighters. I reckoned this was the best insurance. I was with the best irregular special forces mob in Africa. Each carried a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, spare magazines and several grenades. They wore khaki and sandals.
We hitched lifts on trucks, crossing the Tekeze in giant zils, huge trucks with 8ft wheels captured from the Russian-supplied Derg army. Sometimes we joined water engineers who had Toyota Land Cruisers; at other times we walked. Around a month after leaving Khartoum we slept in a farmhouse near Hausien.
Another fighter joined us and I became aware that a second rebel patrol was protecting our flanks. The next day we went into Hausien.
The town had been largely obliterated.
Buildings everywhere lay useless without walls and roofs. There were craters where buildings had been. Near the school lay an unexploded cluster bomb about two metres long. It was one of three.
Hausien was the biggest market town in Tigray, about 500 miles to the north of the capital, Addis Ababa. There have been markets there for 2000 years. On Wednesdays it attracted 10,000 people to trade in everything from spices to shoes via wheat and animals, besides salt carried by camels from the Afar region to the east. The town was singled out by the Derg, the Soviet-backed regime, for special treatment. The Derg, whose leader Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew the Emperor Haile Selassie and later had the frail 80-year-old killed, was one of the most murderous regimes on the African continent, waging a war of absolute terror on its own people, whose only crime was that they supported the rebel TPLF.
According to the human rights monitor Africa Watch in its report Evil Days, the attack began around 11am on June 22, 1988, when two gunships arrived and began to strafe the town. Their purpose seemed to be to cut off escape, so that the people sought refuge in the houses. Then two Mig fighters began a series of bombing runs low over the town. The attack lasted for the rest of the day and the aircraft apparently left by turns, only to refuel and re-arm and continue the incineration. Besides bombs, heavy-calibre bullets and rockets, they used an unidentified weapon which delivered burning sticky wire to its target. Later accounts suggest this may have been phosphorous or napalm. Then and now the witnesses told how bodies and body parts were buried; more were thrown up by the earth and reinterred for weeks afterwards. The priests say the bones of humans and animals were indistinguishable.
Everything was treated with dignity.
And few could comprehend the horror inflicted on them.
Despite the confusion of the day, more is now known about the number of casualties.
Initially the TPLF, in huge understatement, said 350 had been killed. Africa Watch carefully analysed the known facts in relation to the number of people present, the nature of the attack, and eye-witness accounts. It concluded that at least 1800 people had died - perhaps 2000. The author of its report, Alex DeWaal, now an academic at Harvard, remains open minded.
The official figure is now 2500, making this the single biggest atrocity, among a great many others, to have been perpetrated by the Derg.
The regime controlled the bigger towns but the TPLF, using classic guerrilla tactics in the countryside that surrounded them, held vast garrisons of up to 50,000 conscript soldiers in a grip that made it impossible for them to move.
The Derg bombed Hausien in an attempt to loosen this grip but it failed completely: the carnage there brought many more recruits to the rebels. Crucially, they were highly motivated and courageous fighters. Less than three years later the rebels and their allies stormed into Addis Ababa and routed the enemy.
Mengistu escaped to Zimbabwe where he still lives in a large compound. Current events there may compromise his position. Many Derg officials were captured and a series of trials for war crimes began in the mid 1990s, but more of this later. In 1988 I photographed the effects of the bombing raid and interviewed some of the survivors. My account was widely published in Britain and abroad and played a part in the political discrediting of the Derg. The history of world communism did the rest. Two decades on, I'm returning to track down some of those survivors and discover what life is like in Hausien, still a market town in one of the world's harshest environments. What is life like for some of the world's poorest people in a place which, uncommonly for the region, is marked by the absence of war?
Within days I enquire at a house selling tea and sewa, a local fermented beer. The owner instructs her daughter to take me to another sewa house. There I meet Iquar Gebre Georgis.
Uncannily she confirms the account she gave me in 1988. In those days she was selling sewa in her house, which was substantial in the local style with sandstone walls supported by strong and supple eucalyptus beams. She had thought it would save them.
"We thought we were safe," says Iquar now, "but the roof fell in and the walls collapsed.
There were maybe 25 people eating and drinking but only three of us survived. They weren't fighters, just farmers and traders. My daughter Negisti was only 13 but she died as well. I was buried for around four hours. My grandmother and grandfather were killed in another part of the town. We buried Negisti in the church."
Iquar was so frightened she fled to the outskirts where she had a small farm. She lived there for some time, earning a meagre living from the land. Meanwhile her son Haile Selassie became a fighter with the rebel army and stayed on until after the defeat of the Derg.
Later she went back to her old trade and even now brews and sells sewa. On Wednesdays Iquar does better trade than ever, but it is still a subsistence living.
Ten minutes' walk from Iquar's house I find Tsahei Geredche. Twenty years ago she had six children all under 12, and was due to give birth. She and her husband Aluwai Yihaduste were in another sewa house which was totally destroyed. Aluwai, then aged 40, was killed instantly and she was buried in the rubble.
After she was pulled in a state of hysteria from the debris she gave birth, and all those years ago I photographed a traumatised woman and her newborn baby - a girl called Abadit, who is now a young woman.
Tsahei recounts how hard life was then.
"Just before the bombing Aluwai had planted our fields and so later some local people helped with the harvest, but it was not very good because of the weeds. Without their help we would have starved. As you can see we still live on this small farm, so life has always been difficult."
Tsahei has had more to contend with - her eldest son joined the fighters and was killed near the end of the war. She has retained a sense of dignity in the face of cruelly adverse circumstances. Abadit is clearly the apple of her eye and shares her ambitions.
"I went to school and now I am in the high school and getting ready to take the university entrance exam," says Abadit. "I want to go to the university in Mekelle and become a teacher - I want to teach civics, which is what we call human rights. I know all about the Derg and I can tell you I have very bad feelings towards them. But the country is moving on now."
The next day I meet another woman, Mulubrhan Grmay, for whom life in the evil days of the Derg is indelibly marked in Tigray and elsewhere. At 15 she was seen as clever so she was sent to Adigrat, near the Eritrean border in the north of the country, to continue her schooling. Shortly after this she was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of being a TPLF sympathiser. By her account this was partly true since she knew some fighters and admired them. She was held for several months and beaten, agreeing to marry a guard who was a Derg soldier she knew from Hausien.
She explains what happened next.
"As soon as I could I ran away and met up with the fighters in the bush," she says. "But by then I was pregnant so I had the baby, and she was brought up by my grandmother. Then I became a fighter. I was 16 and it was 1986."
Like many fighters, Mulu became known by her nom de guerre. She called herself Hausien in eerie prescience of the events two years later.
After training she joined the corps commanded by the legendary General Hyalum who was assassinated after the war in an Addis restaurant.
I ask her if she had ever been afraid. Her answer is predictable given she was one of a smaller number of women fighters whose reputation was as fearsome as that of their male colleagues.
"No, never," she says. "Right from the start we were all ready to die. In fact we wanted to die before our comrades. I was in a lot of fighting. The biggest battle was near Shire and I was so close to the enemy that I threw five grenades, so I think I must have killed some of them. I have no regrets about those days because I played my part in bringing down the Derg, and if we hadn't done that we would not have the peace we have now."
Mulu remained in the army after the defeat of the Derg and was involved in the next war to stop the Oromo people breaking away from the new Ethiopian Republic, which she believed should be united and strong. Finally she left in 1996 but her life continued to take unusual turns. She made enough money working as a merchant to open a small hotel in the Afar region and became involved in smuggling goods, mainly clothes, from Somalia.
She was caught by the army and fined 30,000 Birr, around £1900, and that, she says, was the end of the hotel. She returned to the family home in Hausien and now sells excellent coffee and sewa on the edge of the market square. Mulu now wants to find a way to become a nurse.
In 1988 I visited the house of Zimam Hamenur.
It was 100 yards from the mosque and had been hit during the raid, injuring her daughter Fatima terribly. There was still confusion - Zimam had lost consciousness when she saw Fatima, who later left to get treatment.
Returning to the house all these years later, I meet Fatima, who recounts her own incredible story. "The day began just as normal and the market was getting busy," she says, her emotion building. "I was outside and then it just started.
There were terrible noises and bangs and the smell of burning. I was terrified so I ran into our house and shut the door. But then a rocket came right through the door and cut off my right hand.
"There was blood everywhere and I was afraid I was going to pass out. Someone came and put a tourniquet on my arm to stop the bleeding. My father took me on a horse to the TPLF medics at Tsai in the bush and that took us two days. The pain was terrible. And there were Derg soldiers so we had to hide and travel at night. The medics gave me injections and some medicine and milk. There were many other injured people there and they told me the government hospitals had turned them away. I stayed there for about six months."
Fatima, then 13, returned to Hausien to be reunited with her parents but, like most of her friends, never went to school. She helped her father, who sold garments in the market, but he died three years ago. Now Fatima and Zimam make a living by going to the farmers and buying spices from them which they then sell in the market. She married Abdul 14 years ago and they have two boys, Abokar, who is eight, and six-year-old Nuradin. According to Fatima it was an unhappy marriage and Abdul spent his days cleaning the mosque.
She divorced him four months ago.
Fatima is typical of many of her generation who grew up under the Derg. She still cannot read or write but would like to learn so that she understands more when she visits her boys' school. She has no great ambitions other than becoming literate. If she had some help, she says, she would open a shop in the town and the profits would help her sons continue their education. An independent woman, she has not allowed her disability to get the better of her. She jokes that nobody ever helped her except one woman who came and gave her an artificial arm. It was too heavy and she has never used it. So what of Hausien and its other residents 20 years on? Physically not much has changed, although it has grown and the houses have mainly been rebuilt. The market still thrives every Wednesday, the national Dashen Bank is building a branch there and a five-storey office block is being built. But the relative absence of war is evidenced in other ways.
Agriculture is improving and slowly modernising with the help of REST and some Israeli know-how. Education is a must-have, and health services are helping save lives and sustain children who are largely well fed. There is even a fledgling tourist industry. Although the developed world might see Ethiopia as a fragile country, it has in truth displayed robustness over the past 17 years.
Hausien and most of Tigray is still a rural economy driven by the work of peasants.
While the cities continue to lure people from the countryside, the government at national and regional levels is encouraging them to remain on their land, the aim being to make Ethiopia self-sufficient in food production.
There is investment in projects to conserve water, provide irrigation and implement innovative farming techniques. As well as building dams to irrigate vast swathes of arable land there are micro-projects to encourage the commercial production of fruits such as mangoes, apples, oranges and other cash crops.
Much of this is pushed by Teklewoini, who is still in the same job 20 years on. REST is about to give some women farmers access to tractors.
It works in partnership with other initiatives like the UN's Millennium Village project.
Advances in education are astounding. It is a benchmark of the Derg's negligence that today most rural people over the age of 40 are illiterate. Their children, though, are not. In the Hausien woreda, or local area, there are around 140,000 people and of these around 37,000 are of school age. This year there have been 38,136 school enrolments. The discrepancy is accounted for by adults returning to education. In the old days under the Derg there were only 14 primary schools. Now there are 48 primaries and one high school.
Most of the funding comes from the regional government but in every village local people have provided labour, stone and wood to build new classrooms to meet the demand.
In some grades there's a shortage of teachers and the schools operate a shift system with average classes varying from 50 to 70 students.
By the time pupils get to Masho High School at age 15 they are proficient in English among a wide range of subjects. The high school has 3330 pupils who will be prepared for entrance to university or technical colleges. Its director, Helefom Girmay, 33, explains, "The government pays for the fees, accommodation and food so the students have to pay for clothes, and things like pens and jotters. Families are so keen for their children to go they try to get an ox they can sell to pay the expenses."
Abadit Geredche, whose life was in such fragile balance two decades ago, will almost certainly be one of those students, along with young men like Gebre Cherkos and Asimelish Girmay. Both come from poor rural families and until a few years ago thought their best future would be as goatherds. Now they want to be engineers and see technology as the key to the country's newfound ambition.
"When they introduced elementary school my parents insisted I go even though they are illiterate," says Asimelish in perfect English.
"The Ethiopian Millennium which took place in September 2007 is a renaissance for us. And it is motivating the people. Everything is about the people now. We have great potential."
Thedevelopmentofhealthserviceshasalmost matched advances in education. There is a well-equipped clinic and a basic operating theatre in Hausien. There are nurses and health officers - the legacy of the fabled barefoot doctor movement.
Doctors are difficult to come by and serious cases still have to go to Mekelle, around two hours away. But within a series of 23 health posts in the surrounding villages, vaccinations and treatments are available weekly in the fight against conditions such as diptheria, measles, malaria and polio.
The clinic in Hausien has lab facilities and an abortion clinic - terminations became legal earlier this year despite the opposition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, although it has relaxed its views on contraception.
Then there is tourism. Ethiopia is the place of legendary journeys and stunning scenery.
Locally there are rock-hewn churches like Mariam Qorqor in Gheralta, an area of sheer cliffs and mythical stoicism dating back perhaps two millennia. From Hausien it is possible to drive in a few hours to Axum, the home of the Queen of Sheba, and even now the alleged resting place of the Ark.
And of course Hausien has its people, some visiting and some staying. Benyamin Abraham is a 24-year-old economics teacher who reads philosophy books in his spare time. He writes songs and intends to spend the summer recording an album of them in Addis. Teklay Atsebahu, who was 10 at the time of the bombing, remembers it well. Afterwards his father took him to live in Khartoum and then he came back and joined the army. During the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war he was once engaged in a battle that lasted two and a half days. At its conclusion they took prisoners who included Arabs and Chechnyans. Now working as a guard, he is a member of the local 400-strong militia. He supports a teenage brother and sister, is learning English and invests in local businesses.
Finally Hausien has its history. Tomorrow Ethiopia will commemorate the day of the bombing with a national holiday. The perpetrators of the crime and many others have been tried over a period of around 15 years in exemplary trials. Eighteen of them, including Mengistu and two of the pilots involved, were convicted of crimes against humanity. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecutor appealed the sentence under the terms of the Ethiopian constitution.
On May 26 the Supreme Court upheld the appeal and handed down death sentences to the 18. There is no further appeal. President Girma Woldegiorgis could grant clemency.
He is responsible for deciding what form Ethiopian justice might take. It's a task nobody would envy.
A witness to hope
When it comes down to it, photojournalist Gerry McCann doesn't do what he does for money. He doesn't do it out of indignation or anger particularly.
Nor for the thrill of tramping around danger zones. He's no war junkie, he says ("it terrifies the life out of me)".
For McCann, a 54-year-old Glaswegian whose travels have taken him to Ethiopia, Somalia, the West Bank and Bosnia over the last 25 years, the reason he does what he does is simple: curiosity. "It's about realising that there's a lot more to the world than what we see on our doorstep," he says.
The hardest thing to deal with, he adds, is all the children he's seen orphaned by war or Aids. In South Africa a couple of years ago, he photographed a girl suffering from HIV and meningitis. "She died within 24 hours of me photographing her and I knew she was going to die when I took the picture," he says now. He hopes that wasn't voyeurism. It's more about paying witness.
And sometimes paying witness can reap dividends. Ethiopia is a case in point. "The whole Ethiopian project taken over 20 years has become the most rewarding because I was able to find these people again and show that life did go on and that's great to see."
Not that he's necessarily reached the end of that particular story. Ask him about a dream assignment and that's where he most wants to go back to. "I'd like to go to Ethiopia and show all that's come good there over the last 10, 12 years of stable government and relative peace."
Source: The Herald