The Dirty War In The Dejen Print E-mail
By Zekere Lebonna - Feb 02, 2004   


To state that most Eritrean elite were victims of their fellow guerrilla leaders, and not the Ethiopian regimes', is not an overstatement. The dirty war in the Dejen is largely responsible for it. The modest effort to give names and faces to the unknown multitude that has lately begun is an eye opener, and should be commended. The series of anecdotal evidences submitted so far by this writer will continue.

The 70s in Ethiopia was a terror decade for all sorts of opposition groups. The military junta's Ethiopia Tikdem Yale menem Dem remained a hollow slogan. The urban dwellers, and particularly the intellectuals, were the disproportionate victims. According to some historians, Ethiopia lost a generation of intellectuals during this mayhem. It is often compared with the Italian Fascist onslaught after the failed assassination attempt on Graziani in the 1930s.

Luckily, Eritrea's armed struggle had by then already established semi-liberated areas in the countryside. When the terror was unleashed in Ethiopia, hundreds of them were able to escape either singly or in groups. Unlike their counterparts, the Ethiopian elites, they were spared the ignominy of facing the military courts, and the firing squads. They were, according to the Tigrigna phrase, Wtsa?e Me?at.


Or were they?

A weird reception awaited them in the Dejen areas of the Selfi Nasnet. After trekking for several days, emaciated, they arrived at the training camps in the Sahel.   They then had to put up with the rigorous military training and the grueling criticism and self-criticisms sessions (denunciation) for weeks. To instill fear in them, propaganda about the "Menkae" was not excluded.

Soon enough, they would be visited by the Halewa Sewra [Revolutionary Guard] heavies.  They were often interrogated by Solomon Woldemarian, Haile Jebha, and Tekle Aden. They would be questioned about people they know in the ?Meda? (field), books and pamphlets (Tehisa is often mentioned) they read.   This was a trap to isolate the educated types. Most would soon be demoralized and submissive; the rest were dealt with.

Prior to the Halewa Sewra, Selfi Nasnet "security" concerns were largely handled haphazardly. A list of peoples name under suspicion in folded notes will reach the ganta leaders and commissars from Isaias. Envelopes were scarce. The suspects are then singled out from their platoons, and led to the valleys before dusk. The platoons leave for Teshkil or Defa?e at the mountains. Then the executions begin.
To stifle the unfortunate victim's cry, empty cooking oil drums are beat incessantly in lieu of a Kebero.


A particular incident is worth mentioning here. Asmerom Ghebreegziabher, a member of the five-man leadership then, arrived with a large sized cassette player. Meanwhile, I saw a column of unarmed fighters being stealthily led to the riverbed in the proximity, at Tegih. An "impromptu" guayela [dance] followed accompanied by the loud blare for a couple of hours. It reminds me now of the violins that were being played in the Nazi death camps.

The Selfi Nasnet, a totalitarian organization since its inception, had some sort of cubbyhole for everybody. In the beginning, suspects and victims were mostly from the semi-proletariat class, according to the Marxist lexicon. Intellectuals appeared immune from the witch-hunting. This temporary reprieve did not last long.

The first victim from such group was Meles Ghebermariam, before the bell tolled for many. I believe he was a former university student, and joined the Selfi Nasnet from overseas. After serving as a ganta commissar, he was suddenly apprehended in 1973, and executed.  Nobody raised a finger for him. Fear and conformism reigned then. Everything was hushed up, except for dubious rumors. He was allegedly a foreign agent, and particularly the CIA. The fact that his father was a high-ranking officer in the then Emperors' army (possibly from Digsa village) was a factor thrown around.

The victims of Halewa Sewra and its predecessors were not solely intellectuals. The series of purges carried by Isaias: the "Menkae" movement, the "Desawi" group led by besay Goitom, and the "Yemanawi gugele? under Solomon Woldemariam are lately getting publicity. To dwell on the fate of these victims only is, to me, elitist and biased. Halewa Sewra's victims were from all walks of life, and include hundreds who did not subscribe to any opposition politics in the meda. They have remained faceless, and nameless, among the thousands of our disappeared.

We have, therefore, to "confess" a thousand times without any moral compunction, notwithstanding the advice from some corners to refrain from doing so.  For some of the current victims were victimizers too. Eritrea's recent history has lately been a gruesome scene of successive victimizers turned victims. Except for the supreme victimizer, Isaias, who has still remained unscathed.

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