Ethiopian woman confronts “Red Terror” ghosts – By Barry Malone (Reuters)

February 8th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

Although 13 years had passed, Hirut Abebe-Jiri instantly recognised the man who tortured her during Ethiopia’s brutal “Red Terror” purges.


Although 13 years had passed, Hirut Abebe-Jiri instantly recognised the man who tortured her during Ethiopia’s brutal “Red Terror” purges.

It was a dark era little known to the outside world, but that glimpse of Kelbessa Negewo across an Atlanta hotel lobby in 1990 set in motion a chain of events that ended last month when he lost his appeal against a life sentence for genocide.

The former local government official who once sowed such fear in her neighbourhood of the Ethiopian capital had been carting around luggage and opening doors.

“I was amazed,” Hirut told Reuters on Sunday. “It was him. This powerful man was carrying people’s bags.”

Her story goes to the heart of one of Africa’s darkest chapters, now thrust into the spotlight by a political breakthrough nearly 2,000 miles away in troubled Zimbabwe.

Former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, dubbed the “Butcher of Addis Ababa” by many Ethiopians, has enjoyed comfortable exile in Harare since he was driven from power in 1991 — protected by President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe’s opposition is joining a unity government with Mugabe. It said on Friday it would like in principle to extradite Mengistu, who was sentenced to death in absentia last year. But the Movement for Democratic Change conceded it was unlikely to win agreement to hand him over. [ID:nL6711758]


The start of Hirut’s story was typical of many in Addis Ababa under Mengistu’s 17-year rule. She was a teenager in 1977 when he announced the purge of his opponents by smashing a vial apparently filled with blood in the capital’s main square.

Soon afterwards, armed police snatched Hirut and her younger sister from their home after dark, and dragged them away in their pyjamas. She was stripped, hung upside-down, gagged with a vomit-soaked sock and tortured for the rest of the night.

“An 11-year-old boy from my street was hanging by his feet and bleeding heavily when they brought me in,” she said. “The police heard he had a gun and he told them he had given it to me. To this day, I know nothing about this gun.”

Hirut was freed after two months when another official decided she could take no more torture. She walked to neighbouring Eritrea and was eventually granted a Canadian visa.

Hirut was alerted to Kelbessa’s presence in the United States by a friend who was a waitress at the hotel. Her friend had been tortured by the local government official too. The women were joined by a third former victim, and that was when they launched their fight to have him extradited to Ethiopia.

Kelbessa was deported by the United States in 2006 and was sentenced to life in prison by an Ethiopian court. Many like Hirut, now 46, hope Mengistu will one day face the same fate.


Last year, she faced her torturer, Kelbessa, for the first time in court. She testified against him and he lost his appeal.

“Healing is impossible, but I will no longer have to think about him every day,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

The trial that convicted Mengistu in his absence cited some 300,000 items. They included signed execution orders, witness accounts, and videos of torture sessions and bombing raids by fighter jets on villages held by the opposition.

Bodies were left in the streets as warnings, and some relatives who went to the authorities to collect bodies of loved ones were charged for the bullets used to kill them.

On a recent visit to Addis Ababa, Hirut visited the dilapidated concrete bungalow where she was tortured. It is still a local government office, and she chatted with the officials who now run it as children played football outside.

She believes Mengistu is a major fugitive from justice and that he should be sent home. But she said she didn’t see Zimbabwe’s fragile coalition government risking a crisis over the issue.

“As long as Mugabe manages to maintain control of the security forces, I don’t think Mengistu will have anything to worry about,” she said. “Mugabe has been pretty ruthless.” (Editing by Daniel Wallis)

  1. Girum
    | #1

    These idiots keeping talking about the same story over and over, huh?

  2. Tefe
    | #2

    Melese killed and tortured 100000 times more than Mengistue.
    Mengistue is openly while Melese secretely
    is hidely look.

    Let us bring both of them to international criminal court.

  3. | #3

    These story of Red Terror is a cover-up to dumpen the crime that is going on in the country at present. I doubt there has been a leader that threatened the pride of his people as that of Meles. Tribalism is the worst enemy of a society. Mengistu has left the country long ago. Once and for all we have to get rid of the present dictator.

  4. | #4

    Forget story of the past engage with the present. The country is at risk. Let us unite and focus at the present situation.

  5. Belaye Hagos
    | #5

    What happen during derg time is a well documented fact the world knows. Why keep telling us over and over. We have other issues to deal with. Enough of talking about red terror and derg era. What a waste of time and how backward being talking about the past while the current issue is even more scary.

    | #6

    WHAT? you did not have any family killed then? you must be from another planet ha….or I dont know idot….

  7. Tigist
    | #7

    Girum are you one of those who have not been recognized by your victoms yet????

  8. ራስ
    | #8

    መንግስቱ ሰው እንዳረደ እንደገደለ የሚክድ አለ? የወያኔስ አናሳነት ያስከተለው የፖለቲካ ኪሳራ እራሱን ለማዳን ሲል ያስከተለው ቀውስ ምን ያህል ነው ጎበዝ?.

  9. Free Berutkan Lady Liberty
    | #9

    Ethiopia suffered worse history under Mengistu.

    He killed our Orthodox papas, Jan Hoy Haile Sealise and he killied millions of Ethiopia.

  10. Ethuiopian
    | #10

    I am proud of you Hirut!!!

  11. fish
    | #11

    hey guys we the current torture and killing has to stopped that needs more urgency than the past one however by saying that i don’t mean to forget the pain of those who had suffered from the mengistu region. At list he is not killing any more but the primitive woyanes still are killing and imprisoning innocent ppls they are the one who has to cover the front page not mengistu. This story is just distraction from the main issue of the primitive woyane’s crime.

  12. jj
    | #12

    That time was the darkest time in Ethiopia as everybody remembers. It was the time parents paid for the wasted bullet and gun their child was killed with, because the amount was not only for bullet. It was a time parents were forbidden to mourn for their children, a lot can be said. But let us come to fact and face it. Is it only Derg that was responsible for all that agony??? The first bullet was fired by EPRP to kill the governor of Agriculture and Industry Development bank. His name slipped me but may be Asfaw Zegeye?? not sure. EPRP mobilized youths and children as young as 8 years old for the terror. The youths used to be told that army wing of EPRP will be here soon from Asinba,which never did. All good brains from both sides laid on the street without any result. (WEPM) Meison was masterminding the counter terror on the government side. No need to mention the rest. I am wondering, is there any courageous leader from these parties to come forward and admit their mistakes and apologize to the Ethiopian people?

  13. seifu
    | #13

    Interview with Major Yohalashet Alebachew, an Ethiopian Police Inspector from the Amhara Region who recently
    defected to Eritrea

  14. Belaye Hagos
    | #14

    Hirut you can’t be a hero. Get a life and leave the derg time for history and historians. If you like to do something for Ethiopian women, campaine for realease of BIRTUKAN MIDEKSA. Don’t take us back 20 years. Save life now save the young prety, intelegent and detemined lady Birtkan.

  15. Girum
    | #15

    Tigist, no I’m not. I’m not down playing the horror that the victim, Hirut, had to deal with, but why the story is being reported asif it was new? I think it is the third time I’m reading the same story again and again. Even the wordings are pretty much the same. There are other current issues that need to be reported on.

  16. gone
    | #16

    መለስ መንግስቱ ሊያስር የፈለገው ክርቸሊን ጠርጉ ፈርቯ ጫትይዞ አንዲጠብቀዉ ነዉ

  17. gone
    | #17

    ጠርጉ ፈርቯ ጫትይዞ አንዲጠብቀዉ ነዉ

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