Excerpts from Meskel
By Mellina & Lukas Fanouris
I didn’t want to lose that miraculous moment when the sun set the sea aflame and the black night descended to quench it.
Topped with half a dozen mounds of wat in varying colors, our plates took on the appearance of artists’ palettes. An expert had certainly been at work in the preparation of the food.
As it always happened in the rainy season, the heavy storms of the previous three months had left the tarmac roads in a state of total disrepair, their surfaces pitted with huge potholes and the edges crumbling away. Everywhere repair gangs were disrupting the flow of traffic, as they performed cosmetic surgery on the highways…
‘Considering that, although the people of Ethiopia look in good faith upon the Crown, which has persisted for a long period in Ethiopian history as a symbol of unity, Haile Selassie I, who has ruled the country for more than fifty years ever since he assumed power as Crown Prince, has not only left this country in its present crisis by abusing at various times the high and dignified authority conferred on him by the Ethiopian people but also, being over 82 years of age and due to the consequent physical and mental exhaustion, is no more able to shoulder the high responsibilities of leadership. It is hereby proclaimed that Haile Selassie I is hereby deposed as of today, September 12, 1974.’
The staff at the United Nations were stunned by the news. Their compassion was not for the Emperor they had seen the previous night, feeding his pets while his people died, but for a ruler who once had the respect of the world.
A crowd of students who had lined the road began shouting, leba, leba. ..the Emperor stooped forward and asked the driver what were the people saying? ‘They’re shouting ‘thief’ your majesty,’ …without hesitating, the Emperor replied, ‘What do you expect them to call you, when you’ve robbed them of a King!’
In one instance it was reported that Colonel Mengistu had asked the Emperor for his view on the changes that had taken place in Ethiopia. The Emperor had replied, ‘When the people of Ethiopia who have been indoctrinated and deceived by the words of Hebresebawinet (Socialism) have fully understood the true meaning—they and only they will give you their views. Not you, not even Mussolini nor his compatriots ever managed to change or damage our history and heritage.’
A new era of Keyshibir, Red Terror, began. Anyone opposing the new government would be deemed a Reactionary and would be executed, it was proclaimed. The enemies of the regime were to be wiped out, destroyed without mercy. Bodies began appearing in the streets—young and old, men, women and children, left sprawling in the gutters where they had been gunned down the previous night for their anti-revolutionary activities. Students were the main target: Amnesty International later estimated five thousand young people were put to death in a three-month period. Torture was commonplace. People were burned in oil, toe and finger nails were ripped out; suspects were beaten and suspended by wires; women and girls were raped. To add insult to injury, bullet money had to be paid to reclaim bodies.
Even under Haile Selassie, prosecutions normally ran into years, it was not unknown for them to run from one generation to the next, while the detainees rotted in dank prison cells. There was no reason to believe that military tribunals would be any different, if—in fact—they took place at all.
Life was eternal and love was immortal and death was only a horizon.
‘What made things worse was that, with the first slap, my false teeth fell out of my mouth. Without them, there was no way I could make any sense. No one could understand what I was saying. The more I mumbled, the more they beat me.’
‘We’re in a situation which is dragging on and on—like gangrene. It’s eating us up, killing all our hopes and aspirations, leaving only rotten feelings inside.’
Greeks said, I tan i epi tas. Better dead in freedom than alive in captivity.
‘The soul never dies. Anna Maria has just crossed over to the other side.’
‘Not everyone who looks like a gentleman is one.’
‘Useless bit of junk, a car is, without the precious liquid.’
‘My Mellina would never go do anything like that. She’s molded from good paste.’
The smoky blue shadows of daybreak leisurely unfolded to expose the first blushes of sunrise. Dawn came with dramatic African suddenness—a silent explosion of red and gold with ribbons of apricot fanning out across the curve of the eastern horizon.
After he had gone, in an age-old tradition, she fetched a jug of water and poured it where the car had been standing, to wish him a smooth journey. “We’d better pour a whole a whole bucketful this time,” I said trying to make light of the situation….She didn’t fail to comply!
Even as thousands of cases of whisky were being imported for the celebrations, another catastrophic famine—worse than the one which brought down Haile Selassie—was already threatening the lives of millions in Wollo, Eritrea and Tigray. The government did eventually appeal for western aid but before the world took notice, the famine had claimed nearly three million lives.
‘Haile Selassie never harmed youngsters,’ said one parent. ‘He would warn the disloyal but never kill them. This tyrant is unrestrained by laws or religion. He snatches our children from our arms without conscience or compassion.’