In May I worked the public holiday to cover for the anaesthesia officers. At the start of the day, Letemariam one of the circulating nurses complained she was getting too old for work; Mulugeta another circulating nurse explained that Letemariam suffers from shoulder pain after being shot through her left scapula in the conflict that led to today’s public holiday. And so this is how I came to learn about the importance of the day, unlike any bank holiday at home. 28th May 2014 celebrates 23 years since ‘Downfall of the Derg’ and is a massive celebration throughout Ethiopia, especially in the region where I am, Tigray, where the resistance to overthrow the Derg regime began. Ethiopia is currently a peaceful country surrounded by many entrenched in conflict, but war remains a fresh memory in many people’s recent histories here.
I was keen to write a post about this as I was taught a lot from my co-workers about the history of the regime and the conflict, but more importantly their personal history from that time and why it is such an important celebration.
In 1974 after 7 months of ongoing strikes and revolts against Emperor Haile Selassie and his government, the Derg (meaning committee) regime came to power after arresting the Emperor. At that time, the military was also supported by the Eritrean liberation Front and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front who had become increasingly militarised in an effort to resist the government. The Derg was led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Maryam, a serving military officer, who is rumoured to have suffocated the emperor, buried him next to a latrine and imprisoned many of his family members. At the time in Ethiopia there was some support for change particularly in poorer communities and the Derg proposed to offer a socialist state which would improve the lives of all, in contrast to the reputed excesses indulged by the few in power. In the cold war era, there was also animosity by some in Ethiopia towards the US who supported Haile Selassie, and so lended support to development of a socialist state.
However it wasn’t long before the Derg established themselves as a cruel, dictatorial regime, arresting and killing anyone who disagreed with their policies. Despite the support from ELF and EPLF, the Derg refused to recognise Eritrean independence and targeted those in favour. Opposition groups began to gather in 1975-76, most significantly the Tigraian Peoples Liberation Front who demanded a democratic government. The Derg responded with mass arrests and executions. Some of the more popularised images of Ethiopia in times of famine occurred during the time of the Derg due to the lack of support for the people following rain failures, particularly in the Tigray region.
As I mentioned, the region where I am working is Tigray, and everyone I work with in theatre was directly affected by the conflict, either via loss of family members, or active fighting themselves, women and men. Mulugeta, one of the circulating nurses is missing his left middle finger from injury. Letemariam, as mentioned above has chronic pain in her shoulder from being shot. Bulatew one of the scrub nurses was shot in the abdomen and survived. In the morning at work, there were no cases so Mulugeta took the opportunity to explain to me what the conflict meant to him and the others in the area. He described the Derg as cruel and ruthless. The main road where we walk every day, normally filled with people having coffee, tea, food, selling souvenirs, he says was filled with bodies of people killed for being part of the resistance. Some of the more shocking descriptions are of targeted attacks on women, cutting open pregnant women’s abdomens and attacking women in such a way as to prevent further childbearing.
In Addis Ababa I had the opportunity to visit the ‘Red Terror Museum’ marking the time of the Derg. There are walls filled with the names and pictures of those executed by the Derg and one particularly chilling room of human remains excavated from mass graves. A statue outside states ‘never again’.
At lunchtime there was a large celebration at the hospital with everyone gathered to enjoy food, beer and dancing. I sat down next to Yibralem, one of the theatre cleaners who always mothers me at work. She is very stoical usually and I realised she was crying, I asked why, concerned that something had happened, but she just pointed at the Tigray flag and another nurse explained it was because if the memories of the conflict. I looked around and realised pretty much everyone gathered there today had lived and fought through the conflict we were celebrating the end of.
It is difficult to fully understand what it must be like to live through conflict, but I appreciate how lucky our generation is in the UK to have the freedom we have today, particularly as our grandparents fought for it. I’m sure my grandparent’s generation has a better understanding of living through a time of war.
Now Ethiopia is celebrating 23 years of a democratic government, following a successful resistance to overthrow the Derg. Ethiopians are proud of their country and it’s achievements, they are making progress towards the Millenium Development Goals improving child and maternal mortality, HIV prevalence is low and the percentage of people living in poverty has halved over the last 20 years. Ethiopia is keen to shake the image popularised in the 80’s of a poor, famine stricken country and it aims to be a middle-income country by 2015. There is still work to be done, but there is enthusiasm for progress and they’ve come a long way in 23 years.