A Mother Recalls the Horrors of the Early Days of the Derg Administration in Ethiopia

Frew, his mother, and his sister

One early morning in February of 1977, the exact date I couldn’t recall, we heard a loud knock on the side gate of our home by the stadium in Addis Ababa. There were some soldiers looking for my oldest son, Frew. Etagegne, a family member, was the one that answered the banging as she was up early morning as she always does. She told them “he is not home but I can show you where he is,” and she took them to the house in front of our house by the main road where Frew was spending most nights during these times.  

When I heard the commotion, I got up and followed the group on the narrow road leading into the main road while still in my pajamas and bare footed. As I came through the gate and to the service room where my son was staying, I saw him coming out of the room while four to five soldiers were standing outside the room, couple were inside searching the room. I begged them while crying, “Can I please see his face? I did not even see him last night.” One of the soldiers must have felt my anguish, and he replied, “We are only taking him for questioning, he should be back soon.” Another one gave instructions to my son to take off his belt and his shoe laces. They escorted my son and Girma, a fourteen year old teenager that happen to share a room with him at the time. As they were leaving in a civilian car, followed by military jeeps with mounted guns and automatic weapons, they told us to bring some food and clothing to the 3rd police station. 

I returned back home distraught and not knowing what I needed to do.  I decided to place a call to one of my friends at work who frequently talked about knowing a police officer who worked at a nearby police station. I confided in her that they had taken my son to the 3rd police station, and if she knew anyone to please give them my name and my son’s name to keep an eye out for him, to spare him from torture or maybe even murder. My friend promised that she would do as I suggested.   

I started getting ready to go to work at the International Telecommunication where I had worked for many years, not far from our house. After staying at work for an hour or so, I couldn’t take my mind off what just happened to my son. I spoke with my supervisor regarding the incident that morning and that I needed permission to leave work for couple of hours to deliver food and clothes to the 3rd police station. After I got the okay from her, I headed home and gathered the food and extra clothing and started driving to the station. I must have stopped about four times on the way, I felt disoriented and lost in my thoughts. Luckily the traffic wasn’t as bad then as it is today, otherwise I could have been run over in my little Fiat. Somehow, I managed to get to the police station. As I approached the long line of people waiting to deliver food, I saw our neighbor, Million’s mother, who was standing in line with their houseman. Their son Million was picked up the same day just a few minutes before they picked up Frew. After exchanging pleasantries, they let me cut in line with them and that caused an uproar from the people behind us. I made an apology and asked for forgiveness as I mentioned that I had to return to work and that I only had permission for a couple of hours. After waiting for a while, my turn came to hand over the food and clothing to the prison courier. I was instructed to wait until the container got returned by the prison courier. That is how you found out if your son and/or relative was at the suggested or referred police station. I was panic stricken and didn’t even know where I was, lost in my thoughts until the time they called his name and handed me the empty container. I breathed a huge sigh of relief to say the least.   

Frew, his mother, and his sister

Starting from that day until the time he was transferred to the main Kerchele prison in Addis Ababa, roughly about four months, that became my routine.  My supervisor at work was compassionate and accommodating through all that time, and for that I thank my God for her. When I received his dirty clothes and bedsheets, I use to smell them and inspect them to see if there were any blood stains, for fear that he might have been tortured. I couldn’t forget the musty smell of the sheets and his clothes. After his release he told me that the smell was because of the moisture from the prisoners’ body condensing on the ceiling and dripping on them during the night when the doors were closed. He mentioned they were packed like sardines inside a four by four meters prison cell made of cinder blocks.   

One Sunday morning the government authorities issued instructions to halt all vehicles, private and commercial. No one should be on the roads other than military vehicles authorized by the Derg, the Provisional Military Administrative Council. That day Eyob, Etagegne’s son, and I walked the entire course, from the main stadium where we live all the way to the 3rd police station. We took several rest breaks along the way.  The streets were deserted except for a few military vehicles cruising by, and this became a common occurrence during these trying times.  The people in Addis Ababa were frustrated and angered by the situation.

In the meantime, at the police station, the guards were mistreating the people who came to visit; some were beaten by batons and told not to show up if they didn’t have any food to deliver. Relatives, friends and families were eager to find out if their loved ones were incarcerated at the facility and they came nonstop to find any information on their whereabouts. At times we noticed a new group of prisoners entering the facility, and we speculated as to what is going to happen to them. 

One morning, as I approached the 3rd police station, I heard so much wailing and hysterical crying coming from the crowd. Later, I found out the night before an unspecified number of prisoners had been transported to mass graves, and the grim news was shared with the relatives by simply telling them that their family members weren’t at this location. The guards had a hard time containing the crowd. Among the group were two of Frew’s friends, Kassa Kuma and Tesfaye Zewdie. 

Fetesha (intensified searches) during the Red Terror

Kassa’s mother took it very hard; she took off all her clothes from the waist up, and beat her chest, crying, screaming nonstop, and accusing the government and the guards that they killed her son. A couple of days later, a huge white tent was placed in front of Kassa’s house and all the neighbors, family, friends, and relatives gathered to comfort the family and express their condolences. I joined them, thinking it could’ve been my son, and my turn could come next, it was a communal healing process.  This was still during the early days of the killings and there were no bans or restrictions on mourning.  On my days off from work, I poured out my grief by going around Leksobet, literally “house where tears flow”, where family and friends gather to mourn the loss of a loved one, joined by the community in a communal grief where you go through a chorus of criers relieving the pain of a loss.  A few weeks after that incident, rumors circulated that Kassa and Tesfaye might have escaped the killings by jumping off from the military truck transporting them. Years later, Kassa made it to America from the Sudan, the same day that my son was flown from Djibouti, and they were able to see eye to eye but they didn’t get a chance to talk.

Not long after, the “Red Terror” started and it became a common occurrence to find dead bodies thrown nearby where they lived. The families weren’t even allowed to mourn the death of a loved one, let alone to have a proper burial in some of the districts. Curfews were put in place; the streets remained quiet especially at night. Intensified searches called Fetesha got underway covering half and quarter sections of the town. Abyot Tebaki (revolutionary guards) went house to house, at times coordinated with the DERG soldiers. The Fetesha got out of control. It was everywhere, at work places, banks, post office, on the road and off the road, to the point of exhaustion in search of suspected people, arms, subversive leaflets, and munitions in order to crush and undermine the resistance.  

Day and night, I was engulfed with a deep sorrow. Fortunately our district was spared from much of what was happening in other kebeles because of the decent people we had on the administrative level. One day, I decided to pay a visit to one of the old friends of Frew’s dad, a lieutenant colonel who worked at the ministry of defense. I told him that my son was in prison at the 3rd police station, and if he could do anything to get him transferred to the main prison (Kerchele) where his father was detained. I didn’t really ask for him to get him released since the situation was still not safe to be on the outside. The colonel promised me that “he would look into his case and do what he could.” Four months after his arrest, my son and his friend Million Mamo and hundreds of prisoners were transferred to the main prison. This was a huge relief for us, and we were able to see him every Sunday during visitor’s hours. On top of that, he joined his father, who had been court martialed by a military court to serve a 10-year sentence there. 

On Sundays, we would line up for two to three hours to deliver food and to go through the screening gates where our food and items would be searched. Then we moved inside where two rows of parallel fences separated the prisoners and the visitors. Between the fences, the wardens monitored the visiting activity and handled the exchange of items of necessity, including monies, food, cigarettes, and clothing. These were happy times compared to what we went through at the 3rd police station. We thanked God for the change in circumstances. At times, it got very noisy, and you couldn’t really carry a good conversation. However, we welcomed the chance to see each other eye to eye. 

One Sunday I took Frew’s little brother, Matias, my youngest son, to visit with his brother. The warden was kind enough to carry him over to the prisoners’ side so they could hug each other. After a little while, he returned him back to our side of the fence. I asked Matias repeatedly, “How are Frew’s legs?” Since I was not able to see him below his neck, I wanted to find out if he was okay. Matias was irritated by that and he replied by saying, “I told you he is fine.” Later he retorted that he loved his brother but he didn’t want to visit again because of the unbearable noise that was deafening his ears.

One of the Sundays, we were told by the prison guards that the prisoners had refused to receive food and were on a hunger strike. They told us to take back the food and items we had brought. The rumor was that there were several prisoners taken out and massacred in mass during the week. It was quite a scene with all the crying, screaming, and wailing, people not knowing what to do. These were truly some of the worst times that we went through. 

In the month of June 1978, I don’t recall the exact date, as we were sitting in the front patio with my friend having a coffee ceremony, we heard a loud knock on the side gate of our home. As I opened the gate I saw my son, and it was unexpected and a huge surprise. I wrapped my hand around his neck and I kept on screaming. The neighbors were alarmed, and they came running into our home, and then they joined in the celebration. Our house in an instant turned from sorrow to joy. A year and half had passed since his arrest, and I personally went through hell before this joyous occasion. Eventually my prayers were answered, in God’s time.

Ouma, the grandmother who arranged a guide to take Frew across to Djibouti

On the surface, it looked like things had quieted down a bit, but a young man in his early twenties staying at home was worrisome, especially when he stepped outside to visit the handful of remaining friends that had survived the firing squads and haven’t escaped the country and are not locked in behind prison bars. I wasn’t able to get my mind to rest, and one day I asked a question of my neighbors from Dire Dawa, asking if they could assist me in getting Frew across to Djibouti. If they were to do that, he would take the train from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa. They were receptive to the idea, and they even went further and found a reliable guide who had a wife and children from the town of Melka Jebdu to take him across the border. In order to have this plan work, I went ahead and sold some of my jewelry. The guide was going to be paid in installments, the first deposit when Frew arrived in Dire Dawa and the final payment when he made it to Djibouti. The person who was coordinating all these details was grandma Ouma, though her real name was Amun. She took charge of all the details, set the date for Frew’s arrival, and arranged a person to receive him at the train station. 

The day of Frew’s departure to Dire Dawa, I couldn’t take part in a proper goodbye. It was another sad chapter of my life.  From the safety and security points of view it would arouse suspicion, so I stayed home while Etagegne walked him to the nearby train station just a few blocks from our home. He left in the early morning on the Addis Ababa/Dire Dawa rail line and he was expected to arrive in the evening hours. I called Ouma late that evening and confirmed that he had arrived safely; in addition, I talked to him over the phone. In a few days, he was destined to start his trek across the desert to the Republic of Djibouti. I was worried; I multiplied my effort in prayer for a safe passage to Djibouti. I decided to give up my bed and slept on the floor. 

The date of his trek to Djibouti was delayed by a few days as a result of heavy security presence and government spies in Melka Jebdu, the contraband town that was the starting point (trail head) to the journey to Djibouti. Finally, the decision was made to take a chance as his stay in Dire Dawa was becoming more risky with each passing day. Ouma said that she bought Frew, rubber sandals, a hunting knife, a Somali skirt, and some food supplies, like sardines and the like, and they boarded a commercial bus to the town of Melka Jebdu. “We were seated apart but kept a close eye,” Ouma told me. As they reached Melka Jebdu, Ouma leading and Frew following a few paces behind, they entered the guide’s house. After a brief introduction Ouma left the premises while Frew and the guide remained until the time they were ready to leave to Djibouti.

Loula Gonji, Frew’s host in Djibouti

Ouma’s daughter Loula lived in Djibouti and was married to a Djiboutian, Neghib. I was friends with both, Neghib and Loula. We often talked over the phone since my job gave me access to place international calls. Loula had promised me that she would host Frew once he arrived in Djibouti. I started calling Loula almost every night since the time I heard that Frew and his guide had left Melka Jebdu headed toward Djibouti. After a week, I heard the good news that he had made it to the border camp. In a few days, Loula picked him up from the border town of Dikhil with a chauffeur in a Land Rover courtesy of the then-chief-of-security Ismail Omar Guelleh, the current president of Djibouti. Loula was close friends with Ismail’s wife Kedira, thus the favor.   

While I felt relieved that my son was safe from the brutal military dictators of the times, I resented the fact that he was idling at my friend’s place. I worked with a co-worker who had a brother with an executive position at Mobil Oil Djibouti to see if he could hire him there for any available position, just to keep him busy. My co-worker said she would talk to her brother about it. A few weeks later, Frew was hired as a stock supervisor.  He worked there until the time he left for America. 

From the time of his arrest until he made it to America, I really didn’t have the luxury of peace of mind and serenity; my heart felt suspended and I cried and prayed a whole lot. I was in a sad state of mind and felt anxious most of the time. I believe these conditions might have affected the state of my health and my eyesight. This is all that I can think of for now… please share this story with your children and grandchildren, and let them know that I love them and pray for their safety and wellbeing always.

I love you my son,

Your mother Etete 

One thought on “A Mother Recalls the Horrors of the Early Days of the Derg Administration in Ethiopia

  1. My,Dearest Brother Frew.
    I,do not have a Word to explain what you hab3n been through the Most Etetyee, your lovely Mommy.
    I read it all,in Crying eyes overwhelmed what you,jabe been Through.
    May God gives Eteteyee Many years to,live.
    I promise I will Pass the Story my Son’s and Family.
    Through all this God is Great and his Mercy endures,for all of us forever.
    Please Greetings to your Family tge Most my,Handsome Nephew Paris London Frew
    We,love love you all
    We pray,for all like Eteteyee
    Happy Blessed Mother’s,Days to your Mommy Many Many,years to come and your Wife.


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