February 23, 2020

The Red Terror: On memory & “progress”

On Saturday, the US Mission to the AU hosted a screening of Obama’s Ghana speech for AU staff, and a friend who works there invited me along. With rain delaying the speech, there was time for an unofficial tour.

We walked up three flights of stairs to look out over a construction site. “China has given us money for a new complex” I was told.

The current home of the AU is a set of buildings that were formerly a police college. They’re all functional enough, but that’s about it. At first I thought I was just looking out onto any old construction site – a few bulldozers, some holes in the ground. It was grey rainy day and the whole scene was pretty bleak. Then I found out why my friend had bothered to bring me up to see it.

“This was a prison. We called it Alem Bekagn – it meant you didn’t come back from it. My grandparents were killed there in the Red Terror” he said, then paused for my reaction before explaining that “The families wanted some of the prison to be left as a memorial. We asked, but they said it was too hard to do the construction work and leave a part of it standing.”

Suddenly the view out the window looked bleak for a different reason.

This interaction was particularly striking following a conversation I had with another friend here the night before. She explained that there are pages and pages of documentation about the crimes committed during the Red Terror (like any good socialist government they meticulously recorded each detail of their state-run terror campaign). It is believed that there are more than 5 million documents with the Special Prosecutor’s Office, used to prosecute Mengistu and more than 6,000 perpetrators of the crimes committed during his rule.

Mengistu was convicted of genocide in absentia (Ethiopia’s criminal law allows for the inclusion of political groups as a “target group” – in contrast to the UN Genocide Convention). But Mengistu was by then safely in the accountability-free zone as a guest of friend Robert Mugabe. With the Special Prosecutor’s Office is closing down, the fate of these documents, along with a history of a brutal regime, remains unknown.

Now however, there is a move to properly archive the material and make it available to scholars. My friend commented, “It’s amazing. It is such a huge part of our recent history and it’s not talked about. All that material was just going to be left sitting there. ”

The site of Alem Bekagn would have made for a logical location for a centre to put on public display the documents that told the truth about what happened during the Red Terror. But instead, the past is being set aside in the interests of progress.

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