“Wofelala” is the name of a torture method practiced in Ethiopia, in which prisoners were tied to a stick that was hung between two tables, and beaten. A reconstruction was created by the memorial for the victims of the Dergue regime. It is estimated that some 50,000 people were murdered in Ethiopia in the late 1970s. Many of the people who were persecuted continue to suffer from the memories of a time in Ethiopia's history that has come to be known as the Red Terror.
Credit: Insights Unspoken / CC BY-SA
The English website of the human rights memorial project of the African Union (AU) has recorded several survivors’ testimonies on their persecution during the Red Terror. One victim, who according to the organization asked for his testimony to remain anonymous, describes his arrest in 1978.
"I was only 20 years old in August 1978 when the Ethiopian security agents of the Dergue regime accused me of engaging in subversive activities and sent me to prison. I was one of the lucky few political prisoners who came out of the Alem Bekagn prison alive after seven relentless years of incarceration. I am a man of 54 years of age now and those memories of my confinement still haunt me to date.
In Alem Bekagn, I was tortured and beaten, especially on the soles of my feet. I underwent numerous interrogations and was made to confess to crimes I never committed. Before I was moved to Alem Bekagn I was kept in Keftegna 25 which was filled with hundreds of prisoners. Some were so badly beaten and tortured they were rendered immobile for a long period of time. One story that stands out is that of an individual with broken backbones who, consequently, could not control his limbs anymore. Looking back, I consider myself lucky for not suffering such injuries; and perhaps that was due to the intervention of a family friend who happened to be a high official in the government. We used to be locked in a crowded cell filled with stench. We were only allowed out for half an hour including brief morning and evening visits to the toilet in groups of ten under the watchful eyes of the guards.
The overall condition at Alem Bekagn was simply appalling and our basic rights as human beings were abused on a daily basis. Although women and men had separate quarters, the most disturbing memories were the conditions of the mentally ill prisoners. They were totally neglected. The other disturbing memory I have is to do with roll call – guards used to mistakenly call out names of those who had already been executed. That showed me that the prison administration did not have a good record or knowledge of the people that were being slaughtered.
During my detention the most atrocious incident I remember was the case of Shimelis, a friend of mine, who was brutally tortured for three consecutive days after his capture by the notorious butcher of Addis Ababa, Kelbessa Negewo1 who is currently serving a life sentence. Shimelis was put in front of firing squad but miraculously survived three bullet wounds. His bullet-riddled body was discarded in the streets of Addis. One bullet broke his nose between his eyes which blinded one eye, another bullet broke his spinal cord and the last bullet penetrated his ribs. He was discovered by a passerby and luckily was taken to a hospital. After his condition slightly stabilised he was brought back to prison. His face was so disfigured I simply could not recognize him. He was later released but I never saw him again. Afterwards I heard he was taken in and out of prison and died in the process.
I lost many family members and friends to the Red Terror campaign. I am still traumatized by the fear and insecurity that one feels when friends are summoned and led to their death or severely tortured. Most of my closest friends now are the survivors of that awful era. We support each other to heal the scars Alem Bekagn left in us.
I think commemorative events are so important that all of us should be reminded that such history does not repeat itself. I wish to see events like this need to be broader to encompass all actors of past atrocities. I know records of the atrocities are not properly kept and should be made available to the general public."
1) Kelbessa Negewo was chairman of one of the 25 zones in Addis Ababa. He was charged with having personally overseen the torture and murder of political opponents during the period of the Red Terror. He moved to the United States in 1987, where he was recognized by a woman by chance. He was subsequently tried in absentia in Ethiopia and sentenced to life in prison. He was extradited by the United States in 2006.
The African Union Human Rights Memorial Project (AUHRM) about persecutions in Ethiopia
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
The Ethiopian documentation and research center collects documents and survivor testimony about the time of the Red Terror. The following report was compiled from an interview with a former prisoner.
"I am a survivor of the Red Terror, now aged 55. In 1978, at the age of 21, I was imprisoned for five years. I had been accused of being an Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) member and was arrested after my friend and comrade betrayed me, which was typical of politics at that time.
First, I was sent to Keftegna 25 local prison, later I was transferred to the Central Prison at Alem Bekagn. Torture of every kind was daily experience for all prisoners. I also saw fellow prisoners with rotten wounds; some even lost their toes. I have a vivid memory of a young boy who died of excessive torture. My worst memory of those awful days was the mass killings I witnessed. People were taken from our midst and never returned. I still remember their facial expressions of bravery, confusion and disbelief. I was tortured, but in the face of the heavy torture that my friends and other inmates went through, I consider mine insignificant.
I was moved to Alem Bekagn as the mass slaughter began to subside, but the fear and the shock were still lingering as no prisoner was sure to see the next day’s sunrise. We were over 300 prisoners at the time, but the number fluctuated. We were given hardly edible loaves of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was more bread with a cup of watery wot (sauce), plain beans or peas without oil, spices or other ingredients. When there were mass round-ups all the cells used to be very crowded, increasing illnesses. The queue for our daily ration and toilets would be very long. I remember an outbreak of typhus during which many inmates lost their lives.
The prison staff gave no value to human life; they even forgot the people they killed. They used to call out a list of prisoners for release and sometimes they mistakenly called out the names of people they had already killed – a few prisoners escaped by pretending to be the deceased.
I have mixed memories of Alem Bekagn. Most are gloomy, but some deserve to be cherished. The survivors get together and we offer some support to each other now. Some have even established associations to help those who are in need.
Alem Bekagn was a testament and a representation of an untold atrocity perpetrated on the doorstep of the OAU. It is imperative to establish a museum at the site as a way to send a message of “never again” to the present leaders of Africa."