[dehai-news] (Reuters): Ethiopian woman confronts "Red Terror" ghosts

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Feb 08 2009 - 06:50:37 EST

Ethiopian woman confronts "Red Terror" ghosts

Sun Feb 8, 2009 9:57am GMT

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Although 13 years had passed, Hirut Abebe-Jiri
instantly recognised the man who tortured her during Ethiopia's brutal "Red
Terror" purges.

It was a dark era little known to the outside world, but that glimpse of
Kelbessa Negewo across an Atlanta hotel lobby in 1990 set in motion a chain
of events that ended last month when he lost his appeal against a life
sentence for genocide.

The former local government official who once sowed such fear in her
neighbourhood of the Ethiopian capital had been carting around luggage and
opening doors.

"I was amazed," Hirut told Reuters on Sunday. "It was him. This powerful man
was carrying people's bags."

Her story goes to the heart of one of Africa's darkest chapters, now thrust
into the spotlight by a political breakthrough nearly 2,000 miles away in
troubled Zimbabwe.

Former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, dubbed the "Butcher of Addis
Ababa" by many Ethiopians, has enjoyed comfortable exile in Harare since he
was driven from power in 1991 -- protected by President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe's opposition is joining a unity government with Mugabe. It said on
Friday it would like in principle to extradite Mengistu, who was sentenced
to death in absentia last year. But the Movement for Democratic Change
conceded it was unlikely to win agreement to hand him over.


The start of Hirut's story was typical of many in Addis Ababa under
Mengistu's 17-year rule. She was a teenager in 1977 when he announced the
purge of his opponents by smashing a vial apparently filled with blood in
the capital's main square.

Soon afterwards, armed police snatched Hirut and her younger sister from
their home after dark, and dragged them away in their pyjamas. She was
stripped, hung upside-down, gagged with a vomit-soaked sock and tortured for
the rest of the night.

"An 11-year-old boy from my street was hanging by his feet and bleeding
heavily when they brought me in," she said. "The police heard he had a gun
and he told them he had given it to me. To this day, I know nothing about
this gun."

Hirut was freed after two months when another official decided she could
take no more torture. She walked to neighbouring Eritrea and was eventually
granted a Canadian visa.

Hirut was alerted to Kelbessa's presence in the United States by a friend
who was a waitress at the hotel. Her friend had been tortured by the local
government official too. The women were joined by a third former victim, and
that was when they launched their fight to have him extradited to Ethiopia.

Kelbessa was deported by the United States in 2006 and was sentenced to life
in prison by an Ethiopian court. Many like Hirut, now 46, hope Mengistu will
one day face the same fate.


Last year, she faced her torturer, Kelbessa, for the first time in court.
She testified against him and he lost his appeal.

"Healing is impossible, but I will no longer have to think about him every
day," she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Hirut, who is now an engineer, has set up the Ethiopian Red Terror
Documentation and Research Centre to record the deluge of testimonies and
records collected by Derg regime officials.

The trial that convicted Mengistu in his absence cited some 300,000 items.
They included signed execution orders, witness accounts, and videos of
torture sessions and bombing raids by fighter jets on villages held by the

Bodies were left in the streets as warnings, and some relatives who went to
the authorities to collect bodies of loved ones were charged for the bullets
used to kill them.

On a recent visit to Addis Ababa, Hirut visited the dilapidated concrete
bungalow where she was tortured. It is still a local government office, and
she chatted with the officials who now run it as children played football

She believes Mengistu is a major fugitive from justice and that he should be
sent home. But she said she didn't see Zimbabwe's fragile coalition
government risking a crisis over the issue.

"As long as Mugabe manages to maintain control of the security forces, I
don't think Mengistu will have anything to worry about," she said. "Mugabe
has been pretty ruthless."

(Editing by Daniel Wallis)


C Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved.



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