Last Friday, February 19, 2021, marked the commemoration of the ‘Yekatit 12’ massacre of Ethiopians at the hands of Fascist Italy. The killing spree that saw Italian soldiers in many parts of the country brag about the number of civilians they killed claimed a total of 30,000 innocent lives. The heinous killings that involved burning huts with families still in them and crucifixions were brutal responses to an attempted assassination on the Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Viceroy of Italian East Africa. The assassination attempt in 1937 was a response to the1935 invasion and the subsequent occupation of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy from 1936 -1941.
Once the Italians occupied Ethiopia in their second round attempt to colonize the country and make up for their defeat at the battle of Adwa, Ethiopians organized themselves into guerilla groups and kicked off the struggle for freedom. Although Italians soldiers committed the atrocities of ‘Yekatit 12’, there are some accounts of a largely untold story of Italian soldiers who secretly supported the armies of Ethiopian patriots and even some who deserted the Italian army to join the Ethiopian patriots who lived in the forests.
In vol. XI No.4 of the quarterly ‘Yekatit’ magazine of June 1988, Dr. Richard Pankhurst wrote about Italian anti-fascists who joined the Ethiopian patriots after serving in the Italian army in an article entitled “He Joined Ethiopian Patriots”. In the article, the esteemed scholar Pankhurst cited a book entitled La guerra d’Abissinia, authored by Angelo Del Boca, of mentioning two Italian anti-fascists: Ilio Barontini and Velio Spano who joined the Ethiopian patriots in Gojjam. He then told the story of two other Italian anti-fascists who joined the ranks of Ethiopian patriots led by Ras Abebe Aregai: Saverio Sbriglio and Alfonso.
Dr. Richard Pankhurst met Saverio Sbriglio who told him of his days with the patriots and Alfonso’s story. The article extensively talks about Sbriglio’s time with the patriots, his two marriages to Ethiopian women and his job as a nurse in the newly reorganized Ethiopian Army and later in the Ethiopian Ministry of Public Health. Pankhurst wrote that Sbriglio, sixty, had six children from Woizero Semienesh, his second Ethiopian wife, and worked in a governmental hospital at Debra Markos. Pankhurst wrote, “After almost forty years in Ethiopia he felt more comfortable speaking Amharic than Italian which he rarely used as there were then few Italians in Gojjam.” The article also indicates that Sbriglio spoke Oromigna, which he learned during his stay at Fitche.
Pankhurst wrote in the article that Sbriglio was “shocked by the reality of the fascist occupation. A simple man of essentially humanitarian views rather than an intellectual, he was disgusted by the fascist racial laws for the “difesa della razza (i.e, Defence of the Race) which had then recently been introduced into the Italian colonial empire.”
Apparently, that disgust and shock at the fascist policies of the then Italian government still exist in present day Italy. Lij Daniel Jote Mesfin, President of the Ethiopian Patriots Association, told the Reporter that there is an anti-fascist Italian group that comes to Ethiopia annually to commemorate ‘Yekatit 12’. Lij Daniel pointed out that the Italian Association exchanged photographs and films with the Patriots Association before they began to come to Ethiopia for the commemoration of ‘Yekatit 12’ four years ago. The group did not come this year on account of the global pandemic but Lij Daniel indicated that they had a video conference as a show of solidarity to mark the moment. President of the Patriots Association also noted that the Italian Association publishes a magazine to show Italians of the harsh realities of fascism and commemorate the atrocities committed in Ethiopia.
Carmello Crescenti is the spiritual head of the Federation of the Ras Tafarian Association in Italy. He is one of a group of anti-fascist Italians who are working with the Ethiopian Patriots Association to commemorate the ‘Yekatit 12’ massacre. Carmello has been in Ethiopia in commemoration of the massacre seven times; two of those have been organized in collaboration with the Ethiopian Patriots Association.
Talking to The Reporter, Carmello stated that the group began its anti-fascist work and commemorating the ‘Yekatit 12’ massacre in 1999 in memory of the Italian soldier Alberto Impaliari who secretly delivered food for Ethiopian patriots during the years of resistance. He pointed out that Alberto was a good friend of Abebe Aregai’s son, Daniel.
Carmello stated that their Association collected and showcases pictures and videos of the massacre, the life of Ethiopian patriots back then and the life of Italian soldiers in Ethiopia during those days to make sure that the ugly face of Fascism is not forgotten by young Italians. By raising awareness about Italian Fascism, they intend to remind Italian youth of the heinous crimes Xenophobia warranted.
Although the issue of anti-fascist Italian soldiers who changed their allegiance to join Ethiopian patriots during the 1936-40 occupation has largely stayed buried, its impacts can be heard reverberating across time and space.