Bermuda: Be’alu Girma’s tragedy in theater
The abduction and killing of renowned Ethiopian writer, journalist, and government official, Be’alu Girma in the 1980s remains an unsolved mystery. This enigmatic tale has become the Ethiopian equivalent of the mysterious cases surrounding J.F. Kennedy, and Tupac Shakur, which was only resolved recently.
But a new theater production has emerged, attempting to shine a light on the unknown final hours of Be’alu Girma over 30 years ago.
Aptly named ‘Bermuda,’ this captivating play unfolds at the Hager Fikir Theater in Piassa, situated near the very spot where Be’alu Girma was last seen before vanishing during the oppressive Derg regime.
Bermuda, the clandestine prison and torture center that operated during the tyrannical Derg regime, serves as the haunting backdrop for the play. It was within these grim confines that Be’alu Girma found himself after being kidnapped by the Derg’s intelligence agents, who remained loyal to the notorious figure Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.).
The play artfully captures the essence of Bermuda prison, introducing a cast of characters who interact with Be’alu before his tragic fate is sealed by government’s hand.
Playwright Wudneh Kifle and Director Teshale Aseffa’s (PhD), a lecturer at Addis Ababa University, theater production has not only managed to rekindle the interest of long-lost theater enthusiasts but has also revitalized the collective memory of Be’alu’s disappearance among all Ethiopians.
Wudneh has written over 40 plays in his career and with Teshale’s direction, also a prominent figure in Ethiopia’s thriving theater scene, “Bermuda” uses theatrical storytelling to shed light on this tragic episode from Ethiopia’s past.
One of Be’alu Girma’s most renowned literary characters, Fiameta Gilay from his book “Oromay,” appears in the play.
Be’alu published several acclaimed works including “Oromay” (“The End“), “Keadmas Bashager” (“Beyond the Horizon“), “Hadis,” “Yekey Kokeb Tiri” (“The Call of the Red Star”), “Ye’hillina Dewel” (“The Bell of Conscience“) and “Derasiw” (“The Author“).
It’s believed the Derg regime kidnapped and killed him after he exposed their secrets in “Oromay.” The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who were fighting the Derg at the time, reportedly used information from the book as an intelligence resource.
While the final details of Be’alu’s abduction, where he was killed, and his burial site remain unknown, the play depicts his final hours being spent in the Bermuda prison. Be’alu was the editor-in-chief of “Addis Zemen,” “Ye’Zareyitu Ethiopia” and deputy general manager of the Ethiopian News Agency.
Casting for “Bermuda” took 11 months to complete. Numerous actresses tried out to properly portray Fiameta’s character.
Actors Andualem Dejene and Luwam Debrom step into the roles of Be’alu and Fiameta, breathing life into their characters.
Solomon Hagos plays Tsegaye Hailemariam, Fiameta’s lover in “Oromay,” while Demissie Beyene portrays Garedew (Shaleka), the military official running Bermuda prison. Zinabu Gebreselassie takes on the role of Mengistu Hailemariam.
Extensive casting efforts were needed to authentically portray these figures from Ethiopia’s turbulent past.
Theater critic and journalist Tariku Zewdu has seen “Bermuda” five times, “each time from a different perspective.” He praised the production saying “the casting is perfect, the stage design and costume transports you to the Derg era.”
Tariku notes turning a novel into theater is difficult, but the production succeeded in bringing Be’alu’s characters vividly to life. Minor details like updated props were quickly rectified based on his feedback.
“The theater either kills the characters in the book, or makes them more visible. Bermuda succeeded in perfectly transforming the characters in the books into real life,” Tariku says. “Any minor mistake I saw while watching the theater, I have forwarded to the directors and they have immediately corrected it. For instance, the flag in the scene at first was the current flag of Ethiopia. It should be the Derg era flag. So they changed it immediately.”
However, Tariku says those unfamiliar with Be’alu’s work, his characters, life, may find the story confusing without necessary context.
He praised the writing, especially how prison investigator Demissie ultimately dies.
Demisse’s interrogation of Be’alu left no doubt in his mind – the man was innocent of the crimes alleged. However, Demisse’s hands were tied by the direct orders handed down from the highest levels of the Derg regime. They demanded Bealu be eliminated, regardless of guilt or innocence.
The officials were well aware that over time, Demisse may divulge what he had learned of Bealu’s true status. Such a revelation contradicting the official narrative could not be allowed. So despite his personal belief in Bealu’s innocence, Demisse fulfilled his duty and took Bealu’s life as instructed. Tragically, the Derg suspected Demisse himself may one day speak of what transpired. He too soon met his demise at their hands, ensuring the secret died with him.
“The play shows how anyone in Ethiopia who learns the truth or some secret is silenced, leaving mysteries like Be’alu’s disappearance unsolved for decades,” Tariku observed.
Born in Illubabor, western Oromia region, Be’alu was a seminal writer and truth-telling journalist. He criticized the regime even while serving in its information ministry. He disappeared in 1984 at the height of civil conflicts, with his abandoned car later found on the road to Bishoftu, but no information since regarding his fate.
Speculation remains around the fate of the renowned writer. Many believe the order to detain him came directly from Mengistu himself, with intelligence head Tesfaye Woldeselasie overseeing the operation. However, Mengistu has denied these allegations in interviews since fleeing the country over three decades ago.
Be’alu’s devoted wife passed away last year without closure, having kept their home open in hopes that someday he would return.
Author Endalegeta Kebede exhaustively pieced together clues but found the truth to be elusive. In his published findings, Endalegeta provides the fullest known account to date of Bealu’s final chapter, though questions linger.
Wudineh faced the daunting task of crafting a character representative of Bealu’s colossal influence.
“Be’alu was a towering figure in Ethiopia’s modern history,” said Wudineh. “His books are still used as teaching materials in universities. He was the epitome of brave journalism, always standing up to confront wrongs in government. Creating a character to represent such an immense person was a challenge.”
The writer says that whenever Be’alu saw wrongdoings, he responded by putting pen to paper. “He is the only person that had the moral high ground, but that passion to tell the truth final cost him his life,” Wudineh said.
From its opening, Bermuda has succeeded in revitalizing Ethiopia’s dormant theater industry by bringing audiences back to theaters like Hager Fikir, which now fills for each showing.
Compared to cinema halls, local playhouses had lost much of their audience. But the exploration of Bealu’s life has captured the public’s imagination.
Bermuda has revitalized and sparked renewed fervor for live performance in the capital’s dormant theater industry, by bringing audiences back to theaters like Hager Fikir, which now fills for each showing.
While Bermuda’s success has renewed hope, Teshale says Ethiopia’s theater industry still faces challenges.
“Theater houses insist we only use their employees, which is not ideal to find the right cast,” Teshale explains. “I would have struggled to find the ideal Fiameta within these constraints at Hager Fikir.”
Financially, the rewards remain disappointing given the work. “It’s demoralizing. The only reason we do theater is out of passion,” Teshale, noting their requested ticket price increase to 90 birr went unaddressed.
However, Teshale believes claims of waning interest in theater are overblown. “There will always be an audience for quality work. I brought something new with Bermuda and I was afraid the audience would not be interested. But it was the opposite.”
Audiences agree Bermuda effortlessly blends Bealu Girma’s real-life story with his literary protagonists. From meticulous research to thoughtful production design, audiences and theater enthusiasts The Reporter spoke with unanimously praised the presentation.
For now, Ethiopians can immerse themselves in Bealu’s enduring legacy through Bermuda’s successful adaptation.
But until the truth of his fate emerges, questions will linger for a nation that cherishes its literary giant.