Sunday, April 21, 2024
ArtRemembering the Martyrs – a towering symbol of sacrifice

Remembering the Martyrs – a towering symbol of sacrifice

In Sidist Kilo, Addis Ababa, sits a towering monument bearing somber witness to Ethiopia’s darkest days. Known as the Yekatit 12 Square Memorial, the towering obelisk commemorates the 1937 massacre of over 30,000 innocent Ethiopians by Italian fascist forces in retaliation for an assassination attempt on the brutal Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani.

For three agonizing days in February of that year, the Italians led a campaign of indiscriminate violence in retaliation for the assassination attempt. Dubbed the “Butcher of Fezzan”for his brutality in Libya, Graziani was determined to inflict terror on the civilian population of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has honored the sacrifice of these February martyrs every year since 1941. On the anniversary date, a solemn ceremony is held where leaders lay wreaths at the memorial.

The remains of the martyrs also lay in the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Cathedral near the memorial site.

The towering obelisk itself was unveiled on November 2, 1944 during Emperor Haile Selassie I’s 14th coronation anniversary. In a tribute, he awarded medals to war veterans who fought against the Italian occupation.

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An inscription in Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s ancient language, is also carved into the memorial to serve as a permanent reminder of the atrocities committed. 

As Addis Ababa and the nation paid their respects 87 years later on February 20, 2024, the memorial continuesto stand as an aching symbol of the heartlessness of fascism and courage of the Ethiopian people who gave their lives defending their homeland and freedom.

When Emperor Haile Selassie I triumphantly returned to Ethiopia in 1941 after years in exile, he raised the nation’s flag over Addis Ababa as a symbol of freedom reclaimed. One of his first acts was ordering officials to collect victims’ bodies strewn across the city – a chilling revelation of the brutality endured under fascist rule.

As noted by renowned historian BahruZewde, the tragedy was set in motion on February 19, 1937 when two young Ethiopians, AbrahaDebotch and MogesAsgedom, through a grenade at Graziani. According to Zewde, this act prompted Graziani to unleash retaliatory terror that turned the capital into what he called a “living hell.”

With backing from Benito Mussolini’s government in Rome, Graziani’s fascist “black-shirts” supporters were given free rein in the city as they carried out an indiscriminate slaughter of innocents, killing civilians and burning homes ruthlessly.

But those facing gravest risk appeared to be Ethiopia’s intellectual class, including surrendering members of the Black Lion group exposed in the city. Many intellectuals had surrendered to RasEmru at that time.

Their deaths decimated an entire generation of Ethiopian scholars, dealing a heavy blow to the country’s political and social progress.

Eyewitness accounts provide chilling firsthand testimony. In his memoir, TemesengGebre recounted nearly being killed himself on crowded streets before imprisonment.

“We found ourselves surrounded by eight machine guns,” he said. “In that specific area, a large number of Ethiopians were mercilessly slain, their lifeless bodies callously discarded throughout the streets. As our hands were tightly bound, preparing us for the imminent gunfire, a commanding officer emerged to halt the bloodshed.

He says the officers intention was to apprehend those responsible for the bomb attack during the palace ceremony, rather than perpetuate the ongoing carnage. “Consequently, he swiftly ordered our incarceration, saving us from certain death at the hands of the fascists and send us to jail.”

In his memoirs featured in PaulosGnogno’s book “The War Between Ethiopia and Italy,” Hungarian doctor Ladislas Sava also reveals a mass murder of students at Addis Ababa University,formerly known as GenteLeuel Palace, wiping out crucial repositories of Ethiopian knowledge.

The incident occurred during the preparations for the birthday celebration of the Prince of Naples, with the killing swiftly beginning within Addis Ababa University’s gates and its vicinity leaving no surviving Ethiopian in the palace courtyard. Sava’s vivid account provides valuable insight into the events he witnessed.

“Among the victims were the elderly, the blind,thedisabled, and impoverished mothers with their children who had gathered at the scene. The tragic events that unfolded at this location were both deeply shocking and disgraceful,” he wrote. 

Following Abraha and Moges’ brave but failed attempt on Graziani’s life, young local Simeon Adefers courageously transported them to rural Feche province. Tragically, Simeon soon fell victim to the fascists as well, rumored to have been orchestrated by BejerondLeteyebeluGebre under Haile Selassie’s orders -conveyed through his Minister of Foreign Affairs, BlatenGetaHruiWolde Selassie.

As Ian Campbell’s book details, others actively involved in the operation against Graziani included SebehatTirunehand BashaWeredHabtewold – all making significant contributions to the mission.

In honor of the massacre martyrs, Ethiopia observed their annual commemoration as a national holiday until the 1974 rise of the Derg regime, which abruptly ended it.

In more recent decades, cultural expert MenekreGeberu notes the observance has diminished with fewer formalities and public participation.

He advocated for adequate reparations from Italy similar to what Libya received, acknowledging the five-year occupation’s atrocities and devastation – backed by numerous records of Italian war crimes like chemical weapons use and bombing a Red Cross hospital.

However, Italy continues denying events such as the Addis Ababa massacre despite overwhelming historical evidence. Upholding the martyrs’ memory requires Italy to finally confront its dark past in Ethiopia.

Through these historical sources, the memory of the 1937 atrocity persists – as does appreciation for those who gave their lives defending Ethiopia’s freedom from fascist tyranny. Their sacrifice enabled Selassie’s triumphant return and reclamation of what is indelibly Africa’s oldest independent nation.

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