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ArtFrom shadows to light: The Martyrs' Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale

From shadows to light: The Martyrs’ Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale

Museums serve as transcendent portals to the past, offering a kaleidoscopic lens that transports us to bygone eras and allows for profound contemplation of history’s essence. Within this captivating realm of retrospection, the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa stands as a haunting testament to the indelible power of such encounters, evoking an eerie yet transformative resonance within its visitors.

Established in 2010, this hallowed sanctuary serves as a poignant homage to the countless victims of the Red Terror, a dark epoch known as “Qey Shibir” in the Amharic language, which cast its malevolent shadow over Ethiopia between 1977 and 1978. Stepping foot into the Martyrs’ Museum is to confront the harrowing specter of the atrocities committed during that somber period.

At the helm of this solemn endeavor was Kebush Admasu, a bereaved mother whose heart-wrenching loss of all four children in a single night during the Red Terror era propelled her to spearhead the establishment of this memorial. Her unwavering determination to honor the fallen finds expression in the museum’s exhibition halls, where an inscription at the entrance serves as a poignant testament to her perseverance.

Nestled at the corner of the storied Meskel Square, this memorial illuminates the struggles endured by the Ethiopian people. Within its somber confines, it unveils the oppressive tactics employed by the Derg regime, offering a piercing glimpse into the treatment of dissenters, the plight of prisoners, and their clandestine means of communication.

As visitors approach the museum, they are confronted by a resplendent bronze statue that presides over the entrance, commanding attention and setting an evocative tone for the journey that lies ahead.

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The sculpture, a poignant embodiment of grief, portrays three young girls whose sorrow represents the countless innocent lives lost during the Red Terror era. Etched into the base of the statue, the resolute words “Never Again” resound, encapsulating the collective determination to prevent the recurrence of such unspeakable horrors.

This powerful visual proclamation sets the tone for the chilling odyssey that awaits within the museum’s solemn walls.

Upon stepping inside, visitors are immediately confronted with a chilling tableau of artifacts and exhibits that bear witness to the unfathomable extent of the brutal repression inflicted upon the Ethiopian people. Instruments of torture, haunting photographs of the victims, blood-stained garments, and skeletal remains provide a haunting testament to the depths of the atrocities committed during that period.

Guided by an expert tour guide, The Reporter embarked on an illuminating journey through the museum, meticulously structured into three distinct phases.

Each phase serves as a vivid illustration of the historical evolution that led to the dawn of the Red Terror—a period etched in the nation’s collective memory. The journey commences with the emergence of the Derg, a pivotal moment characterized by profound suffering endured by Ethiopians under the yoke of a feudal system riddled with inequality and injustice, as evinced by the informative memo prominently displayed on the museum’s wall.

One of the exhibit rooms vividly portrays the stark dichotomy between the opulent celebrations surrounding the Imperial Majesty’s 80th birthday and the stark reality faced by drought-stricken peasants and famine-ravaged families. This stark contrast serves as a poignant reminder of the deep-seated disparities that plagued Ethiopian society during that era.

Continuing through the initial phase of the museum, visitors are immersed in a striking array of artifacts. His Majesty’s regal attire, accompanied by accessories such as caps and timepieces, grace the exhibit, imbuing the space with a tangible aura of historical significance. Alongside these artifacts, images of key political figures of the time, including Mengistu Neway and Germame Neway, stand as enduring symbols of the era’s tumultuous political landscape.

The climactic pinnacle of this immersive odyssey through the initial phase of the museum is marked by a poignant portrayal depicting the downfall of the feudal reign and the ascent of the formidable Derg regime. This evocative image captures the Emperor’s discreet transfer to the military barracks, crammed inside a humble blue Volkswagen Beetle—a symbolic representation of power stripped away.

Muluneh Haile, a steadfast guide who has been shepherding visitors through the museum since its inception in 2010, shares an intimate connection with the exhibits. He himself endured the horrors of the Red Terror and tragically lost his brother to the mass atrocities, rendering his insights all the more poignant and deeply personal.

According to him, the vicious onslaught unleashed by the Derg regime began with the assassination of 60 prominent figures from the Emperor’s era, including two Prime Ministers, on that fateful day of November 11, 1974.

This macabre event served as a prelude to the Emperor’s own demise and subsequent killing.

Entering the expansive second phase of the museum, visitors are confronted with a haunting gallery of images that bear witness to the countless Ethiopian souls who fell victim to the state-sanctioned Red Terror campaign. Among them are the 755 individuals whose names were unjustly etched on the infamous “Wanted List,” devoid of any substantiated evidence of wrongdoing against the regime.

“These 755 individuals had no affiliation with any organization and were never convicted of any crimes,” Muluneh emphasized. “Their level of education and perceived potential threat to the revolutionary Derg regime led to their unjust inclusion on the wanted list.”

From shadows to light: The Martyrs' Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today
Skeletal remains the Red Terror victims.
From shadows to light: The Martyrs' Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today
Ethiopian souls who fell victim to the state-sanctioned Red Terror campaign.

From shadows to light: The Martyrs' Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News TodayFrom shadows to light: The Martyrs' Memorial Museum tells a haunting tale | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

Of particular intrigue within these rooms is a printing machine, donated anonymously, which served as a clandestine tool for reproducing anti-Derg leaflets. Adjacent to it stands a chair, infamous for its role in the brutal torture inflicted upon victims—a method chillingly known as the “Wafelala” punishment.

The memoir text accompanying these artifacts reveals the intriguing stories behind their acquisition. The printing machine, concealed for over three decades, finally found its way into the museum’s collection, becoming a tangible testament to the clandestine dissemination of anti-Derg propaganda. The Wafelala chair, on the other hand, was used to immobilize victims in an inverted position, rendering them utterly defenseless against further torment.

The visit takes a thrilling turn as visitors venture into the hidden third phase, accessible through a closed door. However, an unexpected power outage shrouds the museum in complete darkness, intensifying the eerie ambiance.  As the tour drew to a close, visitors are left to explore the contents of multiple coffins and drawers without direct contact, uncovering a chilling array of artifacts, blood-stained garments and meticulously preserved skeletal remains, belonging to seven to eight individuals.

The concluding scene communicates a sense of suspense and horror, mirroring the trajectory of the era.

In response to inquiries about the museum’s visitors, Muluneh emphasizes its inclusive atmosphere, catering to individuals aged 15 and up. He highlights that the majority of guests are enthusiastic tourists actively involved in research and writing, driven by a passion to share their findings with a worldwide audience.

Muluneh also said that prior to the impact of COVID-19, the museum used to attract a large number of visitors, with over 80 people visiting in a single day. However, due to the current situation in the country, the number of visitors has decreased to around 30. Nevertheless, there is now a positive trend with a significant rise in the daily visitor count.

Furthermore, Muluneh expressed regret over the misperception that the museum is associated with political affiliations such as the Derg regime, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), or Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He says that through diligent efforts to raise awareness using various platforms, these misconceptions have been rectified, allowing the museum to be recognized as a solemn sanctuary for remembering and learning from the past.

Muluneh reiterates that the Museum maintains a steadfast focus on unveiling the hidden and dark aspects of the Red Terror era without any political alignment. Today, the museum attracts Ethiopian university students, researchers, and the families of victims who seek to understand and commemorate this painful chapter of their history.

He emphasized that the construction of the museum involved the direct participation of victims and their families, making it a powerful symbol of remembrance and healing for the Ethiopian people.

“It serves as both a memorial to the victims and a testament to the resilience and strength of a nation that has endured immense suffering,” Muluneh said. “By providing a space for reflection and education, the museum plays a vital role in fostering a collective understanding of the past, promoting dialogue, and safeguarding the values of justice and human rights in Ethiopia.”

He highlights that the museum also serves as a platform for raising awareness and inspiring individuals and nations to strive for a world where such atrocities are never repeated.

Historical records show the prevalence of state-endorsed mass killings, representing a systematic approach to suppress dissent. Primarily concentrated in the capital, this campaign was an officially sanctioned urban counter-insurgency effort.

Documents further reveal that the regime at the time, formally embraced the term “Red Terror.” This designation aptly captured the severity of the violence employed to instill fear among the population and stifle opposition.

According to these records, while the exact death toll from the purge remains uncertain, it unquestionably exceeds a minimum of 100,000 lives lost, with a comparable number of casualties recorded in the provinces during 1977 and 1978.

The museum prominently displays a memo on its walls, which cites Amnesty International’s extensive documentation of the Red Terror era. It reveals a harrowing account where over half a million people from various demographics, including youth, elders, Christians, and Muslims, became victims of indiscriminate slaughter at the hands of the Derg regime.

The statistics may be a subject of controversy, but written records confirm the widespread suffering endured by countless individuals who were imprisoned, subjected to appalling conditions, and subjected to unimaginable torture. The impact of these atrocities extended beyond Ethiopia’s borders, leading to a mass exodus of refugees seeking safety within and beyond the nation’s boundaries.

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