I have a hazy childhood memory of soldiers breaking into our house. They had come to question my grandfather, who they believed was hiding someone they wanted to arrest.
It was not long after the start of the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia that would depose Emperor Haile Selassie and install a military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The new regime, which called itself the Derg, was hunting down dissidents deemed ‘enemies of the state’. There were nightly gun battles near our home in Addis Ababa between rebel groups and government forces.
I was standing next to my grandfather in the dining area when the door burst open and three soldiers forced their way in. I remember one of them distinctly.
He was slender-faced and young, his eyes so wild that he, too, might have been scared. My mind has superimposed his face on the other two men, so that when the memory arises, as it often does, the soldiers are identical triplets screaming at us in unison.
My grandmother shouted for me and my grandfather shoved me behind him. I was shaking and I remember his hand reaching back to steady me as I pressed against his leg. I watched the young soldier advance.
He pushed my grandfather aside and dropped to his knees on the ground in front of me. He had a downy moustache on his upper lip. He bent close, smiled, and all harshness left his voice: ‘Is there someone else here?’
There was someone else in our house, a stranger hiding in a small room that was normally used for storage. I had been forbidden from going near there, but that hadn’t stopped me.
One day, when the door had been left slightly ajar, I peeked in and – if memory serves – made eye contact with an injured man, wrapped in bandages.
I knew the answer to the soldier’s question, but I also knew that wasn’t what I should say. I shook my head.
The soldiers left and went to another house. In the silence that followed, my grandparents embraced me and assured me we were safe.
Then they both insisted we would never talk about what had happened. And we didn’t. I never learned who the man was, or what happened to him.
In the years since, I’ve tried to make sense of that moment. My grandparents are dead. My parents weren’t at home when it happened. There is no one left but me to carry the memory, which has grown heavier over the years.
I have had to wade through the many events that separate it from everything that came afterwards. The revolution swept through my family. Some relatives were jailed, others were killed.
The Derg didn’t allow funeral rites for those it called enemies. Silence and fear worked together to keep grief so contained that it was not until the summer of 2005, while driving with my mother in Addis Ababa, that I learned I had three uncles who died during the revolution.
We were stuck in traffic behind a police truck. Several young men, a few of them with bruised and beaten faces, stared at us from the back of the open bed.
‘I have seen so many of these,’ my mother said. Then she told me about her brothers and the games they used to play. Later, when I asked her to tell me more about her favourite brother, she sang a childhood song, tears running down her face.
A few years ago, I went to see the African Union’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa, an impressive building with a grand auditorium, funded by China.
It has a memorial to victims of human rights abuses, which acknowledges that the AU is built on the site of Akaki Prison, Ethiopia’s central jail, known as Alem Bekagn, or ‘Goodbye to the World’.
The date of its construction is unclear, but it outlasted a succession of rulers: fascist, monarchical, dictatorial and authoritarian, until it was permanently closed in 2004 under Meles Zenawi.
It gained notoriety in 1937 during the Italian occupation, when an assassination attempt on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani led to the retaliatory Yekatit 12 massacre.
An estimated 30,000 people were killed during these brutal reprisals. Unknown numbers of innocent people were imprisoned, tortured and executed in Akaki or sent from there to concentration camps.
The details we have from that period come from personal recollections and family stories, but these accounts were largely set aside in 1941, when Haile Selassie reclaimed the throne and the occupation ended.
He directed Ethiopians to look to the future, to forgive the Italian invaders and leave the past behind. There was no reckoning with the aftermath of the war. There was no attempt to address – and perhaps alleviate – the deep social and ethnic divisions that continued after the Italians had left and were exacerbated by each successive ruler.
Haile Selassie used the prison to hold criminals and political opponents, as did the Derg. (Meles Zenawi used another notorious detention centre, Maekelawi.)
The memorial’s website correctly calls it a ‘citadel of oppression’, but despite the decades of deaths and disappearances at Alem Bekagn there has been no attempt at reparative justice to honour those incarcerated there, only the relentless narrative of national progress and uncolonised independence.
Ethiopia has seen nothing comparable to the work that took place in Rwanda after the genocide or in South Africa under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The perpetrators of the worst crimes of the Derg era have not been properly punished. The stories from this period have been suppressed – partly out of fear and trauma, but also as a consequence of a culturally accepted unwillingness to show weakness.
The weight of historical trauma can feel overwhelming. After the Italian occupation and the Derg years, it was easier just to keep moving forward, as my family and so many other families have done.
But then in 2018, Abiy Ahmed was named prime minister and with him came unprecedented optimism and the possibility of reconciliation through political reform.
To understand the momentousness of that moment, and the disappointment that has followed in its wake, requires a confrontation with the past.
In the 1970s, early in the revolution, Meles Zenawi, then a medical student at Addis Ababa University, fled to Tigray to continue the struggle against the Derg.
He joined the armed resistance that was solidifying around a political ideology grounded in ethno-nationalism – the nascent Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The civil war lasted more than fifteen years; by the time the Derg was overthrown in 1991 the country was shattered – socially, economically, culturally.
At least half a million people had been killed. Untold thousands had been imprisoned or had gone into exile, and millions more had lived in fear, suspicion and under constant threat of violence.
A decade and a half of censorship and the total suppression of dissent had brought the press to a standstill and constrained all natural expressions of grief, anger and other emotions.
Meles, who led the transitional government set up in 1991, was prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012. The TPLF dominated a four-party, multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Under Meles, Ethiopians saw economic progress and greater freedoms. But those years were tainted by the uneven distribution of wealth, increasing ethnic strife, and government crackdowns on the media, political activists and civil society.
In the months before the 2005 elections, the EPRDF and the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, among others, waged a vigorous and heated campaign across the country. There were televised debates, and the final week witnessed huge rallies.
Some polling sites in Addis Ababa were forced to stay open for 24 hours to accommodate the vast queues. On the evening of 16 May, while results were still being counted, Meles declared a thirty-day ban on large gatherings and took direct control of police and militia forces.
The EPRDF claimed it had won a majority; the opposition insisted it had won more seats than the official tally. Amid allegations of electoral fraud, young people in cities across Ethiopia defied the ban and demonstrated.
Protests swept the country. On 6 June, government forces arrested thousands of demonstrators, most of them students, in Addis Ababa alone. On 8 June, security forces opened fire on large groups of unarmed protesters, killing at least 22 and wounding more than a hundred.
Crackdowns continued, and later that summer, when my mother and I were stuck in traffic behind that police truck full of young men who had clearly been beaten, we were certain we were staring at political prisoners.
It wasn’t surprising that the events of 2005 should have taken us back to the Derg years, or that those young men should have reminded my mother of the brothers she had lost.
By November, at least 200 people had been killed, 800 wounded and 30,000 arrested, including leaders of the opposition.
Thousands fled Ethiopia, many paying traffickers to take them to Libya where they would try to find a way to cross the Mediterranean and enter Italy alive.