A loud explosion shook the ground in the early afternoon of 28 May 1991. It was followed by a massive fire visible from afar. Half an hour later, the Sheh Hojalle neighbourhood in Addis Ababa was filled with wailing.
News had filtered back into the suburb that the explosion was from a nearby military depot, which some community members had been in the process of ransacking for the wooden crates and metal containers used for transporting gunpowder.
But rebels had set the depot on fire, triggering an explosion which killed more than 400 civilians, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Most were teenagers and young adults from Sheh Hojalle.
I was 12 years old then. I witnessed the explosion and its aftermath. A family of seven was wiped out by the explosion and the resulting fire. Many of the corpses were so badly charred that it was impossible to identify them, and so families were unable to hold funerals.
This was the day the then rebel Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) marched boldly into Addis Ababa, taking the capital over without meaningful resistance from government soldiers. On this day, the Provisional Military Administration Council, the Derg, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, was toppled, 17 years after its establishment.
What followed thereafter was the quick arrest of former Derg officials including soldiers, police and intelligence officers, an exercise characterised by extrajudicial executions, torture and unlawful detentions.
Between 1992 and 1994, 20 000 Derg civil servants and politicians were arrested and detained without charge in military camps for between six months and three years.
Amnesty International’s 1995 report Ethiopia: Accountability Past and Present detailed harrowing stories of enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions.
After lengthy investigations, about 1 800 of them were prosecuted for various crimes in 1997. For many, the Derg was synonymous with brutal repression and heinous crimes including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But 28 years after EPRDF took power, the story is not very different as human rights continue to be violated with impunity.
There has been no official explanation or investigation into the catastrophic deaths of civilians at Sheh Hojalle. The way I see it, there was no military necessity to besiege the depot. Government soldiers were in disarray and did not put up much of a fight to repulse the EPRDF soldiers.
Taking this military junkyard did not seem to be necessary for EPRDF’s occupation of Addis Ababa as there was no threat from it, or the surrounding areas. The attack on the depot could only be read as a show of might, or an exercise targeting civilians who took advantage of the absence of government authority to loot the unsecured depot.
In the decades since, there have been other incidents that appear to fall into the same category.
When students of Addis Ababa University protested on-campus on 10 April 2001 demanding academic freedom, the police used unnecessary and excessive force that left more than 40 injured. Days later, high school pupils took to the streets of Addis to protest peacefully against the university students’ nasty treatment and this time police unleashed lethal force killing at least 31 people, including students, on April 17 and 18.
In the post-election violence of 2005, more than 190 mostly peaceful protesters were killed, including by being shot in the head and strangled to death by security officers in the capital, according to reports on findings of a commission of inquiry established by parliament. Members of the Commission had to flee the country following threatening demands from a senior government official to alter their findings.
On August 6 and 7 2016, at least 97 more protesters were killed in Amhara and Oromia regional states by security officers after they came to the streets demanding political reforms, respect for the rule of law and justice for past human rights violations.
Between November 2015 and early 2018, security forces killed at least 2 000 people in long-drawn out protests over an Integrated Addis Master Plan, perceived by the ethnic Oromo as a tool for political and economic marginalisation.
Despite these nauseating recurrent killings of largely peaceful protesters, subsequent EPRDF governments are yet to hold accountable those responsible for these atrocities.
Several moves to reform the security forces between 1991 and 1995 failed to institutionalise mechanisms and procedures for promptly addressing human rights violations.
Worse yet, enforcing the human rights provisions of the 1995 constitution and guaranteeing the respect for human rights is difficult because the Upper Chamber of the Federal Parliament is assigned to interpret the constitution, instead of independent and impartial courts.
While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, now the chairperson of the EPDRF, publicly apologised for past human rights violations during his inaugural speech in April 2018, this has not stopped violations.
On September 17 2018, security officers shot at and killed at least five protesters as they demonstrated against deadly inter-ethnic violence that rocked Burayu, on the outskirts of Addis.
That even the current Ethiopian government is yet to thoroughly, independently and impartially investigate these killings points to the possibility of a continuation of dangerous past trends of ignoring human rights violations and allowing impunity to prevail.
While it is notable that some investigations and trials for alleged human rights violations are ongoing, these are a drop in the sea of historical gross human rights violations of the past 28 years of EPDRF’s rule.
As the country commemorates the fall of the Derg, the government should seize the opportunity to ensure justice and reparations for both past and present human rights violations.
Fisseha Tekle is the Amnesty International researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea.
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