Remembering Ethiopia’s Red Terror: a museum, a novel, and a film by Dr. Steven W. Thomas / go back to Issue 6 

The Red Terror perpetrated in 1977 and 1978 by the Derg dictatorship of Ethiopia is one of those events so extremely horrible that its significance has transcended its geographic location and entered world history almost as a symbolic warning sign to all humanity. Indeed, the actual sign outside the new Red Terror museum in Ethiopia’s capital city explicitly warns “Never ever again.” Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, tortured, or killed by a government intent on suppressing all voices of dissent. Dead and mutilated bodies were publicly displayed, and citizens lived in constant fear. For such genocidal crimes against humanity, the Derg’s leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and eighteen of his associates were sentenced to life imprisonment or death by Ethiopia’s Supreme Court in 2007 and 2008.

But merely prosecuting a few individuals and counting the number of dead, disfigured, and dispossessed does not do enough to express the depth and breadth of something so terrible. How does an individual, community, or nation come to terms with such widespread trauma? What are the implications of those terms, considering that those terms -- although certainly personal and emotional -- may also be political? To put it another way, does memory have a politics?

In a recent August 2011 essay for Harper’s Magazine entitled “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance,” author David Rief meditates on the opening of a memorial at the site of Ground Zero in New York City and argues that there is a danger to such memorials because they are by nature political. He claims, “It is about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all its moral and political complexity.” Sometimes, he suggests, it might be better to forget trauma rather than dwell upon it, especially when such remembrance inspires further hatred and violence against others. But is Rieff’s claim true of all works of remembrance? What is the role of cultural activity, such as novels, films, and museums for memorializing trauma? It may seem a strange and paradoxical thing, when you think about it, that a cultural act of remembering such an event doesn’t just remember; it publicly memorializes terror. For what purpose?

I raise these questions as a starting point for thinking about a museum, a novel, and a film -- all of which are about the Red Terror and all of which were presented to the world at the same time, the spring of 2010. It is perhaps a curious coincidence that they were all publicized within a few months each other. The Red Terror Museum built by the current Ethiopian government, the novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste published by the major multinational publishing company W. W. Norton, and the film Teza produced by internationally renowned director Haile Gerima each present very different ways of remembering history. Each of them is also incomplete, and just as the incompleteness of one’s memory might provoke two individuals to engage in sincere dialogue as they sort through their different memories of the same event,  likewise the incompleteness of an artwork memorializing a past event gives rise to something that is sometimes simply called “literary criticism.” My essay of literary criticism will compare and contrast these three cultural acts of memory, with special attention to the artistic form of their presentation and what the form of each one, in a manner of speaking, “forgets.” The most obvious historical fact that these three works of cultural memory all forget (or perhaps deliberately repress) is the ethnic diversity of Ethiopia and the political suppression of ethnic dissent -- including the government’s targeting of Oromo leaders in particular -- not just during, but also before and after the “Red Terror” of the Derg regime. But in addition to ethnic diversity, there are also less obvious things that the museum, novel, and film repress or “forget,” and my argument is that this forgetting is not just a problem of content or a problem of ideology, but also a problem of artistic form. I will proceed by summarizing each cultural text, engaging in dialogue with the incompleteness of its representation of history, critically reflecting upon the political terms of its memory-work, and analyzing the form of its narrative.

In this short essay I have limited my focus to three works all disseminated to the global public in the year 2010. I have chosen them in part because they are all very recent, in part because they have received a lot of attention by the mainstream global public, and in part because they are each of a different genre (i.e., a museum, a novel, and a film.) None of them are by Oromo authors, but my critical perspective on them is informed by older Oromo works. For instance, in another essay that someone else might write, one might compare and contrast these three recent works with an older work that combines autobiography and political analysis -- Ibsaa Guutama’s Prison of Conscience, published in English in 2003 by Gubirmans Publishing in New York. One might also compare and contrast them with Dhaba Wayessa’s play “Dukkanaan Duuba” (Beyond the Darkness), which was staged at the National Theater of Ethiopia in 1991 as the first production ever of a modern theatrical drama in the marginalized language, Afan Oromo. These works present an Oromo perspective on the Red Terror that challenges the more mainstream version of Ethiopia’s history. In addition to these creative and personal accounts, there is the academic scholarship by historians such as Asafa Jalata, Bonnie Holdcomb, Sisai Ibsa, Mekuria Bulcha, Asmarom Legesse, Mohammed Hassen, and many others. There are also other works by non-Oromo authors that present very different accounts of Ethiopia’s recent past. For instance, the suspense thriller Riding the Whirlwind by Bereket Habte Selassie published by Red Sea Press in 1993 focuses on the early years of the revolution from an insider’s perspective. The satirical autobiography Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia published in 2000 by the powerful multinational company Macmillan presents the perspective of a young Amhara boy growing up in the Ogaden-Somali town of Jijiga. Dinaw Mengestu’s novels The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007, and reviewed in an earlier issue of Ogina) and How to Read the Air (2010) both published by the major multinational publishing company Penguin focus on the lives of immigrants in the United States, but they both also reflect on the nightmarish memories of the Red Terror that forced the characters to leave their homeland. There have also been numerous novels, paintings, and autobiographies published in the Amharic language in Ethiopia by individuals of various ethnic identities as well as poems and songs in regional languages. To discuss all the works published in English, Amharic, and Afan Oromo would be too much of an undertaking, and my aim here is mostly to engage in critical dialogue with works that represent the mainstream Ethiopian perspective. The three works I discuss are very different from each other in terms of their artistic form, but similar in their political biases. Ultimately, my hope is to provide a theoretical model for thinking beyond these three texts -- for thinking critically, imaginatively, and historically about the artistic form of any representation of any event as traumatic as the Red Terror.

The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum

The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, which opened in March 2010, is situated right in the center of Addis Ababa/Finfinne, next to an older museum on the history of the capital city, where the busy and commercial Bole Road meets Meskal Square. It was established by the Red Terror Martyrs Family and Friends Association. I had the opportunity to visit this museum when I travelled in Oromia that June, just a couple of months after it opened, and in some ways it reminded me of the Atomic bomb museums in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., U.S.A., which I have also visited. The arrangement of the museum deliberately tells a story -- a story that one walks through from beginning to end -- and it begins by documenting events shortly before the 1974 Revolution with magazines and leaflets containing revolutionary arguments against Haile Selassie’s oppressive monarchy. Such documents attest to the revolution’s admirable revolutionary goals, but the museum shows how the revolution soon devolved into an oppressive, terrorist regime. The museum includes more than 700 photographs of victims, including women and children; it includes the brutal technologies of torture, a map of the secret detention centers, coffins full of unknown bodies, and pits full of bones. It even includes a duplicating machine that was destroyed by Mengistu’s regime because it would have published arguments against him. The exhibitions of terror are increasingly disturbing as one walks through the museum, but it concludes hopefully with some works of art made by survivors. The form of the museum’s narrative, then, is very simple and very powerful. It is the narrative of a revolution gone horribly awry, and it communicates the simple moral of the sign outside the front door “never ever again.” It ends with the promise that by memorializing the trauma and by remembering it through works of art, the Ethiopian people can emerge as a powerful, democratic people. In a kind of circular logic, the museum itself and its form (i.e., its arrangement of artifacts and information) is the proof of its own argument -- its argument that memorializing terror will prevent future terror. However, in my view, its form excludes and suppresses too much for that argument to hold, as I think an analysis of some of the historical context will demonstrate.

The construction of the museum began in 2008, perhaps not coincidentally the very same year that Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia’s Supreme Court after he fled to Zimbabwe. I do not know why Mengistu was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to death in 2008, so many years after his regime was overthrown in 1991. Both the construction of the museum and the conclusion of Mengistu’s 12-year-long trial followed a rather violent election in 2005, when hundreds of civilian protestors were killed or wounded by the police. Also, in 2007 there were government crackdowns against Oromo and Ogaden-Somali leaders. The museum opened just two months before the election in 2010 -- an election whose credibility has been challenged by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International after many journalists and opposition leaders were imprisoned.  In my view, this context is significant for how we might critically “read” the museum (as we might read any narrative). A generous reading of the museum might see its construction as a genuine attempt to prevent election violence and government oppression by publicly presenting a clear image of what not to repeat. In other words, the museum is a warning to the current regime not to repeat the crimes of the previous regime. However, a more cynical reading might make the opposite claim, that the museum supports the current regime’s self-justification by contrasting its government with the terror of the previous government. In other words, the current government might say, “Look, we built this museum against violently oppressive practices, so how can you accuse us of precisely the sort of terrorism that we ourselves oppose?” In this reading, the museum functions as an alibi for the current government, and Mengistu functions as a scapegoat. I don’t think we have to choose between the generous way of reading the museum and the cynical way of reading it, as both “meanings” of the museum are simultaneously at work in the culture.

I would argue that the form or arrangement of the museum leaves too much out of the story for it to be an effective argument. One thing the museum never mentions is ethnic diversity and conflict. This is interesting in part because in recent years other museums in Ethiopia have emphasized the nation’s ethnic diversity, including the Ethnological Museum housed in the former royal palace. My impression, during my visit to Oromia, is that Ethiopia’s national institutions are allowed to celebrate the positive aspects of ethnic diversity only when ethnicity is presented as a pre-modern phenomenon as it is in the Ethnological Museum, but these same public institutions are supposed to keep quiet about the negative history of ethnic conflict and the modern (or postmodern) forms of ethnicity. The regional museums I visited in Jimma and Harar presented a slightly different image of local culture, but these museums are underfunded.

However, ethnic issues are not all that’s missing from the museum’s narrative that focuses on the evil deeds of the leadership. By focusing on the leadership, the museum’s narrative excludes the many different constituencies of people involved in the 1974 revolution and struggle for power that followed. Among the many constituencies, there are truck drivers and taxi drivers who were upset about the rising prices of oil. It is well known that the worldwide oil crisis in the 1970s was one of several catalysts for the revolution; obviously oil prices did not improve after the revolution, but actually got worse. There is also, of course, the rather large constituency of the Ethiopian military and the cause of its power; as is well known to historians (but often ignored by politicians), Ethiopia was exceptional for the size of its military, much of which was funded by the United States as part of its Cold War strategy. Ethiopia was America’s key ally against both socialism and Islam in postcolonial Africa in the 1950s and 60s; the effect of America’s foreign policy was a bloated Ethiopian military that was expensive to maintain but that had a disproportionate amount of power in civil affairs. After the revolution, the military simply switched affiliations from the U.S. to the Soviet Union, but the same socio-economic structural relationship remained.

When we acknowledge the complex relationships between global problems such as the oil crisis and the Cold War and local problems such as the history of ethnic conflict, then the story of the Red Terror becomes much more difficult to tell. My point here is not just that the museum should have included this information in its representation of history. Rather, my point is that the very form of the museum’s narrative couldn’t include this information even if its directors wanted to. How could it and still maintain a nicely packaged narrative with a clear moral for public consumption?

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Considering its form, can a novel do a better job than a museum? The form of a novel is obviously different. Famously, the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin argued that novels are essentially dialogic, which is fancy jargon that basically means all novels have a lot of different characters from different walks of life, and so they present many different viewpoints and have conversations (i.e., dialogues.) Even if a novelist were a narrow minded jerk aggressively promoting a definite ideology, he or she could not write a convincing, interesting story unless the different characters were sympathetic and real and had different opinions about things. Hence, novels are different from political speeches and lyric poems which are typically monologic (one viewpoint) rather than dialogic. Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is a good example of the dialogic imagination, but in my view its ideological biases and its formal elements still suppress and exclude a lot of information about the Red Terror. Although I agree with Bakhtin that novels are uniquely dialogic and open-ended, I also agree with the American literary critic  Fredric Jameson and the English literary critic Raymond Williams that there are still many ways in which their literary form represses historical memory.

According to the author’s own website, she was born in Addis Ababa, graduated with an MFA in creative writing from New York University, was named a “new literary idol” by New York Magazine, and currently lives in New York. Her novel is the story of a single family, and the family is clearly intended to be a metaphor for the nation. The patriarch of the family, Hailu, is a prominent doctor whose beloved wife Selam is not only dying but seemingly has lost the will to live despite Hailu’s diligent medical efforts. Her decline happens at the same time as the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and this temporal coincidence is obviously symbolic, given that her name literally means “peace.” This happens in the first chapter, and the symbolism of the events clearly announces to the reader right away that the national “peace” is dying and beyond medical care. The symbolism of a dying peace also reveals Mengiste’s political views, as she appears nostalgic for the old political order that predates her own life. Her representations of the deposed and jailed emperor are sentimental and historically inaccurate, if one considers the many acts of violence conducted by the emperor against the ethnic groups within Ethiopia in the 1960s, such as the use of American military aircraft to bomb Oromo communities. In other words, peace did not die in 1974, because there wasn’t peace before.

The rest of the family includes the cautious older son Yonas, his sensitive wife Sara, the younger, more impetuous son Dawit, and Dawit’s childhood friend Mickey, who was the poor son of a servant and virtually adopted into the family. The plot is simple and linear; things go from bad to worse as the Derg’s reign of terror escalates; and each occasion of violence serves as a moment for dialogue, when the different characters argue with each other about what is right. Each individual in the family represents a different political position: Dawit the fiery but naïve revolutionary who first supports and then rejects the new government, Yonas the cautious protector of his family, and the intellectual Mickey who is rapidly promoted within the Derg. Unfortunately, despite this dialogic imagination, all the conversations and events ultimately lead the reader to the conclusion that the revolutionaries are generally ignorant, and its leader -- who is not named Mengistu Haile Miriam but might as well be, since it’s clear that the fictional character is him -- is brutal and evil. The historical and political argument of the novel is unambiguous, and each and every event serves its ideological purpose. When the novel begins, things are bad, and they only get worse and worse and worse. It is difficult to see the possibility for redemption unless each family member overcome his or her viewpoint and come together as a family. And so not surprisingly, this is precisely how the novel ends, with the family members transcending their differences and reuniting.

So, let me analyze the form of this novel. The dialogic form gives us access to several points of view. Like many novels and stories, each character is a type representing a different political outlook, and the novel stages many debates in a way that beautifully illustrates the human side of those outlooks and the very personal stakes of each political position. However, what contains and limits this dialogic form is the family unit, as all of the characters are members of one single family – thus the family is a metaphor for the nation. This metaphor that gives the novel is thematic coherence is a formal problem for two reasons. First, just as in the case of the museum, it simplifies the story and excludes a whole host of other voices such as the oppressed ethnic groups, labor unions, and truck drivers (i.e., organizations of people outside the family.) It also ignores the global context for the revolution. And I want to emphasize that Mengiste’s exclusion of these things from her story is not simply an effect of her own ideological blindness but also an effect of the form of the narrative. The plot twist at the end of the novel (which is what the novel has been slowly and carefully building up to for 300 pages) is not actually surprising when you think of the central importance of the metaphor. In this plot twist, Dawit is supposed to assassinate a military leader whose name in the novel is not Mengistu Haile Miriam but obviously is meant to be a novelistic version of him, but Dawit misses and accidentally kills the soldier standing next to the leader; this soldier turns out to be his childhood friend Mickey. Mickey is the poor boy from the country adopted into the household of the Dawit’s upper-class urban family. It is significant that he is the member of the family who dies at the end, as it suggests that in order for the family to be reunited with each other emotionally, the narrative essentially has to kill off the “outsider” who may or may not be from another ethnic group. If we take the metaphor further than the author intended, we might conclude that the upper middle class Habesha nation is preserved when its poor members are silenced. Thus, if the family serves as a metaphor for the whole nation in this novel, then this ending is somewhat problematic. It also is perhaps what psychoanalytic literary critics call a symptom of her ideology that suppresses Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity in her novel. The typical American reader of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze would never know there were other ethnic groups in Ethiopia after finishing it, but Ethiopian readers would certainly wonder about Mickey’s family background. Ultimately, what the reader of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is left with is a conservative, reactionary sense of family as a metaphor for the nation that the form of Mengiste’s story inscribes. Other critics might disagree with me and argue that this novel celebrates the humanity and human connection between individuals over the destructive tunnel-vision of political ideology, but what I’m saying here is that the form that the novel gives to humanity is itself ideological.


While Beneath the Lions Gaze is told in a linear, realist mode, the movie Teza is presented in a more jarring, modernist style. Unlike either the museum or the novel, it is very conscious about the complex nature of memory, and it is presented to us in the form of fragmented flashbacks as the main character remembers moments from his past. The story is about a doctor named Anberber and his internal struggle to remain true to himself. Considering that the protagonists of both Teza and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze are doctors, we might ask ourselves what the figure of the doctor means metaphorically in the context of political revolution and why the doctor is privileged as a heroically tragic figure. In other words, why a doctor rather than a soldier, a politicians, a scholar, a teacher, farmer, construction worker, housewife, merchant, etc.? I must admit, I have no idea. Unlike the museum or the novel, the movie is not told in a chronologically linear form. The movie actually begins at the end, in a manner of speaking, when Anberber returns to his home village as a middle-aged man with a limp. The audience of course will spend much of the film wondering how he got the limp, and the end of the film will reveal it. As Anberber interacts with his family, he remembers his earlier life. The symmetry of the movie is elegantly simple. He has returned home in 1990 right at the beginning of Ethiopia’s second revolution, and his flashbacks are to his life in the 1970s during and shortly after Ethiopia’s first revolution. The story of his life is framed by the two revolutions. The movie is a beautiful meditation on the politics of memory, and as such, it is deliberately self-conscious about why it is difficult to remember the past.

To summarize Anberber’s life chronologically (which is not how the movie presents it), he was trained in Germany where he and other Ethiopian intellectuals sympathize with Ethiopia’s revolutionary struggle. However, when he returns to his homeland to contribute to the new post-revolutionary society, he finds the beginnings of political turmoil and the repressive Derg regime. At odds with the ruling party, he is forced to accept a position in East Germany as a researcher. There, he encounters the demoralizing racism of German society. In a violent confrontation with this racism, he is injured and acquires a permanent limp. Because of this traumatic event in Germany, he returns to his homeland in 1990 at the beginning of Ethiopia’s second revolution. His family’s home is a small village near the shore of Ethiopia’s famous Lake Tana, and it is being torn apart by opposing forces. The movie actually begins at this moment, when Anberber first returns home. After he returns home, he struggles to become a part of the village community, from which he feels alienated, and suffers nightmares about his past. He also seems to have amnesia and nightmares about his own past, so the form of the movie is like his own journey to piece his memory back together, and the audience takes that journey with the character. At the same time, in the midst of the civil war, the village is being torn apart by opposing forces.  The movie cuts back and forth between 1990 and Anberber’s earlier life in the 1970s and 80s. Watching the back and forth between the two times, the audience begins to figure out the story and experience the emotional effects of both revolutions on the lives of individuals. The movie is successful in the complex way it requires the audience to participate in piecing together the bits of memory and history and in the way it requires the audience to make connections between past and present. In that sense, Haile Gerima’s film Teza is even more dialogic than Mengiste’s novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze because in piecing together the bits of memory and history, the audience itself takes part in the dialogue.

Originally produced in 2008, it won prizes at several film festivals around the world, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it was screened for the general public in the United States and in Ethiopia. The lack of availability of the movie and its uneven and limited distribution is due to director Haile Gerima’s insistence on having total control over all aspects of his art. His having total control and lacking any oversight may also be the reason why the film is so long, tries to do too much, and is sometimes hard to follow. Nevertheless, it is an excellent movie. In contrast to the canned, standardized plots of Hollywood, Teza is refreshingly unique, beautifully shot, artistically complex, emotionally powerful, and intellectually demanding.

However, it has many of the same faults as the museum and the novel that I mentioned above. It also represses Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity, and it also fails to appreciate the complex local and global factors that motivated both revolutions. This is unfortunate considering that the movie’s plot moves through a variety of geographic locations – the capital city of Ethiopia, the countryside near Lake Tana, and Germany -- and such movement could enable that kind  of reflection in the narrative on the relationship between the local and global. However, the movie’s ending and its moral focus is the valuation of small human acts of courage against grand political ideologies. Anberber decides to become the local school teacher after the previous teacher was suspiciously disappeared. Anberber’s name means “warrior,” and we see that for Haile Gerima, true valor is not in military action in the service of grand ideologies, but in the small acts of human connection and service to one’s local community. This is all noble and good, and I have a lot of respect for the point this film is making about the value of small humane acts of courage, but at the same time, local communities are also obviously affected by macro-economic policies, and Haile Gerima’s philosophical retreat from thinking about the real politics of the whole society is a luxury that he has as an expatriate film professor at Howard University in Washington D.C., not a luxury that anyone living in Ethiopia has. Returning to the issue of form, the movie’s focus on the memory of one individual is what enables the retreat from politics into the small individual acts of human courage. We essentially see history unfold through his experience and his perspective, which is obviously incomplete.


I have tried to do two things in this review essay. The first thing was to engage in dialogue with how the three cultural works remember a traumatic event in order to point out things their version of history leaves out. The second thing was to critique the formal arrangement of each cultural work to show how the form of remembering has political implications. From my perspective, all three of these texts curiously repress the ethnic diversity of Ethiopia, and all three of them also curiously ignore much of the socio-economic circumstances. We might further compare both Teza and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze to a novel by the celebrated young Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. Published in 2006, the novel is about the brutal civil war in Nigeria that was also in part fueled by ethnic conflict. Her novel is similar to Teza in that it is not linear, and it moves back and forth between two historical moments, one before the civil war and one in the midst of it. This narrative movement allows us to contrast the earlier expectations and hopes of characters with the later problems. But unlike either Teza or Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Half of a Yellow Sun adds another layer of formal complication -- each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view. One character is a middle-class Igbo woman, one a poor Igbo boy from the country, and one a white English man. Unlike Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, in which it is clear whose point of view the author thinks is smart and whose point of view the author disagrees with, in Half of a Yellow Sun all of the three main characters are given equal treatment. Chapter by chapter, the novel moves back and forth among their perspectives, and this narrative technique broadens the level of social analysis of the whole event. It allows “minority” voices to take the foreground, and the juxtaposition of perspective as well as the juxtaposition of narrative time forces the reader to reflect critically on their own understanding of history and on the shape of their own memory.


Dr. Steven W. Thomas is a professor of English at Wagner College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. His essay “Taxing Tobacco and the Metonymies of Virtue” was published by AMS Press in 2012 in a collection of essays entitled Global Economies, Cultural Currencies of the Eighteenth Century.