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Ethiopian woman confronts "Red Terror" ghosts

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Although 13 years had passed, Hirut Abebe-Jiri instantly recognized the man who tortured her during Ethiopia’s brutal “Red Terror” purges.

It was a dark era little known to the outside world, but that glimpse of Kelbessa Negewo across an Atlanta hotel lobby in 1990 set in motion a chain of events that ended last month when he lost his appeal against a life sentence for genocide.

The former local government official who once sowed such fear in her neighborhood of the Ethiopian capital had been carting around luggage and opening doors.

“I was amazed,” Hirut told Reuters on Sunday. “It was him. This powerful man was carrying people’s bags.”

Her story goes to the heart of one of Africa’s darkest chapters, now thrust into the spotlight by a political breakthrough nearly 2,000 miles away in troubled Zimbabwe.

Former Marxist ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, dubbed the “Butcher of Addis Ababa” by many Ethiopians, has enjoyed comfortable exile in Harare since he was driven from power in 1991 -- protected by President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe’s opposition is joining a unity government with Mugabe. It said on Friday it would like in principle to extradite Mengistu, who was sentenced to death in absentia last year. But the Movement for Democratic Change conceded it was unlikely to win agreement to hand him over.


The start of Hirut’s story was typical of many in Addis Ababa under Mengistu’s 17-year rule. She was a teenager in 1977 when he announced the purge of his opponents by smashing a vial apparently filled with blood in the capital’s main square.

Soon afterwards, armed police snatched Hirut and her younger sister from their home after dark, and dragged them away in their pajamas. She was stripped, hung upside-down, gagged with a vomit-soaked sock and tortured for the rest of the night.

“An 11-year-old boy from my street was hanging by his feet and bleeding heavily when they brought me in,” she said. “The police heard he had a gun and he told them he had given it to me. To this day, I know nothing about this gun.”

Hirut was freed after two months when another official decided she could take no more torture. She walked to neighboring Eritrea and was eventually granted a Canadian visa.

Hirut was alerted to Kelbessa’s presence in the United States by a friend who was a waitress at the hotel. Her friend had been tortured by the local government official too. The women were joined by a third former victim, and that was when they launched their fight to have him extradited to Ethiopia.

Kelbessa was deported by the United States in 2006 and was sentenced to life in prison by an Ethiopian court. Many like Hirut, now 46, hope Mengistu will one day face the same fate.


Last year, she faced her torturer, Kelbessa, for the first time in court. She testified against him and he lost his appeal.

“Healing is impossible, but I will no longer have to think about him every day,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Hirut, who is now an engineer, has set up the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Center to record the deluge of testimonies and records collected by Derg regime officials.

The trial that convicted Mengistu in his absence cited some 300,000 items. They included signed execution orders, witness accounts, and videos of torture sessions and bombing raids by fighter jets on villages held by the opposition.

Bodies were left in the streets as warnings, and some relatives who went to the authorities to collect bodies of loved ones were charged for the bullets used to kill them.

On a recent visit to Addis Ababa, Hirut visited the dilapidated concrete bungalow where she was tortured. It is still a local government office, and she chatted with the officials who now run it as children played football outside.

She believes Mengistu is a major fugitive from justice and that he should be sent home. But she said she didn’t see Zimbabwe’s fragile coalition government risking a crisis over the issue.

“As long as Mugabe manages to maintain control of the security forces, I don’t think Mengistu will have anything to worry about,” she said. “Mugabe has been pretty ruthless.”

Editing by Daniel Wallis