19 February 2018

Ethiopia: The February 19 (Yekatit 12) Massacre Its Lessons in History


Italy's military and political humiliation at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 by Ethiopian peasant forces was a spiritual wound in the long list of grudges that underpinned its renewed desire for revenge on the world's stage. This time, it made extensive preparations for 40 years before advancing on Ethiopia.

Ian Campbell in his book, Addis Ababa Massacre: When Ethiopia run blood, writes that Italy built a chemical weapons factory on 30 acres of land near Mogadishu in Somalia. The quantities of lethal gases produced at that facility were so large that no fewer than 17 warehouses had to be propped up to store them. The Italians stockpiled 35,000 gas masks for their own safety.

Ethiopians stood no chance as the Italians showed up in 1935. They were gassed on the ground and strafed from the skies. Ethiopia was overwhelmed. Bruno Mussolini, son of the Duce, wrote newspaper articles about clusters of Ethiopians "bursting open like a rose" when bombed from above. He admitted to finding this spectacle "most amusing".

Despite its savagery, Ian Campbell adds, Italy regarded itself as an agent of civilization in Africa. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were exterminated, the journalist George Steer wrote bitterly, so "that civilization should prevail".

Even Pope Pius XI congratulated Italians on a "beautiful victory by a great and good people". The defeat of 1896 was avenged and Italy now had an empire.

In order to fulfill their colonial ambition, the Italians divided East Africa into 6 regions which included Italian East Africa (the other Italian colony in Africa being Italian North Africa) consisted of the old Italian possessions in the Horn of Africa, Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and the recently annexed Empire of Ethiopia. Victor Emmanuel III of Italy consequently adopted the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia", although having not been recognized by any country other than Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The territory was divided into the six governorates of Italian East Africa: Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, plus four provinces of Ethiopia (Amhara, Sidamo, Scioa, Harar) each under the authority of an Italian governor, answerable to a viceroy, whozs in turn represented the Emperor.

The massacre of Friday February 19, 1937 conducted two years after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, also known as Addis Ababa Massacre among historians and the international media was a three days rampage of an indiscriminate killing of 30,000 Ethiopians mostly composed of the elderly, lactating and pregnant mothers and their children.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Marchese di Neghelli, Viceroy of Italian East Africa, organized a public event at the Genete Leul Palace ( now a building that housed the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University) in Addis Ababa to provide alms to the poor to celebrate the birth of the baby Prince of Naples. Crowd from all walks of life were gathered in an out of the palace with the expectation of receiving gifts without the slightest hint of what will befall them.

On the morning of Friday of February 1937 two young Ethiopians Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom resolved to assassinate. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Marchese di Neghelli, another young person of their own age cooperated with their plot. According to Richard Pankhurst, a taxi driver named Simeyon Adefres drove them out of the city. Pankhurst also credits him with providing the grenades that Abraha and Mogus threw on Graziani.

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, The Italian response was immediate. According to Mockler, "Italian carabinieri had fired into the crowds of beggars and poor assembled for the distribution of alms and it is said that the Federal Secretary, Guido Cortese, even fired his revolver into the group of Ethiopian dignitaries standing around him." Hours later, Cortese gave the fatal order which read:

"Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians"

In those three days, the Italians killed Ethiopians with daggers and truncheons to the shouts of "Duce! Duce!" and "Civiltà Italiana!"

According to Bahiru Zewede, The attempted murder provided the Italians with the reason to implement Mussolini's order, issued as early as 3 May 1936, to summarily execute "The Young Ethiopians", the small group of intellectuals who had received college education from American and European colleges. The same day as the assassination, a military tribunal was set up, and by nightfall 62 Ethiopians were tried and shot at the Alem Bekagn prison in Addis Ababa "The Graziani Massacre marked the almost total liquidation of the intellectual component of the Resistance,"

In their colonial policy, the Italians particularly targeted the intellectual cream of the Ethiopian society due to their fear that they might incite rebellion in the country. In fact, some records indicated that the Italians did not allow young Ethiopians to exceed grade 4 in their education.

Despite the claim made by Italy to be a Christian country with a pope at the head, the Italians also massacred 297 monks plus 23 laymen at Debre Libanos Monastery.

In addition, Pankhurst notes that Thousands of Ethiopians of all classes were sent to detention camps at Danan( present Somali Ethiopia region) in the Ogaden and Nokra in the Dahlak Archipelago. Conditions at Danan were inhospitable, and Graziani had given orders that the prisoners would receive only the bare minimum of food and water. Between ten percent and half of the prisoners died at Danan.

Apart from the Addis Ababa massacre ,between 1935- 1940, the Italian government carried out war crimes in Ethiopia the most notable being the use of mustard gas and the bombing of a field hospital run by the Swedish Red Cross. However the massacre of Addis Ababa and other mass killings are to this day repudiated by the Italian government ignoring overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary._Despite the emperor's appeals, the League of Nations and in spite of numerous reports compiled then and later on, the League totally ignored such a crime.

Today, the youth in Ethiopia read from history books about the massacre of the 19th of February 1937. The tenacity and courage exhibited by the two young persons and their boundless deviance in refusing to accept colonial rule and domination leaves a historical lesson to which modern Ethiopian youth are expected to heed.

Ethiopian youth today are not expected to go to any war but they have a different war front to which they have to attend. The Ethiopian youth are expected to continue waging a protracted and relentless battle against poverty with its all forms of manifestations.

Apart from waiting only on the government to resolve their own problems, they need to take their own initiatives in promoting their wholesome development and the development of their own country. Abreha Debotch , Moges Asgedom and Semyon Adefris were ordinary citizens who refused to bend to the yokes of colonial rule and they have set a lesson of selfless patriotism from which the youth need to draw living lessons of selflessness and sacrifice.

The massacre of February 19, 1937 will always be remembered and marked by the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. History is subject to changes, the modern Italian government is one of Ethiopia's development partners in the nations struggle to become a mid level developed country by 2025.


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