On 19 February 1937, Italian forces and Italian civilians began a three day campaign of killings in Addis Ababa which left thousands of Ethiopians dead. We’ll share some details about those days of horror.
**Warning: some graphic images**
We are grateful to Ian Campbell and his book, The Addis Ababa Massacre, for providing us with many of the images and info found in this newsletter.
05 May 1936
Italy declared victory in Ethiopia on 5 May 1936. Mussolini’s troops, led by Badoglio, marched into Addis Ababa. It was a day of chaos and terror for the residents of the city.
Italians were ecstatic. Mussolini had promised a new Roman Empire of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya. It had come true. Now, Italians could settle in Ethiopia. It was a country beckoning them with new jobs and better farmland. They were migrants but did not have to call themselves that because Ethiopia was by then declared “Italian”.
Italy finally has its empire, headlines shouted.
11 August 1882 – 11 January 1955
Rudolfo Graziani was called the Butcher of Fezzan for the atrocities he committed in Libya from 1930-34, when he was Viceroy of Cyrenaica and commander of the armed forces. When Mussolini named him Viceroy of Addis Ababa, he knew what he was doing. Graziani was a Fascist prepared to kill every Ethiopian if needed. (By the end of WWII, he was both a war criminal and a Nazi sympathizer.)
Graziani was (in)famous for his “pacification” campaign in Libya. These were long years of brutal repression that led to the deaths of thousands of men, women & children in concentration camps, terrorizing air warfare, and massacres.
He displaced approximately 100,000 Bedouin to free their land for Italian settlers. It was during this “pacification” campaign that he helped to captured and hang Omar Mukhtar, the principal leader of Libyan rebellion. By the time he left Libya in 1934, most of the Bedouin population had died or been displaced.
By some accounts, Graziani was a paranoid man. He knew many wanted him dead. It’s said that on tour of an Orthodox church in Dire Dawa, he fell into a pit covered by carpet and he believed a trap was set by priests to injure or kill him. As a result, he was suspicious of priests.
Abriha Deboch and Moges Asgedom
Two young men who changed history!
By 5 May 1936, Addis Ababa was under Italian control. The further you went from the city, however, the less control Italians had. Ethiopians were still fighting. Italian forces were still dropping bombs and suffering the casualties of guerrilla warfare even though Mussolini claimed that he had won.
But in Addis Ababa, there were two young Eritreans: Abriha Deboch and Moges Asgedom. They would change everything. They became symbols of resistance and Italian brutality, but they were individuals with hopes and dreams.
Abriha Deboch & Moges Asgedom had come to Addis Ababa from Eritrea for work and education. Abriha eventually found work in the Fascist Political Bureau. The late historian Richard Pankhurst writes that Abriha hated the fascists and their racism.
On 19 February 1937, despite his paranoia and hatred for Ethiopian clerics, Graziani wanted to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Naples by giving alms to Ethiopia’s poor. (What irony to give alms to those whose country you stole and people you murdered.)
This is the day that Abriha and Moges were waiting for.
Moges Asegedom was born in 1912 in Alfal’ba, near Deqemhare, Eritrea. Moges was an intelligent and diligent student. He was considered kind and considerate. (This, according to Ian Campbell, author of “The Plot to Kill Graziani”, is the only published photo of Moges.)
As a teenager, Moges left Eritrea for Ethiopia without permission from colonial authorities. He was reportedly shot at while illegally leaving Eritrea to go to Addis Ababa. Below, a few images of Deqemhare/Decamerè, near where he was born.
Moges was fluent in French, had command of Italian and knowledge of German and English. He taught French, then was hired for a position in the Cartography Section of Addis Ababa Municipality, housed in the former palace of Bitwedded Haile-Giorgis. (see Campbell’s book for more info)
While working at the Municipality, Moges was accused of illegal money changing. He was arrested and jailed. To be freed he needed someone to sign papers to be responsible for him. He asked Abriha to sign and he did. This, perhaps, created a strong bond between them.
Abriha Deboch was born in Ma’adu in the Hamasien province of Eritrea in 1913. It was said that both he and Moges were shot at by Eritrean border guards when going to Addis for school. Unlike Moges, he was outspoken. He was a good student, but not as good as Moges.
He was opinionated, moody, and physically strong. He was also extremely curious and was said to have hated the fascists. Below, the house he spent his school holidays at Sidist Kilo, residence of his adoptive father, Fitawrari Kelkile.
1936: Italians entered Addis and Badoglio instituted the death penalty for looting and possession of firearms (FYI: everyone owned a gun, this was quite common). Many Ethiopians were executed for breaking laws that were often completely different from how they used to live. Mussolini told Badoglio to kill all foreign educated Ethiopians. However, Badoglio didn’t do this, and this is when Graziani takes over.
When Graziani, the Butcher of Fezzan, also called the Butcher of Libya, was named Viceroy by Mussolini, he immediately got to work. He set up his offices at Genet Leul Palace. It was here that Abriha had also worked, for Badoglio’s office.
There’s much to say of Abriha: a complicated man in a situation that grew more complex. Some say he was a double-agent. Ethiopian patriot (and a woman!) Weizero Shewereged Gedle was certain that he was a fascist intelligence agent. (Ian Campbell’s excellent book provides more info.)
Working in Graziani’s offices, he’s known to be close to Graziani. While a national resistance movement emerged in 1936 as the occupation began, Abriha was soon in communication with patriots intent on recapturing the city, advising them on when to attack. He wasn’t taken seriously.
Abriha, friends with Moges (who worked in the Cartography section) advised the patriots on strategies to recapture Addis in 1936, using the maps that Moges had access to for logistics. Graziani, despite not knowing he had a double-agent in his office, became aware of the plans.
The attack failed, partly due to timing. Abriha had advised the patriots to attack before Italian reinforcements arrived from Dessie but the patriots, not trusting him, waited.
Abriha was married in 1936 (there was so much happening this year for him!) to Taddessech Istifanos, who was also related to Ras Desta Damtew, one of the best generals in the Ethiopian army.
As Italians settled into Addis, as racial segregation laws took effect, as attacks on occupying forces failed, as Ras Desta and others are captured, Moges looked at Abriha and said, “You should sacrifice yourself for your country.” He wanted to strike against Graziani and the fascists.
In the house below, located in Piassa, Simeon Adefris (an undercover agent working for the resistance), Moges & Abriha met to plan the strike against Graziani & his administration.
Ras Desta Damtew
Ras Desta Damtew was one of the best generals in the Ethiopian army.
In 1935 he commanded troops in the southern front. In January 1936, he was defeated by Graziani at the Battle of Ganale Dorya. Desta kept on fighting, eluding capture so often that he became mythic to journalists around the world. But he was eventually caught.
Ras Desta was executed by firing squad on February 24, 1937. It was a public execution meant to deter resistance against Italians. Instead, it brought more recruits to the resistance.
“You should sacrifice yourself for your country.”
Other things were also happening as Graziani and the Italians settled into Addis. One was the establishment of racial segregation laws in Ethiopia (also in Libya, Eritrea and Somalia). This claimed that the white/Italian race was superior. This was an apartheid-like system created before South African legalized apartheid . The regulations and laws deeply offended Abriha.
Yekatit 12 1929 EC/ 19 February 1937
Ethiopian residents of Addis Ababa heard that Graziani was distributing money to the poor at Genet Leul Palace, imitating a custom also done by Haile Selassie. Thousands woke up that sunny day to go. In particular, the elderly and poor.
Abriha, Moges and other activists, after months of planning, were ready to strike. They were armed with hand grenades. They would be able to get close to Graziani. They hoped to maim or kill him and they hoped to encourage an uprising or open the path for Ras Desta’s forces to attack.
But someone had warned the Italians. And so, the Italians brought out an extraordinary amount of fire power, as if preparing to confront a large force.
Surrounded by heavily armed forces, Graziani gave a speech. Witnesses stated that it was a furious, loud speech full of frantic gestures. When he was done, the crowd stood in line to receive their Thalers. Nothing happened and Italians started to relax as they watched the queue.
Artillery & Forces
An Italian priest blesses a row of 6.5mm Fiat-Revelli Model 14 heavy machine guns in Ethiopia. This weaponry was used during Yekatit 12. Each gun had a small tank to hold the recirculating water used to cool it while in operation. The ritual of blessing weapons was a popular one in the Italian forces. The Fiat-Revelli Model 14 was capable of 400-500 rounds/minute.
But then a grenade exploded somewhere out of view of the Italians. Then another, and in the midst of the confusion, another exploded and caught Graziani in the back as he turned to run into the palace. Nine grenades went off in total but no one could tell where they were coming from.
There was a pause. The Italians waited for more grenades as Graziani was taken away and rushed to the hospital. Then: nothing. Just silence as the Italians stared at the crowds and the crowds stared at the Italians and their weaponry. No one knew what to do.
Then Guido Cortese, federal secretary of the Fascist Party stepped forward, took out his pistol, and opened fire.
As Ian Campbell states in his incredibly thorough and powerful The Addis Ababa Massacre, this was filmed from the balcony. People at the back of the crowd (mainly priests) were trying to run away as shooting began.
There were 3,000 Ethiopians at the palace that morning. Only a few survived. Well-known writer, Temesgen Gebre, was there that day and years later, spoke of this moment, noting the machine guns firing from the balcony. He was protected by the bodies that fell on top of him. At the palace, those few Ethiopians who escaped the bullets were often hunted down and killed by daggers or shovels that were lying around due to construction. The gates had been shut so no one could really escape.
3,000 men, women and children were killed. But this was just the beginning.
The violence began to spread beyond the palace. Executions of innocent bystanders, those who had been watching the alms ceremony from outside the gates, started.
Italian soldiers encircled the area, trapping even Ethiopians walking by. Italian civilians grabbed objects to use as weapons. Blackshirts descended on the area. The Circle of Death, as it was called, closed in on Ethiopians.
1500 were massacred.
This was only within the first hour alone. It had only just begun. The massacre went on for 3 days. It was an unrelenting killing spree by the Italian military, and Italian civilians alike. Between noon and 1pm, Ethiopians were slaughtered inside the Circle of Death.
“Throughout the city they were massacring many people…Horrible. A shame for Italy”
— Ciro Oggiali.
Italian journalist Ciro Poggiali was present that day and recorded events in a diary that he kept secret. It was eventually published in 1970.
“I have a relative who was said to have died “in a car accident” during this war. I have often wondered if he might have been one of those captured and killed in the manner described in Ian Campbell’s book. I have another relative who experienced this day and never spoke of it. There are thousands of these stories.”
— Maaza Mengiste
A six-year-old witness, Yeweynishet, remembers seeing Italians armed with spades and shovels and people dead and dying. Boys and men were being rounded up. W/zo Sara Gebreyesus remembers seeing trucks waiting to collect men and boys dragged out of houses.
Temesgen Gebre, famed writer, remembers “Every Ethiopian was a welcome prey. Corpses of men, women, and children were lying everywhere.” People were taken out of homes, without warning, unaware of what was happening and killed. They were struck down in broad daylight walking.
From Sidist Kilo to Arada and beyond, the killings spread. Priests hiding in churches were murdered. Those trying to flee the markets to get home were killed. Any weapon that Italian civilians could find, they used. The military was well armed. And this was only Day 1, early.
Ian Campbell relates that men and boys were also tied to the back of trucks and dragged to their deaths. They were also run over by Fiat 634N trucks.
A city comprised of unarmed civilians was under siege. Tanks were brought in. Curfew was declared.
We are still on Day 1.
“Every Ethiopian was a welcome prey. Corpses of men, women, and children were lying everywhere.”
— Temesgen Gebre
Most Italians knew what would follow next: carta bianca (“do what you please”) – This was a tactic used during invasion to kill all men, women, and children in the area where a white person was attacked.
The fires had started as soon as the killings at the palace, but now, as afternoon was moving to night, the Italians started burning more homes in Addis Ababa. First, however, they would loot and steal before trapping families inside and setting huts/homes on fire.
People were thrown off bridges such as the Ras Mekonnen Bridge.
As the city burned, as families tried to escape their homes and then were thrown back in, as men were caught and tied to trucks and dragged, as executions continued, the bodies piled up. They would need to be disposed. The extent of this massacre needed to be cleaned up.
Bodies were brought to collection centers in the city. Iron rakes were used to gather them into piles. They were loaded into trucks, then off loaded at Gulele to be burned.
This went on for three days, without pause. Day into night. People who weren’t killed were detained. Imprisoned. Some executed on the spot, others sent away to other execution sites. Some were sent to concentration camps in Somalia and Eritrea, as well as in Ethiopia.
Women and their babies were burned in their homes or killed as they tried to escape the fires. They were killed on the street or sent to prisons.
“A friend asked me not long ago if I could find a photo of a relative of his who was killed by Italians. The Italians often took photos of those they killed before the execution. It would be the only photo his family would have of this relative, the brother of my friend’s great-aunt. I don’t know where to start.”
— Maaza Mengiste
Here is a postcard sent back home to Italy, featuring gallows used during the war.
The Italians built numerous portable gallows in kit form to be carried throughout Ethiopia for rapid assembly and disassembly. Complete with ladder and collapsible platforms, some were designed to hang six victims at a time; others could hang ten.
This was a slaughter that started in Addis Ababa. It lasted for three days, then continued for years as people struggled in prisons and died in concentration camps. The cover up that followed let some of the worst war criminals – like Rodolfo Graziani – go free and even enjoy political life in Italy.
This painful history flows in the blood and exists in the family stories of many Ethiopians. The ghosts watch as Ethiopia today experiences violence from inside. May those souls have found peace. May their families find hope.
To read more about the Italian war and this period in Ethiopian history, look for these books:
Check out If Only I Were That Warrior, a fantastic documentary!
Addis Ababa, 1937
Ramadan in Addis Ababa, 1937
We are grateful to Ian Campbell and his book, The Addis Ababa Massacre, for providing us with the images and details found in this newsletter. Videos on this page are displayed by the kind permission of British Pathé.