Red Terror Museum
The main site in Ethiopia
's capital city Addis Ababa
commemorating the grim days of the Derg regime. It’s a small museum and could do with a bit more information, but it is very touching and – be forewarned – in part quite graphic. A visit to this place forms part of most city tours offered to foreign tourists, so despite its dark nature it is amongst the key mainstream attractions at the same time.
More background info:
The name given in the title of this chapter is the informal short form of the official full name “Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum
” (abbreviated RTMMM
). In the wider sense the expression “Red Terror” in the Ethiopian context refers to the whole period of the Derg regime from 1974 to 1991. In the narrower sense it refers to one particularly brutal phase in 1977/1978 in which Mengistu Haile Mariam
fully established himself as dictator through a range of purges and atrocities. Of course the expression was also used to refer to other phases in history elsewhere where some form of communism
was involved, such as in Russia
. The Ethiopian version is obviously not to be confused with any of those.
” (which means as much as ‘council’ and is sometimes also spelled “Dergue”) was the short name for the organization that overthrew the monarchy under Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1974 and formed the Provisional Military Administrative Council, effectively a military junta based on communist Marxist-Leninist ideology. This had grown out of an Africa-wide wave of leftish-inspired independence movements and more and more former colonies indeed gaining independence, often after prolonged resistance fights (see e.g. Cape Verde
, esp. Tarrafal
). Ethiopia may never properly have been a European colony, but the societal system was still very feudal and backwards, as emperor Selassie only introduced some half-hearted modernization measures but largely left the old status quo as it was, with a vast majority of the population dependent on subsistence farming and with very little political say.
The Derg, like some other competing leftish organizations in East Africa, sought to overcome this old system and push Ethiopia
into the modern age – along initially highly idealistic revolutionary and egalitarian ideas. But as so often has happened with such ambitions, the introduced/enforced reforms (collectivization, villagization) failed to deliver economic improvement and the regime quickly turned no less repressive than what was before – on the contrary. It got much worse. Faced with growing opposition and rebellion, especially by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (see Mekele
) in the north, which also enjoyed support from Eritrea, the Derg reacted with increased brutality. Vice-Chairman of the Derg, Mengistu Haile Mariam then took advantage of the situation and oversaw an internal purge
of the Derg too, with several former leading figures executed, and installed himself as uncontested leader of the government, i.e. de facto as a military dictator. He went on to rigorously persecute any opposition, and those not arrested and killed were driven into exile. How many thousands fell victim to these dark days is not known, but estimates go as high as three quarters of a million.
Even deadlier was the famine of 1985, in which around a million perished. And politics was at play here too. After the West’s reluctance to send aid to such a regime gave way to generosity (not least through charity events such as Live Aid), it was internal politics that prevented aid being directed to where it was most needed, namely the northern Tigray region, hotbed of the resistance against the Derg, whom Mengistu refused to help.
When in 1987 Mengistu declared Ethiopia a People’s Democratic Republic
(never a good sign if these words feature in a state’s name – see North Korea
, the GDR
or DR Congo
) military rule officially ended, but in effect nothing changed and no true democracy was coming. In the late 1980s Mengistu’s rule weakened as the rebels in the north and east grew stronger. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
in Europe and with outside support for his regime quickly evaporating, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe and the TPLF with the unified Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Movement took over and ended the Derg era for good. Mengistu was later sentenced in absentia to death by an Ethiopian court for genocide
, but still remains in Zimbabwe
living in comfort.
The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis had been in the making for almost two decades before it finally opened in 2010. It’s an ongoing project too, with new photos of victims and some artefacts being added still.
What there is to see: From the outside the museum is quite a nondescript building and without the big lettering pointing out what it is you wouldn’t guess anything of such importance inside.
The exhibition is not especially large and covers only the ground floor in three main halls and two side rooms. Most but not all labels and text panels come with English translations, which are not always word-perfect, sometimes even feel unfinished, but overall are more or less sufficient. The thematic thread is not always obvious and some parts seem a bit disconnected, but there is a vague chronological line, beginning with some precursors to the revolutionary overthrow of emperor Selassie (see also Trinity Cathedral!) and then the Derg’s coup of 1974. There’s a large photo of the scene when Selassie was driven off in a little white Volkswagen Beetle car – a humiliation in comparison to the grand parades he had staged. A few artefacts are on display in the first section too, such as helmet and machine gun, plus various photos and documents.
One glass display case features a replica bottle filled with a red liquid like those that dictator Mengistu threw to the ground during a speech on Meskel Square to symbolize the intended spilling of the blood of the “enemies of the revolution”, i.e. in particular the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation movements (see above
and under Mekele
). Black-and-white photo panels dominate the next section, including some rather graphic images of dead victims and people fighting starvation during the big famines of 1979 and 1985. The main next topic is that of torture, and obviously it gets quite gruesome here. Apart from descriptions of torture methods, there’s also a life-size replica display of a cruel implement with its poor dummy victim suspended in pain. Beating and burning the soles of feet was apparently a favourite of the Derg’s torture masters.
An especially remarkable artefact on display is a shirt with bullet holes that was worn by one man who was gunned down by the Derg in Addis but miraculously survived. He kept this shirt and later donated it to the museum. Furthermore there are more artefacts on display, like instruments of torture, as well as some items from the resistance, e.g. a thermos flask used to smuggle messages in and out of prison or between cells.
The opposite wall is lined floor to ceiling with small portrait photos, thousands of them, mostly black and white but a few in colour. These are the masses of faces of the victims that are known. Here it’s the sheer numbers that make a depressing impact.
A little side room to the right, easily overlooked (I did initially but was directed back to it later), is without any doubt the very darkest part of the museum. Here countless bones and skulls of victims that were exhumed from mass graves are stacked high in glass display cases.
Back outside in the main corridor three tall column-like glass display cases hold the bloodied clothes of the victims – a style of exhibit that reminded me of some genocide memorials in Rwanda
Also on display is plenty of artwork, including a whole side room full of paintings mostly on related themes as well as sculptures.
The museum also has a small shop where you can buy books or items like bags bearing the museums abbreviation RTMMM and their motto “never, ever again” – which, frankly, I always find a little hackneyed and naïve, given that “until next time” would reflect actual history more accurately, especially in Africa (just think of what happened since 1991 nearby in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya ...).
Overall, the museum is obviously not on a par with similar institutions in the West or, say, South Africa, being rather old-school in style (no flashy touchscreens or such modern media here), but it is still very much worth seeing and certainly leaves a lasting impression, though more through the visual aspects than through the telling of its story, which is still a bit patchy and incomplete. This also means that if you don’t already know a lot about this part of Ethiopian history, you won’t learn it all here, at best you get an indication and encouragement to read up more about it afterwards.
on the eastern corner of Meskel Square right in the centre of Addis Ababa
Access and costs: quite easy, free (but donations welcome)
Details: depending on where in Addis you are staying, you may be able to walk it. There are several international hotels around, especially east of the museum. For many others, though, it may be too far for walking. If you’re up for braving public transport, the Estifanos/Meskel Square light rail metro stop is just a stone’s throw to the north of the museum, and a bus station just opposite. As a visit to this museum forms a regular part of most guided city tours, this is probably the easiest way to go and see it for most foreign visitors.
Opening times: daily from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Admission: free – but a small donation is welcome and indeed expected.
Time required: not long, between 20 and 40 minutes or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Addis Ababa
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Just behind the Red Terror Museum to the south is the Addis Ababa Museum, housed in a historic building, which has historical photos and period clothes.
The museums are on the eastern side of one of Addis Ababa’s main public spaces, Meskel Square, but that doesn’t mean much – most of the time its dusty expanse is used simply as a car park.
North of the museum on the eastern side of Menelik II Avenue past St Stephen’s Church is the modernist complex of the Africa Hall (now home to the UN Economic Commission for Africa) and to the west of that the National Palace set inside a large green park.