In 2010 was unveiled in Addis Ababa the “Red Terror” Martyrs Memorial Museum, an unprecedented initiative in Ethiopia to honour the victims of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s repressive Derg Regime. An estimated total of 500,000 people indeed suffered torture and death under the 1974-1991 dictatorship which had taken over the popular revolution responsible for overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Although the red terror purges occurred in the late 1970’s, the regime is blamed for committing repeated atrocities throughout until being deposed by the EPRDF coalition in 1991. Visitors are approximately told this story along the different rooms of the Memorial’s ground-floor exhibition, but with little focus or historical precision.
The museum, situated at the crossroads of the elegant Bole Avenue and the renowned Meskel Square (previously named Revolution Square), is not a government-led initiative but rather a private one, initiated by a group of families of victims of the Red Terrors. The architect of the memorial, Fasil Giorgis, explains that he was approached in 1995 by this group of families of victims and that the project took years to materialise. They first requested that a simple stele be erected at the centre of Meskel Square, yet Fasil convinced them that a memorial in the form of a museum would be more meaningful: he indeed had in mind a place where people could gather and exchange thoughts and memories about the tragic events. In effect, the memorial was then set to comprise an exhibition hall on the ground floor, an archive centre to host the official red terrors archives and an auditorium dedicated to screening documentaries and holding lectures about this period on the first floor.
The edifice itself, arguably an architectural work of art, offers a totally different impression than its core element that is the exhibition. It starts as a set of irregular large stairs covered in stones and leading to a black and asymmetric main building which seems about to be swallowed in a red-tile covered ground; conferring a general sensation of suffering, bloodshed and horror, and sharing architectural similarities with other genocide memorials around the world. The different rooms hosting the exhibition, on the other hand, were left raw to symbolize a prison cell. Hence, in the face of such an expressive envelop, the content of the exhibition appears to have been hastily designed. The scarcity of captions, historical records and English translations, the low-quality pictures, poorly photocopied official documents taped directly on showcases, and a certain lack of historical objectivity are some of the features that strike the eye of the visitor and eventually makes one wonder what the exact purpose of the building is.
In the Ethiopian context, this observation can be met by a number of justifications. The country, for instance, only counts a limited number of museums in general and has little now-how on the staging of historical facts and relics. Museums are, after all, firstly a Western feature and the name of the structure itself does convey uncertainty with its double title of Memorial and Museum. Furthermore, the lack of English translations could be the result of a museum targeting an Ethiopian rather than foreign audience. Finally, the dire lack of funding of this family-led enterprise justifies the ever-changing aspect of the settings: The auditorium for instance, which was used for a time as a cinema showing Ethiopian contemporary movies, is now turned into a conference room paid for by a Chinese engineering company. The archive centre, on the other hand, left empty for some time, is now a library.
Attempts at justifying the weaknesses of the exhibition, however, hardly find complete legitimacy. Indeed, although a private initiative, this memorial established in agreement with Addis Ababa’s mayor office and other representatives of the federal authorities, stands as the only initiative narrating the Red Terror events in Addis Ababa, the one people will consequently turn to if looking for education and exchange of ideas on the topic, as, as mentioned before, it is not merely a memorial with a list and photos of victims but also an effort to narrating historical facts. Hence, the lack of guidance, in Amharic too, is problematic for the Ethiopian public.
In the end, it is the sensitive exercise of laying out the politically exploitable memory of massive human rights violations which unfortunately undermines the initiative as visitors here are, above all, unsure whether the focus of the exhibition is on the liberating march of the EPRDF in 1991, the repressive regime of Emperor Haile Selassie or the rather succinct information available on the Derg era.