The English version of Part 4 from a special series of talks on Ethiopian history, written for Sheger FM
I was delighted and deeply touched when Teferi Haddis teamed up with Ephrem Endale to translate and broadcast some of my Medium articles on Sheger FM. I was even more thrilled by the wonderful public response. And so I wanted to give something back to Ethiopian listeners. I offered to develop a series of talks on Ethiopian history — specifically written for an Amharic audience. Some pieces will eventually be found in a forthcoming book in English, but I took special care to adapt the material to be heard (when I got into journalism, I started in radio, so listening to lines can be a different but still rich experience, as opposed to reading them).
For this last talk, well, maybe in these grim times for Ethiopia, it’s fitting that I also put out the original English version of the script. The words were submitted in early July to Sheger, which broadcast its Amharic translation in late September. These were words intended to inspire. Writers never know what kind of reception they’ll get to their work, so all I can do is hope that someone out there likes the message.
I count myself lucky. Digging through files in the British National Archives in London, I found this remarkable story about the Patriots who fought the Fascist Occupation. There is almost always courage with the Patriots, sometimes tragedy and setbacks, but I never expected dark comedy. The story goes like this: a group of Patriots attacked one of the trains pulling out of Addis Ababa, and the train gets expertly derailed, and the Italian soldiers flee into a construction house that serves as a kind of bunker. Well! Now it’s a siege. See, the British come into the story because they found an eyewitness who said that “not a few of the Italian soldiers . . . spent much of their time huddled in a corner and in tears.” So much for Fascist courage! But that’s not the surreal part.
See, the phone lines were cut, and the Italians hadn’t thought to bring along a radio. So when the train gets overdue, a search party of soldiers ride out in a coal-car pulled by an engine. The Somali driver is afraid of getting hit by gunfire, so he crouches down while opening the throttle and driving blind. And so he’s going at 50 miles an hour, annnnnd crash! He smashes right into the derailed train. Half the search party gets killed by the Ethiopians, the other half go running back to Addis Ababa, and what do the Italians do? They send more reinforcements!
But the Patriots aren’t fools, so they quickly withdraw, and the Italians then take out their frustration on the local populace, letting their askari troops run amuck and commit terrible war crimes. But the Patriot attacks are so embarrassing for the Italians that when they happen, officers go around to all the foreign legations and shut down their radios to stop the news from spreading.
As grim and awful as that skirmish was, I can’t help but think of that ridiculous coal car smashing into a derailed train, and the bizarre chain of events. I’m lucky. I found that story, and with a little help, I tracked down the great hero Jagama Kello in his last years, and though frail and in bed, he recalled the wonderful tales of his years as a Patriot commander. Still in his teens, he commanded 3,500 men.
There was the time that Haile Selassie sent him orders to go assist another Patriot leader, and he crushed the note in his hands and thought, “He doesn’t know me.” Imagine! This cocky boy of nineteen, twenty, ignoring the emperor. Jagama told us all several stories, and after we were done, he said, “Drink?”
You can write history and fall in love with one of your historical subjects, and so it was for me with the amazing woman Patriot, Lekelash Bayan, who recounted her experiences to Professor Tsehai Berhane-Selassie. Her fellow guerrilla fighters called her “Belaw.” Because she would say, “Belaw! Belaw!” as she encouraged her men to shoot down the Fascist troops. In 1939, she found herself alone and surrounded by enemy soldiers on all sides. There was nowhere to run — but she could go up.
So she climbed a tree before she was spotted and hid there for five days, getting hungry and thirsty, knowing she needed to wait. And wait… At last, she spied through her binoculars a couple of enemy soldiers approaching. And what did she do? She dropped down and ambushed them. And then sat down to have a meal from what they delivered right up to her hiding post. And then she made her way to Ankober to rejoin her group. What a woman!
Mr. Andrew Hilton, with the assistance of Richard Pankhurst, interviewed a collection of elderly Patriots, and collected their memories for a book. A Patriot named Ayana Berre told him how he served with the British officer Orde Wingate in struggles in which “bullets showered down like rain drops,” and he recalled: “I have never felt sad in all my life, despite its great many ups and downs, thanks to the reassurance and strength I get from recalling the great years of my past. I am, indeed, always joyful and satisfied as I count the memories of my Patriotic years as the most treasured possessions I have ever had, thanks to the Creator, God.”
But when you think about the Patriots, how do you perceive them? As Patriots, yes? You have to think of the individual commanders before you bother to think in terms of ethnicities. And yet we know that these men and women were human beings, with their own egos and often quarreling with each other in those early years as often as they fought the Italians. With the old feudal armies having been bombed and gassed and wiped out, the new “young bloods” chose to give themselves titles. They sometimes promoted themselves to dejazmatch or even ras. There is an interesting anecdote about the Patriot hero Belai Zelleka. His followers had started calling him ras, and he snapped at them, “The name my mother gave me is Belai — it’s enough.”
It’s become fashionable on social media lately to point out that certain traitors of today are in fact sons of traitors. In a tweet, someone included the photo of Ras Desta Damtew being led to his execution in 1937 by the Italian collaborator Teklu Meshesha. Side by side, they then put a photo of Teklu’s apparent nephew, Sibhat Nega, one of the founding fathers of the TPLF, being taken away for detention after he was captured while hiding out in a cave. Yes, it’s hard to argue with the pattern of the rather toxic family trees. But what is the ultimate point of this comparison?
We make political choices, not our genetics. Pursuing that flawed logic is exactly how we end up with the destructive premise, “Oh, all Amharas put on airs and think they’re better than others, or all Tigrayans are liars.” No — reject that, banish that, always, now and forever.
Because the proof against it is in the Patriot ranks. Besides Jagama, there was the Oromo hero, Geressu Duke. Think of Haile Abamersa, who was from Arusi. Fikre Mariam was from Shoa. Never forget that Lorenzo Taezaz — who wrote the emperor’s famous speech to the League of Nations in 1936, who was also involved in missions for the Resistance and the Patriots — was Eritrean. There is always the paradox that we expect citizens to feel loyalty to the land where they were born, a sheer accident of birth, and yet we celebrate those who prove that loyalty through deeds. We celebrate them, because in the end, feelings are easy, actions are hard.
And how much more noble then is the effort, the commitment, the sacrifice of the Patriot whom folks don’t normally want to include in their little “club” of Ethiopians? I say they were Ethiopians, one and all, and I hope you would, too.
In at least one respect, they had it easier than the soldiers fighting today. The original Patriots faced an enemy that was pure in his evil. There were no nuances to his depravity. He stole the Axum Obelisk and decorated a street in Rome with it. He raided beautiful fixtures of Addis Ababa and carted away his trophies in the middle of the night. He hanged those who defied him from a gallows and then lit it up with electric lights so that all could see it in the evening hours. The Western world, having exhausted the perfunctory best intentions of its conscience, moved on, leaving only decent souls like journalist George Steer to complain eloquently in editorials and the headstrong activist Sylvia Pankhurst to publish her newspaper, The New Times and Ethiopia News. The West pretended to be asleep while the Patriots fought on.
Today, we see a new betrayal, in which the West pretends to be asleep again. Unfortunately, it talks in its sleep and can’t shut up.
It wants to make a spectacle of its own compassion, supposedly for the Tigrayan people and with only a brief reference in passing to how the TPLF gutted a nation over 27 years. With no mention at all of the TPLF attacks on the military outposts on the night of November 3, 2020. With no mention at all of child soldiers coerced and forced into battle. And with TPLF fighters suddenly canonized as “civilian casualties” if they happen to fall in battle.
Every day, I swear, comes a great tidal wave of what I can only describe as “journalistic pornography” — manipulated images and lies intended to keep international outrage alive and to slander a nation. The remnants of the TPLF, hiding in their caves, pin their hopes on the gullible idiots and the cynical who are their allies. They have the EU in their pocket. They have the U.S. on their side. They keep trying to sway the African Union.
Frustrated, moved to rage practically every day, I am haunted by these lines by George Orwell, who taught us so much about the sinister aspects of propaganda. He wrote: “We believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does… unless conquered from the outside by military force?”
And I think of the Patriots.
I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to sail to Spain to fight for the Republicans in 1936. Because many did. Americans, Canadians, men from Britain. They proved their loyalty with deeds. I wonder if like some, I would have committed to finding my way to Ethiopia to fight for an African nation in 1935. Because many tried to sign up. They went to the Ethiopian embassies in London and Paris and were sadly turned away. International law prohibited French and British liberals, those from other nationalities, plus thousands of African colonial citizens in the Gold Coast and other spots, from signing up. And those few Europeans who did manage to get there and tried to help — well, most of them went home in 1936 as the Italians drew a long black curtain across Ethiopia.
But at least they tried.
That is true commitment of brothers. Don’t lecture me, don’t tell me my culture is uncivilized — pick up a damn rifle and help me fight Mussolini’s Black Shirts flooding across the border.
But most of the time, they couldn’t. Because the forerunner to the UN, the League of Nations, preferred to wring its hands, and tie the hands of others. And they let the hyenas from Italy cross a river and feast.
And so eventually, the Patriots were left to fight alone — until, of course, the Western Allies decided Ethiopia could be useful to them again and helped the Liberation. I say “helped” because unlike other historians who have written on this period, I maintain that Ethiopians themselves did most of the heavy work first in freeing their own country, with the British, French, and their colonial forces wielding the final hammer blows. Had the Allies not come, Liberation would have taken longer with the Patriots and the Resistance, but it would have come eventually.
There are very, very few of these heroes still alive. Normally, I wouldn’t want to risk besmirching their memory by invoking their great deeds and tying them to a discussion of current events. But I noticed some ugly troll online slandering them in passing, and I realized that all the nonsense that I mentioned in the previous shows in this series — the twisting and warping of history, the denial by academic vampires that there ever was an independent Ethiopia — all of it delivers the ultimate insult to these brave men and women. Are we really supposed to believe these people were fools at the time? No. I refuse to accept that, and neither should you.
They did not fight for Tigray or Wollo or Gojjam, they fought for one nation, to be shared by all. They recognized that if they didn’t hang together, they would all hang separately.
One day, we may realize that a new generation of Patriots is fighting on Ethiopia’s behalf, and that their job is harder because they must fire on their brothers. For even the most delusional, hate-filled recruit for the TPLF has still, by definition, been an Ethiopian. I have no idea about what’s in a federal soldier’s heart. I suspect it naturally differs from person to person. In one, there may be a simmering hate, an understandable if tragic urge for revenge over what happened November 3rd. In another, they may think of their duties as just a job, while for still others, they may see their work as necessary to rebuild the region.
This conflict has been so ugly. I’ve heard personally of families divided, of friends who will no longer speak to each other because of the Tigray situation. And here is the outside world, every day, calling Ethiopia’s army a bunch of killers.
Which makes me think again of Orwell, and if you’ll forgive me, I’ll quote him again. I think his message here is appropriate, given the genuine destruction perpetrated by the TPLF over close to three decades and their most revolting legacy of ethnic apartheid. Orwell wrote: “The choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world: that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.”
The Ethiopian army, betrayed in the night, will perhaps have a reckoning one day over what it needed to do in your country’s name. But let us never forget, let us never, never, ever let the shiftas of academia, the gullible, useful idiots and the deliberate liars of Western media, plant and keep the lie flourishing of just who attacked who first and why. I have seen the footage myself of the TPLF spokesperson bragging on television. I have checked the translation of what he said with those who know. A nation responded in self-defense. I watch the libels pile up, and I look forward to the day when the sun shines through and dries them, their flimsiness scattered with a cleansing wind across the Semien mountains.
I saw a video clip on election day, June 21st, when Professor Berhanu Nega faced a scrum of reporters, and he said, “We do this election to make it credible for our sake — not for the international community’s sake.” Ethiopia has nothing to prove to the rest of the world. But there are those both within and outside who are determined not to let its wounds heal. So we are left then with the question: what makes a Patriot today?
Because unlike the terrorist zealots of the TPLF, no one who is sane will ask you in Addis Ababa or Dessie or Harar or Bahir Dar to send out your babies to face tanks. No one expects you to be a fool and squat, shivering in a cave, cold and miserable, burning the fat in your muscles from hunger and broken promises, because a psychopath near Mekelle told you that Amhara or Gurage are your enemy. No.
To be a Patriot these days in Ethiopia means a dedication to helping the country endure and thrive. The slogan of today’s Patriot is not, “Show me where the enemy is.” It’s “What do we need to build?”
That’s what the true meaning of #Ethiopia Prevails is all about. It only prevails because it has you.
You are a Patriot if you help build libraries and schools. Be a teacher and be a Patriot, instilling in the next generation the true history of the country and the values of appreciating each other as Ethiopians, perhaps different in ethnicity but all of one soul. Teach a child to read and discover all that the world has to offer. And don’t just teach the child to read but to think critically, to evaluate what they are reading.
These are not intended to be empty aphorisms or slogans for nationalists. I discovered a remarkable young woman named Selam Kebede, whom I will profile in a book due out early next year. She works in Nairobi these days in the tech sector, but she was frustrated by how African countries often penalize their fellow Africans with stupid and expensive bureaucracy for visas. Why, she asked in an online article, was it so difficult for Africans to travel in Africa? “What are we afraid of?” she asks, “Or more like, why are we afraid of ourselves?” She’s worked a lot with Finnish authorities in particular to strengthen the Finnish-Ethiopian relationship, especially for Ethiopian students who went to Finland and want to come back, and for Finnish students who want to come to Ethiopia. To me, Selam Kebede is a modern Patriot, fighting for your opportunities overseas.
A Patriot is Elshadai Getenet, born in the Dadaab refugee camp of Ethiopian parents who fled the Derg, who years later flew from Melbourne to visit Ethiopia in 2012 with his dentist so they could work in a rural orphanage. Elshadai promised he wouldn’t return until he’s a Doctor of Dental Surgery, and he’s in his third year of school now.
A Patriot is the agricultural engineer who sees how the country could grow crops that not only service a market in Europe but feed people at home. A Patriot is the engineer who dreams big and can imagine the next GERD. A modern Patriot doesn’t see the world in terms of rifles and targets, but in anthems of pop music that bring people together in joy, in the bursts of color on canvas, in making your nation accessible for the blind, the deaf, the ones who must rely on a crutch or a wheelchair.
Set yourself the personal challenge of doing creative things, challenging things, impossible things! Those things that bring you happiness and success and enrich your life, but which do good, and then Ethiopia can be interpreted through the good that you contribute.
The Patriots of that bygone age fought so that you, a predominantly young generation, could walk free in the ancient hills. Your fight can be one of legend, too, but it won’t be written thanks to a barrel of a gun. You have an army to do that job, and your job is another one. Build. Create. Restore. Learn.
Fulfill that wondrous potential that those farmers turned guerrillas, those students turned heroes from long ago once dreamed of for themselves.
Be the generation for Ethiopia that gives meaning to the term, “Prevail.” You be the ones to define it. Out of all the pain and ethnic strife of recent years, build something together out of the ashes and the hollow words — a country worthy of your optimism and your dedication. One day, fresh young eyes will still see the flag, but they’ll also see what you’ve done. “Oh, yes,” those onlookers will say, “they were Patriots. We were lucky to have them. We still have Ethiopia because they believed in it.”