Angels in November!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / November 17, 2008
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” (Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor)

It is Still Winter

I remember November. And June, too. I remember 2005. It was our season of hope and redemption. As Shakespeare might have put it, 2005 was “the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by the victory of Kinijit. And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our country/ In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” Today, it is still winter in Ethiopia. Our discontent festers like a cankerous sore under the dark and oppressive clouds of a monstrous dictatorship. But I remember the Angels of November -- the 193 innocent men, women and children who were massacred in cold blood in 2005 because they stood up for freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. I remember the thousands who were sprayed with bullets but miraculously survived. I remember the tens of thousands swept off the streets indiscriminately and caged in beastly jails. I remember the countless who disappeared without a trace. I remember the untold numbers of refugees from a reign of terror. In November, I remember the 80 million who are inmates in a virtual Prison Nation.

November is to Remember

In November, I remember Krystallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). That was 1938 when the Nazis burned thousands of Jewish synagogues and businesses throughout Germany, killing nearly 100 and arresting and deporting over 30,000 to concentration camps. It foretold the Holocaust. I also remember March in November. That was March, 1960 when apartheid policemen in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa sprayed 705 bullets in two minutes in the backs of unarmed protesters and murdered 69 Africans; and severely wounded hundreds. And I remember June and November, 2005. I more than remember. I hear the faint voices of the 193 unarmed men, women and children massacred -- shot in the head, in the chest and in the back -- as they protested peacefully.1 I hear their swan song: “Give us justice! Don’t let them get away with murder? Bear witness for us!”

Angels I Remember in November

The Angels of November I remember: ShiBire Desalegn, a beautiful young high school graduate shot in the neck and killed as she and her friends tried desperately to block passage to a torture camp in Sendafa. Then there was Tensae Zegeye, age 14 shot in the head with a high caliber bullet. And Debela Guta, age 15. And Habtamu Tola, age 16. And Binyam Degefa, age 18. Behailu Tesfaye, age 20. Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21. Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23. Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41. Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45. Abebeth Huletu, age 50. Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75, female. And there was Victim No.21760, male, age unknown. I remember them all -- those with names, and the nameless ones who are just numbers -- permanently registered in my Directory of Angeles of November.1

Profiles in Courage: The Unsung Ethiopian Heroes

I also remember the unsung heroes who heard the voices of the angels, whose consciences seared with righteous indignation, refused to remain silent and stood up to tell the truth. I remember the two courageous judges, Frehiwot Samuel and Woldemichael Meshesha, the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the regime-established Inquiry Commission into the so-called post-election “disturbances”. I remember the daring lawyer Teshome Mitiku, a member of that Commission. These exemplary citizens refused to whitewash the regime-sponsored crimes and atrocities. Exactly two years ago to the day, they briefed the United States Congress on their findings in the massacres of June and November, 2005.2 Their investigative work was as thorough as their findings were horrifying. They examined 16,990 documents, and received testimony form 1,300 witnesses. They visited prisons and hospitals, and interviewed members of the regime’s officialdom.

After months of intense investigation, the Commission concluded1 on an 8-2 vote that 1) none of the protesters possessed used or attempted to use firearms against the regime paramilitary forces; 2) none of the protesters possessed, used or attempted to use any type of explosives; 3) no protester was observed carrying a stick or a club to use as a weapon; 4) no protester set or attempted to set fire to public or private property; and 5) no protester robbed or attempted to rob a bank. The Commission established the paramilitary government forces used live ammunition, batons and tear gas. Almost all of the 193 victims were shot deliberately in the head or upper torso indicating that the shooters’ sole intent was to kill the protesters. The number of persons who suffered severe gunshot wounds was 763. Over 30,000 civilians were arrested without warrant, and held in detention without legal cause. The commission documented that on November 3, 2005, during an alleged disturbance in Kality prison that lasted 15 minutes, prison guards fired more than 1500 bullets into inmate living quarters. The body count from that shooting spree left 17 dead, and 53 severely wounded. The Commission laid to rest regime claims that its security officers were killed by protesters. No evidence was found to substantiate that claim. The Commission concluded, “Security forces which are alleged to be killed by demonstrators were not taken to autopsy, even there is no evidence of either photograph or death certificate showing the reason of death couldn’t be produced for police as opposed to that of civilians.”

These three individuals did something that has rarely been done in Ethiopian or African history. They risked their lives, the lives and welfare of their families, their professions and economic well being – EVERYTHING -- to bring out the truth about the massacres of 2005. Perhaps some may not appreciate the steely nerve of these Ethiopians in standing up to a thuggish dictatorship, but there is no doubt that when the modern history of Ethiopia is written, their names will be listed at the top for courage under fire, audacity in the face of despair, bravery in the face of personal danger, and unflinching fortitude in the face of extreme adversity. We can only thank them. Let them know that “Never have so many owed so much to so few!” They will always be our heroes!

The Forensics of Atrocity: “Riot Reconstruction”

There is one question that begs an answer: What was the justification for massacring 193 unarmed civilians and grievously wounding 763 others? Forensic techniques and policy analysis may yield some insights into this question. First, the fundamental premise in all police riot control countermeasures is not to massacre or maim rioters but to safely manage crowds with the aim of preventing unnecessary injuries and confrontation. This premise is based on a more fundamental principle of riot control which holds that almost all riots are incited and led by a few individuals who manifest intense interest in particular issues or seek to gain some advantage or outcome from a violent confrontation with police. Longitudinal studies (over a long period of time) of riots and “mob disturbances” have repeatedly demonstrated that most people show up at riot “events” because they are attracted by something exciting, or are bystanders who are sucked into a situation governed by “mob mentality”. The data show that most participants in riot events when faced with the possibility of violent confrontation with police or possible arrest, they would opt to escape. Most countries (and localities) have designed their riot control policies and procedures along such premises. As a result, riot police routinely use a variety of non-lethal means of riot control including chemical agents (tear gas), blunt force rounds (rubber pellet-type impact munitions that do not penetrate the skin) and combined them with effective psychological tactics that disperse rioters and crowds without the use of excessive force. Deadly force is used against rioters by police in narrow set of circumstances, e.g. police acting in self-defense where there is reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm, against looters observed causing major property damage (not breaking store windows) with risk to life, looters brandishing or using firearms in riot events, against snipers firing into the crowd or at police, rioters engaged in arson, or in propelling Molotov cocktails or homemade explosives in clashes with riot police and others engaged in serious or violent crimes.

Forensic analysis in the form of “riot reconstruction” (similar to crime scene or accident reconstruction) can be illuminating in discrete riot events. Using various data sources (concededly incomplete and fragmentary under the circumstances), preliminary forensic analysis provided insights into the question whether the use of deadly force was justified against the post-election “rioters”. Using enhanced high resolution forensic images of deceased victims, photogrammetry of video clips, anecdotal eyewitness testimony, and documentary evidence relied upon by the Inquiry Commission, one can generate a sketch of a riot scene in Addis Ababa and address the question of the necessity of the use of deadly force against unarmed protesters. While it is extremely difficult to generate an accurate reproduction of a riot scene for all the dates specified in the Inquiry Commission investigation, it is possible to make inferences (using contextual images) on the general layout of a “riot” confrontation scene and establish probable sequence of events. A preliminary analysis of one “riot scene” suggests that 1) the riot police (clad in riot gear, shields, helmets, etc.) fired from a distance where their safety was not in any way at risk from stone-throwing protesters, 2) image analysis of entry and exit wounds on victims’ photographs show that the victims were running away from the police (and not rushing to confront them), 3) the shooting of the rioters was not accidental by one or a few policemen from eyewitness testimony in the fall pattern of the bodies at the “riot” scene, 4) inferences from terminal ballistics (image analysis of a round impacting the body) suggest that at one “riot scene”, protesters who were shot in the upper torso intentionally with the purpose of killing them. Others who were wounded more likely remained at a substantially greater distance from the trigger happy policemen and were in a state of panicked flight from the scene when struck by rounds. Alternate forensic conclusions are further suggested in the preliminary analysis.

The official explanation of untrained riot policemen who panicked and fired at the crowd is unsupported by eyewitness or forensic evidence. In fact, it is possible to show from forensic analysis that the riot police were trained well enough to expertly use not only live ammunition for riot suppression but also were proficient in use of other methods of deadly force. The official claim is also unconvincing at least in the incidents in Addis Ababa given recent revelations in a study by Col. Michael Dewar, commissioned by the regime to upgrade the capabilities of the riot police.3 As of 2005, there were 2000 special riot police with basic gear. Riot control policies and practices have been in place in Ethiopia since the days of Emperor Haile Selassie. It is standard practice even during the era of Emperor Haile Selassie not to use live ammunition to control unarmed protesters. Two questions remain: Who gave the order to the riot police to shoot-to-kill? When was that order given?

The Survivor Who Chooses to Testify

ShiBire, Tensae, Debela, Habtamu, Kasim, Tiruwork, Etenesh, Victim No. 21760 and all the others died testifying for democracy and freedom in Ethiopia. Now it is our turn to testify on their behalf. Elie Weisel said, “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living.” It is our moral duty to speak up -- to “force ourselves to testify” -- on behalf of innocent victims of state terror, and to keep the flame of justice bright for the next generation. By honoring their memories and testifying for them, we declare to the world -- and to their killers who sneer at justice -- that they did not die in vain; and we have not forgotten them. Never! Never! Never again shall we stand idle in the face of such barbarous crimes against humanity.

Justice for the Victims, NOW!

The names of those who pulled the trigger in the 2005 massacres are well known to the regime. The Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Police, Workneh Gebeyehu, told Col. Michael Dewars that “As a direct result of the 2005 riots, [Gebeyehu had] sacked 237 policemen.”3 Gebeyehu’s statement nullifies prior regime claims that the regime has no specific knowledge of any criminal conduct by riot policemen in the killings of the protesters. Gebeyehu’s admission to Dewars conclusively establishes the existence of a list of at least 237 policemen who are now prime suspects in the massacres of peaceful protesters in June and November of 2005. THESE CRIMINAL POLICE SUSPECTS SHOULD BE BROUGHT TO JUSTICE IMMEDIATELY! Recently, the Waki Commission in Kenya recommended that a sealed list of suspects in the post-election disturbances in that country be turned over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible prosecution for crimes against humanity. Ethiopians deserve no less. A sealed list of the names of the 237 police officers mentioned by Gebeyehu should be turned over immediately to the International Criminal Court for prosecution on suspicion of crimes against humanity!

Light A Candle for an Angel

Let’s say a prayer for all of the innocent victims of state terror in Ethiopia. Let’s light a few candles in their honor. Let’s honor their memories by becoming members of Amnesty International, U.S.A., Human Rights Watch or any of the other international human rights organizations. Let’s create awareness about Ethiopian human rights with our neighbors and co-workers and others in our local communities. How about installing a computer screensaver of 193 candles with the background images of the martyrs of June and November for you to remember.3 “Justice is like a train that is nearly always late” but for the fiendishly wicked, justice always arrives in the nick of time. “If trouble hearing Angels song with thine ears, try listening with thy heart.”

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at

1 These victims were documented by the Inquiry Commission in its investigation of shootings of unarmed protesters in Addis Ababa on June 8, and November 1-10 and 14-16, 2005 in Oromia, SNNPR and Amhara regional states. Full list at:
2 For full report, see
4 Screensaver at: