How difficult and protracted is a revolution! How much blood it costs, when the contradictions within society and between its component forces have not been resolved! And when the ‘cadres’ who ought to be leading the revolution fall every day (or night) beneath the blows of faceless enemies!
Two weeks ago, less than twenty-four hours after we arrived in Addis Ababa, we felt the reality and enormity of this price in a direct and painful way. We had asked to see Haile Yesus, the representative of the Ethiopian revolution who scarcely two months earlier had visited Italy in a first direct encounter with our society. ‘Haile Yesus who?’, we were asked. ‘Haile Yesus Walde Senbet.’ It was a Wednesday afternoon. Yes, they said, they would look for him.
Someone else found him. The next day, on Thursday afternoon, Haile Yesus Walde Senbet was shot down on the main road separating the Hilton Hotel from the Foreign Ministry. This should have been one of the quietest areas of Addis Ababa, that ‘new flower’ founded by Emperor Menelik : 8,000 feet above sea level, a cluster of hills covered with conifers and slim eucalyptus trees, mud-huts and walled houses, modern apartment buildings and near-skyscrapers—each with lift, roof-top bar and restaurant. All once part of the personal fortune of Haile Selassie, the emperor overthrown in 1974.
So, all we saw of Walde Senbet was a newspaper photo under the heading, ‘Burial of our fallen comrades’—the others being a sergeant and a corporal who had been killed in error by a defence-squad of the kebele (the basic organizations in Ethiopian towns today). Many more die, or risk dying, condemned by a phone-call or letter giving notice of ‘execution’. Three days after Walde Senbet’s death, we were reading his obituary in the papers—it was an exemplary story, of a man whose political maturation kept pace with the ‘acceleration of history’ taking place in Ethiopia—when suddenly we heard a single pistol-shot in the street. From the window we could see, less than a hundred yards away, people running and gathering about a shape on the ground; there was someone fleeing, pursued by someone else pointing a pistol. Later, we went to talk with four leaders of the all-Ethiopian trade unions—organizations that rose from the ashes of the old federation, which had been a key instrument of the imperialist system. One of these leaders had spent four months in hospital after being wounded by the volley of shots that killed
These are just the facts which are on everyone’s lips: many others are part of ‘normal life’. Ten minutes after the murder witnessed from the window of our lodgings (which were somewhat more modest than the Hilton), life was going on as before: the crowd was once more streaming along the pavements and covering the scene of the tragedy with ordinary, everyday activity. Was the crowd indifferent then? Well, we later visited a kebele that was celebrating the anniversary of the ‘Association of Proletarians’—that is, the local workers and artisans, who are actually more artisans than workers. Gathered beneath a marquee that had been drawn across a courtyard against the blazing sun, these ‘proletarians’ too seemed indifferent. They sat silently at long, rough-hewn log tables, after buying their token from the cash-desk for a tec (the Ethiopian drink made from fermented honey) or a portion of chili-flavoured stew. As Italian rice-workers used to do, they listened in silence to a woman singing at the top of her voice, and the ardour of the song seemed to pass over without touching them. In the middle of the number, an old man suddenly stood up and harangued the crowd, speaking fiercely and with an anger that neither he nor anyone else had exhibited a moment before.
He said that the ‘class enemies’ should be destroyed. He used the actual term ‘class enemies’—beings which this kebele had first encountered a few days earlier, when someone had driven a car at top speed through the neighbourhood firing from the window. But the structure of the new organization had passed the test: nearby kebele were alerted and their defence-squads blocked the path of the car. In the two-hour gunfight that followed, two ‘class enemies’ were killed and two more captured. One of these was a girl—just as, outside the kebele offices, it was girls who stood guard, wearing the pistols with which they had fought their battle against the ‘counter-revolutionaries’.
Addis Ababa thus seems to have become the focal point of social contradictions. Through a radical egalitarian land reform and through the nationalization of urban land and privately owned dwellings in excess of a single apartment per person, the revolution has swept away age-old privileges and dazzling riches accumulated out of a sea of misery. This is why the situation in the capital is as it is today. One day we spoke with Dr Alemu Abebe, candidate for the office of mayor. (The kebele elect three candidates, of whom one is chosen by the government to occupy the highest office in the capital. Of the three candidates, one had already been murdered.) Alemu smiled when we expressed our fears. ‘Why be worried? For my physical well-being, perhaps?’ And after this roguish piece of self-irony, he told us why the situation has developed precisely in this way.