This story was originally published in the September 1986 issue of SPIN, following an exposé on Live Aid’s real effect on Ethiopia, which ran in the July 1986 issue (“Live Aid: The Terrible Truth“), and a response from Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, which ran in the August 1986 issue. To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, we’ve republished this second investigation into relief aid abuses in Ethiopia.
The reign of terror began on the eve of May Day, 1977.
In Ethiopia’s national palace, ringed by tall walls and hard-faced black men, the decision was made. Outside, young students flowed through the streets and the back alleys toward the center of the capital, where thousands were gathering for a protest rally against the government.
At the same time, at an outlying military barracks, soldiers loaded their high-powered rifles and machine guns onto large canvas-covered trucks, climbed aboard, and headed toward the center of town. In the main square, the crowds, now swollen to many thousands, listened to speeches and slogans and shouted loudly about the freedom that comes from revolution. No one saw the trucks with the soldiers as they drew near. Suddenly, the trucks rolled to a stop, the canvas flaps flew back, and the soldiers poured out. Before anyone could react, the machine guns and rifles spat a dull, deadly tattoo, riddling the crowd as screams of liberation turned to screams of despair. When the assault was over, 500 students and children lay dead.
For days afterward the streets of Addis Ababa were empty except for the bodies of young students and children on which the soldiers hung signs that read, “I am dead because I am a counterrevolutionary.”
Corpses of pregnant women had the words “I gave birth to a contra” carved in their bellies. Parents had to purchase the bodies of their children back from the government for the inflated cost of however many bullets it took to kill them.
For weeks following, some 100 to 150 children were slaughtered nightly. “One thousand children have been massacred in Addis Ababa and their bodies, lying on the streets, are ravaged by roving hyenas,” declared the Secretary General of the Swedish Save the Children Fund. “The bodies of murdered children, mostly aged 11 to 13 years, can be seen heaped at the roadside when one leaves Addis.”
In the few months that followed, another 5,000 Ethiopians were arbitrarily executed, bringing the toll of Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rise to power to more than 30,000 in three short years.
Mengistu’s brutal pattern of bold executions and merciless torture continues to this day.
“Mengistu rose to power on the bodies of his comrades,” says Dan Connell of Grassroots International, a relief agency. “He consolidated his power on the bodies of the students during the Red Terror. And he maintains it on the bodies of the peasant population today.”
Observes another source: “This guy’s presided over more death than Idi Amin.”
Meanwhile, across this ravaged and apparently godforsaken land travel the politicians and entertainers who have granted to the people of Ethiopia some of their time to solve a “glamorous” crisis while ignoring or remaining silent in the presence of tragedy.
While Bob Geldof, Senator Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Lionel Richie, and others waver over what the real issues are in Ethiopia, Chairman Mengistu runs the most vicious government on the planet, a criminal empire that this year was given the lowest rating for human rights in a comprehensive book just published by The Economist.
Mengistu has turned mass murder on May Day into an Ethiopian tradition. On May 1, 1979, for example, more than 100 political prisoners from the province of Oromo were marched out of their cells and “machine gunned to death by soldiers and their bodies displayed in public,” according to Amnesty International. Similar killings continued the following day.
Security officers routinely shot and killed people in their homes, whether or not the contraband they looked for, such as illegal weapons or publications, was found. Children at an Addis school were gunned down as their parents demonstrated for the release of their other offspring. Soldiers are granted a license to kill and handed a list of hundreds of names with photographs of “wanted persons.” Sometimes, instead of leaving the “I am a contra” sign on a body, soldiers place one that reads, “Mistaken identity.”
Religion has been outlawed and worshippers punished. Church members, priests, and ministers rot in jail, while soldiers have machine gunned blindly into crowded mosques.
One night in March 1978, soldiers knocked on the door of a holy man and took away his 14-year-old son without explanation. According to a reporter for The Times of London who was in Addis, “They returned his body after four hours, disfigured by torture, the eyes gouged out, and the body burned by electric shock.”
So while rock star Geldof casually refers to “making deals with the devil,” Mengistu tortures and murders his own people and shows amply what dealing with the devil means.
Mengistu has as many enemies as there are people who fear him — and that is most of Ethiopia. The bastard son of an Ethiopian aristocrat and his former slave, he isn’t a member of the ruling Amhara nation, which made his sudden rise to power especially surprising to his comrades. “Many of them,” says one Ethiopian, “have been surprised to their graves.”
A graduate of Ethiopia’s one-year military school — rather than its prestigious West Point-like four-year academy as were many of his comrades — Mengistu’s insatiable appetite for power is perhaps rooted in his lower class “lesser-citizen” status. From all accounts, he is an imposing though rather slight man, guided by this monster within. The target of several assassination attempts, today he moves about inside a constant ring of heavily armed security men. Peasants in Addis Ababa often say that he literally lives inside a tank.
Mengistu was a 32-year-old army captain when in 1974 he became part of a committee of 120 junior officers formed to demand salary increases from Emperor Haile Selassie. The Dergue, as the committee was called, quickly turned into a rebellion and overthrew Selassie in September 1974 in a bloodless coup. Mengistu, it is said, completed the revolt by suffocating the frail deposed leader with a pillow. He has proven to be especially talented at revolutionary politics. Fancying himself a Bolshevik, after taking power he began assassinating the other members of the Dergue in Wild West style or had them executed. Today, out of the 120 original members, only seven have survived.
Among the assassinations was the bold murder in his office of Mengistu’s co-chairman on the Dergue. Shootouts in the hallways of the capital’s political buildings became frequent. Thousands of opponents were thrown into the damp, dark, freezing cold wine cellars of the old Menelik Palace. It was there in early 1977 that Mengistu sprung a trap on the growing coterie within the Dergue who wanted to have him arrested. On February 2, in one move, he wiped out all of his leading opponents in a spectacular mass execution. This moment turned into the bloody Red Terror and all that has followed. Mengistu would never again be seriously challenged from within Addis Ababa. Today, all of his major opponents are either distant or dead.
In 1977, Amnesty International issued a report revealing Mengistu’s “increasingly serious violations of human rights in Ethiopia.” Aside from the rampant murders, Amnesty reported that thousands of Ethiopians had been illegally imprisoned under inhumane conditions and subjected to “severe beating…electric shock…sexual torture, including the rape of women…the pulling out and hammering of toe and fingernails…dipping the victim in hot oil…forcible feeding with urine and mud.”
By 1986, when The Economists World Human Rights Guide damned Mengistu for his “many extremes of torture…beatings, hot oil, electric shock, genital torture,” he had already — with the aid of his new benefactor, the Soviet Union — begun employing new tactics of oppression.
In the north of Ethiopia, where he is fighting two of the many rebel groups that have formed against him, Mengistu’s massive military campaigns in the midst of severe drought were a major cause of famine. The systematic scorching of farmland, the destruction of crops and killing of oxen, and the constant air and napalm attacks forced the people of Eritrea to live in cities they have burrowed into the earth, surfacing at night to tend their ravaged fields.
After throwing a lavish celebration of his rise to power in September 1984 at a cost of some $100 million, Mengistu appealed to the West for famine relief — wary that a famine of immense proportion might topple his government as the famine of 1973 helped bring down Haile Selassie.
Since then, he has used much of the nearly $5 billion raised by international relief agencies to implement several ongoing programs of social control: resettlement of 1.5 million Ethiopians from their homelands in the north to the distant south and “villagization,” which will gather up 33 million from the countryside into concentration centers. Already 620,000 have been resettled in such a brutal fashion that at least 100,000 died in the process.
When Bob Geldof came to Addis Ababa in November 1985, it was a tidier city than the one of seven years before. The bodies of the children that animals had come to pick at had been cleaned up and dumped into mass graves.
Geldof’s entourage lodged at one of the finest of hotels, the Addis Hilton, replete with pool, tennis courts, fine restaurants, bars, and nightclub. From here, Geldof and his associate Kevin Jenden went to meet with officials of Mengistu’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), along with representatives of 47 relief agencies working in Ethiopia. An account of this meeting appears in the recent book With Geldof in Africa by British journalists David Blundy and Paul Vallely. Holding up an article in The Wall Street Journal containing charges by a Boston-based group of anthropologists, Cultural Survival, that between 50,000 and 100,000 people had died as a result of the resettlement program, Geldof asked, “Is this true or not?”
“I’ve read it,” answered Father Jack Finucane of Concern, another relief group, “and I don’t believe it.” Everyone gathered agreed with Finucane, but one of the senior aid officials slipped the British journalists a note saying, “Do not expect anyone to speak freely while the man in the blue suit is here.” That man was Berhane Deressa, head of the RRC.
Later, away from RRC officials, Geldof was given an honest assessment of resettlement. Everyone who had been in the same room now agreed: It was a disaster. “They suspected that the motive behind the government’s program was more political than humanitarian,” writes Blundy and Vallely. But Geldof and the others continued to ignore what was clear — that the Ethiopian government was killing its own people.
Michael Fiszbin of the French medical group Medicins sans Frontieres lashed out at what he had heard. Blundy and Vallely quote MSF and the Red Cross as stating, “We cannot support a program when we cannot lay down the barest criteria: that people are not forced to go; that families are not broken up; that people get basic provisions when they arrive. We do not approve of resettlement. We cannot help carry it out.”
Geldof disagreed, “If we had been in existence during the Second World War and we heard that people were dying in concentration camps, would we refuse to give them food and aid in those camps? Of course not. The same principle applies here.”
Geldof had arrived in this seat of a criminal government by greeting Berhane Deressa of the RRC with hugs and enthusiasm that belied the moral repugnance burning inside him. Amid much backslapping and laughter, the two men launched into some verbal jousting over ideology: “You Marxist bastard”; “You capitalist swine.” And then there were more laughs and slaps on the back.
The climax of Geldof’s tour of Ethiopia was his return to the city of Korem, which he had first visited after the Band Aid record to witness in person the tragedy of starvation. Now the wide plateau high in the mountains of north central Ethiopia had been touched by bits of green, and the sea of tents and flesh had been diminished. The population had become reduced from 85,000 to a more manageable 23,000. Except for the pervasive stench the suffering had left behind, at first Korem appeared much the better. But it wasn’t.
Two days after Geldof and his entourage pulled out of Korem, soldiers from the nearby garrison, along with government workers swinging sticks, rounded up some 500 famine victims onto trucks owned by Save the Children and sent them on the brutal journey south to a resettlement camp. The act was so vicious that another 10,000 fled into the hills. Medicins sans Frontieres complained so vehemently about this that they were threatened with expulsion.
At the same time, MSF’s pleas to open an intensive seeding center in the town of Wollo were being turned down by the government. MSF, with doctors and nutritionists only meters from where 3,000 children lay dying for want of the readily-available food, was prevented from distributing any food without government approval. Each day they found more bodies of dead children who had wandered along the road in a desperate bid for help.
“After five months of requests, we realized that all who could have taken advantage of the feeding center had died,” says Dr. Rony Brauman, president of MSF. “Three thousand children had died just a few meters away from medical and nutritional teams — from a place where all the means were gathered to save them.”
MSF’s open outburst over human rights violations and the blatant misuse and manipulation of famine relief by the Ethiopian government finally led to their expulsion from the tragic country last December.
The tragic news from Korem reached Bob Geldof in London two days later. But it did not jar him from his determined course to do business in Ethiopia. Nor did the inhumane genocide of 3,000 children in Wollo at the same time.
“MSF unfortunately got evicted for their political views,” Geldom recently stated, commenting that the agency “seems to have allowed itself to be used as pawns” by those against the Mengistu government.
“I said as early as January 1985, I will shake hands with the devil on my left and on my right to get to the people we are meant to help. Unlike MSF, wounded pride does not come into it.”
So, in November 1985, while Geldof was backslapping and kidding with the head of Ethiopia’s RRC, making the first of his “deals with the devil,” in another part of Addis Ababa, according to Amnesty International, 60 political enemies of Mengistu, including a former Ethiopian senator and assistant minister of education, were being taken from their frigid cells in the wine cellar of the former emperor’s palace and secretly executed without trial.
“I am now convinced,” says Dr. Brauman, “that the most useful assistance that we can provide Ethiopians is to renounce publicly and loudly the massive human rights violations and stop supporting a policy which is creating starvation. This should be the role of the United Nations.”
But it isn’t.
So removed from the causes of massive suffering in Ethiopia is the United Nations that despite Ethiopia being cited as the worst government on earth regarding human rights, and in the face of consistent and specific examples of abuses that Amnesty International has flooded the world body with for more than a decade, there has not been even a single attempt by the U.N. to investigate the allegations.
The car bearing Senator Ted Kennedy and his children Kara and Teddy pulled up on a hill high above the town of Makelle, and they looked down upon the tens of thousands of famine victims huddled in the massive relief camp below. It was December 19, 1984, and the Kennedys had come to spend Christmas in Ethiopia. The Senator’s account of the trip became the cover story of People magazine. He wrote of their shock at the enormity of the crisis and his commitment “to see that America is doing enough.” But as his children walked with him among throngs of emaciated, prideful Ethiopians, he noted, “Our hosts were reluctant to be candid, as if somehow they were at fault for their meager resources at hand.” To which he told them, “I’m not here to find fault, but to help.”
At the end of their two-day stay at the Makelle camps, Kara turned to her father and asked, “If we have enough funding for weapons, why can’t we have enough to save the lives of children?” Recalling the enormous famines suffered by India in the ’60s, the Senator told her that the answer was Western aid and agricultural reforms.
This spring, Kennedy’s special counsel, Jerry Tinker, returned to Ethiopia and reported that, “The message from Makelle and from other parts of Ethiopia is that a major human catastrophe was avoided. Our aid made a difference, a difference between life and death for millions.”
While Kennedy’s report circulated, so did another by Amnesty International that made it seem like the Senator was talking about a different Ethiopia. This message from Makelle concerned prisoners “being tortured by public security officers…beaten with metal bars, sticks, and whips while suspended from the ceiling by a rope, with the body tied into a contorted position nicknamed ‘number eight.’”
The 1986 World Human Rights Guide, published by The Economist, lists violations by the Mengistu government, ranging from censorship to extrajudicial killings by members of the military, from indefinite detention without charge to the death penalty for unauthorized travel outside the country — a policy that is a clear danger to the more than 2.5 million Ethiopian refugees who have fled across the borders into Somalia and Sudan.
On his visit, Kennedy, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy, “remembered putting coins in the collection plate for Haile Selassie when I was a child.” Today, his approach to Ethiopia hasn’t changed, but the country has. And there are very real political reasons why Kennedy and other liberals in Congress refuse to recognize it, despite the fact that Congress publishes yearly reports on human rights violations there. These are reports that Kennedy sees, yet not once in his People article does he mention human rights violations. Kennedy doesn’t want to appear to be a Republican by opposing Mengistu, while at the same time, others, such as the Congressional Black Caucus don’t want to admit that anything could be wrong.
“The man in the blue suit,” Berhane Deressa, also didn’t want to believe that there was so much wrong with Ethiopia. But last May, Deressa suddenly defected to the West. He had arrived in New York City as part of a U.N. group of experts on refugees, to testify that Ethiopia had made a commitment to stop forceful resettlement of people.
But ten days into the conference, Deressa got word that back in Addis Ababa the main party man who had managed the resettlement had reinstated the brutal program, saying, “The program will not change for a handful of grain.”
“The arrogance of this man, to say that,” fumes Deressa. “I decided I could not continue with this mindless policy that was being pursued, and would not return to the policy of arbitrary arrest. People who challenge these policies are arrested. And so, ironically enough, I became the refugee that I was sent here to study. I honestly felt that I could not sell my country to the world while it pursued these policies and at the same time live with my conscience.”
One of the biggest stirs surrounding the Live Aid concert one year ago was who was turning down the invitation to perform and why. The most important and controversial rejection came from Huey Lewis who said, “There are questions as to whether the food is actually getting to the starving people or not. We felt, having done the USA for Africa thing, that we should wait and watch that. The jury’s still out. The prudent thing to do is to see how that money translates into food for people before we do another one.”
When he heard this, Harry Belafonte, one of the key organizers of Live Aid, was livid.
“I would suggest that Mr. Lewis get his facts together and that he stop being disruptive and divisive” shot back Belafonte to a reporter. “If he is such a hotshot with his mouth, let him get on a plane and go sit in a camp.”
It is clear now that Lewis raised the right questions, but Belafonte’s bitter defensiveness is even more revealing and symptomatic of the actions of a number of important black figures.
“Why do Jesse Jackson, members of the Black Caucus, stars like Harry Belafonte and Lionel Richie only get arrested in front of the South African Embassy?” asks Yonas Deressa, president of the Ethiopian Refugees, Education, and Relief Foundation and brother of Berhane. “Apartheid — abhorrent, repugnant, Nazi-like as it is in terms of policy — you don’t see hundreds of thousands of people dying from starvation in South Africa because of government policy. You don’t see 1.8 million people perish. You don’t see 620,000 black South Africans being put in concentration camps, slave labor camps.”
A call to Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH headquarters in Chicago inquiring about his organization’s stance on the severe human rights violations by the Mengistu government in Ethiopia is met with hostility; PUSH has not looked into the situation.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to in any sense examine that,” says Reverend George Redick, vice president at large. “The country still needs aid whether there are violations or not. Could it be that this is a way of keeping aid from black countries in Africa?
“Why do you suddenly want to talk about human rights violations in Ethiopia? Why aren’t you talking about human rights violations in South Africa? It’s not relevant is it, because, of course, they’re a white government against black people.”
Told that the policies of Ethiopia, not South Africa were the reason for the phone call, Reverend Redick hangs u?.
“What we’re dealing with here is one of the biggest scandals that’s ever taken place.”
Gayle Smith, a relief worker in Ethiopia, still shows the pain of the reality of what is happening in Ethiopia when she tries to describe its tragic absurdities.
“There’s no public accountability in any of this,” she continues. “Nobody has given the public the information to judge whether what the relief organizations are doing is right or wrong or fair or neutral or humanitarian or anything. No one is putting this story together comprehensively.”
One reason is because many of the very organizations that have been in Ethiopia for years have long since ceased providing solutions: They’ve become part of the problem. The business of aid contains more than a fair opportunity for corruption. Groups like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) justify their continued presence in Ethiopia by hiding behind the banner of humanitarianism.
Last January, a Federal inquiry was launched into the finances of one relief organization, the California-based International Christian Aid. Run by evangelist L. Joe Bass, ICA raised an estimated $20 million in three months, none of which ever appeared in Africa, while lCA saw its bank account swell as famine went on in Africa.
“Groups like World Vision have more money than anybody has ever seen before because of Ethiopia,” says Jack Shepard, a journalist who covers Third World countries and who wrote a book about Ethiopia’s last famine in the early ’70s. “They’ve got money in bank accounts making money. Just the interest is more money than they ever had. These groups are literally saying to themselves, ‘What the hell should we do with this money?'”
Lawrence Pezzullo, the executive director of Catholic Relief Services, had a creative solution. While the agency was under attack from the government for spending only $9 million of the $52 million it had raised for African famine victims through a major fund drive in 1984, Pezzullo reportedly took a $100,000 interest free personal loan from CRS.
It was not the first scandal at CRS. In 1982, the National Catholic Reporter exposed the agency’s involvement in Indonesian-occupied East Timor. “Human rights groups have long alleged that [CRS and the International Committee of the Red Cross] let Indonesians use food aid to lure the Timorese into resettlement areas where their lives could be carefully controlled and resistance crushed.”
This is exactly what is going on in Ethiopia.
Finally, there is another reason Ethiopia’s agony continues unrelieved: In the face of the monster that is Mengistu Haile Mariam too many people — Bob Geldof, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and others — have chosen not to pressure Mengistu’s hideous government to end the oppression. Instead, they make their deals and remain silent, while hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are wiped away.
“There are good people in this country,” says Gayle Smith, “who if given all the information will act with a conscious sense that what is going on in Ethiopia shouldn’t be happening on this planet.”
All photos by Getty Images