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1 November 2009

New buildings often go unnoticed in Addis Ababa. Jungles of construction sites with precarious wooden scaffolding clutter Ethiopia’s capital. But one new project is causing a stir. A quiet, modernist museum on the edge of the city’s central square is loaded with contention. “They say it doesn’t represent the Red Terror,” says architect, Fasil Giorgis in the foyer of his new building, “But what do they want? A pile of guns in Meskel Square?”

Giorgis’ slate grey exhibition centre, which will be formally opened next month, has been years in the making. As the country’s premier architect, the Helsinki-trained Ethiopian found himself in the thick of a protracted debate on how to commemorate the victims of the Red Terror, a brutal Soviet-style purge launched by the Marxist-military dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in the late 1970s.

At first an obelisk was mooted. Then, a behemoth sculpture was championed, and just as quickly dropped because of Meskel Square’s religious significance. Meetings became increasingly fraught as relatives of the dead turned out in force to debate the project. “Two hundred people had come to the municipality, all with conflicting ideas,” says Giorgis, “Then one grandmother who had lost her sons, stood up and said, ‘Go with the museum,’ and it was decided.” 

Meskel Square is Addis Ababa’s most iconic public place. Every morning svelte Ethiopians sprint around the semi-circular amphitheatre-style arena in patriotic apple green and yellow kit. Pop concerts featuring Amharic stars attract young Ethiopians in their thousands. But the space is also haunted by the ghosts of Ethiopia’s bloody past. Mengistu – whose regime known as the Dergue deposed the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 – launched the Red Terror from the square in April 1977 by smashing three bottles of red liquid (which he said represented the blood of “counter-revolutionaries”) and calling for a purge of “oppositionists”.

From that moment on, the Dergue imposed a reign of terror on all citizens, inciting and arming vigilante squads to hunt down and kill students, teachers and intellectuals whose bodies were then labelled and left by the side of the road as warnings to other dissenters. According to Amnesty International, up to 500,000 people were killed. “This building is my donation to the friends I lost. That fear, the fear I had when I was 14, was just terrible,” says Giorgis, “I don’t ever want this to happen again. This building, the line and form, represents that crisis.”

Despite Giorgis’ clarity, it’s clear Ethiopia is struggling with how best to remember its martyrs. Any monument is mired in controversy; the government is careful not to glorify any victims associated with the country’s defunct monarchy. Addis Ababa’s authorities have only recently opened the tomb of Haile Selassie to the public. Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, attended the official opening in 2000, 25 years after the emperor’s alleged execution by Mengistu’s henchmen. Haile Selassie’s remains were exhumed (from where they were buried under a latrine) and installed in Trinity Cathedral in an unusual futurist mausoleum – the vast marble structures look worthy of Boccioni. 

For a country unsure of how best to represent its brutal past, modernism is proving to be a profound tool. Giorgis’ modest stone-and-slate façade, which shelves away into the side of Meskel Square, has a sombre minimalism and church-like sanctity. And while some critics have called for a more conventional monument, the city’s public has already embraced Giorgis’ scheme. The complex will also include a library, a bookshop, a café and a convention centre to discuss human rights.

Inside the auditorium allocated for such discussions, Giorgis smiles, “Can you believe it? Human rights.” It’s a contentious issue in Ethiopia where opposition members and politicians are regularly intimidated and arrested. Voices of dissent during the most recent elections in 2005 were brutally crushed by the current prime minister’s guard. And with the national elections of May 2010 in the offing, a climate of fear is increasingly palpable.

Despite the ironies of the new building, its very existence is a powerful reminder of past atrocities. “We have a crypt here,” says Giorgis, pointing to dozens of coffins draped in the national flag. “These are filed with bones from nearby mass graves. There are hundreds of bodies in each one. These are the disappeared.”


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