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The tumultuous years of the 1970s in Contemporary Ethiopian History: A Memoir, 1975:  Serving in the National Youth Campaign “Zemecha”

Berhane Tadesse _ Zemecha
Berhane Tadesse

By Berhane S. Tadese

Recently, I had an opportunity to virtually reconnect with colleagues who had served with me in the Town of Gelta in Gomogofa province (Gamo Zone) during the Edget be Hebret Zemecha[1] which brought back a flood of memories and inspired me to reflect upon my personal experiences of the time.  The Edget be Hebret Zemecha, a national youth campaign launched by the Derg regime in 1975, had a significant impact on Ethiopia’s history and especially on the lives of the young men and women who were drafted into the campaign. As one who was drafted into that campaign forty-seven years ago, I would like to openly share my memories of that experience and invite others to do the same, in the hopes that we collectively reflect on how that era has shaped us and our entire generation.   

Ethiopia’s political, economic, and social problems had been worsening throughout the 1960s leading to the February 1974 Revolution. Without going into too many details, the lack of a strong political party and the presence of a relatively well organized military, created the conditions for the establishment of the Provisional Military Administrative Council  of Ethiopia, in Amharic known as the “Derg.”  The Derg issued a series of proclamations intended to address the root cause of the revolution – inherent inequality in Ethiopian society. Among the most notable proclamations were state confiscation of: 1) Rural land  from the balabat (i.e.,  landowners/the nobility) for redistribution to the  tchisegna (sharecroppers or peasants who tilled that land- ጭሰኛ) and all 2) privately held urban land and rentable houses. The confiscation of rural lands, in particular, permanently abolished ties between the balabat and the tchisegna. In 1975 the Derg issued a proclamation making Edget be Hebret Zemecha mandatory for all secondary (10th grade and up) and university students as well as teachers. It claimed that the zemecha was intended to unite the country’s high school and university students with their rural compatriots to collaboratively develop the country and implement the proclamations of the revolution. Among the public however, there were different interpretations as to the real purpose behind the Zemacha. Some thought it was intended to remove student activists (the Derg’s most vocal opponents) from urban areas  by dispatching  them to remote parts of the country, allowing the Derg to consolidate its power.

Zemecha _ Ethiopia  _ Literacy campaign
Participants of anti- illiteracy campaign ( Zemecha ) in uniform. (Photo : courtesy of Berhane Tadesse)

This was also my view at the time, as I witnessed the erosion of democratic rights. Others believed that the main objective was to strengthen a shared national identity, putting aside religious, ethnic, and racial differences in order to prioritize “Ethiopianness.” The Campaign was to serve the people wholeheartedly and with determination. Some of the goals of the Edget be Hebret campaign included teaching the peasantry various skills, such as reading, writing, and providing basic agricultural, health, technical and related topics. To achieve this, more than 60,000 students, teachers, heath care workers etc. were drafted into the Zemecha and sent across all corners of the country (except Eritrea), confirming, the historical experience that Ethiopian youth were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of equality.

The roughly 120 students assigned to my Zemacha unit were drawn from my high school (Teferi Mekonnen), and other schools across Addis Ababa (such as Abraham Lincoln) as well as students from Gomugofa Province itself.  

We were dispatched by bus to Arba Minch, the capital of Gomugofa Province in the Southern part of the country, about 221 miles from Addis Ababa. Although it was my first time travelling to Gomugofa, I had been to Harar and Arusi in the past which helped boost my confidence in my ability to live in a place I had never visited before. But I also noticed that there were some of my fellow students who felt lost, especially as some were as young as fifteen years old. As we set off for our journey, I was excited to be part of the revolution and looked forward to helping peasants. My parents on the other hand were worried about my wellbeing due to the instability in the country. The Derg was undertaking extra judicial killings claiming it was in defense of the revolution which had the effect of terrorizing  Ethiopian society. Having witnessed the turmoil unfolding in the country, my parents’ primary concern was my safety and well-being. They packed me delicious dry foods and snacks such as dabokolo and chicko for sustenance during my journey. 

In Arba Minch, we were joined by other students from Gomugofa. Our first stop was a small remote village called Felege Nawai (ፈለገ ነዋይ). As the village was inaccessible by road, we were flown there on a small propeller plane that could take no more than 30 passengers at a time. The plane had to make multiple trips to transport our entire unit. Our “Zemecha leader” was a navy Petty Officer named Dawit assisted by a University Lecturer in Biology, named Kifle.

Petty officer Dawit and Ato Kifle were responsible for running the program, such as ensuring our safety and the availability of sufficient food and other supplies. They were also responsible for resolving conflicts that might arise among the zemachoch and providing travel permits and so forth.

Zemecha duties mainly revolved around literacy campaigns and sharing knowledge about good practices in agriculture, health and other related topics. Most of the zemechoch had no experience in these areas. I personally had very limited exposure to literacy education or dissemination of information on  agriculture. My own limited experience as an educator came from my summer job teaching reading and math to 2nd and 3rd graders in a public school in Addis Ababa.  I also had some general knowledge of farming.  My parents had inherited farmland, cattle, and later owned their own dairy farm about 30 km from Addis in the Suluta area. As a child, I used to go to Suluta with my parents to visit my aunt (my father’s sister) and would sometimes stay with her for a couple of weeks. This gave me an opportunity to experience the rural lifestyle and observe farming activities such as ploughing the fields with oxen and crop harvesting.

Our basecamp was the town of Gelta ( ገልጣ) where within a week or so of our arrival, committees were set up to carry out various activities. It is not clear who initiated the establishment of these committees, perhaps it was the combined ideas of the zemachoch and Petty Officer Dawit and Ato Kifle.

I remember one of these committees being the Food Committee which was headed by Fasil and Abdul. The main task of the committee was to supply food on a daily basis to the zemachoch. The Food Committee was comprised of 4 boys and 2 girls who were charged with preparing food – with the exception of baking injera, they handled everything else. When the Food Committee was ready to serve us, an announcement would be made, then we would form a long line. Meals were given on a   first come first serve basis. The Food Committee monitored the line to ensure no one takes more than their allotted share. Our meals were mostly injera although the wot varied but sometimes we were given spaghetti, rice, or macaroni with sauce.

The other committee that made the biggest impression on me is the Study Club. The objective of the club was to educate its members on political philosophy with a focus on socialism and communism by reading books, newspapers, and pamphlets that members had managed to collect. In the evenings, we would hold intensive discussions and debates on various topics. Topics may include the history of the Russian and French revolutions, socialist ideals, such as “means of production shall be owned by peasants,” and discouraging private ownership. We also debated hot button issues of the time, drawing on pamphlets written by various Ethiopian leftist organizations that were attempting to advance the goals of the Ethiopian revolution and newspapers issued by the Derg. The ultimate goal was to establish a communist society. I believe that the knowledge we gained through the Study Club laid the foundation for our identity today which also created deep friendships and a close-knit group that continues to this day.

Looking back, I would classify my zemacha unit into three groups: 1) those who were not at all interested in sociopolitical debates of the day; 2) those focused on the Western way of life (that is to say, they wore bell bottoms and other trendy clothes of the time and spent their spare time listening to western disco music);  and 3) those who were deeply engaged in political philosophy, especially Marxism as a way of understanding and addressing persistent socioeconomic inequalities (those I would call the progressives). The progressives were sincerely committed to change. They sought ways to liberate the oppressed people of Ethiopia with genuine commitment to change so that the revolution would not be reversed.

 In hindsight, these progressive zemachoch and other leftist revolutionary groups were attempting to copy and paste the political theories, analyses and histories of foreign countries without knowing or understanding our own history. At the time, bookstores in Addis Ababa were overflowing with Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist books.  These political theories had a profound influence on students and might have even prevented more indigenous political theories and forms of struggle for freedom that might have otherwise emerged.

As I now reflect back on my time during the zemacha and now armed with the benefit of hindsight, I am also struck by some of the weaknesses in my zemacha unit. At one point, I recall that some of our colleagues were being bullied, although I do not remember now why this occurred. Perhaps this was because for the first time, young people found themselves without the protection and guidance of their families and “went wild,” or brought with them some personal issues or perhaps it was simply due to lack of political awareness and maturity.  

It is interesting to note that Socialist political theories were preached from several different sources, versions and perspectives, but nevertheless, they all shared the same goal of advocating for public rather than private ownership of property. With the fast pace of the revolution, it was difficult for the typical zemach to appreciate that this was propaganda at work or to fully comprehend the political theories we were reading or how these theories may (or may not) apply to the Ethiopian context. This is why we witnessed the tendency in some zemachoch to resort to aggressive language, coercion and force to persuade others of the rightness of their positions. The lack of willingness to consider different perspectives promotes intolerance and limits the ability to think critically and could even lead to violence. The zemachoch were taught that social equality (that is the eradication of poverty) will be achieved through revolution rather than a democratic process. In general, the absence of a democratic process – where citizens have access to reliable information, can openly debate ideas that affect their lives and together define ways to change and improve their condition – is one of the root weaknesses in Ethiopia’s politics. Unfortunately, this pattern persists to this day and is a contributing factor to the tragic events we are now witnessing.

A funny anecdote that illustrates how brainwashed we were by “socialist ideals” of the time is that the care packages and snacks our families had packed for us such as qolo, besso etc were all confiscated and redistributed among us, just as land had been expropriated and redistributed among the peasants. At that time, neither I nor my fellow zemachoch considered this a violation of any kind, although now looking back, it does feel like a violation.

We were sent to work in a beautiful village called Gaila (ጋይላ)  set against a background of a green forest,  located about an hour’s walk from our basecamp in Gelta. The tchisegna villagers of Gaila, all lived in mud huts with thatched roofs. The balabat lived in the finest houses of the village; this and their differing lifestyles made it easy for us to distinguish between the balabat and tchisegna. Laws to expropriate land were proclaimed with the objective of radically transforming the social order, but centuries old relationships could not be undone so rapidly. The peasants continued to till with an ox and a plow and I still do not know whether the ox and plow belonged to the balabat or the tchisegna.

One of our tasks was to help the villagers of Gaila in their daily work on their farms. The villagers were engaged in agriculture, mainly in subsistence farming and animal husbandry. With our labor, we helped them plough their fields as well as other related work on their farms. With our limited knowledge of socialist philosophy, we preached the benefits of collective farming, highlighting that it allows peasants to solve collective problems as in the histories of the communist countries we had read about and discouraged them from pursuing private agriculture.  The farmers were overall very cooperative and receptive to our ideas and appreciated us for what we did for them. We also learned that despite all their hard work, their lives are difficult and they still remained poor.

Another task we performed was to search the homes of the balabat who could easily be identified by their lifestyle and were few in number. We would forcibly search and confiscate the cereals stored in their granary for redistribution to the tchisigna. We also searched their homes and seized their weapons such as guns and old rifles which we brought back to Gelta town, our basecamp. For the vast majority of us this was the first time we had ever seen or held weapons of any kind. To my knowledge, the confiscation of private property belonging to the balabt was not part of our official responsibilities. The zemachoch were probably caught in the ongoing revolutionary fervor in the country, further pushed by the overzealous progressives, to spontaneously confiscate private property – all in the name of advancing the ongoing revolution.

Overtime, tensions between the zemachoch and the police broke out over the way in which these search and seizures were being conducted. The local Police wanted the zemachoch to turn in the confiscated weapons which the zemachoch refused to do. At one point, the police occupied our compound to establish their authority and search for the weapons which they surprisingly could not find. This led to a confrontation that resulted in police brutality. They beat the several students and I was one of the victims. We were badly injured, although not life-threatening.

To protest the police brutality we experienced, a large group of the zemachoch went on a hunger strike for about 4 to 6 days. As the strike intensified, a team of senior government officials led by Brigadier General Mebratu Fisseha, who was the Governor of Gomogofa at the time, arrived from Addis Ababa to calm the situation. Those of us who were beaten by the police were given permits to return to Addis Ababa for medical treatment which marked the end of our participation in the zemecha. By the time I returned to Addis, I had recovered from my injuries so no longer required medical treatment and did not tell my parents of the police brutality I experienced.

Following these incidents, back in Gomugofa, it also became increasingly challenging to continue the zemecha and the rest of our colleagues also returned, leading to the closure of our base camp in just a few months of its opening in contrast to its planned duration of 24 months. Once back in Addis, those of us who were assigned to the Gelta unit, as well as those in other units throughout the country who did not complete their Edget be Hebret service were not permitted to attend school or be formally employed, in accordance with the law at that time. However, there was a loophole: a head of the family could be exempted and be permitted to work with a court certification of the family status. In my desperate situation, I had no choice but to find three false witnesses to obtain the needed certification so that I could work or enroll in school and also avoid being drafted back into the zemecha.

With certificate in hand, I was able to find employment with an Italian contractor who was building the shops that are still standing around the Addis Ababa stadium. I was also able to move around the city with an ID. During this time, I often met with some of my zemecha colleagues in cafes and teashops across Addis where we continued our debates on the direction of the revolution, discussions that had started in our Study Club back in Gelta. We were consumed by the revolution and as we were out of school, we had plenty of time to devote to it, spending less and less time at home. I recall that my family was deeply worried and confused by my long absences, especially because they had no idea what I was up to. Later in the revolution, as extrajudicial killing of youth became rampant, Mothers could be heard reciting this old Amharic saying:

“አዬ አንተ ጊዜ የእግዜር ታናሽ ወንድም

የዛሬን ማርልኝ የነገን አልወልድም “.

 “Oh Time, you are God’s younger brother, spare what I have got, I won’t have another tomorrow.”  

This period was also a great time of recruitment for the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Youth League, one of the many political organizations of that era. With time, as various political parties competed to attract members, they also continued to engage in divisive activities. Extreme tensions arose (and eventually escalated) between these political parties and the Derg. In the process, friends who went to the same school, played soccer together, watched movies together, and shared confidences, gradually severed ties or drifted apart due to diverging political views. Some went as far as to take part in the armed struggle. Many of my friends paid a high price for their physical and emotional well-being which was sad and hard to accept.  

As the arrests and the killings escalated, many fled to neighboring countries. I was also among them, first to Kenya, then Canada and eventually the United States. Those of us in exile, were able to meet with our fellow zemachoch and nurture our friendships which continue to this day.

To sum up: The young people who fought against the barbaric Derg for the betterment of Ethiopia and its people were mostly progressive who yearned to improve the lives of ordinary people, especially the poor. They had high hopes for Ethiopia and her people. Sadly, their fate was persecution, imprisonment, and death. Forty-six years later, I can still visualize my time in Edget be Hebret as if I’m watching an award-winning film. 

All that good will and effort took its toll but had it all been better-directed, the country would not have been plunged into such a mess. At the time, there was little attention given to what the new order would look like and how it could be realized. As they say, “It’s not as easy to build as it is to tear down.”

Picture Link:  Zemecha’s participants in uniform, engaged in various activities taken in 1975 during the Zemecha period.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/T5SCuYppdCNE86yq6

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[1] Literally, the Development through Cooperation Campaign….

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you sir for your well penned memoir. To me it is rather a masterpiece. It has hit home with similar observation I have based in my own eye witness experience during school days overseas in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. This paragraph in the article the author hit it home with me.

    ‘It is interesting to note that Socialist political theories were preached from several different sources, versions and perspectives, but nevertheless, they all shared the same goal of advocating for public rather than private ownership of property. With the fast pace of the revolution, it was difficult for the typical zemach to appreciate that this was propaganda at work or to fully comprehend the political theories we were reading or how these theories may (or may not) apply to the Ethiopian context. This is why we witnessed the tendency in some zemachoch to resort to aggressive language, coercion and force to persuade others of the rightness of their positions. The lack of willingness to consider different perspectives promotes intolerance and limits the ability to think critically and could even lead to violence. The zemachoch were taught that social equality (that is the eradication of poverty) will be achieved through revolution rather than a democratic process. In general, the absence of a democratic process – where citizens have access to reliable information, can openly debate ideas that affect their lives and together define ways to change and improve their condition – is one of the root weaknesses in Ethiopia’s politics. Unfortunately, this pattern persists to this day and is a contributing factor to the tragic events we are now witnessing.’

    I am quite sure the author had noticed it during his time in the literacy campaign or in the city, there was another but common method of bullying by the deacons/darasaas of Marxism/Leninism/Maoism. They had a disparaging/derogatory name for those who were from different schools of thought. They called you reactionary, imperialist stooge, capitalist roader, and many other undeserved pejorative names. My problem began when I was told the ultimate plan was to overthrow the ‘archaic’ ruler and replace him with a ‘proletariat dictatorship’. That did not go down well with me. To overthrow an aristocrat just to replace it with a dictatorship? That did not make sense to me at all. The other idea I brought up during a discussion was preferring reformation to revolution. Was I verbally mugged for that? I was explicitly told that I was a ‘capitalist roader’. To this day I don’t know what that means as it applied to me then. To be honest I don’t think those who slapped that label on me knew what it meant. As the author correctly put it was one of those ‘copy and paste’ methodology of the day. Such destructive does still exist to this day. They call you what they think degrading and pejorative names. To them you are either an operative of this that group they don’t like and even a member of a spy network. They do all this just to shut you down in the hope of seeing you go away.

    Since you brought up ‘copy and paste’ I remember what one of my countrymen told me and others during one of short lived discussions. He told us with all ill fetched certainty about Mao’s achievement in China. He told us during a continuous 5 year drought every Chinese citizen never missed a single meal every day during those years. My problem with that was I used to read firsthand accounts by those who managed to escape to Hong Kong. My British high school teacher outside the country had a library that included news papers and periodicals from Hong Kong and Singapore. In actuality Mao was gobbling up 5 to 25 million Chinese at one sitting from starvation during the so-called ‘flowers bloom’ and ‘great leap forward’ mumbo jumbo. As the author correctly wrote that countryman was copying and paste books and periodicals written by commies for propaganda purpose. It has become an enduring pathogen that has sent Ethiopia into repeating tailspins lasting to this day. Unless a well planned campaign is carried out to expose the fallacies of communism aka Marxism/Leninism/Maoism that country’s long nightmare will not go away. The idea of insurrection and revolution should be successfully discredited and imbue dialogue and reformation in the psyche of the youth of that long suffering country.

    Thank you Obbo Berhane for sharing your conversation inducing opinion.

  2. At the end of Derg dictatorship, Derg cadres shared the balabat’s wealth, houses, money, cars etc. among themselves and become richer than the balabats. The balabat, farmers and the poor ended up either killed or poorer. Derg regime was the first brutal and thievery dictatorship government. It gave itself the absolute power to take anyone’s life on the spot for little as suspecting some one is “thinking” what the Derg cadre does not like.

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