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Forgiving, Not Forgetting, in Pardoning Convicted Former Derg Officials




The prospect of the imminent pardon for repentant former Derg members has roused heated debate in Ethiopia’s print media and blogosphere. However, the point for everyone to remember in debating such an emotive and knotty issue is to attempt to disagree without being disagreeable.

The people of Ethiopia need to be courageous and to forgive those who committed heinous crimes against them. There is no reason to be “ashamed” of a willingness to forgive. In fact, one is fortunate to be blessed with the spirit of forgiveness.

However, the road to forgiveness was a complex one. Resolving to forgive the former Derg officials, who had summarily killed my father and six close relatives, imprisoned my mother, myself as well as two of my younger brothers and sisters came about in the midst of a voyage of personal discovery which I had taken during the course of my imprisonment.

Thirty six years ago, out of the blue, the comfortable lifestyle that I, rather naively, thought would see me through from cradle to the grave, came to an abrupt end. The leaders of the popular uprising of 1974, arrested my father, a cousin of Emperor Haile Selassie and president of the Crown Council, on June 30, 1974. Three months later they decided to round up his family and expropriate all his assets, including the family home in Entoto.

There was no need to be a Marxist, then, to know that in a violent anti-feudalism movement, the scions of the nobility are slated to be among the first to be gobbled-up by a revolution. I owe my present life entirely to God, the licence which has allowed me to let go of pent-up feelings of hate, anger, and resentment.

However, I am dismayed by some of the reactions of individuals who, like me, were victims of the Derg’s heinous crimes. To some of them even my attendance at major court hearings of the former Derg officials was condemned for they viewed it as tantamount to lending publicity to the EPDRF government. Now these same people have the nerve to accuse me of cowardice.

I am saddened to see my dear young and gregarious cousin, Makonnen Endalkatchew, who was spared imprisonment and retained the family home and who was nowhere to be seen at court hearings, still bears an ancient grudge and resentment 36 years after his dear father was mowed down alongside my dear father.

His opinion published in this newspaper headlined, “What price justice? What value life?” (Volume 11, Number 556, December 26, 2010) is nothing more than an adversarial kneejerk reaction to the call for the prevalence of a national consensus on the issue of forgiving and pardoning former Derg officials. While the crux of the matter was to concentrate not on who is right, but on what is right, Makonnen deemed it proper to fire a salvo of innuendoes at those whose right it is to air views which happen to be anathema to his opinion.

As forgiveness is a long drawn-out process, I hope and pray that he will soon have what it takes to rise above vindictiveness.

The general public suffers from a dearth of information on the circumstances which spurred the religious leaders to embark on a crusade of forgiveness. The repentant convicted former Derg officials had requested a visit by Ethiopia’s religious leaders - one of whom, The Patriarch of Ethiopia, was himself a victim of the Derg’s arbitrary detention – during which they pleaded for the chance to say sorry to the people of Ethiopia.

Surely, such a turnaround by hitherto pompous Derg officials is in itself proof that their repentance is genuine. The way the religious leaders went about executing their role as intermediaries may be subject to criticism, but what must be above and beyond all criticism is the aim of their sacred mission. It is the right thing to do for a society where, if pardoned, the former Derg officials are expected to coexist peacefully.

No sane individual believes that forgiving the repentant former Derg officials is an attempt to absolve them from the heinous crimes they committed against the people of Ethiopia.

The religious leaders’ call to Ethiopians is not and cannot possibly be to ignore the crimes, to ditch the memory of the trials and tribulations, and to become oblivious to the “blood, sweat, and tears.” Rather, it is to seize this unique opportunity to salvage future generations of Ethiopians from being caught in a vicious cycle of retribution.  The call is to subdue personal interest so that national interest can prevail.

The burning question is: Would the patriot in the likes of dear Makonnen Endalkatchew allow them to do that or do they want to condemn future generations to wallow in a state of retribution?

The reward for the sacrifices made by the fathers of Ethiopians is an Ethiopia  at peace with itself, and for Ethiopians to pick up the pieces of their gory past and march ahead with gusto. Ethiopia will only be able to do that if they all accept that without mercy the country would be a harsh place. Never should it be forgotten that extreme justice can more often than not mean extreme injustice.

In a way, the convicted former Derg officials are today the un-dead of Ethiopian society. For the past 20 years they have suffered enormous humiliation in the eyes of those whom they had tortured and left for dead; they are aging and the family lives of most are ruined simply because it could not be sustained over two decades of imprisonment.

Is 20 years not long enough to watch the withering away of “enemies?”

Everyone is aware - are they not? - that the execution of 17 former Derg officials would in no way exhume and give life back to their deceased near and dear ones. These past two weeks, raised the questions if, as a people, Ethiopians are so inebriated with sadism that nothing short of these people’s death or rotting in prison can quench the thirst to ensure that justice is seen to be done.

Avengers’ penchant for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave Ethiopia blind and toothless.

Children of Ethiopia forgive. There is nothing to lose but everything to gain. Ethiopians are blessed that many are others renowned for doing the impossible right away while miracles take 20 years. Today, Ethiopia is on the cusp of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Derg, a milestone occasion.

What better way to celebrate the dawn of the Ethiopian Renaissance by drawing a line underneath that bloody episode?

The time for magnanimity to follow victory is now. Come on: out-Mandela-Mandela and proclaim to the world “We did it our way!”

Mulugeta A. Kassa is the son of Aserate Kassa (Prince), one of the 60 senior government officials summarily executed by the Derg in 1974. Having served as a member of the now defunct Secretariat of the Ethiopian Millennium Celebration, he now resides in Dublin, Ireland, where he is a Counsellor at the Ethiopian Embassy.




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