Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
01. The Beginnings of the Patriotic Resistance
After the Italian fascist occupation of Addis Ababa, on 5 May 1936, and the proclamation of Mussolini’s Empire on May 9, the aggressors still had much to do in the military field. Graziani, the Italian commander responsible for operations against the forces of Ethiopian resistance, and later Viceroy of Ethiopia, was in a by no means confident mood. He was subsequently quoted by the Italian military author Canevari as declaring:
“The situation that I inherited was the opposite of happy; on the contrary it looked more and more serious as each single aspect was examined. In the capital which, as is well known, lies a great forest of eucalyptus trees, there were only 7,500 of our men, virtually surrounded by the remains of the Negus’s armies, that is more than 100,000 armed men.”
Seeking to explain his then difficulties (and in effect contradicting Mussolini’s claim that the war had by then come to an end) Graziani went on to declare that:
“the Ethiopian people had for many years been targets of anti-Italian propaganda which intensified with the war. The country was full of arms that flowed in steadily from the neighbouring British possessions. In fact our troops were in control of only a very small part of the immense territory of Ethiopia. Moreover the rainy season, which begins regularly at that time of year, would make the arrival of reinforcements and supplies almost out of the question”.
Disarming the Ethiopian Population
Vigorous efforts were now made by the Italian occupying forces to disarm the Ethiopian population. The latter had long possessed quantities of fire-arms, and in not a few instances had in fact earlier obtained them as gifts from the invaders. Earlier in the fighting the latter had distributed weapons freely to dissident elements, in the hope that they would use them against the Emperor’s armies. Thus foreign war correspondents reported in November 1935 that General Mariotti had given 10,000 rifles to some of the Afars. Herbert Matthews, an American journalist, observed that the Italians “were playing a dangerous game in Ethiopia, and. . . were willing to use dangerous tactics.” The guns given out by the Italians, he reports, were “a miscellaneous and antique selection: French Gras rifles, 1874 model, Lebel, 1886 model, and the Daudeteau.” He nevertheless adds: “They may have been antiques to us, but the joy of the Danakils on receiving them was genuine and immense”. This was not surprising for “many of them”, he was led to believe, “had never had guns before.” Several hundred Azebu Gallas, or Oromos, according to the same observer, were shortly afterwards given rifles by the Italians at Dolo, while Badoglio, the Italian commander in the north, records that immediately before the battle of Enderta the latter were armed by his men with 3,000 guns, and “formed” by the Italians into “units of varying strength and constitution.” After the occupation, however, Italian policy inevitably changed, and orders were given, by the invaders, that all the local inhabitants should at once surrender their weapons. This policy was put into immediate effect, and on 8 May 1936 Badoglio proudly reported that in the first four days of the occupation the Addis Ababa population had surrendered 3,500 rifles, 89 pistols, 35 machine-guns, two cannon and “numerous” spears and swords. Less than a week later, he announced that these figures, by May l5, had risen to 7,853 rifles, 80 pistols, 156 machine-guns, and 51 cannon, besides an “enormous quantity” of ammunition. Insistence on the surrender of arms was naturally most unpopular. Towards the end of the year, Wiese, a visiting British journalist, went so far as to declare that this policy constituted “perhaps the greatest obstacle to pacification”.
Order for Repression not carried out
The fascist military authorities, who were well aware, despite the Duce’s triumphant (but entirely dishonest!) proclamation, that the war was by no means over, were determined to continue the policy of repression, which had characterised the earlier stages of the conflict. On 13 May 1936, Mussolini therefore sent Graziani “peremptory orders to shoot these so-called Young Ethiopians”, who consisted mainly of the few hundred young men educated abroad in the previous decade or so. Graziani, who had by then become the Italian Viceroy hesitated, however, perhaps because the situation seemed to him both unstable and tense.
Lij Haile Mariam Mammo
lt. was a sign of things to come when, on May 4, Lij Haile Mariam Mammo, a patriotic Ethiopian, attacked invading troops passing through Debra Berhan on the way to Addis Ababa. He thus became as his compatriot Woizerit Salome Gabre Egziabher was to note three decades later, “the first Patriot of Shoa.”
“Prisoners to be Shot Immediately”
Ten days later Graziani telegraphed to Lessona, the Italian Minister of the Colonies, to report:
“Yesterday afternoon our native company, working on the road Jigjiga-Harar at 34 kms from Jigjiga was attacked by groups of armed Abyssinians. The attackers were driven back with serious losses… Through my message distributed everywhere by means of aircraft and by messengers I have told Ethiopian chiefs and private persons after the fall of the Empire of Haile Sellassie, those who dared to commit hostile actions against our troops would be considered as rebels and treated as such, while I guaranteed immunity to those who surrendered; so I have given orders that the prisoners taken shall be shot immediately… Of this I have notified chiefs and soldiers who have not submitted by means of another appropriate message which will be distributed by aircraft and messengers. And I have warned them that this fate will befall without mercy all those who hereafter commit acts of rebellion.”
The said “appropriate message” was addressed by Graziani to “all the people of Ethiopia”, and declared:
“H.M. the King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia has sent me here to uphold the government of the Empire. Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and of Fascism, has given me orders to lead all the people back to peace and tranquillity. Do not listen therefore to false news spread by illwishers. Italy is now the absolute master of all Ethiopia, and will remain so at whatever cost using extreme severity towards those who seek to rebel and the greatest generosity towards chiefs and followers who freely and loyally submit. Give up your arms, because he who is hereafter found in possession of them will be inexorably punished! Return to the fields to work, and to your commerce! If you listen to these words of the Duce, Italy will make all the territory of the Empire rich and prosperous. Rebels on the other hand, will be destroyed and annihilated”. The prime objective of the fascists at this time, as later explained in the official Italian publication “Gli Annali dell’ Africa Italiana,” was, however, largely limited to ensuring the safety of the Addis Ababa-Dessie road, their main communications route with Eritrea, their colony and base of operations to the north.
On May 15 1936 Italian reinforcements were accordingly despatched to Debra Berhan and Debra Sina, and succeeded in occupying Ankober on 21 May. Graziani afterwards noted, on 30 June that the inhabitants of the Debra Berhan-Ankober area had “spontaneously” handed in 447 rifles, 20,000 cartridges, 4 machine-guns, and 170 artillery projectiles. How “spontaneous” was their action may be open to discussion. Be that as it may, the more important question as to how many weapons the population retained he did not discuss.
“All Rebels… should be Shot”
Mussolini meanwhile fully concurred in Graziani’s policy of repression. On 5 June he sent him an urgent telegram to the Viceroy, declaring, “All the rebels made prisoners should be shot”. On 8 July he observed in a longer telegram:
“I once more authorize Your Excellency systematically to conduct policy of political terror and extermination against rebels and implicated populations. Without the law of tenfold retribution one does not cure the wound in good time.”
Lessona also urged the need for rigorous repression, particularly against the Young Ethiopians who, he sneeringly declared, on July l0, had a “false veneer of Europeanized culture”, and, being “at the head of every xenophobic movement”, were “particularly poisonous and dangerous”. Recalling the Duce’s previous command that they should be shot, he declared that the then existing situation rendered it “necessary that such orders be executed completely”, so that the Young Ethiopians in question be “eliminated, without mercy or pardon”.
Graziani, however, once more decided against so stringent a policy, and telegraphed back on the same day that he would instead exile the young men to a camp at Danane on the Somali coast. This was, however, no very great act of clemency. One of the detainees, Mikael Tesema, who had previously been educated in Italy, later testified that out of 6,500 prisoners at Danane no fewer than 3,175 died, while Blatta Bekele Hapte Mikael, an Ethiopian judge, subsequently declared on oath: “The food which the Italians gave us was very bad for our health”, and consisted largely of “rotten biscuits with many worms in them.”
Though not going to the full length urged by his superiors in respect of the Young Ethiopians, Graziani devoted most of his energies to a policy of coercion. On 8 July he reported that he had given orders suspending for fifteen days the right of what he termed the exLegations, i.e. the former foreign legations whose status had been greatly reduced as a result of the occupation, to send radio messages. On 15 July he announced that his “organs of police and information” were “at last on the track of the organization “through which the “rebel” leader, Aberra Kassa, was in contact with the inhabitants of Addis Ababa. The Viceroy moreover was as determined as Mussolini that anyone implicated in resistance should be mercilessly punished. In a telegram of 30 July to the Minister of the Colonies he declared:
“Repressive action continues against armed groups scattered in the bush. All prisoners have been shot. Inexorable repressive measures have been effected against all populations guilty, if not of complicity, at least of absence of reaction.”
Next Week Fighting around Addis Ababa during the Rains of 1936