Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
05. The Graziani Massacre and Consequences
We saw that the fascists in Addis Ababa responded to an attempt on the life of the Italian Viceroy, Graziani, on 19 February 1937, by unleashing a three-day massacre, which was to have a major impact on the Ethiopian Patriotic movement. The massacre was so important that its documentation requires further elaboration..
“Burning Houses Illuminated the African Night”
One of several graphic eye-witness accounts is provided by the Hungarian, Dr Ladislav Sava, or Shaska. He recalls that immediately after the attempt, the fascist party leader, Guido Cortese, “convoked the blackshirts to the seat of the Fascio, the chiefs to a consultation, and the others to wait for orders. Very soon they sped from the Fascio in every direction, fully armed. Everyone in the town was a prey to anticipation, but what really happened was worse than anyone had feared. I am bound to say, for it is true, that blood was literally streaming down the streets. The corpses of men, women and children, over which vultures hovered, were lying in all directions. Great flames from the burning houses illuminated the African night. . .
“The greatest slaughter began after 6 o’clock in the evening… During that awful night, Ethiopians were thrust into lorries, heavily guarded by armed blackshirts. Revolvers, truncheons, rifles and daggers were used to murder completely unarmed black people, of both sexes and all ages. Every black person seen was arrested and bundled into a lorry and killed, either in the lorry or near the Little Ghebi [the present Addis Ababa University building], sometimes at the moment when he met the blackshirts. Ethiopian houses and huts were searched and then burnt with their inhabitants. To quicken the flames, benzine and oil were used in great quantities. The shooting never ceased all night, but most of the murders were committed with daggers and blows with a truncheon at the head of the victim. Whole streets were burned down, and if any of the occupants of the houses ran out from the flames they were machine-gunned or stabbed with cries of ‘Duce! Duce! Duce!’ From the lorries in which groups of prisoners were brought up to be murdered near the Ghebi, the blood flowed on to the streets and again from the lorries we heard the cry, `Duce! Duce! Duce!’”.
“I shall never forget,” Sava concludes, “that I saw that night Italian officers passing in their luxurious cars through the blood-drenched streets, stopping at some point whence they could have a better panorama of the murdering and the burning, accompanied by their wives whom I am very reluctant to call women.
The Ethiopian Embassy in London
Another eye-witness report, released by the Ethiopian Legation in London, declared that:
“the streets were strewn with dead bodies… No one dared venture out. From that time began a method which was followed thoroughly during the three long days… The method consisted of setting fire to the houses, waiting for the inhabitants to be driven out by the fire and massacring them without distinction, with daggers, bayonets, hand grenades, cudgels, stones and, at times, with guns. One could see groups of Fascists chaining the lorries and amusing themselves by dragging along poor men from one part of the town to the other until their bodies fell to pieces… In certain quarters the corpses entirely covered the streets and the squares. In St. George’s Square already robbed of the equestrian statue of Menelik II, the dead bodies formed a veritable pile. Now the appearance of the city is like a field of battle after the fighting is over.”
A Missionary Account
The above picture was later corroborated by the American missionaries, Herbert and Della Hanson. They report that on visiting the city shortly after the massacre they ” found large areas burned that had formerly been covered with inhabited huts. Even around the hospital walls, where there had been many huts, all was blackened ruins. It made us heart sick to see the devastation, especially where we learned that many of the huts had been burned with their owners in them.”
French and British Reports
Shortly after the massacre a special correspondent of the “Manchester Guardian” reported that the French Minister in Addis Ababa had stated that 6,000 Ethiopians had been “murdered in three days,” and that the British Consulate “knew over 2,000 names of the killed.”
Subsequent Statements On Oath
Other observers, speaking later on oath, also confirm the above accounts. Thus an Armenian merchant, Edouard Garabedian, related that on the first day of the massacre he heard Italians “saying they were waiting orders for reprisals”, and that “at about five o’clock, I saw them with my own eyes, beating every Ethiopian they could find. These Italians were civilians. They were using what they could find, as cudgels, etc… I learnt from some of the Italians that they had received orders to burn different Ethiopian quarters. They were burning houses during the whole night… Next morning I heard that many Ethiopians had been killed during the night when the Italians were burning their houses. The following day I started to go to my work at 9 o’clock but there was a great panic and Ethiopians were running from everywhere without self-control. The Italian blackshirts were pursuing them and beating them… That day I did not go out from my house; but from there I heard much shooting and I saw burning houses all around.
“On the third day I went to my shop. This time there were no Ethiopians to be seen in the streets, but many Italians were circulating. I heard many of them saying that they had burnt such and such places and that they had murdered so many Ethiopians.”
Not an Accidental Fire
Captain Toka Binegid, an Ethiopian in the Addis Ababa municipal fire-brigade, likewise later testified that when the first signs of fire were seen his commanding officer [an Italian] ordered them to the Sidist Kilo area of the town to put out an assumed accidental conflagration, but “when we arrived there we saw the Italians burning the houses intentionally, so our officer ordered us not to put out the fire, saying he understood what it was all about. While still standing there we saw many people being killed by Italians while trying to escape from burning houses.
“The Italians,” Toka adds, “divided themselves into different formations: while some of them were murdering, some collected the corpses and threw them on the trucks. They were gathering the corpses from the roads with iron rakes. Among the persons who were pulled by the iron rakes many were alive… I saw Italian soldiers being photographed while standing on the dead bodies of their victims. The burning of houses and killing of people which started on Friday… continued up to Monday morning.”
Another observer of these events, Blatta Dawit Ogbazgi, who was arrested on the Friday and detained with “about a thousand people” in a police station near Ras Makonnen Bridge, later testified that “the same day people were brought in lorries; they were taken without distinction and most of them were bleeding from hits. The fascists used to throw them down from the lorries. Some of them rolled down to the river because they were thrown from the lorries, and these the Italians shot in front of us. All the houses and tukuls which were in front of us were burning.”
The Death Toll Among the Foreign Educated
During the massacre the fascists murdered a number of foreign-educated Ethiopians, above all those who had studied in Britain or the United States. The death toll thus included Tsege Marqos Wolde Tekle, Gabre Medhen Awoqe, Ayenna Birru, Yohannes Boru, and Yosuf and Benjamin Martin, sons of the Ethiopian Minister in London, all six of whom had been students in England; Besha Worrid Hapte Wold and Makonnen Haile, who had both studied in the United States; and Kifle Nassibu who was French-educated.
Consequences for the Patriotic Movement
This terrible massacre, it is generally agreed, had a profound influence on Ethiopian thinking, and gave new strength to the resistance movement. The “New Times and Ethiopia News” correspondent in Djibouti reported shortly afterwards, on 11 March, that Addis Ababa was “almost empty of Abyssinians,” and added that as a result of the incident “the Abyssinians know there is nothing left for them but to fight, and the world will presently hear that they are everywhere attacking anew. Those who fled from Addis well know what to expect from Italy and they will fight again.”
This forecast proved true. Blatta Dawit, giving his evidence a decade later, stated that one of the most important results of the massacre was that Ras Abebe Aregai, the principal Patriot leader in Shoa, “had his forces increased immensely, at least by 10,000; also other patriot forces received reinforcements, because when people heard of what had taken place… they left their homes and went away from the neighborhood of Addis Ababa.”
Salome Gabre Egzaiabher, studying the question three decades later likewise attached considerable significance to this development. She declares that “many of the people of Addis Ababa who escaped from the shootings went to join the Patriots who were living in the forests around the capital”.