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Documentary : Return to Divided Ethiopia Finds Wariness and Unease : The upcoming Eritrea vote rankles the minority Amharas, who ruled the nation for centuries. Ethnic problems are worsening.

February 09, 1993|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; U.N. correspondent Stanley Meisler was recently on assignment in Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Ethiopian trader in the Merkato, the loud, sprawling, kinetic market high over Addis Ababa, engages the American visitor in a Socratic dialogue.

"When is the birth date of Abraham Lincoln?" the trader asks.

"February 12th," the American replies innocently.

"Why do you Americans celebrate his birth date?"

"He was a famous president who led us in the Civil War."

"And your Civil War was fought to free the slaves?"

"That is right."

"Then why is your Herman Cohen trying to make us slaves?"

*

Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush Administration, has been praised often for brokering the peace in Ethiopia.

As the bloody, enervating Ethiopian civil war thundered to its inevitable climax in May, 1991, Cohen helped pressure Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Marxist tyrant, into fleeing Addis Ababa. The U.S. official then played a major role at a peace conference in London that paved the way for a peaceful takeover of the capital by rebel leader Meles Zenawi. The cease-fire agreement signed at the conference also promised a 1993 referendum on independence to the guerrillas in the northern province of Eritrea.

Cohen, who has served many years as a diplomat in Africa, thus helped close one of the most shameful eras in Ethiopian history. Mengistu and his fellow officers had dethroned Emperor Haile Selassie almost twenty years ago and unleashed a reign of terror against nobles, intellectuals and dissenters. With the help of Cuban troops, Mengistu fought a war with Somalia and tried in vain to stamp out the secessionists in Eritrea. The turmoil in the countryside brought on great famines.

So the flight of Mengistu to a haven in Zimbabwe had few mourners.

*

But the civil war had a strong ethnic side to it, and peace has filled Ethiopia's Amhara people with an odd sense of unease.

The Amharas, though a minority, ruled the Ethiopian empire for centuries from their main city of Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie--known during his almost four decades in power as the King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah--was an Amhara. So was Mengistu. However, the rebels who battled Mengistu and marched triumphantly into Addis Ababa were mainly Tigreans from provinces north of Addis Ababa. Zenawi, now the provisional president, is a Tigrean.

Moreover, most Amharas--even those who opposed both the emperor and Mengistu as tyrants--believed in the integrity of the Ethiopian empire. Now, they know that the Eritreans will surely vote to split away from Ethiopia in the U.N.-supervised referendum in April. This rankles the Amhara spirit.

*

At about the same time that the trader is engaging the American in Socratic dialogue, many students, mostly Amharas, are demonstrating outside the university campus. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is in town to open a Somali peace conference, and the students are angry that he is planning to visit Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Since the government of President Zenawi has sanctioned the U.N.-supervised referendum, shouting at Boutros-Ghali is an indirect way of heaping scorn on the Tigrean-dominated government.

There is a non-Ethiopian eyewitness, Joseph S. Murphy, the former chancellor of the City University of New York, a professor who knows Ethiopia well and who is working at the university in Addis Ababa for a few weeks on a UNESCO project.

The police prohibit the students from marching down to Africa Hall, the site of the peace conference, to denounce Boutros-Ghali. The students argue among themselves whether they ought to march there anyway or change plans and march instead to the American Embassy to denounce Herman Cohen.

Suddenly shots are heard--it's not clear who has fired--and the police, wielding bayonets and firing weapons, march on the students. Someone has locked the gates of the campus, and the students cannot scamper back for refuge. Perhaps half a dozen, perhaps more, die in the bloody melee; scores are wounded.

"The students are too new to know how to demonstrate," observes Murphy, "and the police are too new to know how to exercise riot control."

There is a great irony for Murphy. In late December, 1969, Emperor Haile Selassie's imperial bodyguard stormed the university campus and killed perhaps 20 students. Murphy was then director of the U.S. Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and his fury at the killings prompted his resignation.

Murphy wrote the Peace Corps that he could not continue working in a dictatorship "which cannot establish a social order with better answers to its problems than shooting and beating young people."

"To think that I resigned from the Peace Corps 23 years ago because the emperor's police were killing students," he says, "and now I am at the university, and the police are killing students."

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