Following his in 1941return from a 5-year self-imposed exile in Great Britain, Emperor Haileselassie became unjustly and ungratefully cruel to the people of Tigrai despite the fact that Tigraian patriots played a major role in resisting and weakening the Italian army during invasion, while women on their part took it upon themselves to provide food to the army.
Ultimately, the emperor’s rule became unbearable to Tigraians for the following reasons:
a) Tigraian government officials were deprived of their provincial and district administrative positions, and replaced by bureaucrats from the dominant ethnic group, Amhara, who had no attachment or a sense of responsibility to the people of Tigrai.
b) Heavy tax was discriminatively levied on the people of Tigrai, including farmers who were forced to hand over a big portion of their harvested crops to aristocrats.
c) Farmlands belonging to Tigraian farmers were seized, and given to the king’s men.
d) Cattle and sheep owned by farmers were slaughtered to feed the emperor’s soldiers.
e) Houses and farm crops were arbitrarily burned by soldiers.
f) Women and young girls were subjected to sexual harassment and rape by soldiers.
Subsequently, Elders and community leaders repeatedly presented their grievances to the emperor’s representatives in the Tigrai provincial administration,and then took their case to the emperor by traveling to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, on a horseback in a time when modern public transportation was unavailable.
However, Haileselassie was unwilling to tackle the problem,thus it became evident to Tigraians that the atrocities had the emperor’s blessings with the objective to humiliate and subjugate an ethnic minority.
As a result, the people of Tigrai, with the leadership of patriots launched a popular movement called ‘Weyane’, which means a rebellion / revolution. The volunteer Weyane fighters, armed with only individual rifles and outdated weapons, standing up against an imperial modernized army was like the biblical David vs. Goliath fight.
Nonetheless, as the Tigraians’ was a just fight for freedom, justice and equality, and as the people of Tigrai were entirely behind the Weyane, the emperor’s invading armed forces and militia faced defeat after defeat in small as well as major battles.
2. Great Britain on the wrong side of history
After facing a humiliating defeat, it became starkly evident to Emperor Haileselassie that he simply couldn’t militarily suppress a popular uprising, hence henotified Great Britain that he was on the verge of defeat, and requested military assistance.
It’s worth noting here that this was in 1943 when, through the League of Nations, a war-weary Europe was doing everything in its power to end a war of intervention in a civil war, thereby promote neutrality unless a given war was sanctioned by the League.
Sadly, as it was the case throughout the history of Africa, different rules apply for the “dark continent” as the lives of Africans apparently matter less. So, Great Britain – without bringing the case to the League never mind obtain approval – came to the rescue of the emperor by indiscriminately and brutally air bombarding shoppers in the town of Mekelle (the capital of Tigrai then and now) during a weekly open market day.
3. The devastating impact
1. Men, women and children (including infants held or carried by their mothers) were instantly killed.
2. Others became severely injured, and sentenced to a life of disability.
3. Children were exposed to being half-orphaned or, in some cases, fully orphaned.
4. Due to the fact that there was no a functioning government; as international organizations, such as the Red Cross weren’t around, and as health facilities were not available, some victims lost their lives were lost for lack of basic medical aid.
5. Due to the severe injury to the bodies, some corpses couldn’t be identified. Also, as many merchants and buyers came from outskirts of Mekelleand other towns, their loved ones couldn’t be traced. As a result, many victims were buried in mass graves without proper burial their respective religions required.
6. The psychological scar lasted for many years whereby a plane over the sky was feared to be an air bomber, and people had to run for a cover.
7. Many people asked “What have we done to Great Britain to deserve this?”
4. An atrocious precedent set
The Mekelle market bombing and the fact that neither Emperor Haileselassie nor Great Britain were held responsible, and never expressed regret for the cold blooded murder of civilians set a precedent for repeating the act of atrocity during civil conflicts taking place in Tigrai.
One example of that with stark similarity is, the Ethiopian military regime of the Dergue replicating aerial bombing of Tigraians on June 22, 1988 in the town of Hawzen, Eastern Tigrai, during a market day resulting in a senseless loss of 2,500 men, women and children as well as inflicting severe injuries.
5. Why bring up the issue now?
1. As mentioned above, because an atrocity of this magnitude hasn’t received the acknowledgment it deserves never mind an apology.
2. It’s never too late to amend a historic wrong, particularly when the the damage is significant.
3. A new generation of British citizens who are not afraid to recognize a historic wrong, and thereby do their part to create a peaceful world without war has developed.
4. 28 years after the end of a protracted civil war in Ethiopia, the country is on the verge of a civil war yet again. Thus, the atrocities of the Mekelle Market aerial bombing, similar to others like it, should serve as a warning.
6. What you can do
a) Call your MP’s office to let them know of this long overdue issue;
b) Contact human rights organizations;
c) Present the case to the media;
d) Forward to universities, colleges and other learning institutions.
7. Expected outcome
1. Well informed British and global citizens who would be informed on what had happened to people in the African continent that were never at war with the British people.
2. A government of Great Britain that would finally recognize the atrocities inflicted on the people of Tigrai.
3. A strengthened commitment to ‘never again’ stand on war and its atrocities.