By Alem Mamo
“The Pentagon trained Ethiopian forces – including the notorious Agazi special forces unit.” – Jeremy Scahill, founding editor of the Intercept, and National Security Correspondent testifying before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on December 9, 2010.
She looks much older than her actual age. One could guess she is sixty or even older. The truth is that she is only forty-four. “I was born two years before the military took power” she says referencing history. Her wrinkled face, discolored skin, and greying hair tells a story of a woman who endured unimaginable tragedy. Living has been hard for her over the last decade or so. “I lost my first born 10 years ago, when we the opposition won the election and they refused to relinquish power,” she says her sight disappearing into the horizon as if she is expecting someone to emerge from behind the hills.
“How did he die?” I asked following her into the house from the cool evening breeze outside where we spent the last fifteen minutes. “They killed him in a broad day light along with his best friend. They were killed at the same spot the same day in Addis Ababa.” she said, tears streaming over her wrinkling face. The depth of her anguish is too strong for words. I got up and sat close to her holding her hands. “Who killed them?” I asked. She took a long pause, walked a few steps to close the door and whispered “Agazi, Agazi killed them” and handed me the pictures of her dead boys after kissing them couple of times. They were school graduation pictures. Smiling, aspirational and full of hope. The pictures were wet with her tears. Each drop spreading on the smiling faces of her children as if they were sharing a grief, crying together so to speak. I felt their presence in the room. May be the connection between a mother and child transcendence mortality, I don’t know, but their spirits were palpable in the house where they grew up in before their lives were cut short. I took a sheet of tissue paper out of my pocket and wiped both pictures gently. As I looked at them, with an imploring look, I thought they would have been my brothers, nephews, cousins even children. They looked so familiar to me; even if I have never met them. Perhaps, they reminded me of my own youth. Fearless, committed to and in love with the concept of democracy, freedom and justice. It is unfulfilled dream of my generation, the generation before me, and the current generation. “What a curse.” I murmured to my self.
As I stood up to leave, the mourning mother gave me a warm hug and gently asked me to come and visit her again. I promised to return and left fighting my tears. On my way out I couldn’t help but to think of her loneliness, the eerie quite in the house once full of playful energy with two handsome boys. I tried to understand and even feel a mother’s sorrow. I can only pretend.
I have heard the name Agazi before, many times in fact. People in Ethiopia talk about Agazi with an understanding of some kind of foreign occupying army. The actions of the group according to those who encountered or witnessed say Agazi’s “are a killing machine. Indiscriminate killers who do not distinguish between children and adults, the elderly and the youth, men and women, armed and unarmed. They just kill, and it is fair to say that they appear to be enjoying killing.”
I spoke with one elderly man who was in the resistance against the occupying forces of Benito Mussolini during World War II and he equates Agazi with the Carabinieri of the fascist forces. “They don’t speak our languages, they don’t care for our culture and values. They come anytime they wish, they sometimes snatch our men and boys; at other times they kill them on the spot. They occupy our villages, towns and cities. You see, that is exactly what the Carabinieri and Italian forces did.” His long white beard, wrinkled forehead and twinkly little eyes appear to be corroborating his story. “We never had a government in our history with this level of cruelty against its own people. “You know what we did with Carabinieri? He says with a sense of pride and honor tangible in his voice. “With the help of God and our resistance fighters, we kicked them out.” He said. I can clearly hear his fierce patriotic fire. “We will do the same against these Agazi’s. The new generation have our spirit of resistance. It is a matter of time. Our country will be free.” He said holding firm into his walking stick. It is a tragic irony of historical comparison but this is not the first time I have heard such a comparison. It attests to the unparalleled nature of the regimes violent behaviour.
Where ever there is popular discontent or revolt against the regime in any part of the country Agazi appears from no where to crush it. I have heard numerous general stories in the past, about the groups brutality and its utter disregard to human life. Having the opportunity to speak with a grieving mother who lost two of her beloved sons to Agazi sniper gave me a different perspective. A sorrowful curiosity. A desire driven by a tragedy to know and expose more about this notorious paramilitary group.
The name Agazi strikes fear and terror in Ethiopia the same way Caravana de la muerte (Caravan of Death) a Chilean Army Death Squad terrorized the country following the 1973 coup lead by Augosto Pinochet. Or General Jose Alberto Medrano’s Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first paramilitary death squad in El Salvador involved in kidnaping, assassination, and torture of dissidents. Agazi as it is called, is a shadowy semi- autonomous paramilitary group accountable only to a select few senior echelon members of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The group is named after one of the founding members of TPLF called Zeru Gessesse nick named Agazi. The group in real conventional military standard could be categorized as a private army resembling a mercenary group that is hired by war lords to protect their interest. It’s operational command and control is outside of even the Tigray ethnic group dominated national defence structure. It’s main purpose of existence is to ensure the regimes hold on power remains unchallenged even if it means burning a village, massacring civilians and terrorizing entire communities. The group established in the early days of TPLF have a mask of “fighting terrorism” to appease western donors for resources, training and armament. In reality, most of Agazi’s work has been crushing domestic opposition against the regime.
A few investigative journalists have attempted to inquire about Agazi and the role of foreign countries in the training and arming of this notorious group. Among these investigative reporters Jeremy Scahill is the most prominent and inquisitive in his search to find US’s role of training similar groups in Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia and Yemen. On December, 9, 2010 he testified before Congress and outlined his findings. His testimony covered wide range of issues including drone operations, US engagement with war lords in Somalia among many other related subjects.
He questioned the US role in helping and enabling military units in these countries to terrorize their own civilian population under the guise of “fighting terrorism” According to Mr. Scahill “US Special Operations teams had long been in Ethiopia training its notorious Agazi Commandos.”  His investigative work shades light on the dangers of collaborating with regimes such as TPLF and its long term consequences both for the US and the people under the iron rule of authoritarian regimes.
Keeping my promise, I returned to visit the mother of two murdered young boys. It was a misty cool evening. She was puttering around her back yard. “I have to stay busy to keep my mind off from my children. I miss them.” She says wiping the dirt from her hands. Her hug has a motherly embrace and warmth. I followed her to the house. “God bless you for coming to visit me.” She says walking into the kitchen. “I am going to make you tea” she said. “Thank you!” I replied. In a few minutes she retuned with a cup of tea and a few biscuits on a small hand made basket. Our conversation waded into various subjects. She told me that many mothers these day’s wear black for their murdered children. She mentioned some by name. “My friends, members of our community, and people in the cities have someone killed in their families, these are dark days.” She said.
I returned to know more about her murdered children and also to see how she is holding up. She looked tired as if she hasn’t slept for days. I asked her if she is getting enough sleep. “Every time I close my eyes I see my boys. Coming back from school, helping me with some chores, or doing their home work.” I can’t sleep. I don’t remember the last time I had a good night sleep” she says. The depth of her pain, layers of the trauma resulting from the cruelty of state violence has taken a tool on her.
“Where were they buried?” I inquired. “Oh not far from here it is a short walk. I go there every Sunday to talk to my boys.” “Would you take me today?” I asked “Yes, I’ll take you.” She quickly put her black shawl over her black dress and asked me to follow her “this way” she said, I followed her. We walked for about 15 minutes through a dry grass land with a narrow country side road. From a distance I see a few animals grazing. After a short walk we reached the church compound. There were a few worshippers praying outside the church and others are just arriving. She kneeled before the main gate and said a few words of prayer. I followed suite. After a few steps she lead me to the graveyard where her two boys lie. As we get closer I can hear a soft voice followed by weeping. “Here” she said. “They are sleeping here the same way they slept together at home when they were little boys, next to each other, my beautiful boys” said, wiping tears from her face. I tried to comfort her. Fighting my own tears. She told me the youngest only sixteen was shot and killed when he was taking part in a peaceful protest. “There are many mothers like me in this country, thousands, who lost their children to Agazi bullet.
“I heard they were trained by the American’s. Is it true?” She asks me. There is some sense of forcefulness, even anger in her voice. “Yes, I have heard the same story” I replied. “Why would they train and arm a group who will kills our children? I thought American’s were good people. Caring people.” “It is not the American people; it is the politicians who make these kind of decisions. I said trying to give her rational explanation. It meant a little comfort to her. “May be educated people like you should take our message to the American politicians and ask them to stop helping the Agazi kill our children.” I promised her I will make sure her message gets to the US policy makers, the US public and the wider world.
As I got up to leave she looked into my eyes with a plea that says “please let the world know our suffering. Please let those who train and arm Agazi know that they are training indiscriminate killers. Let them know the sorrow of a mother who lost not just one but two of her children.” “What do you call a childless mother? I am childless because my children were murdered by the Agazi.” she said. I have no answer to all of her questions. I am not even sure she was expecting any answers from me or she was simply expressing her sorrow out loud. May be both, but the truth is these are questions that I grapple with every day. I know also, that these are questions thousands of mothers across this country are asking.
As we drove away, my eyes wondered through the country side, there are no children playing, no farmers on the field, no travellers on the roads. There is an eerie feeling of life under siege. From a distance I can hear a gun fire. Another young man, young women, an elder, who would be the victim this time? Who would be Agazi’s prey? I wondered.
Laying in bed that night, I struggled to make sense of this brutality, the savagery of industrialized and institutionalized violence against innocent and un armed civilians. My mind roamed from place to place, from a mother’s tears to a father’s anguish. I tried to close my eyes with a hope of getting some sleep, but I couldn’t turn my mind off. I kept hearing “every time I close my eyes I see my boys.” I wondered if my visit made things even much worse for her emotionally. After numerous toss and turns, I gave up on falling asleep and I pulled a folded paper which I keep in my note book. It was a poem by the Roman lyric poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (C. 84 – 54BC) which he wrote for his dead brother.
“By strangers’ coasts and waters,
many days at sea,
I came here for the rites of your unworlding,
Bringing for you, the dead,
these last gifts of the living
And my words — vain sounds for the man of dust.
Alas, my brother, You have been taken from me.
You have been taken from me
And by cold hands turned to shadow and my pain.
Here are the foods of the old ceremony appointed Long ago for the starvelings under the earth.
Your brother’s tears have made them wet.
And take Into eternity my hail and my farewell. ”
I read the poem a few more times in memory of men and women young and old who are murdered by Agazi forces since TPLF came to power. The more I read it, I wanted to travel across this land, and talk to every single mother whose child was murdered by Agazi forces. I wanted to some how feel their pain or at least listen to it. Beyond my emotional upheaval and ambition, the practicality of my desire I realized, is almost impossible. Given the sheer number of murders carried out by Agazi, I may have to travel for the next few years to reach only a small portion of mothers who wake up every morning with an empty chair at the table. Their children absent from their class rooms, young men and women who will not plan their weeding’s and give them grand children.
In the end, my mind settled on a rational reasoning while my heart wanted to travel across the country and listen to all the mothers. Perhaps, it has a selfish ulterior motive of my own desire to reconnect with this beautiful land of my ancestors. The time and the place, the date and the season, or the person who fired the gun certainly might be different. The truth is that the story of mothers who lost their children, the degree of their pain, the trauma and the anguish they experience is the same whether they live in and around the northern mountains or near the western tropical forest, the central plains or the southern grassland, the east, the country side or the cities. It is all the same. Profound sorrow and un ending pain.
For now, I have decided to tell the story of a mother that I know about. A mother, to whom I have the privilege and a great honor of meeting. A mother who I can not name for now. Her two boys, their names and images permanently etched in my mind. With every rising sun they besiege and challenge me to continue to be on the side of justice and truth not power and privilege. It is the least I can do.