Harambe hotel

A coup?

After the usual long journey, we were arriving in Addis and seeing the city from a distance while already preparing to enter it and finally get to the Harambe hotel. Our friend and colleague Solomon was coming with us and we agreed that we would drop him in town so that he could get home as early as possible.

While looking at the city we saw several jet planes and helicopters flying over it. We had seen planes flying during other journeys and this was not strange as we imagined that new pilots were trained all the time to go to the war with Eritrea. However, we realized that that day, Tuesday the 16 of May of 1989, the traffic was denser than usual but did not think more about it.

We did not think much (rather celebrated!) the thin traffic we met when entering Addis as this would enable us to reach our destinations earlier. So, we entered the usual way, I believe through Sudan road straight to the hotel. About a block away from it we saw a vehicle parked in the middle of the street that blocked our way.

It was not a normal vehicle but a tank! Perhaps it was our imagination but we saw it moving its turret while we approached it. I am not sure if you have been aimed at by a tank, but I believe we were in its sights so, without thinking, I veered rather violently to the left into the next street to get away from it.

The view from our room at the Harambe hotel. The green building is the Ministry of defense, the heart of the coup.
The same view after a heavy hailstorm.

While moving through the empty street I heard Solomon saying “Julio, this is not normal”, “something is happening in Addis that we do not know” and he added nervously “we better find a place to stop so that you can spend the night”. Luckily Solomon knew that the Wabi-Shebele hotel was on that road and that was exactly the place we headed for.

We arrived at the hotel after a couple of minutes and, luckily but not surprisingly, they had rooms available. I offered Solomon to stay there but he wanted to go home and thanked me for the offer but declined. He knew the city, he said, and would manage to get home without problems.

While checking in I noted that, before leaving us, he was having a very animated talk with the receptionists and concièrges. After checking in, a quick talk to Solomon, in Spanish, enlightened us on the situation. Mengistu had gone to the then East Germany and some army officers had attempted to take control of the country. “He will return and I fear for the coup leaders” he said before leaving us.

We saw Solomon leaving not without misgivings as the situation was clearly not safe. We decided to offload the car and moved to our room, located on the second floor, facing the street. While unpacking I turn on my short-wave radio to the BBC world service and, when the news come, we learnt that the information that Solomon had given us was correct: a coup d’état was indeed taking place.

As soon as we knew about the coup we started hearing sporadic shooting but nothing too serious, so we went down to the first floor to have our dinner.

We were very few people dining that night. The dining room had large windows through which you could see the street below and, at the start of the evening things appeared calm with the exception of the sporadic gunfire, now farther away, that continued unabated. At some time we were all peering through the windows when we heard heavy vehicles moving through. It was a lorry convoy carrying troops that, of course, we could not tell on which side they were!

We finished eating, still listening to the BBC, and we decided to go up to our room as we could not do anything but wait and see. We did not have much to wait. By midnight, gunfire became more frequent and the caliber of the guns increased! There was also lots of heavy weaponry being moved in front of the hotel and I could see through a slit in the curtains that there were a few tanks moving as well.

I did not wake Mabel up to avoid her getting too worried but she surprised me by sitting on the bed saying “these are tanks!” and going to the window to watch them. She was, in fact, calmer than me!

While the coup progressed, we stayed put at the hotel until, I believe through a phone call from FAO, we were told that the United Nations personnel were all concentrated at the Ghion hotel from where developments were being followed to decide whether to evacuate us or not. We were at the wrong hotel and we needed to move as soon as possible to join our colleagues!

The following day (probably the 18th or the 19th) things appeared calm, so we decided to go for it. The drive was risky as it involved crossing the centre of town, where some fighting could still be going on. However, we needed to get through and hoped that the UN identification in our vehicle would be of use.

I drove straight to the Ghion without caring too much for the roads’ way, right or left as the roads were almost empty of civilian vehicles but littered with rocks that needed to be negotiated slowly. We did not meet any military personnel but needed to avoid a few damaged military vehicles while we also saw some of the human casualties on the street.

Luckily, we arrived at the Ghion safely and we were immediately “ticked” in the list of personnel by the security officers. We were some of the last arrivals if not the last ones!

It was explained to us that we needed to wait and see how things evolved and, if they escalated, we may need to be evacuated to Nairobi. So, we were given a room and told to rest and wait for news. That evening, over dinner, we met a number of colleagues we knew and shared the dinner table with them, getting up-dated on what was actually happening.

Oddly, our new hotel’s location was of concern as it shared its grounds with the National Palace, the place where the Head of Government stayed and a strategic target for the rebels! This meant that we could see armoured vehicles criss-crossing the grounds. “Guys, there is a lot of heavy agricultural machinery moving around” said a colleague with a chuckle while pointing at a number of tanks manouvring through the hotel lawn. A comment I will not forget!

We had some sketchy information and learnt that Mengistu had already returned and was defeating the rebels although the situation was still uncertain. Interestingly, at lunch and dinner times there were SW radios at every table, and they were all tuned to the BBC News so we had a truly stereo effect as the same radio was all over the dining room!

We stayed at the Ghion for a few days and we were still there on 24 May as I remember watching the European Cup Final from the Camp Nou in Barcelona that A.C. Milan of Italy defeat Steaua Bucarest of Romania 4–0. The match was watched by a large UN crowd that started dispersing when Mengistu regained control of the country later on.

We returned to Bedele alone as we did not have any news of our colleague Solomon. Luckily, he turned up a few days later, unharmed and as cheerful as usual. Although he added more information on the events, it was only much later, when we were already outside Ethiopia, that we understood what had taken place.

Briefly, a while before May 1989 the Government had suffered two major military defeats at Afbet in 1988 and Shire in 1989 where thousands of troops and weapons had fallen in the hands of the Eritrean People Liberation Front. In addition, before the Afbet defeat Mengistu executed the commander of the forces. This resulted in additional loss of moral in the army and marked the start of the decline of the Government.

It was this demoralized army that took its chance in Mengistu’s absence and staged the coup of the 16 May 1989 that we had lived through. The coup was defeated within three days (something we did not know for certain at the time). Two of the leaders died during the fighting while some others were executed later in 1989 and a large number arrested. Solomon had been correct with his concern for the coup leaders!

Despite Mengistu’s victory, the coup left the army command very weak as the new generals lacked combat experience and the end came in 1990 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe.

We travel to Addis

After a while of being in Bedele and, once the work had progressed sufficiently well, it was time to return to Addis to deal with a number of personal as well as work issues. This trip was repeated a few times over the couple of years we were in Ethiopia, an average of once a month so, probably we visited it about twenty times and we got to know the road quite well.

As I already mentioned, travel was a slow affair that required great care because of the abundant pedestrians you would meet all over. It was a day trip to get there and we would then install ourselves at the Harambe Hotel, quite an experience. The hotel was a rather basic eight-floor cement and glass building [1]. I tried to check how it was today but I could not find a web site for the hotel. It does appear in Tripadvisor though but what it says there is not too good. It has only one review: “Terrible”!

Clearly, today we would not stay there but at the time, being the base for the “Bedele people”, compelled us to accept the system that was in place and we decided that we were able to survive there, a decision we questioned every time we visited it!

It would be unfair to dwell only on the problems as the hotel had a few good points. The absence of communication facilities between Addis and Bedele meant that we always arrived without a booking but we always found a room. Whether this meant that we were given some kind of priority treatment or that the hotel was half-full most of the time I will never know.

Being the base of the people from Bedele meant that all messages would be delivered to us there. It was also well sited and it became the fourth angle of my work square, the UNDP and FAO offices and the Ministry of Agriculture being the other three.

In addition, it had the advantage of being within walking distance from the few shops that offered the food we needed and, immediately after our first arrival, a young boy (with a small stick) appointed himself (or it was placed by the hotel) as our “beggar-chaser” and waited for us to come out to walked with us all over the place [2].

Entering the hotel the dampness and the smell of carpets in need of a good cleaning hit you hard but, luckily, you adjusted to this rather fast. The receptionists were nice and the situation improved once we became known and we even got access to fridge and freezer to store our food, after some protracted negotiations.

Several times we rejected rooms because of various reasons such as strong urine or damp stench, doors that did not lock or lumpy mattresses. At first, we rejected a couple because of the cockroaches but soon we discover that they were part of the hotel perquisites and that a certain population level was to be expected.

However, there were some rooms that were truly cockroach breeding grounds and these became Mabel’s worst nightmares. I recall it vividly getting up at night, turning on the lights of the bathroom and seeing hundreds of them rushing back to their hideouts! Soon, after uselessly trying to find a cockroach-free room, we made a list of our “liveable” ones and we requested these at the reception. This was an important breakthrough!

The breakfast was another sad affair, served on the rather dark and stinky first floor restaurant with a very poor service and rather plain food. For this reason, we made the point of -as far as possible- not having luch or dinner at the hotel. In this way, provided that we kept the midnight curfew in mind, we got to know a few places to eat out.

“Why did you keep coming back to it?” you may ask yourselves and I could not really give you an answer as we often ask the question ourselves! However, we kept coming back and it added more experience to our lives.

Work in Addis meant various kinds of meetings that, at least, were not equally monotonous. Those with UNDP meant constant defensive statements while the ones with FAO, naturally, were more helpful. The Director of the Veterinary Services was a tough cookie, arrogant and authoritarian and neither the Director of the Bedele Laboratory (an extremely kind and nice man) nor myself (or both combined) could do much to score points with him.

However, the really difficult meetings were those that took place every six months, the tripartite ones. As the name indicates, these involved the donor (UNDP), the implementing agancy (FAO) and the recipient government. The only advantages of these was that they brought the Veterinary Department closer to FAO to defend us against the incisive questions of the donor. Luckily, we survived these meetings and the funding was maintained as originally planned.

On the first journey, apart from work problem solving and getting food, we needed to get a 220v to 110v transformer for our printer as I had bought it from the US without realizing its voltage. We were pointed out to the Merkato as our best option and on a Saturday we set off to get one as well as a drill chuck key as the one for my drill had disappeared during the move from Kenya.

To say that the Merkato was large would be an understatement, it was humongous and incredibly crowded and dynamic. Despite this, there was no apparent danger despite seeing very few policemen and we felt quite comfortable walking about, some of the very few “ferengis” (foreigners) we saw at the time.

Italy, under fascism, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and two separate markets were planned to segregate the Italians from the Ethiopians. The Arada would be for the former while the Merkato was developed for the rest of the population and, naturally this is the one that still survives as a very vibrant place and reputed as the largest open air market in Africa, no mean feat!

It will be impossible for me to describe the Merkato and I present you with one of the videos that I found interesting to give you the dimension and dynamics of the place. Although it is a more modern Merkato, I believe that it still maintains its character. There are other videos on the subject also worth watching.

Credit: Wildlife Israel Yuval Dax. I recommend that you watch it with at least 720p.

Needless to say that I easily found my needed hardware items before our attention got diverted to the countless craft shops offering the most amazing silver and gold as well as beautiful baskets and Ethiopian textiles. I will go back to these on a later post with more details.

After walking for a while we heard some shouting and, curious, we went to see what was up. We arrived at an open area with lots of rubbish accumulated where a goat, sitting on its haunches and sporting a rather large “beer belly” was enjoying a beer straight from the bottle. Unfortunately, I could not find a video of this particular customer but there is one of another drinking a soda [3]. Times definitely have changed!

The first visit to Addis soon came to an end and it was time to return to Bedele and, as usual, once we got there and a week later we learnt that our new car had arrived so we needed to get back to Addis to get it but that is another story!

[1] For images of the hotel see: https://www.google.co.zw/search?q=harambee+hotel&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj505uihsPrAhUmK7kGHRz-Bg8Q_AUoAXoECBoQAw&biw=1280&bih=598#imgrc=2DrjOr18N62w0M

[2] This may sound unacceptable for many today but I can assure you that the famine and poverty in Ethiopia at the time were such that people asking for food and/or money were in such numbers that they would stop you from walking!

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5VCuFyatAk