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.

Bedele, first impressions

As soon as the people in the station saw us arriving, they immediately came out to greet us, and they did their best to make us feel at home. They were all mortified when they learnt about our experience with the Bedele town Administrator and his -luckily failed- attempt at “capturing” Mabel. It was at that time that, judging by the veiled criticism we heard, we realized that not all Ethiopians were in favour of Mengistu’s regime. We found this rather unexpected.

Luckily, almost everybody at the station spoke English well as Ethiopian professionals do. Senior administrators, veterinarians and technicians from the laboratory lived in the remaining five bungalows while the lower ranks stayed at Bedele town. Another -pleasant- surprise was that a few of the professionals spoke “Cuban” Spanish, the consequence of their education at the “Isla de la Juventud” (Youth Island) in Cuba where many children from countries in Africa and other continents were sent to be educated.

It was really a weird situation to talk in Spanish with my two counterparts Sileshi and Solomon but, somehow, it gave as a sense of more closeness in such a remote place. While most people at the laboratory communicated in Amharic both spoken and written, farmers and folk people in south-western Ethiopia spoke mainly the Oromo language or their local dialects, all of them impossible to understand and learn in the short time we had in Bedele.

Apart from Jan and Janni, the Dutch couple from the next bungalow, we had other neighbours such as Wolete from Tigray, a technician working with trypanosomiasis that was to become a great neighbour and friend. She and her husband cared for a young girl called Meredith (Meredit?), an orphan that they were looking after. They shared their house with another couple. 

Wolete spinning wool.
Learning to spin wool.
The bushsnob also tried… but decided to continue working with ticks and TBDs!
The daughter of our neighbours was shy! But her eyes said a lot.

Ibrahim, the Director of the laboratory occupied the fourth bungalow and the remaining two were shared by the various veterinarians.

Our bungalow seemed in good order. It had electricity and running water, two very important facts to start with. It had a sitting and dining area, two bedrooms and a toilet. We proceeded to install the cooker, fridge and music system, our only electrical appliances until the rest of our stuff would arrive later on. We also prepared the largest bedroom for us while the second became my office and it would also serve as a guest room. 

Although there was little room separating our house from the others at the back, we were fortunate to have the last bungalow and it opened to the laboratory campus towards our front. This was earlier referred to as our large garden by my Zimbabwean colleague and it was a good description as beyond the campus you could actually see a long way away in the distance the smoky hills of higher lands.

With François looking at the beautiful Didessa river valley.

People at the station kept chickens to eat and to get fresh eggs and it was quite common to witness a white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) chasing them between the houses, followed by the owner trying to defend it, not always successfully!

Cattle, sheep and goats also roamed through the station as the gate was open during the day and they had little difficulties to enter and enjoy the relatively abundant grass of the campus as compared with the overgrazed land around town. While the sheep were quite well behaved, the goats were a pest and they would eat anything, including our bananas and mangoes, even climbing on our vehicles to get them!

Sheep walking past with natural oxpecker tick control inluded.
A goat getting at the bananas and later denting the bonnet of the car.

Settling in was easy as there was little to do after work, apart from going for a cup of coffee to one of the coffee shops in the village that the Ethiopians always paid for! There were a few restaurants in Bedele and the favourite of the laboratory was really a family house where you could eat. Basically, you would be the only customers and they would accommodate you in their red plush armchairs in their living room and they would bring the food that our colleagues ordered. Usually this was doro fanta (injera, mutton and egg chilly stew) although, occasionally (to our relief) we could get kitfo (raw meat and butter with chilly), our favourite. Injera in this land was not the white and tasty we tried in Addis but a rather dark and sour variety that took a while to get used to eat it without getting severe stomach burn. However, we got used to eat it after a while.

There were other, rougher, eating places that we avoided after our first experience. We went there on an exploratory visit and we were guided to the kitchen to choose our food. While this was good as far as the injera went as we could see it being baked, we were then directed to a rather large cauldron where a kind of thick stew was boiling and from where we should help ourselves.

Injera oven. The dough is poured under the top cover.

We were getting ready to dip the large spoon in the simmering mass when we froze. A large cow eye was floating on the surface staring at us before it sunk back into the stew probably to join the second one and other organs that “grow in the dark”. We politely declined the food offer and went to our usual and safer place.

It was soon clear that it would be difficult to spend money in Bedele as there were no shops, with a few exceptions such as the butchery and the usual Saturday market. Mabel has just refreshed my memory regarding the former. It was reached through a track that, during the rains, required 4WD. It was located among a number of eucalyptus trees, a shack with a small glassless window through which some very dark looking (and rather stinky) meat chunks were hanging from hooks attached to the wall.

The butcher was an old man that had a couple of young assistants busy hacking at a freshly killed ox and hanging pieces of on a long pole from where the numerous customers were selecting their share. Purchases were paid in cash in Birr, no credit cards accepted!

The place was clearly a combined abattoir and butchery, judging by the number of bones scattered around it. However, it was nowhere as spectacular as the main slaughterhouse in Addis that had true bone mountains.

The bone “mountains” at the Addis Slaughter house. Credit: Magnus Franklin. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.

It took a great effort to get the cuts we wanted as there were not only communication issues (the butcher and or helpers would only speak Oromo) and the way we cut eat was also rather different. Eventually, through a combination of sign language and pointing out directly to the carcass we got a few chunks hacked off for us.

As expected, the meat was very tough, and we needed to cut it very thin to prepare something that our “civilized” teeth could bite through. After a couple of attempts of visiting the butcher, we decided to bring any further meat from Addis.

The local market did not offer any great spending possibilities either. Apart from lively livestock sales, we could find a few tomatoes and onions as well as Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and false banana or ensete (Ensete ventricosum) used for kocho [1]. The former is a special variety of potato that was found only in Welega province. Its shape is similar to that of a human finger, thin and elongated and widely consumed in Oromia. We had them steamed or boiled but failed to leave an impression.

Buying tomatoes at the market was another challenge to Mabel. The peasant women would sit on mats with about four to five tomatoes each and there was no way of convincing them from parting from all their tomatoes! So, we needed to visit about ten women and buy one or two from each to get the amount we were after! I am not sure of the reasons for this selling strategy but our presence prompted lots of talking and arguing!

After the first couple of weeks we realized that we would need to grow our own vegetables and bring most of our food from Addis or Jimma as the rest of the people did. Mabel also decided that a “survival” garden was on order and immediately she mobilized friends both in Italy and Great Britain to urgently supply her with the needed seeds.

I have already described her achievements in an earlier post published in September 2013 [2] and I recommend you to read it after the present one, if interested.

So, with the passing of time, life at Bedele became rather nice and we spent long hours reading and listening to music. In anticipation of long nights Mabel had bought several tapes of the most famous opera that we enjoyed very much in the evenings. Apart from quiet nights, there was also quite a bit of socializing with neighbours at our or their houses.

[1] The Gurage people chop the ensete’s flesh into a paste, and then shape it into a dough-like mass that gets wrapped in the plant’s leaves and buried in the ground to “mature”.

[2] See: