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.
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.