By Elyas Mulu Kiros
I have just finished reading ‘Terarochin Yanketekete Tiwild’ (The Generation that Shook the Mountains), a compilation of biographies of some of Ethiopia’s revolutionaries of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – young minds that passionately fought against injustice, inequality and oppression, and eventually brought down King Haile Sellasie and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Among those amazing, selfless martyrs mentioned in the book is Martha Mebrahtu whose tragic murder not only angered but also inspired thousands of young men and women who stood up and waged a bitter struggle for democracy and gave Ethiopia’s oppressed the chance to finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
Martha was the daughter of a brigadier-general who hailed from the province of Eritrea (Eritrea was then part of Ethiopia). She was a beautiful and intelligent medical student at Haile Sellasie I University (now Addis Abeba University) back in the 1970s (or 1960s in the Ethiopian calendar). She entered college when she was only 15 years old. And a few months away from graduating, the government murdered her.
In addition to her academic excellence, Martha was an elected president of the university’s medical students’ association; one of the fiercest critics of the feudal system that exploited the poor (some years after she died, her father admitted that she always challenged and criticised him for being a part of an oppressive system); an advocate for women’s rights (her peers affectionately called her the Angela Davis of Ethiopia); and an active member of the then fledgling university students movement, which gradually matured and became Emperor Haile Sellasie’s worst nightmare.
Martha was born in Addis Ababa and as a young girl she had a chance to study in Nigeria and to visit the US as an exchange student. Her US exposure as a high school student, in particular, introduced her to the civil rights and feminist movements, the reasons of the movements and the individuals who spearheaded them, such as Angela Davis. Upon her return and later on joining the university, it was obvious that she would become a passionate advocate for social change.
The 1950s and the 1960s were tough times in Ethiopia as students and teachers began to challenge the monarchy that ruled the country for over 3,000 years. Girmame and Mengstu Neway, brothers and army commanders who revolted against Haile Sellassie, and other African students who struggled for independence from colonialism, were some of the key inspirations for those young Ethiopians. The feudal lords, of course, didn’t waste time to suppress the growing student movement from the word go, though their violent suppression only speeded their downfall.
With an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a plane on the 8 December 1972, Martha and her peers sacrificed their precious lives (the secret police on board gruesomely murdered nearly all of them, except one, just when they started ordering the pilot to change direction). But their sacrifice wasn’t in vain; it paved the way for other activists; it awakened the consciousness of the mass, proving to the then emperor and the dictator who took power after him that one can kill a person, but never an idea whose time has come. It is important to mention here that the plan to hijack the plane was never meant to harm anyone on board, but to only make legitimate demands on the imperial government.
The night before the hijacking attempt (Thursday, 7 December 1972), Martha wrote her manifesto, the reasons that compelled her to make sacrifice on the next day. She put her thoughts in words, and laid down her dreams. Martha wrote (roughly translated from Amharic):
‘We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, have made our life ready to participate in a struggle and we would like to explain the nature of our struggle to our sisters and brothers all over the world.
‘Our struggle demands a bitter sacrifice in order to liberate our oppressed and exploited people from the yokes of feudalism and imperialism. In this struggle we have to be bold and merciless. Our enemies can only understand such a language.
‘We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not only exploited as members of the working classes and peasants, we are also victims of gender inequality, treated as second class citizens. Therefore, our participation in this struggle must double the efforts of other oppressed groups; we must fight harder, we must be at the forefront.
‘We must equally participate in the struggle for economic and social justice that our brothers have waged. We have a responsibility to become a formidable force in the revolutionary army.
‘The rights for freedom and equality are not manna from heaven. We, women, have to be organised and have to make ourselves ready for any armed struggle. This fight will need financial, material and moral support of progressive international women’s associations. We reach out to our sisters in other parts of the world so you can help us achieve this goal; we hope your support will reach us as we need it.
‘We affirm our full support for the oppressed people of the world who are struggling to free themselves from imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism and racism! We stand by the freedom fighters in Vietnam, Palestine, Guinea-Bissau and in other African and Latin American countries; we also support the civil rights leaders in North America.
‘Victory to the popular struggle of the people! May the people’s movement for freedom in both Ethiopia and Eritrea live forever! My sisters and my brothers, let’s keep on fighting!’
That was Martha’s manifesto, Martha’s dream. Although she left the world tragically, her vision stayed on and inspired many tigresses like her who not only broke down the shackles of oppression, but also proved to their men that they were equally capable of destroying the enemy. Martha gave birth to thousands of other Marthas through her martyrdom. Her commitment, discipline, and selfless mentality made her not only a great revolutionary, but also a role model to others who followed her footsteps!
Today, both Ethiopia and Eritrea need more Marthas who can shake the mountains of the present time. May she rest in peace, and live forever in our minds!
‘Martha Lemin Motech? Lemin, Lemin Motech? … Why did Martha die? Why? Why did she die?’ was a popular song, call it an anthem, that was sang in Ethiopia right after her death. Those who knew the answer were the ones who followed her example and brought a change in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, a change that still needs to be fully realised. Today, we, the young generation, must ask ourselves that same question and come up with an answer in order to tackle the problems of our times, applying contemporary methods.
Elyas Mulu Kiros blogs at kweschn.