Ex-Ethiopian Jews Still Thankful

ex-ehiopian-jewsThe extraordinary operation, code-named Solomon after the ancient king of Israel, was similar to a surprise airlift that brought 12,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 and 1985. “It’s a great moment for all our people,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared last Saturday after the latest operation ended. Back in Ethiopia, however, other dramatic events continued to unfold. Rebels closed in on Addis Ababa on the weekend, even as they reportedly assured American officials that they would not enter the city before U.S.-brokered peace talks opened in London this week. Another group of guerrillas announced that they had captured Asmara, capital of the Red Sea province of Eritrea and the country’s second-largest city. For residents of Africa’s oldest independent state, long ravaged by civil war and famine, the latest developments provoked both joy and apprehension–joy at throwing off their dictator after 17 years of Marxist rule, apprehension because the rebels who sought to supplant him had equally strong Marxist credentials.

The collapse of the Ethiopian dictatorship, abandoned by its onetime Soviet sponsors and weakened by a series of rebel military successes, had seemed likely for weeks. Mengistu flew to Zimbabwe, where he owns a farm, on May 21. And during a state visit to France three days later, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said that he would grant political asylum to Mengistu, his friend since the late 1970s. Although Mengistu handed over power to his vice-president, Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, his departure clearly signalled the demise of the Ethiopian regime. “This is not the beginning of the end,” said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is the end of the end.”

The forces that brought Mengistu down were two major rebel groups, fighting side by side in a loose alliance. The Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front had been battling since 1961 for the secession of the northern province of Eritrea. The Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front had been fighting since the mid-1970s from its stronghold in the province of Tigre, seeking not independence but Mengistu’s overthrow. Late last year, the two groups joined forces as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, while still maintaining their separate identities and aims. Both the Eritrean and Tigrean rebel groups began life with strong Marxist leanings. And although in recent years they have moved towards a more centrist position, some Ethiopians have expressed concern that under the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, they would be no better off than under Mengistu.

But in the immediate aftermath of Mengistu’s flight last week, the atmosphere in Addis Ababa was triumphantly anti-Marxist-Leninist. First, the government of acting president Tesfaye freed 196 political prisoners. Then, it sent a team of workmen with jackhammers to Lenin Square to topple a 30-foot-tall bronze statue of the Soviet founder, which the Moscow government had presented in 1984 to mark the 10th anniversary of the revolution that eventually brought Mengistu to power. As workmen demolished the statue’s massive concrete base, citizens chanted: “Mengistu, thief. Lenin, thief.” And in a reference to Mengistu’s chosen refuge, they added a further insult: “Zimbabwe, thief.” With the base weakened, workmen with ropes and a crane pulled the statue down, and students chalked graffiti on its legs. “No more socialism,” read one. “Free Ethiopia,” said another.

Meanwhile, soldiers of Mengistu’s defeated army poured into Addis Ababa, fleeing from the rebels who rejected Tesfaye’s calls for a ceasefire. Said one Western diplomat: “They are tightening the noose around the city, ready to administer the final blow if the new leadership does not deliver at the talks.” Those talks, under U.S. sponsorship and with European Community backing, were due to open in London on May 27. But administration officials in Washington said last week that they did not expect the talks to provide an early solution to Ethiopia’s problems, which are aggravated by the spectre of a famine more severe than the one that ravaged the Horn of Africa seven years ago. Said one official, on condition of anonymity: “It would be foolish to think we could solve all of this in a week’s meeting. We’re under no illusions that the talks will be easy.”

Still, the end of the Cold War makes Ethiopia’s problems more manageable than they were a few years ago. Until Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to abandon the Kremlin’s traditional geopolitical objectives in the Third World, Ethiopia was a superpower battleground. Now, American officials regard it as a stage for U.S.-Soviet co-operation. In a recent speech, Irvin Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, declared: “We do not look at the Horn principally from a strategic or military angle anymore.” But Hicks added that the Americans are opposed to the idea of Eritrean independence, fearing that it will encourage breakaway movements elsewhere in Africa and lead to widespread instability. “New and different solutions can and must be tried,” said Hicks. The Ethiopians and Eritreans, he added, “are in need of federalism.”

For the Ethiopian Jews who escaped their country’s turmoil, the future seemed brighter, even in the troubled Middle East. They arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv looking dazed and exhausted, stepping onto a military airstrip as Israeli leaders greeted them. One old woman fainted. Gnodago Alamu, a 27-year-old teacher who came with his wife and three children, said: “I’m terribly happy. This was my dream.” But for the Ethiopians they left behind, the longtime dream–of a future free of famine and fighting–remained a distant mirage.

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