By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, April 21, 2013 (Ezega.com) - Last week, one of the greatest Ethiopian journalists and novelists Baalu Girma was a topic of conversation among Ethiopians. After three decades of his sudden disappearance, a rumour broke out that he is still alive, living as a monk in one of the monasteries around Bahir Dar. As a result, many tried to get a ticket to travel to Bahir Dar to see him, and others are questioning whether the rumour was true.
Three decades have passed without any actual evidence of what exactly happened to Baalu Girma. The only concrete information is that, on February 14, 1984, on a Thursday evening in Addis Ababa, Baalu left his home to meet friends never knowing that it will be the last time he will be seen by his loved ones. There were reports that he was abducted from his car by the then military regime intelligence officers. After that nobody seems to know what really happened to him. His disappearance followed the publishing of his most controversial book, Oromay (the End) which cost him his job at the ministry of information after the military regime decided that he betrayed the revolution by revealing secrets about Ye’ Key Kokeb Zemech (Operation Red Star) to the north. He was unemployed for about six months, which, as told by those who were close to him, was frustrating to Baalu. Baalu was part of the Operation Red Star which was meant to destroy secessionists in the north once and for all, and the characters in his book Oromay resemble several top level military officers who were part of Operation Red Star.
The book is an account of the dysfunctional nature of the military regime and the miscalculations in handling the Ethio-Eritrean conflict and the fight with the secessionists at the time - TPLF and EPLF. Notwithstanding his vital posts like Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Information, and his several other roles as an editor in chief of voice newspapers for the regime like Yezarietu Ethiopia, Ethiopian Herald, Addis Zemen, Baalu was not hesitant to sharply criticize the regime with his brilliantly written novel Oromay. Oromay is still a historical reference for the profound connection between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the mistakes that caused the separation at the end and what could have been done right by both sides at the time to avoid that.
The regime immediately denied it has something to do with the disappearance of Baalu Girma, and even showed concern and tried to distribute a flyer and announce his disappearance to the public and encouraged anyone to give information if they have seen Baalu Girma anywhere. After about a week, his car was found parked outside Addis Ababa on the road to Debrezeit and there was no sign of Baalu inside. To this day, his disappearance remained a mystery even to this generation that come long after he vanished to thin air that fateful day.
One of the greatest Ethiopian literary of the past century, a sharp observant of real life characters to make them novels that served consecutive generations, and the man who revealed injustice, recklessness, identity crises, the importance of honesty and commitment and the widespread corruption in the top level of government at the time, Baalu Girma, did not even get a proper funeral since his body was never found.
Mengistu Hailemariam, former Ethiopian military dictator, plainly denied that he orders the killing of Baalu. Genet Ayele, on her book Yemengestu Hailemariam Tiztawoch Kutir Hulet (Memories of Mengistu Hailemariam, Vol. II), asked the former leader to tell her what he knows about the disappearance of Baalu. Mengistu Hailemariam answered by telling a story how Baalu came to him after he was already in trouble for his book Oromay. ‘‘When he was having a hard time from the intelligence office for his book Oromay, Baalu came to my office to talk to me about it. He said that he complied with the orders of the censorship office and he removed everything they asked him to cut from the book. He also assured me that he did not add anything the censor officers did not like. He said he understood the system and he knows that it is not possible to publish anything without permission from the censorship office. However, he told me that the director of the censorship office is giving him a hard time for his book and he wanted me to tell them to leave him alone,’’ Mengistu told Genet.
According to Mengistu, while Baalu was still in his office, he called to a man named Lieutenant Mengistu Gemechu who was the assistant of the director of the censorship office.
‘‘I called him and told him that the director misunderstood Baalu because there might be people who are giving wrong information about him. I told him to clarify the case and to help Baalu as much as he could. I said he is now in my office and I will send him to you and you should go to the director with him and explain that he did everything as he was required. Mengistu Gemechu told me not to worry and he promised that the issue was nothing to be concerned about and he will talk with the director about it,’’ Mengistu Hailemariam broadly explained. Still, it was not clear why, if he really wanted to help Baalu, a dictator who manages every affairs of the nation and everyone under his control, could not directly call the director himself and tell him to back off.
Fikereselassie Wogderese, who was the prime minster of the country at the time and according to some sources, responsible for reading and censoring Oromay before it was published, was also missed from Mengistu’s story. Fikereselassie was the one who dismissed Baalu from his post at the ministry of information. Further, many agree that, of all the enemies Baalu got for his book Oromay,Fikereselassie was the biggest with real potential to do harm on him. However, when Mengistu Hailemariam talked about Baalu, he did not mention Fikereselassie by name.
After that, Mengistu Hailemariam remembers asking Mengistu Gemechu how things went with Baalu. ‘‘After a while I have asked Mengistu Gemechu if he had a talk with the director and he said yes. He told me he tried to explain everything but the director was very angry about Baalu and he was not willing to ease the situation at all. I was not worried because I knew the director had a short temper. I told the assistant to wait a little longer and raise the issue again since the director will forget his anger with time. He agreed,’’ Mengistu says.
However, as he told Genet Ayele, Mengistu Hailemariam seems having an opinion that Baalu was a man who had many enemies. ‘It’s is not just his book. For several other reasons he had many enemies. It is mostly because he works closely with our government,’’ he said. It seems that Mengistu thinks people were jealous of Baalu because he was given many promotions by the military regime. Or maybe, the enemies of the regime, who were a lot at the time, were unhappy that Baalu was supporting and working for the military regime.
Mengistu Hailemariam went on saying that he heard Baalu had disappeared from his intelligence office. ‘They told me that he disappeared and no one knows where he was. We ordered search for him, since at the time, the Kebele administration used to arrest and move people around and it was difficult to find them. We asked every Kebele to give us information if he was arrested. We also distributed flyers with his picture so that if anyone saw him they will give us the information. I can assure you that we have nothing to do with his disappearance. He was not arrested by us,’’ he said.
Mengistu also perceives the book Oromay as something that has nothing to do with him. ‘He did not do anything to me personally. People say that in the book, the fat man resembles me and I have ordered his killing because he revealed secret of the intelligence. That is not true. In the first place, I did not go to the Operation Red Star which the book is based on. I was in the capital at the time. My representative in Eritrea was a man named Colonel Girma Woldemariam and I was given information that the two were in harmony and they used to work together in peace. For me the fat man character resembles Colonel Girma. I have no reason to order the killing of Baalu,’’ he says.
However, this statement by Mengistu sounds to mean like the Ex-President is saying he has nothing to do with the regime and the revolution at all. Though Baalu decided to write Mengistu Hailemariam as a strong and genuine leader, if the book criticizes the military regime, and Mengistu is the founder of the regime, it should have been obvious to him that the book is a critique to him personally.
Mengistu also seems to miss a piece from his telling about his encounter with Baalu. At the time, there were several reports that said after the book was published, Baalu was called to the president’s office. According to Sun newspaper, on April 5, 1991 edition, Mengistu Hailemariam told Baalu that he was very much disappointed by his work. The newspaper quotes a statement by Mengistu that says ‘How could you put the revolution in danger’ and Baalu defended his work by saying ‘Ethiopia belongs to all of us. I have the right to express my view about my country’. According to the report, the president was more unhappy with this answer and dismissed Baalu from his office. It was after this encounter that Baalu was discharged from his post at the Ministry of Information for ‘betraying the revolution’
For many, it was a miracle how a book like Oromay, a writing that openly reveals the hidden vindictive nature of the regime at the time and criticizes top government officials with characters that resemble them in real life managed to pass censorship and gets published. In a government that was extremely tight in its censorship rules, and at the time when publishing a piece of paper required getting through several censorship procedures, the fact that Baalu managed to publish Oromay makes one wonder what the censorship office was doing at the time. It was also no surprise that, after the book was already published, people in the censorship office were extremely upset with the book and become serious enemies of Baalu.
There seems to be two obvious ways for Baalu to get his book Oromay out at the time. First and foremost, Baalu, smartly wrote the first few chapters of the book in a way that did not offend anyone at the military regime or the censorship office. Baalu begins the book with a little romance, and a light appreciation of Mengistu Hailemariam himself and the commitment of the soldiers for the Operation Red Star. Deceived by the soft and comforting opening, the censorship officers may not have been as critical as they should have been and reckless enough to have passed it without reading in its entirety. Of course, when the book came out and created a huge controversy, they had to read the whole thing and understood then that they failed tremendously in what they were supposed to do.
Another way could be that, since Baalu was part of the military regime, working as the second in command in the ministry of Information, they might have trusted him to comply with their rules and passed his book without examining it seriously. Either ways, the fact that Oromay was published was a big disaster primarily for those who were responsible for censorship. That is the reason why, Baalu had to go to the president of the country, Mengistu Hailemariam, and ask for understanding from the censorship office. It sounds like Baalu predicted what was going to come and was worried for his safety, and hoped the president will take measures to protect him.
Oromay was banned from the market at the time. It was collected from bookstores and even from the shelves and hands of individuals. Having the book by anyone was considered a crime. However, since banning information naturally raises people’s curiosity, the book was hugely circulated underground. It was also again published after the military regime was overthrown and sold a huge number of copies.
Baalu Girma was one of the few Ethiopian novelists/journalist with a sharp and clear observation and simple writing style. With no bias and judgment and with a beautiful style and impressive words that could relate to every Ethiopian, Baalu showed the nation exactly how they are and not how the politics wanted them to be. He was indeed one of the very few daring souls Ethiopia ever saw who claimed his natural born right for freedom of expression and never compromised his values whatever the situation might be. Baalu and his family paid a painful price for this. However, there is no doubt that the truth has set his name free, making his writings one of the most favourite readings in the nation long after he was gone. The fact that many were excited by a mere rumour that he was found alive is a demonstration of the deep love and respect Baalu Girma secured in the hearts of Ethiopians.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Columinst for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.