Yekatit 12 is a date in the Ethiopian calendar, equivalent to 19 February in the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly used to refer to the indiscriminate massacre and imprisonment of Ethiopians by elements of the Italian occupation forces following an attempted assassination of Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani 19 February 1937. Viceroy Graziani had led the Italian forces to victory over their Ethiopian opponents in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and was supreme governor of Italian East Africa. This was one of the worst atrocities committed by the Italian occupation forces.
Estimates of the number of people killed in the three days that followed the attempt on General Graziani's life vary. Ethiopian sources afterwards estimated as many as 30,000 people were killed by the Italians, while Italian sources claimed only a few hundred were killed. Over the following week, numerous Ethiopians suspected or accused of opposing Italian rule were rounded up and executed, including members of the Black Lions, and other members of the aristocracy; most of the 125 young men whom Emperor Haile Selassie had sent abroad to receive college education, and were still resident in Ethiopia, were killed. Many more were imprisoned, even collaborators like Ras Gebre Haywot, the son of Ras Mikael of Wollo (who had been imprisoned by Emperor Haile Selassie for nine years prior to the Italian invasion), Brehane Markos, and even Ayale Gebre; the last named man had helped the Italians identify the two men who made the attempt on General Graziani's life.
Following the defeat of the Ethiopian forces under his personal command at the Battle of Maychew on 31 March 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie left Ethiopia to address the League of Nations to plead for their assistance against the Italians. He made his close friend and cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie his regent during his absence, who attempted to set up a Provisional Government at Gore, in the southwestern part of the country. Gore, however, was located deep in the homeland of the Oromo people, who opposed his attempts to maintain imperial hegemony; some went as far as to approach the British to recognize their attempts to create a Western Galla Confederation. When the Italians advanced on Nekemte on 24 October, Ras Imru found his position untenable and marched south in search of more welcoming surroundings. The two opponents maneuvered over southwestern Ethiopia, the Italians pursuing the Ethiopians, through the month of November until Ras Imru was caught on the banks of the Gojeb River, where after fierce fighting Ras Imru surrendered on 18 December.
Meanwhile, loyalists made a poorly organized attempt to recapture Addis Ababa on 28 July. Various armed groups of Ethiopians pounced on the Italian positions in the capital city, taking the defenders by complete surprise; the first Italians they encountered were reportedly a group working on a well. However, General Gariboldi had expected an attack on the capital, and had prepared for this eventuality. Although a unit under Abebe Aragai had almost entered the Little Gebbi, where Viceroy Graziani was working, the Ethiopians were repulsed on all sides. Despite a last rally by Abuna Petros on the final day of the battle, who led a final advance in St George's Square, the attempt on the city failed.
Lastly, the remaining Ethiopian forces in the southeast were being run down. Ras Desta Damtew and Dejazmach Beyene Merid had remained in control of their provincial capitals at Irgalem and Goba through November. On 23 November a motorized column under Captain Tucci had penetrated into the region, sparking a revolt by the local Sidama people; Irgalem fell to the Italians on 1 December, and Ras Desta and Dejazmach Beyene Merid fell back into the mountains of Bale Province. A game of cat-and-mouse followed, until the last few thousand soldiers under their command were cornered near Lake Shala and annihilated by superior Italian numbers at the Battle of Gogetti 18 February 1937. Ras Desta managed to escape the battlefield alone, but was hunted down and executed a few days later. With Ras Desta Damtew's death, all organized Ethiopian resistance to the Italians was spent.
Attack on Viceroy Graziani
Despite having unquestioned control over the African empire at the beginning of February 1937, Viceroy Graziani still mistrusted its inhabitants. During the previous year, following the capture of Jijiga by his men, Graziani was inspecting an Ethiopian Orthodox church when he fell through a concealed hole in the floor, which he was convinced had been prepared as a mantrap for him. "From that incident," writes Anthony Mockler, "it is possible to date his paranoiac hatred of and suspicion towards the Coptic clergy." Despite this, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Naples Graziani announced he would personally distribute alms to the poor on Friday, 19 February at the Genete Leul Palace (also known as the Little Gebbi).
In the crowd that formed that Friday morning were two young Eritreans living in Ethiopia named Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom. Finding their fortunes limited in the Italian colony, they had come to Ethiopia to enroll in the Menelik II School, where recent events had overtaken them. Apparently accommodating himself to the new administration, Abraha gained employment with the Fascist Political Bureau, where his Eritrean origin, knowledge of Italian, and familiarity with the city made him useful. However, according to Richard Pankhurst, Abraha Deboch was bitterly opposed to the Italians, especially its racist practices. Before leaving their house, Abraha had placed an Italian flag on the wooden floor, driven a bayonet through it, then tied an Ethiopian flag to the bayonet.
The official ceremony began as might be expected. Viceroy Graziani made a speech, a number of Ethiopian notables made their submission to the victors, Italian planes made a fly-over above the city, and at 11 o'clock officials began distributing the promised alms to priests and the poor.
Abraha and Mogus managed to slip through the crowd to the bottom of the steps to the Little Gebbi, then began throwing grenades. According to one account, they managed to lob 10 of them before escaping in the resulting confusion. According to Richard Pankhurst, they were rushed from the scene by a third conspirator, a taxi driver named Simeyon Adefres. Pankhurst also credits him with providing the grenades that Abraha and Mogus threw.
Behind them, the dead included Abuna Qerellos's umbrella-bearer. The wounded included the Abuna himself, the Vice-Governor General Armando Petretti, General Liotta of the Air Force, and the Viceroy himself; one grenade exploded next to him, sending 365 fragments into his body. Viceroy Graziani was rushed to the Italian hospital where he was operated on immediately, and saved. General Liotta lost his leg to the attack.
For a while Abraha and Mogus hid at the ancient monastery of Debre Libanos but soon moved on, seeking sanctuary in Sudan. Somewhere in Gojjam local inhabitants, always suspicious of strangers, murdered them.
The Italian response was immediate. According to Mockler, "Italian carabinieri had fired into the crowds of beggars and poor assembled for the distribution of alms; and it is said that the Federal Secretary, Guido Cortese, even fired his revolver into the group of Ethiopian dignitaries standing around him." Hours later, Cortese gave the fatal order:
|“||Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.||”|
For the rest of that day, through Saturday and Sunday, Italians killed Ethiopians with daggers and truncheons to the shouts of "Duce! Duce!" and "Civiltà Italiana!" They doused native houses with gasoline and set them on fire. They broke into the homes of local Greeks and Armenians and lynched their servants. Some even posed on the corpses of their victims to have their photographs taken. In three days, the Italians had killed 30,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa only. The first day is commemorated as "Yekatit 12" (Ethiopian February 19) till now. There is a monument called by the same name in Addis Ababa in memory of those Ethiopian victims of Italian aggression.
The attempted murder provided the Italians with the reason to implement Mussolini's order, issued as early as 3 May 1936, to summarily execute "The Young Ethiopians", the small group of intellectuals who had received college education from American and European colleges. The same day as the assassination, a military tribunal was set up, and by nightfall 62 Ethiopians were tried and shot. "The Graziani Massacre marked the almost total liquidation of the intellectual component of the Resistance," writes Bahru Zewde.
Thousands of Ethiopians of all classes were sent to detention camps at Danan in the Ogaden and Nokra in the Dahlak Archipelago. Conditions at Danan were inhospitable, and Graziani had given orders that the prisoners would receive only the bare minimum of food and water. As Sbacchi notes, "Poor facilities, including latrines, the humid climate, malaria, stomach infections, and venereal disease took many lives, especially among those compelled to work on the irrigation canal or on the banana and sugar-cane plantations." Between ten percent and half of the prisoners died at Danan.
Conditions at Nokra were even worse than at Danan, according to Sbacchi. The detainees sent there joined 500 prisoners serving life sentences for serious political crimes, increasing the total number incarcerated to 1,500. These inmates suffered from lack of fresh water, sunstroke, marsh fever, and dysentery.
The final reprisal struck in May. Investigators found that Abraha and Mogus had stayed a while at Debra Libanos, and slight circumstantial evidence suggested that the monks had foreknowledge of their plans. Graziani, mindful of his misadventure at Jijiga, believed they were complicit and 19 May cabled the local commander, "Therefore execute summarily all monks without distinction including the Vice-Prior." The following day, a feast day of their patron saint Tekle Haymanot, 297 monks plus 23 laymen were shot—the entire population of the monastery.
- Edmund J. Keller, Revolutionary Ethiopia (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1988), pp. 72f
- Alberto Sbacchi, "Italy and the Treatment of the Ethiopian Aristocracy, 1937-1940", International Journal of African Historical Studies, 10 (1977), pp. 215f
- Mockler, Anthony (2003) Haile Selassie's War, Olive Branch, p. 175
- Mockler, Anthony (2003) Haile Selassie's War, pp. 163 - 169
- Richard Pankhurst, "Events during the Fascist Occupation: in February 1937: Who Was the Third Man?", Addis Ababa Tribune, published 27 February 2004 (Internet Archive mirror copy)
- Bahru Zewde, "The Ethiopian Intelligentsia and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941", International Journal of African Historical Studies, 26 (1993), p. 280
- Bahru, "The Ethiopian Intelligentsia", p. 283
- Sbacchi, "Italy and the Treatment", p. 217
- Sbacchi, "Italy and the Treatment", p. 218