Reportage. In the ‘Cave of the Rebels,’ human bones and spent shells mark the spot where Italian fascists gassed thousands of men, women and children in 1939. The memory of their murder risks oblivion.

In 1939, the Italians used mustard gas to massacre fleeing Ethiopians

The Ethiopian plateau offers stunning panoramas: immense plains, up to 3,000 meters high, are carved by deep canyons formed from majestic cliffs of basaltic rock. Lashed by the wind, farmers are plowing the endless fields, still using wooden plows, while frowning women dressed in white shemma cloths prepare hay bales and children lead obedient donkeys bearing loads of wood.

In the northern region of Shewa, 150 km from Addis Ababa, there is an area called Caia Zeret. Not far from the town of Zemero, a small cluster of tukul huts called Kampo overlooks a cliff about 180 meters high. In the middle of the cliff face lies the entrance to a gigantic basaltic cavern, with an opening of 80 meters by five—a gaping horizontal wound in the enormous rock wall. This is the Amazegna Washa, the “Cave of the Rebels”—the scene of one of the darkest moments in Italian history.

Once you pass through the wide opening, the humidity rises and the ceiling descends. At the lowest level of the gallery on the right, there is a small lake. As you step cautiously, avoiding the rocks, bats and insects on the ground, you come across stones blackened by what appears to be soot, strange rocks with holes that seem artificial, and baskets for transporting grain. Then you see spent shells—and, finally, human bones. Suddenly, the atmosphere becomes haunted.

The flashlights illuminate human skeletons and shreds of clothes. Some of the bones seem to have belonged to children. On some of them, the skin is still preserved, thanks to the climate of the cave. We count between 18 and 20 bodies, but it is difficult to be certain.

In 1939, the war in Ethiopia had officially ended three years before. The title of viceroy had already passed from Rodolfo Graziani, known for his brutal methods, to Duke Amedeo d’Aosta. The Arbegnoch, the Ethiopian resistance fighters supported by the local population and led by Abebe Aregai, continued to test the occupying troops, especially in Shewa, a strategically important area. This is why a “great cleansing operation” was started in February 1939, which used artillery, aviation, and a large number of troops, mostly made up of Eritrean Ascari led by Italian officers.

Tekabe Kershe, 98 years old, witnessed the massacre of 1939 (Photo by Franco Zambon)

In early April, the Arbegnoch were almost surrounded by Italian troops in the Caia Zeret area. While the fascist siege closed them off more and more, the leader of the partisans managed to escape, but a more vulnerable column, led by one of his lieutenants, Teshome Shancut, was spotted by an Italian Air Force reconnaissance plane as it headed toward Amazegna Washa. The group consisted of a few hundred guerrillas and a large number of the wounded, the elderly, women and children.

On April 3, the siege of the cave began. The Arbegnoch put up stiff resistance, which was initially successful. The Italian troops were in a difficult position, as the steep rock walls on either side of the cave left them exposed to enemy fire.

The Ascari used machine guns, artillery, grenades and tear gas bullets, but failed to flush out the partisans. The situation had reached a stalemate, even though they even tried to use flamethrowers. After seven days of siege, the Italian command decided to call up the chemical warfare platoon from the port of Massawa in Eritrea, which arrived with hundreds of artillery shells loaded with arsine and an airplane bomb containing about 212 kg of mustard gas. On April 9, the chemical platoon, after funneling the mustard gas into 12 containers connected to electric detonators, dropped them in front of the cave entrance and blew them up. Thus began the inferno of Amazegna Washa.

The initial contact with mustard gas is painless, but it penetrates the skin deeply, passing through waterproof clothing, and it causes the progressive inflammation of skin tissues. After a few hours, the skin swells in huge blisters, which later turn into sores that expose the raw flesh to the air. The gas causes severe internal bleeding, attacks the respiratory system and causes blindness.

Many Arbegnoch that found themselves near the entrance of the cave quickly succumbed to the gas, and those hiding inside would suffer the effects of exposure. The refugees and partisans hiding in the cave were at the end of their strength. The gas polluted the internal lake. Thus, on April 11, the procession of partisans, women and children began to leave the cave.

The men, about 800, were immediately shot in groups of 50 on the edge of the ravine, according to Mussolini’s supreme decree, while the women and children were held for a short time near the Italian military encampment and then released, dying of gas poisoning.

This is the most plausible reconstruction of the massacre carried out by the Fascist units, which violated the Geneva Convention in every way. Almost 80 years later, the size of this massacre is still shrouded in a cloud of mystery. Unlike the high-ranking Fascist officers, it is difficult to say whether the Italian soldiers knew that inside the cave there were also women, children and the elderly. However, it is plausible to estimate that the dead, inside and outside the cave, numbered between 800 and 1,500.

Shewantasew Yimraw, another of the rare still-living eyewitnesses (Photo by Franco Zambon)

The case re-emerged in 2006, thanks to the studies of Matteo Dominioni, a young researcher at the University of Turin who found a number of documents in the historical office of the old Army Staff.

In a folder, he found a telegram from Colonel Lorenzini dated April 14, 1939, which described the difficulties of exploring the cave after the operation. Dominioni published his research and wrote his book Lo sfascio dell’impero (“The Empire’s Collapse”) in 2008, bringing to light the details of another shameful event from Italian colonial times, after the Dini government declassified the documents from the period in 1996.

In a small hut in Kampo, we find one of the few still-living witnesses of what happened in those days. Tekabe Kershe is 98 years old, blind and very weak. Her daughter, Eifimesh Tegname, speaks for her. “She was pregnant, very young, and had lived for at least 15 days in the cave. Femtik, my father, was a patriot, and fought in the cave. A few days before the final fight, my mother gave birth, so my father sent her to the Coptic Church area which was found near the river Wenchit. That was how she was saved.”

Laying a hand on her mother’s shoulder, she continues: “My father was brave. Everyone respects us, even now. He managed to escape before the Italians shot the men, most of whom were tied together and thrown off the cliff.”

After so much time has passed, understanding the reports and their interpretations is a difficult matter. But there is one thing all Ethiopians seem to agree on, however: that the number of victims, inside and outside the Amazegna Washa, must have been at least 5,000. “Even though I’m old and I forget many things, what I saw in those places I will never forget,” says Shewantasew Yimraw, another one of the rare living eyewitnesses of the events, sitting in a chair outside the Association of Ethiopian Patriots in Addis Ababa.

He is dressed in full uniform, and proudly displays his medals from the battles fought during the Derg regime. “I was a child when I went with my father to retrieve the thousands of bodies inside and around the cave and bury them.”

Dawitt Kidane Afeworq, author of several books on the history of Ethiopia (Photo by Franco Zambon)

A more conservative number is offered by Dawitt Kidane Afeworq, author of several books on Ethiopian history, including Netzannet, l’infinita tela del ragno (“Netzannet: the Infinite Spider’s Web”) which will be out in November. He tells us that without adequate documentation of the events, it is an exaggeration to say that there were 5,000 people in the cave: “According to the available documents, they were no more than a few hundred. It is certain that gas was used against women and children, but about the numbers I would beg to differ.”

This story is one that has remained hidden, also for political reasons. When Emperor Haile Selassie returned to power in 1941, there was not much interest in collecting information on the occupation. The king had fled to the UK in 1936, and many still criticized him for this. Thus, the regime avoided delving into the tragedies of the years of fascist occupation, not to mention those from the period of the Derg dictatorship.

“At the same time, we, the British, also played a role,” says Ian Campbell, a leading expert on the period and the author of The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, published in 2017. “We did not care to publicize the war crimes committed by the Italians, first of all because they had recognized our occupation in 1936, and then because Italy was part of the Allies at that point. It was not convenient to talk about what they had done.”

“They were devils,” says Yimraw, the old patriot, as he gets up to walk away, supporting himself with an old cane. He carefully arranges the medals hanging on his chest, then turns to us: “The fascists have done us harm. But only them… not the Italian people. Tell that to the young people in your country: ‘Do not be like them.’”

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