The Story of Dr. Petros Habtemikael – On the 43rd Anniversary of his brutal Execution by the Dergue Regime

During the period of the Dergue (1974-91) there were a number of egregious abuses against academic freedom at Asmara University. An early incident was the killing of Dr. Petros Habtemikael, an economist, in 1975. Dr.

During the period of the Dergue (1974-91) there were a number of egregious abuses against academic freedom at Asmara University. An early incident was the killing of Dr. Petros Habtemikael, an economist, in 1975. Dr. Petros taught extension courses in the evening, and some of his students were Ethiopian military officers, who objected to his use of Eritrean rather than Ethiopian examples in his coursework, and to the low grades they were given. It is believed that the officers caused Dr. Petros to be detained and executed.

Source Freedom of Expression and Ethnic Discrimination in the Educational System: Past and Future

Source Dabasu Ababa-Man yengar, zenabra p.125

Excrept from Long way from Adi Ghehad a biography of Dr Teame Mebrahtu, Chapter 20 University and the Death of a Friend Dr Petros was an old friend of Teame’s whom he had first met at the student conference in Bologna during his time at Beriut in 1964.

Petros had joined Teame in distributing propaganda protesting at the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia whilst attending the conference of student leders in Bologna in Italy. At that time Dr Petros represented Switzerland, while Teame was representing the Middle East.

Teama joined the University of Asmara in late 1974, the particular problem that Teame encountered soon after he joined the University was the decision by the Dergue to implement a policy of sending students out into the village to work on the land with farmers harvesting and maintaining crops. It was not popular with the Asmara University students-99% of them Eritrean who already opposed to the Mengistu regime.

Teama found himself pulled into the controversial new policy when the President of the University, Dr Assefa Tekle, a former head of the Pasteur Institute in Addis Ababa, received a letter from the regime ordering him to implement the new policy.

Dr Tekle asked Teama and another Professor, Dr Petros Habtemichael, to take on the responsibility of telling the students what was asked of them and to report back to him.

Teama was not not comfortable with the idea, But he and Dr Petros had no option but to comply with the request from the University President.

The two of them called a meeting of the students in the university auditorium. There were angry protests when the plan was outlined. Teame wrote a report to the university Presedent explaning what they had done and the reaction of the students.

Teame had taught an Ethiopian military officer in one of his classes and had no problems with him. But Dr Petros, who taught him in his economics class, got into constant arguments with him—particularly when he expounded his view that Eritrea could be self-sufficient economically. The country had, he said, copper and gold as well as petroleum in the Red Sea. He was giving an honest opinion (which history has since proved to have some substance). But it was dangerous politically. It went against the Ethiopian view that Eritrea could not survive on its own and needed Ethiopian support.

The Ethiopian officer would angrily confront Dr. Petros. They would have fierce arguments with Dr Petros challenging the Ethiopian propaganda of the time which also claimed that Eritrea got its cereals from Ethiopia. Dr Petros put forward the view that, with the right resources and support, Eritrea could be the bread basket of East Africa.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, Teame was worried that his friend was being a little too honest in putting forward his viewa so forcefully at a time when the Dergue did not react well towards critics of the regime. He understood that he was thinking of his Eritrean students when he sopke out. But he feared Petros was being politically naive. He seemed unwilling to keep his view to himself and was determined to keep to principles of human rights and freedom of speech. His principles would have been easier to uphold in Western Universities where Petros once taught, but were dangerous notions in Mengistu’ns Ethiopia.

The hunt by the army for the student leaders continued. The university staff were asked to produce those on the list. But they said they had no idea where they were. The soldiers did eventually find some of the students they were looking for although many of them had just disappeared. They also rounded up students who had remained on the campus. The village scheme eventually fizzled out, with the government, although not actually cancelling it, not forcing it through in Eritrea. It operate for a few more months in Ethiopia where the students there did not oppose it.

With the situation now calmer the university returned to something like normal. Teame and Petros along with other staff, including a brilliant Accountancy lecturer, Ato Woldetsion Kelati, went back to teaching their classes. Part of the regular routine, both at the university and in the civil service, was to breake from work at about 1.00 pm and go home for lunch returining at 3.00 pm.

Petros did not have a car. Teame had a small Volkswagen and would grop him off at his home for lunch e-route back to his house. He would pick him up again on the way back. Petros lived in a small flat in an apartment bolck above shops. He had wife and small child with another one on the way. Teame and Teblez had been instrumental inpersuading him to get married and organised the wedding with the support of the relatives of both the groom and the bride. One of these on the bride’s side was Memher Hailemichael Ghebreysus, the man who taught Teame at Dekemhare Elmentary School and who played a great part in shaping his future role as an educator.

One day Teame arrived back from lunch to pick Petros up at his house.He rang the bell and Petros’s wife appeared at the window upstairs to tell him that Petros had aleardy gone. He had left the flat to wait outside for Teame whilst enjouing a somke- a habit Teame had been trying to make him give up.

Apparently another car, also a Volkswagen had drawn up and driven off with Petros. His wife thought it was Teame picking him up as usual. Now worried about his friend, Teame retuned to the university to discover that Petros was not there. He sometimes walked back from lunch. Teame reported his disappearance to the university authorities. With no sign of him after several hours that alarm was raised and the police were called in.

The police found two witnesses who said they had seen Petros being picked up by the occupants of a Volkswagen. He had been heard to say ‘Who are you?’ He was then pulled into the car which drove off. It had all the signs of a kidnapping by the Mengistu death squads who opearated in the city and often lefy bodies of their victims in the gutters in the early hours of the morning. Teame felt that kidnappers must have been watching Petros and noticed his habit of waiting outside the apartment block near Cinema Roma to be picked up.

Search parties were organised to look for him. Relatives and friends took part. Teame joined one which went to a large park on the road to Massawa. To their horror, although not completely to their surprise, they found Petros’s body. It had the tell-tale marks around the neck which showed he had been killed by strangulation with oiano wire, a trade mark of the death squade.

When the police investigators arrived they discovered that he still had his expensive watch and a large sum of money which would have been the bulk of his wages that were, at that time, paid in cash and would have been collected a few days earlier. Clearly it had not been a robbery. His outspokenness had caught up with him.

News of the murder quickly spread around the city. Dr Petros was very well known in Asmara. The student population knew him as a prominent nationalist. His death was greeted with shock and anger. Rumours started that the Ethiopian air force officer he had argued with in his class might have had something to do with his death.

[pages 170-175 source Long way from Adi Ghehad a biography of Dr Teame Mebrahtu, 2017.]


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Review overview
  • AHMED SALEH !!! December 29, 2017

    I remember the killing of famous professor at the time of AFAGN security murders by strangulations
    with wire inside the city which terrorized entire population . But at that time their cruelty forced a big
    number (thousands ) of young generation to join the struggle for independence
    Asmara university academics produced many patriotic students in Eritrean history . Ethiopian
    government couldn’t succeed to suppress political movement of students inside the campus .
    And Issayas government knows well the potential of Santa Familia students that might threaten his
    leadership policies where he ordered to close its door indefinitely without any reasonable explanation .
    The sad part is to observe internal enemies against highly educated citizen similar to tactics of
    previous external forces that occupied our nation .

  • Meretse December 29, 2017

    A question to anyone who could remember the tragic death- when exactly did the incident took place?

    • AHMED SALEH !!! December 29, 2017

      Dear Meretse
      These tragic incidents of strangulations with wire and to dump the dead bodies took place
      starting from 1974 . I was a young age resident of Asmera who lost hopew and security back
      then to flee from home and join the fight than become a victim like those poor souls in 1975 .
      Those who stayed in Asmera witnessed worst situation of horrible crimes against innocent civilians at the hands of Ethiopian army officials with cooperation of their militia units from
      Tigray origins based in IDAGA-ARBI district .
      Sometimes it helps to let the past go and forgive but once we willingly forget our past , we
      become again vulnerable for victimization .

  • Danilo December 29, 2017

    My blood boils when reminded. The atrocity, supremacy, evil ambition and twisted history has been the main cause. labelling Eritrea as the outdoor for Arab invaders / outsiders etc. The fault of ethiopians is here that still depend on isayas to evacuate the eritrean people till kneeling down for ever. only this way they could swallow that bone stacked on their throat which is unlikely. my blood boils more and more when we are divided too. Sorry, that is it!!!

    • amanuel December 29, 2017

      Mengistu is known as the bucher of adis ababa. He did commit much more horrific crimes in ethiopia than in eritrea.
      Similarly iseyas is the bucher of eritrea.

  • Seifu December 29, 2017

    I remember the day he was murdered in 1976 or 1977 & I was always wondering why nobody was telling the story about Dr Petros. During that period a lot of people got killed by AFFAN what a sad story

    • amanuel December 29, 2017

      Indeed it is a sad story. It is also horrific and very distressing to think or imagine it. I do believe these things did happen during megistu who was a sadist like iseyas. Sadly these are the things that we should stand firmly and boldly against. This is exactly the same thing that happened and is hapening to thousands of eritreans by iseyas and his squad. Remember what happened to biteweded abraha and compare it with dr petros’s story. The only d/c is we do not get the dead bodies now, the iseyas’s squad burries them at night in unknown places not accesible to public or loved ones. And he claims he is one of us and worse a liberator.

  • Z. Hagos December 30, 2017

    The following is believed to help the writer to correct his information:
    Witnesses’ accounts of any historical event are examined, then re-examined and re-evaluated until the conscientious historians agree and write the facts related to the events correctly. Here, in addition to what is reported above in the article, I will give an accurate description from the records of the ELF as to how, who and what caused the tragic death of Dr. Petros?
    In Dr. Petros’ class, among the Eritreans, there were three Ethiopian military personnel from air force and navy. The friction between Dr. Petros and the Ethiopian students was triggered when Dr. Petros touched explaining as to why the Eritrean economy was declining. Dr. Petros became more of the AfAan target when he said that, “the black colonization (referring to Ethiopia) was even worse that the Apartheid of South Africa,” implying that Eritrea was better off under the Italian colonization.
    Dr. Petros’ explanation infuriated the Ethiopian students, specifically Col. Seyoum Milaku of the Ethiopian air force, who was very quick to be angered and inflamed by Dr. Petros’ statement. In lesser than a week, Dr. Petros was found dead by electro-wire cutting of his neck.
    Members of the Students’ Union of the Asmara (Santa Familia) University who were closely following the situation reported the horrific death of Dr. Petros through their channels to the ELF Fedayn for investigation and final action. Within a week, Col. Seyoum Milaku was gunned down by the ELF Fedayn in front of his house by Azmatch Kinfu’s building, that also very close to an Ethiopian military office. Col. Seyoum Milaku was the air force representative in the AfAan highest officers, who were responsible for genocidal campaign to maintain order through force.
    Dr. Petros’ family was helped out of Eritrea by the ELF that also facilitated the family’s travel to Switzerland through Sudan. Students who were arrested by the order of Derg for investigation were set free after it was clear that the members of the Fedayn unit that took action had no connection with the suspected students.

    • k.tewolde December 30, 2017

      Fascinating recount Z. These very atrocities that was committed upon the Eritrean people to put fear and terror and paralyze the movement was met tit for tat by the brave urban fedayin in collaboration with the original Asmarinos. The exact replica of that scenario resurfaced few years later with vengeance,only this time the nerve of steel fedayin were long gone leaving the vulnerable population at the mercy of their current oppressors.I remember that day when I left home without saying good bye to my family, I promised to myself,I will never allow anybody to do this to us again,boy I was wrong,we created an anaconda by feeding him our best who is now squeezing the life out of us and drained our will to fight back. He is slick,you got to give him that.

      • k.tewolde December 30, 2017

        I like to close my post by quoting few words from this nostalgic Eritrean song…..’ ANTA GUHUY LIBEY HIJIDO YIHISHEKA,BIKEE NIBA’E DEE’A LOMI MISAY QUENKA, YEHIZNENI YESQUERQURENI NIA’Y MILIKAMKA……..’

    • Abe December 31, 2017

      The exact place was infront of Salambini Carmellos father’s garage not close to Azmatch kinfus house
      I am eye witness for what happened that afternoon

  • Afewerki Habtemichael December 30, 2017

    thanks so much for the correction and additional information dear Z.Hagos

  • Meretse December 30, 2017

    Now I feel better. Thank you brother Ahmed as Z. Hagos and others. When I first read the story I was puzzled. I was thinking if I could not recall this incident correctly then I am perfectly a good candidate for an early memory loss. Brothers thank u again for fact analysis.
    I could have asked the writer– hay could u fill this gap with a valid information, date, or whatever…
    But i chose not because sometimes it irritates either the writer or the misinformed readers. I tried to be cautious and it worked.
    Reason: i myself was in Asmara that particular day. However, due to security reasons I was not able to attend the funeral which was held around 1:00p.m.
    For those of you who were in Asmara that day I have another memory contest: the same Saturday, couple hours before the burial time Drges Mission “Zemecha” was rejected blatantly during all high school students, teachers, parents, school board members and anyone.
    I can’t say now who said what but all I say is thanks to all charismatic speakers they made the mission dea from start. Although, days later some paid high price for the speech they gave that day. They considered “tsere-abyot”
    Zterefe n’kalE mealti
    Senay kine

  • Meretse December 30, 2017

    Sorry: the meeting was held “kehas High School.

  • werede January 1, 2018


    Where is/was that Garage, though? I know the Selambinies and believe the father of the corridore was a shoe maker and lived in Sanita, between Kahas and Hospital abi(ex menen hospital), a block west of hawelti.

    Thank You

    • Abe January 4, 2018

      Selamat werede
      It was across the street from 2gna kifletor if you remember that station is where the ethiopian flag rises.and down 6 AM 6 pm using ethiopia hoy mozmur
      Dirction walk from santa familia main entrance about 15 min straight past azmatch kifu hose about 6 blocks you will arrive at the military station
      The incident took place north east to the station
      I do know salambinis house in senita as well I could add more details if necessary

  • FM January 2, 2018

    Dear Readers,

    There should be someone who could remember the exact date but I believe it was in October or November 1974. I was freshman in high school in Asmara. Though I was young, I remember attending his funeral as I knew all his siblings and nephews and nieces from the villages. Having said that there might be a factual error in the article – when Dr. Petros was murdered, Asmara University was still in the hands of Comboni Missionary Sisters, the same community who ran Santa Familia Girls School and Comboni College High School. Until Dergue nationalized Asmara University, the president of the University was an American nun (sister) though not a Comboni Sister. Therefore, Dr. Assefa Tekle could not have been president of the University. The President being American nun being a foreigner, Dr. Assefa must have been as a native born liaison or dean of some sorts. Asmara University was nationalized to the best of my recollection around 1976 or 1977.