The worst massacre in Ethiopia’s history

Yekatit 12 (a date in the Ge'ez calendar) is notorious in Ethiopian history, being described as the worst massacre to occur since the country’s existence.

With the end of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and Italian troops now occupying the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, a failed assassination attempt on the Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Viceroy of Italian East Africa, occurred on February 19, 1937.

Italian troops during the occupation of Ethiopia after the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.

The number of fatalities in the three days that followed Graziani's assassination attempt is uncertain. A 2017 account of the massacre indicated 19,200 people were slaughtered, or 20% of Addis Ababa’s population, while other estimates range between 1,400 and 6,000 deaths. Ethiopian sources reported that 30,000 people were killed by the Italians.

The following week saw the roundup and execution of numerous Ethiopians, including Black Lions and other aristocratic members, who were thought to be opposed to Italian control.

Numerous more were put behind bars, including accomplices like Ras Gebre Haywot, the son of Ras Mikael of Wollo, Brehane Markos, and even Ayale Gebre who had assisted the Italians in identifying the two individuals responsible for the assassination attempt on Graziani.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani

Rodolfo Graziani Wiki (


Emperor Haile Selassie departed Ethiopia after his army were routed at the Battle of Maychew on 31st March 1936, to meet the League of Nations and request their assistance in combating the Italians. 

During his absence, he appointed Ras Imru Haile Selassie, a personal friend and cousin, as his regent. At Gore, in the southwest of the country, Ras Imru Haile Selassie sought to establish a Provisional Government. However, it was situated deep within the Oromo people's territory, and they resented his efforts to uphold imperial authority.  

However, after further Italian advances, the two warring sides clashed on the banks of the Gojeb River, where Ras Imru was forced to surrender the last of the Ethiopian forces on 18th December after a bloody battle. 

Despite the Ethiopian defeat and Italian domination, on 28th July, loyalists made an ill-planned attempt to retake Addis Ababa. The defenders were completely caught off guard when numerous armed Ethiopian groups attacked the Italian positions in the capital city; according to reports, the first Italians they came across were a group digging a well.

Ethiopian troops testing a machine gun during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.

However, General Gariboldi had planned for the possibility of an attack on the city and had anticipated it. The Ethiopians were repelled from all sides despite a force led by Abebe Aragai nearly entering the Little Gebbi, where Marshall Graziani was operating. The attack on the city was unsuccessful despite a decisive rally by Abune Petros on the penultimate day of combat, who led a final offensive in St. George's Square.

Last but not least, the last of Ethiopia's forces in the southeast were being exhausted. Through November, Ras Desta Damtew and Dejazmach Beyene Merid still held sway over the provincial capitals of Irgalem and Goba, respectively. Ras Desta and Dejazmach Beyene Merid fled into the Bale Province highlands after a motorised column led by Captain Tucci entered the area on November 23 and set off a Sidama uprising.

On 1st December, the Italians captured Irgalem. A cat-and-mouse game ensued, and on February 18, 1937, at the Battle of Gogetti, the final few thousand soldiers under their command were surrounded near Lake Shala and wiped out by the superior Italian numbers.

Ras Desta was able to escape the battlefield on his own, but a few days later he was captured and executed shortly afterwards. Ras Desta Damtew's passing signified the end of all organised Ethiopian resistance to the Italians.

Italian newspapers celebrated 'Il Duce's' victory in Ethiopia.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Attack on Graziani

Beginning in February 1937, Graziani - who had a well-deserved reputation for brutality amongst the Ethiopians - was in complete control over the new Italian East Africa, but despite his authority, he still had a deep mistrust of the Ethiopians.

On one occasion, he was examining an Ethiopian Orthodox church the previous year after his forces had captured Jijiga when he fell through a hidden hole in the floor, which – in his paranoia – convinced himself had been set up as a mantrap for him.

In spite of this mishap, Graziani declared he would personally give alms to the needy on Friday, 19th February at the Genete Leul Palace to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Naples (also known as the Little Gebbi).

Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom, two young Eritreans residing in Ethiopia, were among the mob that had gathered that Friday morning.

They had travelled to Ethiopia to enrol at the Menelik II School since they had limited opportunities in the Italian colony. 

However, recent events had caught up with them. Abraha, who appeared to have adapted to the new regime, was hired by the Fascist Political Bureau, where his Eritrean ancestry, command of Italian, and acquaintance with the area were assets.

Graziani led the southern front in the war in Ethiopia. Here he is in Addis Ababa, November 1936.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Abraha Deboch, however, was vehemently opposed to the Italians, particularly its openly racist practices. Abraha had laid an Italian flag on the wooden floor, stabbed a bayonet through it, then tied an Ethiopian flag to the bayonet before leaving their home.

At the Genete Leul Palace, the official ceremony commenced as planned. Italian planes flew over the city, Graziani delivered a speech, some prominent Ethiopians submitted to the victorious party, and at 11:00 a.m., officials started giving the priests and the needy the promised handouts.

Abraha and Mogus carefully approached the steps to the Little Gebbi and started tossing grenades. One version claims that they were able to lob 10 of them before leaving in the ensuing chaos. A third conspirator, a cab driver by the name of Simeyon Adefres, allegedly hurried them away from the scene. He was also responsible for delivering the grenades that Mogus and Abraha threw.  

A few moments before the assassination attempt. Viceroy Marshall Graziani (who was wounded in the attack) overseeing alms at the Genete Leul Palace, 19th Feb 1937.

It is alleged that Adefres was able to obtain the grenades from a machine-gunner soldier who Adefres had befriended when fighting against Italian colonisation in Ethiopia. This soldier also reportedly taught Abraha and Mogus how to use the grenades.

The umbrella-bearer of Abuna Qerellos was among the deceased behind them. The Viceroy, General Armando Petretti, Vice-Governor Abuna, and Air Force General Aurelio Liotta were all injured - with Liotta losing his right eye and right leg (He was awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor for having shielded Graziani with his body).

A grenade that burst next to Graziani exploded, sending 365 fragments into his body. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Italy, where he underwent an urgent operation which saved his life. 

Air Force General Aurelio Liotta - who lost an eye and a leg in the attack.

Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Italy — CC BY 3.0 IT

Abraha and Mogus initially took refuge at the historic monastery of Debre Libanos, but they soon left in search of safety in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Here though, their luck ran out - they were slain by locals in Gojjam, who were always wary of strangers. 

After driving Abraha and Mogus to the monastery, their first stop, where he spent a week with them, Adefris returned to Addis Ababa; however, soon after his arrival in the city, he was detained by Fascist authorities and eventually tortured to death.


The Italian response was immediate with furious Italians firing into crowds of Ethiopians and even the Federal secretary, Guido Cortese, was alleged to have emptied his revolver into nearby Ethiopian dignitaries.

Then a few hours later, Cortese gave the fatal order:

An Italian priest blesses a row of 6.5mm Fiat-Revelli Model 14 heavy machine guns in Ethiopia which were used during Yekatit 12. Each gun was capable of 400-500 rounds per minute and had a small tank to hold the recirculating water used to cool it while in operation. The ritual of blessing weapons was a popular one in the Italian forces. 

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

It was clearly an invitation for the Italians to take out their fury on the innocent Ethiopian population.

Three thousand Ethiopians were present in the palace that morning. Few managed to survive. Temesgen Gebre, a well-known writer who was present that day and later discussed it in detail, mentioned the machine guns firing from the balcony. The bodies that fell on top of him shielded him.

Those few Ethiopians who managed to avoid being shot at the palace were frequently pursued and slain by daggers or shovels that were left lying around owing to construction. Since the gates were locked, nobody could actually flee.

Beyond the palace, the violence started to escalate. Innocent bystanders who had been viewing the alms ceremony from outside the gates began to be executed.
Even Ethiopians passing by were ringed by Italian soldiers. The citizens of Italy seized items to use as weapons. Blackshirts surrounded the region. Ethiopians were in danger as the so called 'Circle of Death' approached.

On the first day, the killings spread from Sidist Kilo to Arada and beyond.  Priests who tried to shelter in churches were brutally slain. Those attempting to escape the markets in order to return home were also killed. Italian citizens utilised any suitable object they could get their hands on while the Italian military used their weapons. Men and boys from Ethiopia were also strapped to trucks' backs and dragged to their deaths. 

Apparently filmed from the balcony of the Governo Generale, Italian askaris start attacking the Ethiopians. Here the camera captures the moment that an askari, viewed from behind, begins an assault on the crowd, apparently with long-handled whip. Trying to back off, those at the front are unable to escape from the tightly packed throng. Seconds later, the soldiers open fire.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Heavy military trucks were used to kill Ethiopian people, as portrayed on the Yekatit 12 memorial. This practice started on Friday just after noon and continued throughout the bloodbath in Addis Abeba. In this close-up, the lower figure's outstretched arms are being run over as the car turns around. The Fiat 634N, which had twin wheels at the back, was the vehicle that was most frequently used by the Italians.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Following the declaration of carta bianca, a group of armed Blackshirts storm a home and rob, kill, and set it on fire in the waning light. Note that they have been given firearms and fixed bayonets.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

The majority of Italians anticipated what would happen next: Carta bianca, which translates to "do as you please," was a strategy employed during an invasion to execute any men, women, and children nearby when a white person was attacked.
The flames had begun as soon as the murders at the palace, but as the day turned into the evening, the Italians began setting fire to more Addis Abeba homes. But before confining families inside and setting huts/homes on fire, they would first plunder and steal.
Bridges like the Ras Mekonnen Bridge became the scenes of multiple deaths as the Italians threw hapless Ethiopians off them to their deaths. 

Italians massacred Ethiopians with daggers and truncheons the remainder of that day, all weekend long, to cries of "Duce! Duce!" and "Civiltà Italiana!"

They lit fire to native homes by dousing them in gasoline.

The servants of the local Greek and Armenian residents were lynched when they broke into their homes. Some even posed for photos while standing on the bodies of their victims.

Ethiopian thatched houses are being set on fire by a member of the Addis Ababa fire brigade.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

The victims piled up as the city burned, as people sought to flee their homes only to be thrown back in, as men were apprehended, bound to trucks, and dragged, as executions continued. The bodies would have to be thrown away. Cleaning up the aftermath of this massacre was necessary to cover up the extent of it.

The city's collection facilities received bodies. They were gathered into piles using iron rakes. They were placed into vehicles before being unloaded and incinerated in Gulele.

Bodies at the collection center are loaded onto trucks.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Bodies about to be incinerated.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

This victim, tied in a tortuous position to the side of a Fiat 634N truck, is about to be dragged to his death.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Without break, the murder and destruction continued for three days - day and night. Those who survived were imprisoned. Some were put to death right away, while others were transferred to different execution locations. Some of them were taken to concentration camps in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea.
Women and their infants were killed while attempting to flee the inferno or burned alive in their homes. They were either sent in prison or killed on the street.

Bodies of some of the Ethiopian victims of the massacre.

Public domain

"Throughout the city they were massacring many people…Horrible. A shame for Italy”—Ciro Oggiali. Correspondent for the Italian government newspaper Corriere della Sera. Poggiali, who witnessed the outbreak and early stages of the massacre at Menelik Square, published this photograph of some twenty-four massacre victims.

Yekatit 12 | 04.2021 – Project3541

Between 1,400 and 30,000 Ethiopians had been slaughtered by the Italians in Addis Abeba alone in just three days. Since then, Ethiopians have celebrated the first day as "Yekatit 12" (Ethiopian 19th February). In Addis Ababa, a monument bearing the same name honours the Ethiopians who perished as a result of Italian assault.

The attempted assassination of Graziani gave the Italians a justification for carrying out Mussolini's order for the quick execution of "The Young Ethiopians," a small group of intellectuals who had attended American and European colleges. Mussolini had given this order as early as 3 May 1936. Sixty-two Ethiopians were tried and executed at the Alem Bekagn jail in Addis Abeba before nightfall after a military tribunal was established the same day as the killings.

According to Bahru Zewde:

Numerous thousands of Ethiopians from all social groups were taken to the prison facilities at Nokra and Danan in the Dahlak Archipelago.

Inhumane conditions prevailed at Danan, and Graziani had instructed that the captives would only be provided with the barest necessities in terms of food and drink. 

At Danan, between ten percent and fifty percent of the prisoners perished.

Debra Libanos

The circumstances in Nokra were even worse than those at Danan. The additional detainees brought the overall number of people in prison to 1,500, where 500 people are currently serving life terms for significant political offences. The prisoners had diarrhoea, marsh fever, sunstroke, and a shortage of fresh water.

In May, the last retaliation occurred. The fact that Abraha and Mogus had spent some time at Debra Libanos was discovered by the investigators, and a thin line of circumstantial evidence suggested that the monks were aware of their intentions.

A rare image of the massacre of Debre Libanos.


Because of his mishap at Jijiga with the hidden hole under the rug, Graziani assumed that they were involved. On May 19, he cabled the local commander, ordering him to summarily murder all monks, including the Vice-Prior.

The whole residents of the monastery—297 monks and 23 laymen—were shot the following day, which was also the feast day of Tekle Haymanot, their patron saint, according to the records of the Italian fascists; other sources place the death toll between 1,500 and 2,000.


The number of victims of the atrocity is uncertain. According to Ethiopian authorities, 30,000 people died, although French and American newspapers reported death tolls between 1,400 and 6,000. 3,000 deaths were reportedly reported by British writer Anthony Mockler and historian Angelo Del Boca. Ian L. Campbell's 2017 chronicle of the massacre estimates 19,200 fatalities.


The Yekatit 12 is a monument in Addis Ababa, designed by Croatian sculptor Antun Augustinčić, commemorating victims of the massacre. It is located in the centre of Sidist Kilo (Amharic, "Six Kilometre") Square, also called "Yekatit 12 square"

The Yekatit 12 monument in Addis Ababa.

User:Sailko - Wikimedia Commons

Further reading