Who Was the Third Man?
The story of Abraha Deboch, Moges Asgedom and Simeon Adefres
By Richard Pankhurst
If the Italian Fascist invasion and occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941) was a major turning point in Ethiopian history, the attempt on the life of the Italian Viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani (19 February 1937) was a turning point in the history of that occupation. The attempt was followed by the Addis Ababa massacre of 19-21 February 1937, which is indelibly associated with Graziani's name. The massacre in its turn vastly increased the ranks of the Ethiopian Patriots, many of whom felt that it had shown that any thought of collaboration with the invader was futile.
The main features of the story are well known. In February 1937 - the second year of the occupation - the Viceroy, Graziani, decided to hold a celebration at the Addis Ababa Palace - now Addis Ababa University, to commemorate the birth of an Italian royal baby: the Prince of Naples. The commemoration was scheduled for 19 February, and the principal Ethiopian courtiers in the city were all invited to attend.
Both of Eritrean Origin
Ethiopian opponents of the occupation included two young friends, Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, both of Eritrean origin. Seeing that the education of "natives" was strictly limited in the Italian Colony of Eritrea, they had made their way to Addis Ababa. There they had enrolled in the country's most modern school, the Tafari Makonnen School, which was called after Ras Tafari Makonnen, the future Emperor Haile Sellassie, who had founded it in 1925. Early in 1937 the two friends decided to strike against the Viceroy, whose oppression had by then incurred the hatred of many of their Ethiopian compatriots. They decided to act.
The Two Plotters
The first of the plotters was Abraha Deboch, who had by then succeeded in finding employment with the Fascist Political Bureau in Addis Ababa, where his Eritrean origin, knowledge of Italian, and familiarity with the city made him appear useful. He was, however, bitterly opposed to the Graziani regime, and particularly its racial discrimination.
The second plotter was Moges Asgedom, who was unemployed, but looked after by a friend by name of Sebhat, who served as a language instructor in the German Consulate (formerly the German Embassy).
The two friends, Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, decided to seize the occasion of the forthcoming celebration at the Palace to attempt to assassinate the hated Viceroy.
Could not be Trusted
Tradition has it that Abraha, not wishing to harm innocent Ethiopians, warned a number of them to stay away from the Palace on the fateful day. However, most of them reportedly ignored his warning, for they saw him as an employee of the Fascists, and felt that as such could not to be trusted.
Abraha and Moges, we are told, had by then acquired a number of Breda-type Italian hand-grenades, and had on several occasions traveled into the nearby lowlands, in the direction of Mount Zeqwala, to experiment with throwing them.
Before Leaving His Home
On the appointed day Abraha, before leaving home, placed an Italian flag on the floor of his house, and stuck an Ethiopian spear into it - a symbol of defiance for everyone later to see.
The two men, taking a number of hand-grenades with them, then made their way to the Palace compound. They entered the Palace building, where, as assumed collaborators, they attracted no attention - and took up their position to strike.
Graziani and the Top-Ranking Leadership
Graziani and the top-ranking Fascist leadership had by then taken up their positions on the Palace steps (now those of the University). They were thus, it appears, standing immediately below the overhanging balcony, which was to be the Viceroy's saving, as it prevented the little bombs from exploding immediately beside him.
The bombs were hurled, it is said, shortly before mid-day. Graziani and some thirty of his colleagues were wounded - and the Viceroy, who was badly shaken, later claimed that no less than 250 pieces of steel had entered his body.
For further revelations you are invited, dear reader, to a SOFIES lecture to be given by Mr. Ian Campbell on 24 March at 6pm. It will be given within only a few meters of where the incident took place.
The incident led, as is widely known, to the great massacre - with which, however, we are not here concerned.
Our focus today is rather on what happened to the two young would-be assassins - and in particular to introduce our readers to he whom we may call The Third Man.
The Third Man
The Third Man, according to family tradition, was another interesting - and patriotic - figure: Simeyon Adefres. Born in Harar around 1913, he had there attended a Roman Catholic mission school (where he had become a Catholic) before making his way to Addis Ababa. There he had enrolled at the Alliance Francaise School.
As a member of Ethiopia's pre-war foreign educated generation, subjected to Fascist occupation, Simeyon Adefres, then aged twenty-four, shared the aspirations of Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, whom he soon befriended.
Simeyon had a passion for motorcars. On leaving the Alliance he had become one of Addis Ababa's then very few taxi-drivers. He was assisted in this profession by two of his brothers, Agonefer Adefres and Debebe Adefres, who had made their way to the Somali port of Djibouti, then under French rule. The former managed to acquire, and send Simeyon two German Opel cars. With them he transported his clients to such principal destinations as St George's Cathedral, the Railway Station, the Palace, and the foreign Legations.
Having agreed with Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom on the need to attack Graziani, Simeyon is said to have also made contact with one of the more important Patriot leaders, Dejazmach Fikre Mariam, and befriended the latter's machine-gunner. Simeyon then reportedly drove his two friends, together with the said machine-gunner, to the lowlands around Mount Zeqwala, where the gunner instructed them in the use of hand-grenades.
Simeyon, again according to family tradition, then obtained a number of Breda hand-grenades from the Dejazmach's house. They are said to have been around seven in number, though some other accounts suggest a slightly larger figure. Simeyon reportedly gave these little bombs to the two conspirators, and arranged with them to wait for them immediately in front of the Palace compound.
Abraha and Moges, as we all know, duly hurled their grenades, it is said from the Palace balcony. They then seized the opportunity of the general excitement following the explosions - to rush out of the compound.
They found Simeyon Adefres waiting for them as arranged. He then drove them northwards to Selale. Abraha had chosen this destination as his wife had found asylum at the ancient monastery of Debra Libanos.
Simeyon Adefres, his mission accomplished, remained a week in Selale after which he drove back to Addis Ababa, where he returned to his home, and remained there as if nothing had happened. His temporary disappearance was, however, reported to the Fascist police; as a result of he was arrested. His Opel and bank account were seized, and he tortured to death, thus entering the Pantheon of Ethiopia's martyrs.
Rumor has it that the historic old Opel still exists and is actually in Addis Ababa. The vehicle is obviously of no small historical importance, and should be consigned to an Historical Museum.