Yekatit 12 marks one of the most heinous atrocities perpetrated by Italian occupation forces during the 1930s. This tragic incident unfolded in the aftermath of an attempted assassination of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, also known as the ‘Butcher of Ethiopia.’ The Yekatit 12 massacre is often described as the worst in Ethiopian history.
The Yekatit 12 massacre unfolded against the backdrop of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, a conflict that marked an ugly period in Ethiopia’s history. Initiated by Italy’s fascist regime under Benito Mussolini, the war began in 1935 and lasted until 1936. The conflict originated from tensions over territorial disputes and Italy’s desire to avenge a previous defeat by Ethiopia in the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-1896). Italy’s invasion began on October 3, 1935, with the Italian forces employing modern weaponry, including tanks and aircraft, against Ethiopia’s less advanced military. Despite facing international condemnation, Italy successfully occupied Ethiopia in May 1936.
This conquest paved the way for Rodolfo Graziani’s appointment as Viceroy of Italian East Africa and set the stage for the oppressive occupation that ultimately culminated in the tragedy of Yekatit 12.
On February 19, 1937, eight months after Italy’s successful occupation of Ethiopia, Graziani announced a public ceremony at the Genete Leul Palace to distribute alms in celebration of the Prince of Naples’ birth. In the midst of the crowd were two Eritreans, Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom, who attempted to assassinate Graziani by throwing grenades. After the failed attempt, they sought refuge in the ancient monastery of Debre Libanos, from there, they moved on, seeking sanctuary in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan but were killed by local inhabitants, who were always suspicious of strangers.
In response to the attempted assassination, the Italian forces, led by Federal Secretary Guido Cortese, ordered a brutal retaliation, giving carte blanche (complete freedom to act as one wishes) to destroy and kill Ethiopians for three days.
“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.”
Over the next three days, Italians, fueled by zealousness, massacred thousands of Ethiopians with daggers and truncheons, set houses ablaze, lynched ethiopian servants of local Greeks and Armenians and even posed for photographs on the corpses of their victims. The death toll in Addis Ababa alone ranged from 5,000 to a staggering 10,000.
In addition to the mass killings, thousands of Ethiopians were sent to detention camps where they faced inhospitable conditions. Graziani’s orders dictated that prisoners receive only the bare minimum of food and water. The camps became breeding grounds for diseases like malaria, stomach infections, and venereal diseases, leading to a high mortality rate among detainees compelled to work in harsh conditions.
In May of the same year, the Italian forces executed a final reprisal, triggered by the discovery that Abraha and Mogus, the two Eritreans who attempted to assassinate Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, had stayed a while at Debra Libanos. Suspecting their involvement, Graziani ordered the execution of all monks at the ancient monastery. On May 20, the feast day of their patron saint Tekle Haymanot, 297 monks and 23 laymen were shot, a large number of pilgrims, who had traveled there to celebrate the feast were also slaughtered. Estimates suggest a death toll ranging from 1,500 to 2,000.
The aftermath of Yekatit 12 saw conflicting estimates of the death toll. While Ethiopian sources claimed over 30,000 deaths, a 2017 history of the massacre by Ian L. Campbell estimated 19,200 casualties. The first day of the massacre, February 19, has been commemorated as “Yekatit 12” by Ethiopians ever since, with a monument in Addis Ababa dedicated to the victims of Italian aggression.