THE ETHIOPIAN STORY OF SHAMBEL (CAPTAIN) GARABED HAKALMAZIAN
Posted on October. 7. 2021
BY GARBIS KORAJIAN
Editorial Note: The following is part I of an insightful story of one of the fourthly orphaned survivors of the Turkish-executed Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 who were taken from Jerusalem Armenian Patriarchate to Ethiopia. The author Garbis Korajian lucidly guides the reader into the life of one of the orphans whose journey had taken him to Ethiopia. The second part will appear in the following issue:
While discussing the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, it is important to acknowledge some historic moments involving the lives of interesting Armenian characters. Let me begin with Garabed Hakalmazian, my maternal grandfather, who was one of the aforementioned Forty Orphans who were brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie. After the fragmentation of the Forty Orphans, Garabed Hakalmazian stayed on the payroll of the government and became the music instructor at the Addis Ababa Municipality. In a short time, he climbed to the ranks of Shambel, meaning Captain. He held this rank until the Italians invaded Ethiopia. Refusing to serve under the Italian administration, Shambel Garabed left his government job and moved to Asebe Teferi. He started a small business supplying wholesale coffee, cereals, corn, barley and wheat. He also had a small shop attached to his house that sold all kinds of guns and bullets. He got married to Yeranig Eskijian, an Armenian from Dire Dawa and had six children. He was staunchly loyal to the Emperor and considered himself to be a proud Ethiopian-Armenian.
During the Italian occupation, Garabed created a strong bond with a patriotic movement known as the Arbenioch. Garabed helped them financially, with both his own money as well as with funds secretly collected from sympathizers. Most importantly, he was known to provide shelter in his house in secrecy to prominent patriotic leaders when they passed through Asebe Teferi. Every year, Garabed secretly celebrated the Adwa Victory Commemoration Day at his home with some friends. The Adwa War took place in 1986 between the poorly armed Ethiopians and the advanced Italian forces. In this war, the Ethiopians were victorious and took approximately 10,000 Italian prisoners, who were later released by Emperor Menelik on humanitarian grounds and sent to Italy. Some stayed in Ethiopia. Like he did every year, Garabed took the Ethiopian flag out from a hidden closet, laid it on the garden grass and quietly celebrate the victory of Adwa. Usually this happened at night in order to avoid detection, as the Ethiopian flag was forbidden during the Italian occupation. Interestingly, country wide, the National Flag of Italy had replaced the Ethiopian flag. Anyone displaying the National flag of Ethiopia was severely punished by the colonial Fascist government.
Mario, a young Italian soldier, used to visit Garabed’s family from time to time. He happened to visit the same night Shambel Garabed and his friends were secretly celebrating the victory of Adwa. Before knocking on the door, he heard voices in the compound. This was quite unusual, as he had not heard these voices during his previous visits. When he looked between the cracks of the wooden fence, Mario saw everything; the flag, half a dozen prominent Ethiopian patriots, Garabed, and a few other Armenians sitting under the mango and “coeur de boeuf” trees celebrating the Victory of Adwa. Mario draws his pistol, enters the house, and attempts to arrest the Ethiopians. Garabed vehemently refuses to hand over his Ethiopian friends to the Italian Carabinieri / soldier. Garabed knew too well what would happen to Mario if he tried to arrest his patriot friends, so he tried his best to speak some sense into Mario.
As this was happening, Garabed’s house maid, Woizerit Yeshi, who was in a secret relationship with young Mario appeared and stood next to Garabed. Garabed and his family knew nothing of their secret relationship. Immediately, Yeshi started begging Mario not to arrest the patriots. Her tone and body language, as well as her
audacity to get involved in this conflict, surprised everyone. After Yeshi was done pleading with Mario, Garabed made an offer to give a large sum of money to Mario that he had originally collected for the Patriots. Mario, who was blindly in love with Yeshi, had a change of heart and asked Garabed for only one thing. Mario requested that he be able to visit Garabed’s house from time to time, and spend some time with Yeshi. Garabed, dumfounded, turned to Yeshi and asked her what she thought about Mario’s request. Somewhat timidly, Yeshi politely turned to Garabed and said, “Ababa (father in English, a respectful way of addressing someone who is much older), if it is okay with you, it is also okay with me.” Mario allowed the Ethiopian patriots to slide through and disappear into the forests of the Chercher Mountains.
As time went on, Garabed continued to have his secret Adwa victory celebrations up until the Italians lost the war. He and the patriots who survived the five-year guerrilla warfare, continued to openly celebrate the Victory of Adwa. A favored topic of conversation that made everyone laugh at these reunions continued to be that night with Mario at Garabed’s house. Mario, knowing the annual Adwa celebration went on in Garabed’s house, exercised the wisdom he had learned from the bible- “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
After Ethiopia’s liberation, Mario remained in Ethiopia. Garabed made sure Mario always treated Yeshi respectfully, as he would have done if she was one of his daughters. If Mario wanted to continue seeing Yeshi and he was serious about her, he was to ask her hand for marriage. After a few months, Mario and Yeshi were formally married and had three children. Mario surprisingly had good education. He was a graduate of an architectural school, and formed a company to build villa style homes in the Old Airport area and later in the Bole area of Addis Ababa. As for Garabed, he remained in Asebe Teferi. (Part II will be published next week)
Editorial Note: The following is part II (the last) of an insightful story of one of the fourthly orphaned survivors of the Turkish-executed Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 who were taken from Jerusalem Armenian Patriarchate to Ethiopia. The author Garbis Korajian lucidly guides the reader into the life of one of the orphans whose journey had taken him to Ethiopia. The first part appeared in last week’s issue:
In November 1955, Ethiopia became a Constitutional Monarchy. In line with the new constitution, some sort of Parliamentary elections was held in all the provinces, and in major towns of Ethiopia, including Asebe Teferi. A proud Shambel Garabed went to one of the voting stations to exercise his right and cast his ballot. Unfortunately, he was refused the right to vote. Reason given; he was not an Ethiopian. Garabed went home and later returned with his credentials of being one of the Forty Orphans and that it was the Emperor who had brought them to Ethiopia. He also provided his credentials from the Addis Ababa Municipality and his merits of being a Captain. The electoral body who had also come from Addis Ababa and did not know much about Garabed, looked at the papers and claimed it did not make him a true Ethiopian, simply because Garabed did not look like an Ethiopian.
Even though most people in Asebe Teferi knew and respected Garabed, he could not do much to change the decision of the electoral committee, even after having clearly demonstrated his credentials. Although Garabed had an immaculate record of being an outstanding citizen, that he was one of the Forty Orphans who was brought to Ethiopia by the Emperor, climbed in the military to the ranks of Shambel/ Captain, it did not matter. During the Italian occupation, he had remained staunchly loyal to Ethiopia and had supported the patriotic movement. He had done a great deal of work for the community. He had also worked as a volunteer music teacher in the local school and was assigned as a family mediator by the judiciary of Asebe Teferi. On top of that, he was generous to the needy. Unfortunately, Garabed’s loyalty was not enough. He was still refused to vote based on the color of his skin.
A few days later, Dejazmach Birhanemeskel, a former patriot himself and the governor of Chercher at the time, heard of Garabed’s problem with the electoral committee. He calmly explained to Garabed that this was not a personal matter, but a cultural mindset that Ethiopians have had for centuries. He continued to tell Garabed that he had almost all of the characteristics of a proud Ethiopian, however, in order to satisfy the most important criteria in peoples’ eyes, Garabed had to be black. Dejazmach put his hands on Garabed’s shoulders and said, “My good friend Shambel Garabed, you have fulfilled all the requirements needed to qualify yourself as an Ethiopian, except one. You are not black like me and the rest of the Ethiopians. This is the way it is in Ethiopia. The sooner you realize it, the better it is. My dear friend, let’s now go to my house and have dinner.”
Shambel Garabed remained in Asebe Teferi for a while before moving back to Addis Ababa. Neither Dejazmach Birhanemeskel nor the citizens of Asebe Teferi, could do anything to overturn the unwritten policy that a white person did not have the right to vote. No matter how long an individual has lived in Ethiopia, or how much they have done for the country, when it came to elections or other Ethiopian identity matters, the belief was that white people or ferenj as the Ethiopians call them, could neither elect nor get elected to public office. An Armenian could be appointed or get hired to public office but could not elect or get elected. In short, if you were white, you could not be considered a full-fledged Ethiopian. This is the way it was in Ethiopia, for a long time and perhaps it is still to this day. This proves the fact that deeply entrenched cultural mindsets which have been passed from generation to generation take a long time to change.
Taking into consideration Garabed’s devotion to Ethiopia, his patriotism and his merits as a bona fide citizen, the citizens of Asebe Teferi who knew him well were in support of Garabed’s right to vote and perhaps get voted into public office.
According to my aunt Herip Hakalmazian, the daughter of Garabed, her father decided to go to Addis Ababa and personally appeal to the Emperor. In the good old days of Ethiopia, appealing personally to the Emperor was the right of each and every Ethiopian, poor or rich. The fastest way for them to be heard was to stop the Emperor’s car, short of throwing themselves on the vehicle, with the hope of talking directly to the monarch and pass him a letter of grievances and convey any injustices. At that point, the Emperor would listen carefully and appoint someone to look after the complaints. This is exactly what Garabed decided to do. He made up his mind to go to the Palace in Sidest Kilo and wait for the Emperor to come out of the palace compounds.
As expected, the Emperor’s car slowly cruised out of the big palace gates. Garabed did not waste any time and quickly approached the Emperor’s car while making a bowing gesture of respect. The Emperor asked the driver to stop. Garabed bowed down and politely explained his problem. After listening carefully to what Garabed had to say, the Emperor told him to go to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and apply for his citizenship and that he would give orders to the Minster to provide him with citizenship. After Garabed received his citizenship, he became a full-fledged Ethiopian and was eligible to vote. It is also believed Dejazmach Birhane Meskel, Governor of
Chercher Awraja, distant cousin of the Emperor, including Bitweded Zewde Gebrehiwot, a good friend of Garabed, had also taken up the case with the Foreign Affairs Minister. The Emperor is believed to have said, “Garabed and the Forty Orphans are the children of Ethiopia and should be given citizenship and should be allowed to vote.” After a few months, Garabed and the remaining Forty Orphans were given Ethiopian citizenship. As it were, Garabed was the first white Ethiopian to vote in civic and countrywide elections, although mostly ceremonial.
In the forthcoming years, most of the Forty Orphans who had stayed in Ethiopia became Ethiopian citizens. In addition, the Emperor gave instructions to the Foreign Minister to provide Ethiopian citizenship not only to the Forty Orphans but their offspring. Unfortunately, other than that, there was no formal policy on citizenship rights in place, nor were there any clear policy guidelines as to which Armenian was entitled to become an Ethiopian citizen. As such, being born in Ethiopia or birthright did not qualify an Armenian to become citizen. With all this confusion surrounding the citizenship issue, I asked my aunt why the Forty Orphans were not provided with Ethiopian citizenship when they were brought to Ethiopia by the Emperor. She did not know, however, she said that the Forty did not think of applying for citizenship as they always thought and assumed themselves to be Ethiopian citizens.
Sadly, Garabed died a few months after telling me this story. Upon finishing his story, he remained silent for some time. He then said to me, “to be denied the right to vote in a country where I considered myself a citizen was the lowest moment of my life in Ethiopia. And being allowed to vote was the happiest moment in my life”. Garabed died in 1971. He was 63 years old. He was given one of the largest funerals of any white person in Ethiopia. The citizens of Asebe Teferi rented buses and came for the funeral. The largest number of mourners who attended his funeral were Ethiopians who knew him well.
After independence, Armenian families who had left Ethiopia during the occupation, returned back to the homes they left behind. Most of the 60 or so Armenian public servants were no longer working for the government. A few prominent personalities, such as my paternal grandfather, Abraham Korajian, who was exiled to Calabria, Italy with his wife and six children, and prominent Ethiopian dignitaries such as Ras Emeru Haile Selassie, Germachew Tekle Hawariat, Hadis Alemayehu, Colonel Kosroff Boghossian, brother Aramazzt and Armenag Bagdassarian and others. A quarter of the prisoners who were arrested and sent to Italy were Armenians. This is an indication of unequivocal loyalty of Ethiopian-Armenians towards Ethiopia. Nonetheless, the prisoners of war returned to Ethiopia after Italy lost the war. Upon Abraham’s return, he was appointed General Manager for all the Monopolies including the most profitable, the Tobacco Monopoly. Mahandis/Architect Minas Kherbekian (Minas Bet Afrashu), Chief architect of Addis Ababa, was promoted to a higher position and was asked by the Emperor to open the first Architectural College in the country. A few other prominent artisans who directly or indirectly worked for the government continued their work.
The patriotic children of Ethiopia have always commemorated the Victory of the Adwa War on February 28th, no matter where they reside. Ethiopian communities globally observe the Victory of Adwa. Girma Lemma who keeps the Ethiopian spirit well and alive in the Canada, in one of the Adwa ceremonies, had read Garabed’s story. He described to the audience the positive contribution of Armenians in building a stronger Ethiopia, including the victory celebration in Garabed’s house during the Italian occupation. He wanted to know what had happened to the Ethiopian flag that was displayed during the ceremonies.
To answer his question, this precious Ethiopian flag was kept as a treasure in the family for generations. In 2017, our home was up for demolishment, like the fate of thousands of other homes in Addis Ababa, our residence was also torn down in a state of total madness and misguided city planning, only to make way for the construction of high-rise buildings. This was the last house we owned in Ethiopia in my family’s 150 years of
history, starting from the time when my paternal great grandfather Boghos Markarian, from Sepastia, set foot in Ethiopia in 1872.
Fortunately, before my family house was demolished to the ground, I went back to Ethiopia to look after some of the logistics surrounding the demolishment. I found the flag safely stored in a drawer and had the privilege of gifting it to Shihunegn Besemahu. Shihunegn’s father, Ato Besemahu Tirfe, was one of the patriots who was present in Garabed’s house while celebrating the Adwa Victory. Shihunegn always considered Garabed to be his mentor, his tutor and his second father, who had a big impact on his upbringing as a patriotic and exemplifying Ethiopian. In my eyes, if anyone deserved to keep the flag, it is Shihunegn. Incidentally, Shihunegn was born on Adwa’s victory celebration day. His family celebrated his 90th birthday on March 1, 2021 and the 125th anniversary of the Adwa victory, as they have done for many, many years.
As for the once vibrant Armenian community of Ethiopia who considered Ethiopia home, most have migrated, with the older generation having passed away. The last of the Forty Orphans, Vagharshag Mardirossian, died in his late nineties. Once numbering around 1200, the size of the community gradually dwindled after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974 in a socialist revolution. Most factories and businesses that belonged to Armenians, including rental homes and high-rise buildings, were nationalized. As a result of unfavorable socio-economic conditions, most Armenians left their beloved Ethiopia and now reside in more than 28 countries around the world. At present, there is approximately less than 100 Armenians in Ethiopia who still maintain a functional school, church, and community center. All the members of Garabed’s family have migrated to the United States and Canada. All that is left now for Ethiopian-Armenians are the memories of a country once they called home.
God bless Emperor Menelik of Adwa.
God bless Emperor Haile Selassie who brought the forty orphans to Ethiopia.
God bless all patriots who sacrificed their lives for freedom and the independence.
God bless the Ethiopian-Armenian Community.
God bless Captain Garabed and the Forty Orphans.
God Bless Ethiopia and its people who opened their hearts and accepted survivors of the Armenians Genocide and gave them a chance to live once again.