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Film Review : A Powerful Documentary from Three Women

May 4, 2021

Film Review : A Powerful Documentary from Three Women Who Survived Torture in Ethiopia during the Red Terror Campaign : “A  Fire Within”.

By: Berhane Tadese

Date: 05/02/2021

Produced by Liya Kebede and directed by Christopher Chambers, the documentary “A Fire Within” presents a true story of three Ethiopian women  who took on their torturer from the Derg regime, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. The film was featured at the 45th annual Atlanta Film Festival.


The three Ethiopian women are Edgegayehu “Edge” Taye, Elizabeth Demissie, and Hirut Abebe. After being jailed and tortured in their pre-teen and teenage years by Kelbessa Negewo, a Derg official nicknamed the “The Nightmare of Addis Abeba, in the 1970s, the three women found refuge in Atlanta, New York, and Canada as young adults, but Edge later found Kelbessa working in the same hotel she was currently working at in Atlanta. Kelbessa was in the United States seeking political asylum after the fall of the Derg and the three women made it their mission to bring Kelbessa to justice in the United States court system. The film included interviews from all three women and their pro bono legal team, archival footage, and narrative re-creation shots of their stories from Addis Abeba, the capital city of Ethiopia, to the city of Atlanta in the United States. Additionally, Shimeles Bonesa, a lecturer at Stony brook University , provided context of the changing political leadership within the Derg which resulted in the Red Terror campaign.


This film was frightening and emotional. The Red Terror Campaign was a violent political repression campaign launched by the Derg. It led to thousands of young and educated Ethiopians murdered and inflicted so much physical and psychological damage to Ethiopians still felt to today.  The impacts of the torture have been life long and life changing experiences for Edge, Elizabeth, and Hirut. It was extremely emotional to hear Elizabeth retell how Derg officials entered her parents’ home at night and threw her and her younger sister in a local holding cell with no reason. When guards snatched Elizabeth’s younger sister from her, Elizabeth did not realize that moment was the last time she would see her younger sister before she was murdered. All three woman describe how they heard agonizing screams from children,  saw children dead and bloody in their cells, and were gruesomely tortured. As the three women pointed out, their childhood and innocence was stripped, like the thousands of other innocent teenagers affected, but years later,  Edge, Elizabeth, and Hirut brough their torturer to justice thousands of miles away resulting in his deportation from the United States and lifetime of imprisonment in Ethiopia.


One hopes the film can help prevent history repeating itself as the current political climate in Ethiopia worsens. The film can be an educational tool for the current generation, who had not lived through or learned about this terrible period.. It’s a must see film.

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