By Addisalem Mulat
The instant I returned home, I was told to go to Massawa. But for family reason I could not go there. Subsequently, they ordered me to join the naval liaison in emperor’s cabinet, which was called Emperor’s chief of staff. I stayed there from 1972- 1974 working as liaison officer until the downfall of the Emperor.
Today’s Herald guest is Commander Telaye Gutema. He was the founder of the Ethiopian Navy. He had served his country in various capacities and determination. He knows the inside out of naval drill, rifle shooting, rowing, sailing and what have you? He was commissioned as sub-lieutenant before he left for France. He was also able to take Marine Amphibious course in the USA. Above and beyond, Commander Telaye had served as sport and information officer in the navel Headquarters of Addis Ababa in the emperor special cabinet liaison office. The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Commander Telaye Gutema at his residence with the intention of familiarizing his personal and professional life with our readers. Excerpts:
Tell us a little about yourself.
To begin with, my name is Commander Telaye Gutema. I was born in Dire Dawa in 1935. I lost my father and my mother when I was three and five years old respectively. They were the breath of my life. My life was incomplete without them. I did not expect they would depart this life before I grew up. This being the case, I turned out to be an orphan and was brought up under the wings of relatives. Before the death of my father, we were leading a decent life. After the death of my parents, I passed through many ups and downs despite I and my relatives were able to drag ourselves from the trouble we were in. Luckily, our father had left us a big house with five rooms. We were using the income we got from the house rent to cover our expenses.
Education wise, I was a middle class student. I was in the habit of working day and night with a view to making my dreams come true. While we are on the subject, I attended primary education in Harar. After five years, I came to Dire Dawa City and completed grades seven and eight. Lastly, I passed the eighth grade national exam successfully. Subsequently, I joined the Technical School of Addis Ababa found around Mexico Square and after three years I specialized in auto-mechanics. Later, I joined the Ethiopian Airlines which was found in the Old Airport and began working on the propeller Air Craft in 1955. I was an apprentice mechanic. At that time there was no jet. There was only propeller engine. My technical interest forced me to join the profession. I worked there for three months as a mechanic and when the opportunity presented itself I ended up joining the navy.
How did you end up joining the navy?
I was getting crazy about joining the navy from time to time. Day in and day out, I was talking about the navy as I had an interest to be a military man. I have the courage to say, I was a bit tough-minded. The thing was, His Imperial Majesty gave an order to the Ministry of Defence for the establishment of the navy. At that time as there were a number of Norwegian naval officers in our country, they recruited the first group of the Ethiopian Navy based on our results. They were all best sailors. They interviewed students drawn from different schools of the capital. My results were very good. Thus, I joined the navy in 1956 with other high school students with a view to establishing the navy.
Prior to joining the navy, there was another opportunity to go to Yugoslavia to bring the Imperial Majesty’s ship, gifted by Marshal Tito, the late Yugoslavian president. He was a good friend of the Emperor. He gave to Imperial Majesty a beautiful ship. It was well equipped. Therefore, we were supposed to go to Yugoslavia to bring the ship soon. But, later, for security reasons His Majesty changed his mind and gave another instruction for the recruitment of elected bodyguards to bring the ship together with the Yugoslavian sailors. Accordingly, we were denied this opportunity and made to join the navy. I had also taken naval courses in various countries.
What courses did you take?
At that time, Ato Getachew was the director of the personnel department in the Ethiopian Sea Transport section. As I have tried to mention, they started to recruit high school students from Teferri Mekonnen, Menilk and Kahas School in Kotebe. Including me, sixteen students who came from technical schools joined the navy. We got together in Massawa. It was in the month of October. The temperature in Masswa was hot. So, the authorities wanted us to stay in Asmara for three months. We joined apprentice school in Asmara putting on khaki uniforms. After three months, we went down to Masswa, the real place where the Ethiopian Naval Base was founded. It was called Haile-Selassie First Naval Base. All together, we were above thirty. We were specially treated with sumptuous foods and attires. At that point in time, all the proper clothing including the rank came from England. When the Norwegians came to Ethiopia to establish the navy, they began making curriculum and organizations. They divided the naval profession into three branches: executive, supply and administration. These three branches are vital for naval profession.
Since my previous profession was more of technical, I was assigned in engineering branch. We all started the course. We underwent the courses for three years with strenuous academic and ships courses. In the afternoon class we went for ship training. We also took a number of courses such as naval drill, rift shooting, rowing, and sailing before I was commissioned as Sub-Lieutenant in 1959. The first ship came in 1956 at the time when we were cadets. It was given by American Navy. She was named after Zerai Deres. It was the first Ethiopian ship.
What was the next move?
After I was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant, I was ordered to go to France for specialized underwater attack diving course which lasted for a year. I took diving course with twenty sailors. Afterwards, I joined diving commando course there. We specialized in underwater diving commando after strenuous courses . Later, I came back to Ethiopia and established the commando unit in Massawa Naval Base. I was commanding many as a diving commando unit head. Before that I had brought a ship from Germany as a cadet. During the training, we were using oxygen and air apparatus when we went deep underwater. During our training, we went down up to thirty meters for a very short period of time. It is dangerous if one stays a bit longer. The gas we were inhaling could get poisoned. Often, we used to go with oxygen up to five meters as it would be more toxic if we got deeper. In this way, I managed to establish the diving commando unit of our country. I was a commanding officer of the unit for five years. Then I was ordered to go to America.
Why did you leave for America?
I was ordered to go to America for a Marine Amphibious course. The training was from sea to shore. In between this time, I was in Debre Zeit and completed a parachute course. Before that I even finished parachute course in France. It is a bit complicated. During my stay in France, I did the divining commando plus the airborne tasks. After a while, I came back and established the commando unit in our country. Then, I and friends came to Debre Zeit and joined the airborne to train others. There were more than hundred would-be airborne men. As a rule, everybody was expected to jump ten times with parachutes from a height of four hundred meters to be an airborne. When we marched for the operation to the place where vehicles or ships could not go, we jumped from air planes with parachutes. We were also taking a training in a surprise attack in the middle of the night. I was also ambushed by separatists in Massawa by separatist guerilla unit. Fortunately, I escaped from that ambush. At that point, infiltrators or separatists were sabotaging, ambushing and running back. Anyway, all these went safely by the help of God.
In this way, I kept on working as a career officer commanding the unit. This being so, I was ordered to establish a command and staff college in Holeta. Most of the subjects were ground force courses. I served there as a command and staff college officer. Then, I went to the Ministry of Defence in 1969. I was assigned in logistics department as a representative of the navy. There were other ground force officers. We were in the logistic department. I worked there for almost one year. Then, I was transferred to the naval base headquarters in Arat Kilo. Now it is no more there. I was told to go to Sudan in 1977 to join Staff and Command Armed Force College. There was constant support from Emperor Haile-Selassie. We were entertaining love for our job with all our hearts. We were always thinking of upgrading our naval base over and over again.
How often did you meet with the emperor?
The emperor was coming every year to deliver a convocation speech during the graduation of naval students. The graduations were celebrated colourfully. Everybody was looking forward for such graduation days as they were entirely special ones. During those days, all from sailors to officers used to partake in the ceremony. Then trained sailors stage a parade. I really lack words to express how interesting it was. Dinner parties were organized. Attendees enjoyed themselves. The morrow was devoted to Sea Day. Ships were coming from different parts of the world such as America, France, India and some others. Together all used to celebrate the day with different operations. The third day was Sports Day. All the sailors, with invited ship sailors, often came to the naval base to make sports competition on different fields such as athletics, swimming and so forth. So, there were three days ceremonial events annually for the Ethiopian Navy with the presence of the emperor. There were also naval students from Sudan to join the Ethiopian Navy College. Harar Military Academy was also one of the guests to join sea training. During the emperor’s era, there were about six ships. But during Derg’s time the number did increase.
Moving back home, where did you work?
The instant I returned home, I was told to go to Massawa. But for family reason I could not go there. Subsequently, they ordered me to join the naval liaison in emperor’s cabinet, which was called Emperor’s chief of staff. I stayed there from 1972- 1974 working as liaison officer until the downfall of the Emperor. This being the case, I was told to go to my parent-unit, which is the naval headquarters. I was a commanding officer of the special unit for a year by the order of the higher authorities. I was seen a bit outshining. To be frank, I stayed in Embatikala till the school was closed in 1975. Afterwards, all employees were assigned to work on ships and in offices deployed in Addis Ababa, Asmara and Massawa. I was ordered to go again to join Command Forces in Asmara in 1976. That same year, I got a letter that I had to retire before the date was due.
What went wrong ?
To begin with, they did not like me. I knew I had the ability to work as I had taken so many courses and responsibilities. When I asked them why they reached on this decision, they told me that it was a political one. For no sound reason, they used to delay my promotions. I was always clashing with officials because of different reasons. I was working in the general post in all places especially in the cabinet. My colleagues were all senior cardinals. I tried all I could not to make their evil dreams came true. But things went the wrong way. In this way, I was forced to be a pensioner in 1976. My pension was 300 birr per month.
During those days there were fierce struggles between parties. In fact, there was no peace across the country. There were assassinations everywhere, as there were different parties across the country. The transition from the Imperial to Military rule was chaotic. What is more, there were quite a lot of internal and external threats across the country. Various revolutionary groups posed the most serious threat to the Derg. From time to time, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) challenged the Derg’s grip of power. The party began initiating attacks which were commonly known as White Terror against Derg members and their supporters. Above and beyond, as there were a number of organizations struggling for dominance, people were killed accidentally. There were insurgents everywhere. At the end of the day, something I did not expect came to pass.
I do not know where and how to start. The thing was, as there was unrest in every part of the country, the Somali government started attacking Ethiopia with the army consisting of thousands of soldiers. They were successfully advancing forward from time to time. The desire of the Somali government was to have as a feature the Somali-inhabited region of Ethiopia into Somalia. The Ogaden war was a conventional conflict between the two countries. One of the separatist groups in the hunt for taking advantage of the chaos was the pro Somali Liberation Front operating in the Ogden. For this reason, Somalis came to a decision to make a crucial move and encroached on Ogden. They proved successful. The government of Ethiopian was trying to save the country using a number of means.
This being the case, there was a national call. We, the senior and matured officers ordered to come to Jan Meda to go for war. I was collecting and putting all my belongings in my relatives’ house. I was supposed to go. Prior to departure, I was taken by surprise being shot by a cadre. He was an air force member living in Felwiha area. I was soon hospitalized in Zewditu Hospital. The fatal conditions resulted in amputation of my leg. I was amputated for the bullet wound was fatal. I have been using prosthetic leg since 1978. My bone and artery were badly damaged. I was even supposed to go to Germany. They said I would die as I was in a critical condition. They operated and amputated me in Zewditu Hospital. This was in September 1978.
The shooter was the best friend of Fikre-Silassie. It took three months to fix me up. I feel pity for the Derg spoiled my career. First, ordered me to go to Somalia. I accepted. I would rather have refused as my rights were not kept. Since the case was a sovereignty issue, they selected me as a first officer for the special call. Though I asked them to give me a job as I was disabled and my pension was so little, nobody cared. I remained isolated. What can I do? I accepted and kept on leading a heart-rending life. My right leg is an artificial one. What I want to mention here is I am living with a family of six. My wife and children are financially tight. Actually, my pension with this government is coming up. I am getting around five hundred birr. What I pity is, the Derg spoiled my career, spoiled my right leg and left me isolated. The diabolic regime also took my house in Dire Dawa and pensioned me before the right time. I am the most unlucky Ethiopian officer though ironically I contributed a lot to my country. I remained isolated for the last thirty eight years. As an Ethiopian, I feel as unfortunate person. I am remained isolated. The cursed military junta (Derg) destroyed my life. I do not have any house at this point in time. I am dependent on my family. I do not have any support or privilege even to buy prosthetic leg as I cannot walk without it. I am living with a low income. I am now ageing 82 years old. All my hopes are shuttered.
What do you do during your leisure time?
During my leisure time, I take my breakfast around ten o’clock and go nearby bars around Summit area and chat with people. My reading ability has decreased for I am using high lens. At this moment, I use high lens which prevents me from reading books and references as I underwent cataract operation. Cataract is a bit challenging. I have no lens. I am using outside lens for reading as well as normal sight. I can see people but I cannot identify them due to this cataract problem. Whatever is the case I am ageing. What is in store for me is a natural death as it is an unavoidable phase. I hardly exist with my pension. My free time is hardly spent.
What does your marital life like?
Well, I married my present wife in 1965 EC. We brought up four children. We have got three daughters and a boy. So my first daughter is married now. She lives under the same roof with her husband. She also brings up two children. My second son is running his own business. The others are working casual works. They are living with me.
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