May 23, 2023

Gambella's Quest for Attention: Examining the Recent Attack and Human Rights Commission Findings

Current AffairsOpinion

EHRC, biased, amid tension. Gambella demands justice, end demonization.

Avatar: Jekap Omod
By Jekap Omod

Jekap, an Ethiopian from Gambella now in the US, is a Neurologist, Laboratory scientist, and passionate Human Rights advocate. He dedicates himself to supporting underserved minority groups in Ethiopia, prioritizing healthcare and education.

Gambella's Quest for Attention: Examining the Recent Attack and Human Rights Commission Findings

On June 14, 2022, at approximately 5:30 am, forces belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Gambella Liberation Front (GLF) launched an attack on Gambella town. The assault continued until 1:00 pm and primarily targeted the Gambella Special Forces stationed in Tier-Jwieni and Don Bosco near Aguul-Nyaang. The invading soldiers from the Oromo Liberation Front - Army (OLF/A) were armed with machine guns and heavy weapons, guided by the GLF forces. Surprisingly, the Gambella Special Forces lacked sufficient weapons and ammunition to defend the town, leading to suspicions.

Following a fierce battle, the Gambella Special Forces found themselves outnumbered and subsequently retreated. This allowed the OLF/A forces, led by GLF Nuer forces, to enter Gambella town through three locations: Addis-sefer, Tier-kidi, and Aguul-nyaang. These areas predominantly consisted of Anywaa and Amhara residents. The OLF/A invading army advanced into Tiet-baale (Gonder sefer) near the regional council building.

During the attack on the town, no gunfire opposing the invasion was observed from the 01 kebele (Cangkwaar) or Newland, raising questions due to the Nuer occupation of the area. Once the OLA/F forces reached the center of the town, they encountered an unexpected response. The members of the Gambella Special Forces regrouped and fought back, resulting in their complete destruction. Those OLF/A soldiers who ventured deeper into the town did not escape alive. The GLF forces, who had been waiting for the OLA/F forces to take control of the city, were forced to flee to Newland after realizing their plans had gone awry. Videos showed them crossing the Jabjabe River, leaving their OLA/F comrades behind while still wearing their uniforms and carrying weapons. "They brought in their OLA/F friends, abandoned them in a vulnerable position, and then fled," stated Dr. Magn Nyang, referring to the fleeing GLF forces and the stranded OLF/A forces.

The Gambella Special Forces sealed off all exits, leaving the OLA/F forces with no choice but to seek refuge in residential houses. An Anywaa woman in Tiet-Baale recounted her experience: "Three OLF forces entered our compound and broke into the house. We were frightened, but they didn't harm me or the children. They simply rummaged through my and my husband's clothes, put them on over their uniforms, and departed."

More than nine OLF forces would enter civilian homes in numerous instances, and some even resorted to shooting from within these houses. One OLF soldier positioned himself on the roof of a building in Tiet-Baale and fired at the Gambella Special Forces. He was ultimately eliminated by a member of the Gambella Special Forces, who had to enter the building and approach the soldier to neutralize the threat. The Federal Forces stationed near the Catholic Church remained within their camp throughout the invasion and merely fired shots through their walls to safeguard their own property. At around 10 am, Federal Forces from Gog Woreda arrived in Gambella town and joined the fight. In the evening, federal commandos arrived in Gambella, but by then, the OLA/F forces had already been defeated. Some OLA/F members remained concealed within the town, while others who managed to escape fled into the surrounding bushes. The commandos assumed control of Gambella town during the night.

One of the regional government's mistakes was the prolonged presence of the deceased OLA/F forces' bodies on the streets of Gambella for nearly two days. This incident subsequently ignited strong emotions among the Oromo people residing in Gambella and other parts of Ethiopia. Even though these individuals were terrorists dressed in military uniforms, Oromo individuals in Gambella were seen gazing at the bodies and shedding tears. Their bitterness and anger stemmed from the realization that these terrorists shared their Oromo ethnicity. Even the perspective of the Federal Forces seemed to shift, suggesting that the people of Gambella had deliberately targeted and killed Oromo individuals. This highlights the clear presence of colorism. Whenever a conflict arises between light-skinned individuals and the Gambella people, the Federal Forces are more inclined to take sides.

For instance, when the Federal Forces from Gog Woreda arrived in Gambella town, the OLF rebels had already been decimated, and their fleeing comrades left the injured ones behind. Near Mikir Bet, an injured OLF soldier had taken cover behind a rock and fired at the Special Forces. The Special Forces were deliberating on how to neutralize the threat. Among them, a federal soldier wanted to spare the OLF soldier's life. He requested the Special Forces to wait so he could attempt to convince the rebel to surrender. As he approached the OLF soldier and spoke to him in Afaan Oromo, the rebel shot and killed him.

Furthermore, the differing treatment based on skin color becomes apparent when the Federal Forces appear to prioritize the protection of light-skinned individuals over the dark-skinned people of Gambella. Throughout my upbringing in Gambella, I witnessed numerous cases where, in incidents involving a light-skinned person and a dark-skinned person, the light-skinned individual would seek refuge not at the police station but with a federal soldier from the Catholic camp. The federal soldier would then proceed to physically assault the dark-skinned person without thoroughly investigating the matter. If a confrontation were to occur between a person from Gambella and a Highlander, and a federal soldier arrived at the scene, they would more likely resort to violence against the Gambella resident and potentially take them to the camp.

It was anticipated that the Oromo people in Gambella town would be angered following the defeat of the OLF/A rebels (an Oromo ethnic group) by the regional special forces. However, when reports from the Oromo Media Network and Addis Standard media stated that "civilians" had been killed by the Gambella Special Forces, it became evident to us, the people of Gambella, that we were being discriminated against. The Gambella Special Forces had not ventured into the Oromia region or harmed anyone in Gambella town before the OLF invasion. Their actions were devoted to sacrificing their lives to defend the Gambella region and all the ethnic groups it encompasses. Dr. Ojot Miru poignantly questioned, "It is disheartening to hear such reports from the Addis Standard media because who came to attack Gambella? Who were the invaders?" during an interview with reporter Agwa Gilo on June 25, 2022.

Two days later, Gatluak Buom initiated a propaganda Facebook campaign, alleging that the Anywaa people had indiscriminately killed Oromo individuals in Gambella town. He proceeded to share a video in which an individual dressed in civilian attire with bound hands was shot by individuals appearing to be in military uniforms. This video quickly went viral and was shared by various OLF and TPLF media outlets. Subsequently, the regional Special Forces were accused of using excessive force and intentionally targeting "Oromo civilians." While some individuals may have been caught in the crossfire, a common occurrence during intense warfare, the accusation that the Gambella Special Forces deliberately targeted Oromo civilians is false and far from the truth. It is worth noting that the OLA/F terrorist group was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 civilians, including a Canadian citizen named Omod Ojwato, who went unnoticed by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). This organization's failure to report the people killed or abducted by the OLF/A terrorists before they invaded Gambella raises concerns about how Gambella people are perceived by the EHRC, questioning their recognition as humans or Ethiopians.

For instance, in the Tier-kidi area, OLF members who were killed were falsely reported as civilians due to their attire consisting of civilian clothing. However, they possessed the same hairstyle commonly associated with OLF/A terrorists (dreaded hair) and wore their military uniforms underneath the stolen civilian clothes. Furthermore, they neglected to change their military boots, indicating their affiliation.

After three days, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission dispatched representatives to Gambella to gather information regarding the events. They met with local officials and commended the regional Special Forces for their defense of Gambella and the preservation of civilian lives, preventing a scenario similar to what occurred in Welega, Oromia. Subsequently, they returned to Addis Ababa. During their second visit, they presented a letter indicating that Gambella was among the five regions in Ethiopia where human rights violations had occurred. According to Mr. Ogetu Ading, the Gambella state Press Secretariat, the regional government provided all the evidence to the EHRC team. However, after receiving the information, the EHRC representatives returned to Addis Ababa and have yet to respond. Days later, they returned for further investigation, but this time, all the investigators were ethnically Oromos. Interestingly, they did not engage with regional officials but exclusively interacted with local Oromo residents in Tiet-Baale, Tier-Kidi, and other Oromo-populated regions. This raised numerous questions about why the EHRC only sent Oromo investigators to exclusively interview Oromo residents in Gambella if they intended to seek the truth. This alone indicates a biased and one-sided report. 

In March 2023, Daniel Bekele, the Chief Commissioner of EHRC, and his team visited Gambella with three accusations against the Gambella government. Firstly, they claimed that approximately 63 "civilians" were killed by the Gambella Special Forces. Secondly, they alleged that numerous "civilians" were injured by the Gambella Special Forces. Lastly, they reported incidents of robberies in Gambella town. Mr. Ogetu Ading provided the following statement:

Daniel Bekele and his team accused the Gambella Special Forces of killing and injuring civilians and engaging in looting. Consequently, they demanded that the Gambella government hand over the Special Forces, their leaders, and local youths. Additionally, they requested the government to provide reparations and return the " civilians " deceased bodies to their families. Lastly, they expected an apology from the Gambella government.

Upon learning about these demands, the Gambella people became angered, leading some young teenagers to vandalize the EHRC sign in Gambella that night. In the eyes of the Gambella people, the EHRC was seen as seeking justice while favoring the OLF/A terrorists solely because of their Oromo ethnic background. Mr. Ogetu Ading, the Gambella state Press Secretariat, made it clear that the government of Gambella would only consider paying reparations or taking any legal action if the EHRC provided the names, kebele, neighborhoods, and families of the alleged "civilians." He stated:

"If we do not see the names and addresses of those you claim were 'civilians,' the government of Gambella will not provide reparations or incarcerate anyone. We know those who came to our region intended to kill us, and our actions were purely in self-defense. It appears that we were expected to be killed without defending ourselves! When the Anywaa people were killed on December 13, 2003, this organization did not demand anything or report on the incident. During Gatluak Tut, federal forces killed children, and the EHRC remained silent. Young individuals were brutally murdered in Gambella prison as well. Even before the invasion of Gambella, children were killed by the OLF/A and GLF in Jabjabe, two adults were killed in Golli, and two youths were abducted from an investor's farm, yet the EHRC did not report on any of these incidents. Hence, we conveyed to them that the accusations brought against us following the defeat of OLF/A terrorists were a clear case of discrimination against the Gambella people."

To this day, the EHRC has not released a single name of a "civilian" killed by the Gambella Special Forces. This is because the individuals portrayed as "civilians" by the EHRC were all members of the OLF/A terrorists who disguised themselves in civilian attire and attempted to blend in with the community after their defeat.

When the leader of the Gambella Liberation Front (GLF) posted a video on his Facebook account showing people being killed in front of the Gambella Police station, Mr. Daniel Bekele and his team used the same video as evidence to support their claim that Gambella Special Forces had killed "civilians" based on the individuals appearing to be wearing civilian clothes. However, the EHRC failed to present any further evidence proving that the people in the video were "civilians" beyond their attire. It is evident that those individuals were OLF/A terrorists who had been captured by the Gambella Special Forces and subsequently taken into custody. Upon reaching the police station, Tulit Tut, the police commissioner, informed the Special Forces that there was no space for additional prisoners, implying that those in custody should be killed. Consequently, the OLF/A terrorists were executed by orders from Kong Nyariak, the Special Forces commissioner, and police commissioner Tulit Tut. The Minister of Justice later confirmed this information. According to a report on May 11, 2023, the police commissioner Tulit Tut was heard giving orders in the Nuer language, stating, "Put those highlanders together and kill them all." It is undeniably inhumane for these commissioners to issue such orders. However, there is no evidence to suggest that those who were killed were civilians. They were OLF/A soldiers who had changed into civilian clothing. The EHRC's narrative of labeling them as "civilians" was intended to create further chaos in the region by fueling ethnic conflicts, which is unexpected from organizations of this nature.

Additionally, there were individuals within the regional government who cooperated with Gatluak Buom, aiming to use the EHRC to portray a negative image of the leadership and the people of Gambella. For instance, during a meeting among regional officials to evaluate the war, Mr. Tut Khor falsely accused the regional special forces of looting, which was precisely what the EHRC later reported. However, the truth is that no looting took place during the war. There were no incidents of bank robberies or theft of private property. On the contrary, the special forces acted to prevent the looting the OLF/A insurgents would have carried out.

Furthermore, it became apparent that certain individuals within the regional government provided the EHRC with false information without any legitimate evidence, driven by their own political agenda. Lastly, the reports disseminated by the EHRC were intended to create tension between the regional and federal governments.

Gambella has always been a place that welcomes people from all backgrounds. It is a region known for its diverse ethnic groups, representing almost all of Ethiopia. The Oromo people have peacefully coexisted with the Gambella community for decades, engaging in intermarriage and contributing to the region's development, just like any other Ethiopian. The strong sense of community in Gambella means that if someone goes missing or passes away, it quickly becomes known throughout the town. Similarly, the arrival of a new face in the neighborhood doesn't go unnoticed. Given this closeness and interconnectedness, the people of Gambella are urging Mr. Daniel Bekele and the EHRC organization to cease demonizing both the Gambella community and the Special Forces, who have made sacrifices to protect the region.

The individuals who the Special Forces killed were OLF/A terrorists who invaded Gambella with the intent to cause destruction and commit atrocities against innocent civilians. Those responsible for ordering the execution of the captured OLF/A soldiers should face fair judgment. However, it would be unjust to target the Special Forces as a whole, as it would be seen as retaliation by Oromo leaders in power due to the ethnicity of the deceased OLF/A soldiers. The people of Gambella strongly condemn these accusations and view them as discriminatory, despite the fact that their actions were in self-defense. The Gambella Special Forces should not be punished for fulfilling their duty of protecting the region and its people.

The recent attack in Gambella on May 22, 2023, was a well-organized and anticipated incident. This attack occurred after the Special Forces had been unjustly vilified by the EHRC, followed by the imprisonment of specific individuals, disarmament, and the dismantling of the Special Forces, despite the potential risk of further attacks. Furthermore, the involvement of the GLF collaborating with the OLF in Gambella exacerbated the situation.