July 13, 2020

Despair following violent ethnic based killings in some parts of Oromia, Ethiopia


Ethiopia is once again returning to the media spotlight for troubling victim accounts.

Avatar: Hewan Alemayehu
By Hewan Alemayehu

Despair following violent ethnic based killings in some parts of Oromia, Ethiopia

Ethiopia is once again returning to media spotlight, this time due to a horrific killing of one of its iconic singers, Hachalu Hundessa (who also goes by a different spelling- Haacaaluu Hundeessa) and the unrest that followed. Ethiopian Oromos have expressed their anger, grief and frustration following the singer’s death. For Oromos, an ethnic group the late singer hails form, Hachalu was regarded as indispensable to their struggle for political freedoms.

Over much of last week, as the country was shaken by mass protests, the violence turned into identity based gruesome massacre and vandalism in different parts of Oromia, mainly by an organized mob, largely identified as Qeerroo*. Unfortunately, the ensuing massacre of ethnic and religious minorities had received almost no coverage. Instead, media reports, several of them critical of the Prime Minister, continued to criticize the government for a range of issues, including the subsequent arrest of political prisoners and the shutting down of internet.

However, what was painfully omitted from the story was the fact of the senseless murders against civilians, and the burning down of properties owned by non-Oromos at large.  Even if such news of atrocities were mentioned, it was just in the form of tallied numbers of those killed. So far, the government has reported at least 239 innocent citizens have lost their lives.

This is mainly because the cause for their murders contradicts the narrative some people repeatedly echoed in the media; and because the direct culprit was not the government, but armed and organized groups whose nationalist views align with individuals covering the mainstream media. Of course, by failing to protect innocent citizens, the government is also responsible for the death of innocent lives, especially when taking into account the redundancy of similar incidents across the country, especially in the last three years.

This short piece commemorates the over hundred helpless Ethiopians whose lives were tragically taken away, their only crime being their identity. It is an attempt to share a small fragment of their unfathomable pain to readers with the hope of amplifying and honoring their existence against those who continue to erase them.

Immediately after Hachalu’s death, innocent Ethiopians who had nothing to do with the killing of Hachalu were murdered in different towns and localities in Oromia region, including but not limited to Shashemene, Arsi, Dera, and Zeway. The attacks started early morning after Hachalu’s assasination and in some places continued for two more days. The attackers had a list of their potential victims’ names and in some areas, they wore face masks to hide their identities.

Eye witnesses have testified to different media outlets, including the Amharic stations of BBC, VOA, DW and other local news sites. They told reporters of the violent and gruesome murders that they saw in real time, including disfigured human body parts. The violent mobs also burnt down a number of properties, including hotels and schools worth millions of dollars, such as the renowned Haile Resort, and Lucy Academy in Shashemene. Witnesses say they were targeted based on their ethnic and/or religious identities.

According to the Voice of America, a mob carried out some of the attacks in Arsi, while trained snipers also participated. Arsi Zone administrator Ato Jemal Aliyu, told VOA that the situation was beyond local police capacity and that one police officer was killed in the attack. The official added that the motive was to cause ethnic and religious conflicts, and blamed it on “forces who want to destabilise the country”.

Ato Dereje, an elderly, whose son, Mercha, was brutally murdered, tearfully said this to VOA Amharic:

“I tried to hide my 28-year-old boy, but they found and dragged him out on the street and killed him. They were saying ‘what is this Amhara man doing in our land?’ I was born and raised in Oromia; even my parents were born here. I was a farmer and moved to this town to provide a better education for my children. They killed my son and burned down my house. I am now sheltered in Church.”

The widow and a mother of two from Arsi Negele also had this to say:

“Initially we saw a heavy smoke. We later knew that they (the mobs) were burning some parts of the town, but we closed our home and stayed inside, thinking they wouldn’t come to us; but they did. I threw away my children through the fence to the neighbour’s house. We all hid in the neighbour’s house, but they followed us there once they burned down our house. Some were dragging us out of the house, the others were pushing us inside. They dragged me out and asked me what I was, I told them I was a maid to save my life. I don’t remember what happened next. It was local police that saved me. Later, I found out that they killed my husband.”

BBC Amharic service also reported that the attackers called out and took selected individuals with them. They then returned to the area after realizing the police had already left and then burned down properties and houses while the victims ran for their lives. Sadly, they returned for a third time the following day yet again after the police left the area. It remains unclear why the police repeatedly left the area without ensuring the restoration of security. Children are also understandably traumatized by what they witnessed. A witness told BBC that an 11-year-old died by suicide in Arsi Negele after witnessing all the trauma.

Head of Western Arsi Dioceses said in Arsi, his district, among other things nineteen Christians were barbarically murdered, hundreds of houses were burned, and one church was completely torched. He said the attack was purely religious which targeted both ethnic Oromos and non-Oromos. In Shashemene town, the mob destroyed properties belonging to non-Oromos which included several buildings, hotels, market centres schools and houses were destroyed. Shashemene is one of the most severely affected towns in last week’s violence.

The mayor of Shashemene admitted that the attackers were trying to cause ethnic and religious conflict but said they did not succeed. He told BBC that the mobs were not residents of the town and came to Shashemene town to cause ethnic and religious violence.  The mayor added that these were forces that were using the singer’s death for their own political end, but had failed. 

Although ethnic based killings are becoming common, it is considerably visible in Oromia more than other regions of Ethiopia. Less than a year ago, scores lost their lives owing to similar ethnically motivated killings. This time, the violence seems to be planned well in advance of the singer’s death. The victims were already identified, and their names were being called out from the list that was already prepared which eerily signifies an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

It goes without saying, but is important to reiterate, that these gruesome murders represent no ethnic or religious group. Oromia is home to multiple religious and ethnic groups who have for long lived peacefully, and who have intermarried with one another for generations. Several ethnic Oromos have shielded their neighbours and saved their lives from the radical mobs. Individuals have shared the testimonies of their loved ones on electronic and social media. The horrific incident should only be attributed to the attackers and to those who orchestrated it from behind, not to any ethnic or religious group.

The accounts above are only a small part of several testimonies and surely a fraction of what has happened. What has happened reflects a serious political crisis that has been in the making for many years in the country, and one that requires serious legal and political solution and engagement. The government has the responsibility not only to bring perpetrators to justice, but to ensure this does not happen again. Overcoming this will be a true and a very difficult test to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership.

Although true justice may seem farfetched, at the very least those who perished by the hands of the mob should never be forgotten, nor should they be reduced to footnotes amidst the increasingly mainstream narrative that simply mentions them in passing, or as results of inter-ethnic conflict. This was no conflict. They were ruthlessly and barbarically murdered, having been taken from their homes, away from their families, in front of their loved ones, or along with their loved ones. In memoriam! 

*Qeerroo literally means youth in Oromo language and the use of the term remains controversial. The debate is beyond the focus of this article.