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Silence in the face of slaughter: Ethiopia’s war in Oromia

AnalysisSilence in the face of slaughter: Ethiopia's war in Oromia

Deafening silence – this phrase is an oxymoron. One wonders how, when, and why silence can be considered deafening, where under normal circumstances, it is the noise or sound that could be deafening.

In this piece, I do not want to get into the academic discourse surrounding the phrase or discuss theories explaining hidden violence. I do acknowledge that nothing is more practical than a good theory, as Ramazanoglu succinctly stated, ‘if you want to change the world, you need to get your theory right.’1

Furthermore as Russel incisively argues ‘Silence is entangled with truth, because in silence we assume the silencing of a truth, a true voice, a true experience or a true opinion kept from open expression.'2

However, I would also like to reference Baldwin who, reflecting on the dozens of commercial sex worker girls killed in the region of Green River, near Seattle, asks herself ‘how legitimate it is to proceed with the intellectual and rhetorical methods of writing when the ‘material’ she is writing about is the slaughter of women and children.3

I will try to show with evidence, the reality of deafening silence towards systemic and brutal violence committed against the Oromo in the past five years. The facts of violence are staggering, but the silence remains deafening. Why?

The present government in Ethiopia was propelled to power when the Qeerro (Oromo youth) resistance movement forced a reshuffle in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition party that had governed the country since 1995.

This resulted in the appointment of  Abiy Ahmed as the new Prime Minister. A year later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “domestic reforms and efforts to achieve peace and cooperation in the region.”4

Soon after, the much anticipated reform towards sustainable peace and democracy crumbled, and the Qeerroo were either lured into joining the ruling party or harassed into fleeing to the bushes and joining the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)5, the former military wing of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Despite being a legally registered political party since 2019, OLF has seen its chairman kept under house arrest since April 2021 and its top leadership “held in abusive life-threatening conditions for over two years in defiance of more than six court orders for their release”.6

The violence in Oromia is perpetrated largely by government security forces under the guise of hunting down the insurgent OLA, with the motto ‘dry up the ocean to catch the fish7; the ocean in this case being the Oromo population and the fish, the OLA. The collaborators of the government in this mission are Amhara settlers in Oromia who identify themselves as Amhara Fano8, and the armed group led by Fekade Abdisa. Fekade’s group stands accused of targeting civilians and working for the government, according to an investigative report by the Washington Post. 

On 22 October, Addis Standard reported that at least 30 villagers, including a woman and a 75 year-old man, were killed in attacks on four villages in Kiramu district, East Wallagga, on 15 October. Many more were injured; cattle were looted and over 50 homes in Gudina Jiregna, Cheffe Soruma, Burka Soruma and Nachino villages were burned down. The Fano militants who carried out the killings were ‘organized in the name of the Amhara community’ in East Wallagga and Horo Guduru zones, and used ‘illegal and unauthorized weapons’…the attackers ‘grew up among us and speak our language. They knew the village, they went there [to the Amhara Region] and get trained and came back fully armed.’ The reason for the attack was to ‘displace people from their land.’9 (Emphasis in the original.)

On violence against the Oromo by the government security forces, the UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia reported the following:

“They tied my hands behind my back. They stepped on my head with their shoes. Then I was beaten with electric wire on the soles of m y feet… They kept telling me that I had a link with OLA… I do not know any OLA.” —Man detained by security forces in West Wallagga.

There are reasonable grounds to believe that the ENDF and Oromia regional authorities committed serious violations of human rights, in particular of the right to life; prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, including rape and other forms of sexual violence; and arbitrary arrest and detention.(2023:13)

While the extrajudicial killings of Oromo youth taken out of detention centers to be killed is very common, the mass killing of the Karrayyu Abba Gadas sitting under the shade of a tree, performing Gada rituals and solemnly praying to Waqa (God) for peace is a shocking revelation to most. Oromo parents are harassed, arrested, tortured, and killed because their sons and daughters are suspected of joining the OLA. The Ethiopian army is using all the means at its disposal to make sure the Oromo people pay a heavy price for their alleged support for the OLA.

Karrayyu dig a mass grave for the massacred Gadaa leaders.
Karrayyu dig a mass grave for the massacred Gadaa leaders. Credit: Nuredin Jilo.

Moving on from the daily  ground military invasion of Oromo villages across Oromia, let’s cite a few examples among a series of drone attacks that claimed several lives: In Ofu Bekke village, Cobi district, 68 civilians were killed10, including women, children and an 80 year-old man11(Oct. 22, 2022); in Bila, several were killed12 and scores were injured (Nov. 02, 2022); in Mendi, 20 civilians died instantly and 13 more died later of their injuries (Nov. 09, 2022)13; and over 10 civilians were killed and several more injured in Warra Jarso in North Showa (Dec. 02, 2022). Air attacks were conducted in Sassiga district of East Wallagga zone on December 4, and in Begi, Gidami, and Togo districts of West Wallagga and Qellem Wallagga zones on December 5, 2022.

In a statement released on 24 October, the OLF reported manned aircraft and drone strikes across several areas of Oromia from 20 to 23 October, including Minare town, Meta Wolkite district, Chobi town, Jeldu district, and in Gindeberet district in West Showa, Nunu Qumba in East Wallagga and Fantalle district in East Showa. In addition… OSG received reports of other drone strikes on Wama-Hagalo and Nunu Qumba in East Wallagga on 30 October, Nejo in West Wallagga on 3 November, again on Chobi on 14 November, on Amaya in Southwest Showa on 22 November and on Begi in Qellem Wallagga on 26 November.14

On extrajudicial killings, OSG reports as follows:

In OSG Press Release 16 August 2022, the killing on 4 August of ten civilians by federal and Amhara forces in Kobor, Begi district, West Wallagga was recorded. More than 11 were taken from prison and executed in East Wallagga in June/July: another four were killed in East Wallagga on 4 and 5 August and Habte Biranu was taken from the police station in Daduu, Horo Guduru, and shot dead on 5 August.15 (Emphasis in the original.)

The alleged politically-motivated assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa on June 29, 2020 highlights another instance of systemic violence committed against the Oromo people. The wave of protests that the news of his death unleashed throughout Oromia and in the country’s capital, Finfinnee, resulted in the deaths of 145 civilians and 11 security personnel in the Oromia region alone. Ten people have been killed in the capital16 and thousands, including opposition party leaders such as Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, Dejene Tafa were arrested and remained in detention until January 2022.

To cite a few examples of attacks on the Oromo by Amhara forces: Fano militants killed over 60 civilians.17) and injured hundreds in Agamsa town of Amuru district on August 30/31, 2022; 14 members of the Mulatu Gela Evangelical Church were killed in Sorga, Nekemte on Nov. 06, 2022; 31 civilians traveling by bus were killed at Gara Dicho in Gidda Ayyana district on Sept. 15, 2023.18 Moreover, Amhara Region forces and Fano militia attacked several sites in Jille Dhumuga district in the Oromia Special Zone of Amhara Region on January 15 and 16, killing over 76 and wounding at least 52 civilians (OSG Report 62, April 24, 2023, p.16).

Four extrajudicial killing incidents are presented below to illustrate the atrocious nature of state violence committed against the Oromo: (1) that of an 80-year-old man from Ambo; (2) a 17-year-old 7th grader from Dembi Dollo; (3) 1419 Karrayyuu Abba Gada leaders in Fantale district in East Showa; and (4) a 50-year-old mother of seven killed by the Ethiopian national defense forces in Boset District in East Showa.

First, Obbo (Mr.) Moroda Moossaa, 80, killed on 24th Oct. 2019 in Ambo. ‘Mr. Moroda … on his way home from a pharmacy where he went to get some medicine, saw a young boy lying soaked in blood after being shot by the police. Mr. Moroda was struggling to stop the bleeding and lift the victim up. While he was at such engagement to fulfill his humanly and fatherly duty as a senior in the community, the Ethiopian police shot and killed him on the spot inhumanely.’20

Second, Amanuel Wondimu, a 17-year-old boy [a grade 10 student, who worked at a church] executed by Ethiopian government forces. Human Rights Watch documented the following:

On May 11, 2021, government forces apprehended and beat Amanuel in Dembi Dollo, a town in the Kellem Wallagga zone of western Oromia. A video posted on social media by the town’s administration shows security forces taunting a bloodied Amanuel with a handgun tied around his neck. He was executed in public that day…. witnesses described how the authorities ordered Amanuel to turn his head and then shot him at least two times in full sight of residents. A photo posted on social media appears to show Amanuel lying down with his hands still tied behind his back, slumped over at the town’s roundabout… Since Amanuel’s killing, government authorities have intimidated and harassed Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members and friends …who were gathered at the family home mourning Amanuel’s death. Other residents were warned not to visit the house anymore.21

Third, fourteen Abba Gadas were killed in Karrayyu on Dec, 01, 2021. Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded that there’s “reasonable ground to believe” that the killing of 14 members of the Gadaa leaders constitutes “extrajudicial killing” by security forces. EHRC added:22

After a group of 16 people were taken to Chebi Anole Forest, they were told to lay in a row. Finally, they were told that the hour for their killing was approaching. But before they died, those who had money on them were asked to hand it over. At the same time, killers were assigned for each. They were given orders to execute them after 6:00[PM]. The report quoted eyewitnesses as saying, “They were shot on their heads and their backs. People who went to collect bodies were prevented by the police. The bodies were stranded for several hours and were partially eaten by wild animals.” 

Finally, Kuli Hawas, a 50-year-old mother of seven, was tragically killed23 (with two other civilians) allegedly by members of the national defense forces in Garri Nura Dhera village in Bosat district of East Shoa zone, Oromia region, as residents told Addis Standard.24 

One of Kuli’s seven children, (name concealed) told Addis Standard that their mother was arrested from her home on 25 October 2023 and found dead together with the two other victims on the morning of 29 October 2023. “Members of the defense forces arrested her and took her to a military camp at a place called Sogido. When they arrested her, they told her that her son, who she feeds and his comrades, are causing harm to the defense forces …”

The escalation of violence against the Oromo has gained a frightening new dimension since the government, constitutionally obligated to protect citizens’ safety not only failed to do so, but also now uses vigilante forces from other regional states to support it in its atrocious crimes. Through these acts of violence, hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, especially in East and Horro-Guduru Wallagga, East and West Shewa, and the Oromia Special Zone in the Amhara Region. In the areas affected by the violence, thousands of houses were burned, several thousand heads of cattle, sheep and goats, including pack animals, were looted by the Fano vigilante group.25

The Oromo have a very good track record of resisting against the Ethiopian state when the latter makes decisions believed to be against the interest of the Oromo people: a couple examples include the decision to move the capital of Oromia from Finfinnee to Adama in 2000, and the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (which triggered the 2014-18 Qeerroo Protest movement that forced the EPRDF government out of office). In all these cases, the resistance bore fruit, albeit short lived in some instances. 

The history of Oromo resistance against the Ethiopian state started with the creation of the Ethiopian Empire. Its goal has always been the restoration of Oromo rights on Oromo land/Oromia, and thousands have given their lives towards that end. With time however, the Oromo question unfortunately evolved from the quest for freedom, equality, and justice to survival of the people and culture in the Ethiopian state.

In the twenty years from 1992 to 2012 which were included in OSG Reports 1 – 49, OSG recorded 4498 killings of Oromo civilians by the TPLF-dominated EPRDF government. The rate of killing of Oromo people since 2018 is much greater. Within less than five years of Prosperity Party rule under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, almost as many civilians have been killed as were killed by the EPRDF over 20 years. This magnitude of slaughter has not been witnessed since the genocidal campaigns of Showan Amhara kings and emperors in the 19th and early 20th centuries (OSG Report 62, April 24, 2023:1).

Evidence-based research conclusively shows that the systemic violence inflicted upon the Oromo people is the worst it has ever been since the early years of the Ethiopian Empire. The ultimate goal of successive Ethiopian regimes is to suppress the Oromo struggle for freedom, equality and justice. Far from realizing this goal, however, their violent acts only deepened socio-political and security crises threatening the existence of the Ethiopian state itself. The ongoing atrocities perpetrated against the Oromo is an epitome to broader political and humanitarian crises unfolding not only in Ethiopia but also in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, we have found our answer to the question of the deafening silence of Oromos living under such violence. They are victims of atrocious crimes sanctioned by the state, with the survival of their people under constant threat. The question now becomes: what will it take to break this ever so deafening silence?

Editor’s Note: The author is an Oromo scholar from Ethiopia, who preferred to remain anonymous.

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