Protest Crackdowns in Ethiopia: Beyond the Body Count




By Mahlet Fasil & Kalkidan Yibeltal | Addis Standard


What is now widely acknowledged as the ‘Oromo protests’ started in early November 2014 in Ginchi town, about 80km west of the capital Addis Abeba. It was pioneered by a small group of community members who protested against a planned take-over by the government of a plot of land – a land used by youngsters in the small town and its surrounding as a Sunday football pitch. Protesters then picked up the much larger, albeit mired in confusion, issues of the proposed Addis Abeba Abeba Master Plan. The protest then spread throughout the Oromiya regional state, the largest unit of the federated Ethiopia, like a bush fire.

The two and half months protest left more than 187 Ethiopians dead, most of them in the hands of the security forces according to campaigners; hundreds more were wounded and twice as much are believed to have been incarcerated. Figures collected by social media campaigners also show names and places of hundreds of young students who have disappeared without a trace. Owing to several circumstances, including security agents’ hostility towards on the ground reporting by journalists, real figures of the causality remain highly contested.

But the current protest by Ethiopians against their government is the biggest in the history of the reign over the past 25 years of the incumbent. It raised a great many and hard-to-confront questions that left the country’s political elites wrestling for answers.

Lost in this chaos are, however, the stories of those who are forced to succumb to despair; the stories of wounds that were left wide open; and the stories of the social fabrics that were shattered beyond repair and are left with no mechanism to heal.

This is the story of the cost beyond the body count.

Ambo’s bleeding wound

For Ambo’s Kebele 06 residents, this year’s Ethiopian Epiphany (Timqet), celebrated on the 21st of January, will not be remembered for the jollity it normally brings in to the young and old, men and women of the city; nor will it be remembered for the songs praising the Lord; rather, it will be remembered for the last moments of Kumsa Tefera, 19, and the countless others who suffered his fate.

Kumsa used to cook and sell French fries, mostly after school, on the sidewalks in his residential area. The kids loved him as much as they loved his French fries. But late that afternoon Kumsa went to attend the Timqet celebration, which involves one of the most colorful public festivities in the Orthodox Christian tradition. He didn’t come home at the end of the day.

Kumsa’s family didn’t want to take the news of him not being at home as ordinary delay in the coming home of a young man. They were apprehensive, a state of mind further intensified by news of shootings, bereavements and detentions that has gripped the town by its neck for weeks before that day. “Just three days prior to that, the body of [a teenager] from our own neighborhood came from the hospital. He was killed by the police,” said Tufa, Kumsa’s older brother. That morning, Tufa said, “there was an air of tension from the very beginning. We heard there were planned protests and the police were firing guns and have arrested several youngsters.”Merara Chala, a local physician at Ambo Hospital

Merara Chala, a local physician at Ambo Hospital, supported Tufa’s claim. He told Addis Standard about countless injured people who crowded the emergency room on that fateful day. “Some of them were shot. Others were beaten. I particulary remember an elderly in his seventies beaten severely. There were also others, especially kids, who were wounded because of a stampede when people rushed to run away from the police,” Merara said.

It was among those that Tufa found his brother. “In the evening we found out that he was admitted to the hospital,” he says, “there he was, with his friend who was shot on his leg.” Kumsa was shot on his chest, his brother said.

Kumsa succumbed to his wounds the next day and died at around 11 AM. He was an 11th grader. The spot where he used to make the French fries lay empty. “We lost him way too young,” said Tufa, a sigh of grief betraying his soul. “He got into selling the fries to help our mother. I don’t know if she will ever recover from this.”

But for Demekech Biratu, a street vendor and a resident of the town, the agony lies elsewhere. She doesn’t know what happened to her son, a second year student at Ambo Technical and Vocational Education College. He disappeared in mid-January this year. “He went to school and vanished into thin air,” she said, trying to manage her despair. “Since then all I do is to look for him. He is not in the hospitals,” she said, “not knowing the whereabouts of your son is really dreadful.”

After days of searching in vain, a glimpse of hope arrived via a young man who had recently been released from a lockup. “As soon as he told me that he saw my son in prison in Guder, I went rushing,” she said, “but the prison officials couldn’t tell me if my son is there, let alone let me see him.”

Now Demekech spends every day shuttling to and from Guder, 11 km from Ambo, with a small bag carrying food for her son. She leaves the food at the gate of the prison, but doesn’t know whether it reaches him or not. “Let the law judge me,” she wailed repeatedly. “I need to know whatever happened to my son.”

Shattered lives, uncertain futures

A guard in Ambo University Awaro campus is defeated by bitterness when he talked about the foreboding experiences many of the students are going through ever since the protests began. “Even in relatively peaceful times, you could see the anxiety in their faces,” he said, “the female students are particularly very nervous. They are very keen to get into their dormitories early and lock themselves inside.”

The presence of the Federal Police force inside the campus didn’t help ease their apprehension, according to the guard. “A number of students went back home hoping to be back when things settle down. But I think the University is insistent on them getting back to school immediately.”

Notice boards in many universities in cities where protests took place and students have left for the safety of their home are awash with letters from the academic dean offices warning the students to return to campuses and resume classes or face expulsion.

One student who is uncertain on whether the University she has been studying at would accept her back is Tesfanesh Gurmessa. Originally from a rural area around Goha Tsion, a small town in North Shoa zone of the Oromiya Regional State, she was a fourth year student at Fiche University. But what happened on 6th of January this year forced her to drop out of her studies and rush to Addis Abeba. She learned that her younger brother, 18 year old 10th grader, was admitted to Black Lion Hospital here in the capital. He was shot on right side of the hip; the bullet is still in his body and is “causing him immeasurable pain”. His arm is also broken after he was severely beaten by a local militia. Their parents, too old, beaten by poverty and unacquainted with a big city like Addis Abeba, couldn’t travel to be on their son’s side, leaving Tesfanesh to be the sole care giver.

By the time she was interviewed for this article, she had missed school for two weeks and was not sure if the University would accept her back. “I didn’t fill the withdrawal form. University officials insisted that I must be attending classes as if nothing happened, but I had to come to take care of my brother,” she told this magazine standing on the hallway of the hospital room wherein her brother was sleeping.

The uncertainty she feels about her future is further aggravated by the thought of her brother’s fate. “They are going to refer him to a chiropractic facility for a specialized treatment,” she said, “but there is no way we could afford that. So I am just taking him back home.” But the idea of returning her crippled brother home brings in another painful reality she has to come face to face with – she will have to come to terms with the fact that the militia who shot her brother is a well known local militia, including to her family.

“We all know that he [the militia] shot at a group of teenagers, including my brother, randomly,” she said. The militia was arrested by the local police and Tesfanesh and other families of victims were told by the police that if they could corroborate their claims with evidences of the shooting from hospitals, the militia could be charged. “I obtained the papers from this hospital that clearly shows my brother suffered from both a gunshot and broken arm. But when I took it to the police station, it was dismissed on the grounds that the papers don’t show who the shooter was. They rejected all our papers,” she said, her eyes opening wide in bewilderment.

Tesfanesh is not alone. Gabissa Hunde, a farmer in his mid-fifties from Degebaye Salesh rural district in Northern Shoa zone is facing the same dilemma of returning to a village “where the shooter of my son is walking the streets free”. A widower, Gabissa is raising six children all by himself. On January 07, his second oldest son, 18 year old 9th grader, was sitting with his friends in their village chatting “because all the schools in the surrounding area were closed”. According to Gabissa, the youngsters were approached by a local police officer who told them to disperse. The youngsters refused “and the militia, quite overzealously, started firing at them”. His son was shot in the leg by a “man who lived as a police officer in the village for the past two years and is known by everyone.”

Gabissa said he had to pull his eldest son out of college to take care of his four children at home. “My wife died two years ago, so there is no one who can take care of my wounded son here at the hospital. I have no clothes to change, no money to buy prescription medicine and I have to rely on the hospital’s food for both of us.”

Both Gabissa and Tesfanesh have not been receiving help from concerned relatives either. The hospital’s management flatly denies the presence of any patient with a gunshot wound. “It is like my brother who is fighting for his life here doesn’t exist anymore,” Tesfanesh said with tears streaming from her eyes.

Gabissa doesn’t know if his first born would be able to continue his education, or if the University would allow him to return. He is also not sure if his second son, lying on the hospital bed far from home, would be able to walk again. “My whole life is turned upside down. I have never imagined that one ordinary day could change my life forever.”


Adaba’s yawning rift

A small town 340 km southeast of Addis Abeba, in West Arsi Zone of the Oromiya Regional State, Adaba is one of the many places where protesting people clashed with government security forces. But clashes between security forces and protesters came to a disturbing climax in the last week of November last year following the death of two demonstrators who were shot and killed by the police, according to a local elder, Tolosa Gare. “One of them died right away, while the other was taken to Shashemene Hospital; he died later,” said the 78 year old talking to this magazine.

A semi-agrarian community, more than 80% of the residents in Adaba are believed to be Muslims. “The two boys who were killed that day were Muslims,” said Tolosa.

But nothing could prepare the residents of the town for what was to come. Things took an abrupt turn after the funeral of the two youngsters. Houses and business ventures owned by Christians were set alight. Small Churches were not spared either.

Melaku Gashaw, owner of a small restaurant in the heart of the town, said he and his family were targeted by “some Muslims.” In the week that followed Melaku was forced to close his restaurant as early as 3pm in the afternoon. “We knew there were upheavals throughout the town, so we figured it was better to close it and stay inside for safety,” he said.

While he was safeguarding his restaurant, a phone call from his wife broke the bad news; it was the kind of news he never expected to hear. “Some people have set our house on fire. So I went there as quickly as I could. When I get there I couldn’t believe my eyes. My house was on fire.”

Like many residents who were interviewed by Addis Standard, Melaku didn’t see the perpetrators.

It is a mystery that left Muslims and Christians of the town feeling perplexed; it also left Sheikh Mohamed, a prominent Muslim elder who lived in Adaba for 42 years, scrambling to undo the fear. According to Sheikh Mohamed the Christians have shown a great deal of restraint “partly because they didn’t believe the town’s Muslims would do them bad”. “Everyone suspected there was something strange about the unseen perpetrators.”

What is distressing Sheikh Mohamed nowadays is dealing with the aftershock; in the past, when conflicts or misunderstandings happen between individuals or groups belonging to the two religions in the town, elders like him come together to arbiter in the traditional way acceptable by everyone. But that requires a gathering of the town’s people, something the police officers vigilantly patrolling the town are strictly monitoring. “Since the authorities prohibited any kind of gathering between or within the two religions, what happened is left very much unattended.”

As a result, Sheikh Mohamed said, the social fabric that ties the Muslim-Christian nexus in Adaba is “loosening fast”. “I can’t tell you the rift that this protest has left in its wake,” he said. “I have never seen tension and fear reigning over the people of Adaba. Now all I want is for my community to return to normal; to come back to its mechanisms to heal.”

But a return to normal is what Kumsa Tefera’s mother will not enjoy that soon; it is what Demekech Biratu will not be until she finds the whereabouts of her son; it is going to take justice delivered to Tesfanesh and Gabissa; and it is going to take the residents of Adaba the courage and the enabling environment to sit together and talk.

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Ed’s Note: All the names in this story are changed for the security of our interviewees.

As of last week, fresh protests have erupted in many cities and towns in the Oromiya regional state. This story was published in the hard copy of the magazine before the ongoing protests.

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