A Struggle for the Right to Life
A Fight for a Life worthy of Human Beings
Despite stubborn and sustained resistance, the [Abyssinian] invasion [of the Oromo] was successful, because up to this point, the Oromo were not a united, unified nation. The fact of colonization continues, to this day, to be played down or denied—and this despite the fact that all the forms of loss of autonomy associated with colonization were present, in just the same way as if colonization by a European power had occurred (Christian Scherrer, in Scherrer & Bulcha, 2002: 27) Forty years after the publication of the political program of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), it may sound needless to raise the issues which the main title of this article suggests. One may also ask, “Don’t we know what the Oromo people are struggling against? Haven’t we been told what the OLF wants to achieve?” Indeed, much has been said about the objectives of the Oromo struggle. However, there are still reasons which compel me to revisit some of the issues which concern freedom, the core objective of the Oromo national struggle. Taking “the right to life and a life worthy of human beings” as overarching concepts, I will discuss briefly some of the fundamental human rights which the Oromo people have been denied under consecutive Ethiopian regimes.
While the right to life is a natural right that belongs to all humans by birth, it is important to note from the beginning that the defining parameters of life worthy of human beings are set by international conventions such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and include, among others, the right to be treated with respect and dignity, the right to freedom of thought and expression, freedom of affiliation and association, the right to food and clean water, and the right to property. In other words, for a people to lead a life worthy of human beings, their political and civil liberties, as well as economic and social rights, must be respected. Regrettably, this is not always the case, particularly about the rights of indigenous peoples who are colonized or are annexed by other states and became stateless. Wherever the right to be treated with respect and dignity is denied, a life worthy of human beings is curtailed.
Literature on the Oromo, which is either sympathetic towards or critical of their cause, say in general that the Oromo feel humiliated, unjustly treated, and immeasurably exploited. Oromo nationalists say that they had raised arms to liberate their people from Ethiopian colonialism after having exhausted all peaceful means, and could see no other way of redressing their grievances (see OLF, Political Program, 1976). Today, the Oromo claim for an independent state is being questioned by two different groups for different reasons. The first group constitutes the so-called Ethiopianist politicians and scholars who will play down the colonial nature of the Ethiopian state and trivialize Oromo grievances as “obsession with victimhood” in order to preserve the “territorial integrity” of the Ethiopian state. The second group is made up of leaders and members of Oromo political organizations who will persuade the Oromo to abandon the struggle for independence and seek a resolution for their political grievances within the framework of a “democratic” Ethiopian state. This article also provides a brief critique on these views.
A Struggle for the Right to Life
The right to life is a fundamental human right upheld by international conventions, and recognized in the constitutions of states. It was among the “inalienable rights” which were mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights also declares that “Every human being has the inherent right to life,” and that “The right shall be protected by law.” It says that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his [her] life.” Expanding the concept to peoples, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1987 (Article 20, 1&2) declared: “All peoples shall have the right to existence. They shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right of self-determination” (emphasis mine).The Charter also declares that “Colonized or oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination by resorting to any means recognized by the international community”
That the Oromo are a colonized people is well known. Much has been said about that by many scholars and by the Oromo themselves. That the Oromo are oppressed is also indisputable. Decolonization is understood as a solution of Oromo oppression. However, it seems that the decolonization as a concept and in practice is understood among some Oromo political activists as democratization. But, the primary goal of decolonization is the attainment of sovereignty. For a colonized people sovereignty means the right to define itself asserting power over a bounded territory (abbaa biyyummaa in Oromo terminology) or a homeland that had been colonized or annexed by another state. Therefore, in practice or in theory, the decolonization of an empire is not the same thing as the “democratization” of its polity. In my view, the struggle for an independent sovereign Oromo state is entirely different from making negotiations for citizenship in an empire which is yet to be democratized. The outcomes will be significantly different concerning the promotion of justice as well as in terms of economic and socio-cultural development. I will return to these issues later. Now I will proceed to the question of Oromo right to life, the violations of that right by the Ethiopian ruling elites, and the relevance of a sovereign Oromo state for its protection.
As a concept, the right to life is a moral issue pertaining to the belief that a human being has inherent rights not to be killed by another human being or put to death arbitrarily by a state. The right of all human beings to life is acknowledged in most philosophical treatises. There are many ways in which a people’s right to life can be violated by states: they can be killed arbitrarily as individuals or massacred collectively as a community or a nation. They can be denied the right to food and water and made to die of want. Some scholars call this genocide by attrition.
As a consequence of Abyssinian colonization, and occupation of their country, the Oromo have been exposed to conditions similar to those mentioned above at one time or another during the last 130 years. As I have discussed at length in an article titled “Genocidal Violence in the Making of Nation and State in Ethiopia” (see African Sociological Review, Vol. 9(2), 2005), the situation of human rights in Ethiopia has been a depressing story, and the impunity with which human life has been destroyed by consecutive Ethiopian regimes is outrageous. It must be noted here that, for the various reasons I will raise in this article, the Oromo have, more than any other population group, been suffering from the atrocities of the Ethiopian regimes.
Alluding to the hostile treatment of the Oromo people by generations of Abyssinian rulers and pointing out their denial of the right to life to the them, Jaarso Waaqo, whose allegorical oral poetry I have mentioned in PART 1 of this article series, said,
‘Come’ they called us. If we refused, we would be killed, if we came, we would be flogged. Was there really any hope of life for us?
In these lines, Jaarso (see “The Poetics of Nationalism” in Baxter et.al, Being and Becoming Oromo, 1996) alludes to the ease with which Ethiopian regimes have been denying the Oromo the right to life. He wonders if the life he and his countrymen have as Ethiopian subjects is worthy of human beings. Because he says
The mass killings of Oromo, was like the killing of flies and ticks
He was raised as a Boran Oromo who are one of Africa’s greatest cattle herders and the metaphors he uses reflect that social background. The rage he feels is apparent in his use of metaphors which parallels the killings of the Oromo with the killing of flies and ticks. For pastoralists, flies and ticks are nuisances and deserve destruction without thought or concern. For Jaarso, that is what the Abyssinian ruling elites, including the present ones, have been doing against the Oromo: killing them with utmost impunity.
Jaarso’s observations remind me of Elias Canetti’s insightful accounts of impunity with which absolute power can be exercised. According to Canetti (see his Flight Crowds, 1973), the way a predator attacks and treats its victim reflects how dangerous the prey is and its capacity to retaliate and protect itself from the attack of a predator. He stated that if the predator has had a hard fight to overcome the prey, or was seriously threatened by it, or injured and enraged by it, he will want to make it pay for this and will press harder than is necessary. But, once the predator (Canetti means we humans also do that) is in total control of the situation, contempt of the prey will be stronger than the fear of it. The predator, says Canetti, sees the powerless victim as an “annoying” creature deserving no “respect”.
That mixed feeling of contempt and fear described above is seen often in the Abyssinian ruling elites’ treatment of the Oromo since conquest. It is what Jaarso is hinting at in the lines I have quoted above. He indicates the manner in which the naftanya ruling elites started to treat the Oromo once they got the upper hand in the battlefields, with the help of European firearms. Since then the Oromo are either farii (‘cowardly’) or aramané (“merciless”) Galla, but not human subjects worthy of equal respect. When they show compliance, they are farii Galla and are to be despised, disrespected and exploited outrageously. When they resist, they are aramané Galla and are denied the right to life; they are destroyed without mercy.
Regrettably, the present ruling elites are not free from the longstanding Abyssinian elites’ contempt for and fear of the Oromo. They started to show that mixed attitude as soon as they penetrated into the Oromo territory and attained the upper hand militarily. Following the OLF withdrawal from the Transitional Government in June 1992 they became increasingly audacious. This was reflected in the remarks which the late Prime Minister used to make about the OLF. Mr. Meles Zenawi loved to talk contemptuously about the OLF as a non-existent organization, but used also to depict it as a terrorist outfit which ironically comes out of “non-existence” in different shapes now and then, and becomes responsible for lack of peace in the country. By and large, any opposition or lack of compliance shown by members of the Oromo majority is met with accusations of involvement with the OLF. Members of legally registered Oromo opposition parties were painted by him with the same color. Consider, for example, what he said to Vicki Huddleston, the American Charge de Affairs in Addis Ababa, in November 2005 about the Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo National Congress (ONC). He told her that the OFDM “like Sinn Fein, is the political front of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF),” and the Oromo National Congress (ONC) was also “closely associated with the illegal OLF” (Huddleston to A/S Frazer and Das Yamamoto. Subject: Ethiopia: Meles on Internal Situation, E.O.12958: DECL: 01/11/2005).
What is unsaid but understood in Meles Zenawi’s communication with Miss Huddleston is that if OFDM is like Sinn Fein, the OLF is the like IRA—the Irish Republic Army. It is interesting to note here that, in the TPLF’s political lexicon, “terrorism” replaced “narrow nationalism” as a demonizing label for Oromo national struggle for justice and it became easier and acceptable after 9/11, to repress or destroy the Oromo as “terrorists” than “narrow nationalists.” However, the parties of Bulcha Demeksa and Merera Gudina are in coalition with conservative Ethiopian political parties which, like the TPLF, also see the OLF as enemy. The suggestion that OFDM was an Oromo Sinn Fein and the ONC is closely associated with the OLF is born out of distrust and anxiety. It has nothing to do with objective reality.
Nevertheless, the contempt with which Oromo have been treated by the TPLF regime during the last two decades and the impunity of its security forces in violating the human dignity of those they detain and imprison, confirm Canetti’s depiction of the “successful” predator’s hateful and contempt-filled treatment of its victim. Alluding to the predator instinct in us humans, Canetti says that, having dehumanized those we overpower, we feel no moral remorse in destroying them. They mean nothing to us. Here destruction stands for both the physical and psychological wellbeing of the overpowered. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say this is also how the Oromo have been treated by the Abyssinian ruling elites, including the present ones.
The lines I have cited from Jaarso’s poem here, pertain not only to the impunity with which the rulers of the Ethiopian state have been killing the Oromo, but suggest also that it is naïve to expect justice from them. Jaarso says,
Even if they killed us, was there anyone who could stop them? If I were to accuse them, there they were in the office too. …
In other words, the killer and the judge are one and the same. In fact, there are many cases where prisoners who were freed by the law courts have been overruled by the police. As I will describe later, this was the case of Qamaria Haajii Shabbu who died in prison together with her baby in Robee town, in Bale, in March 1996.
Writing about the human rights’ situation in apartheid South Africa, Steve Biko had stated that the black people “should not at any one stage be surprised at some atrocities committed by the government” (see his I Write What I like, (1976). For Biko this follows logically after the initial audacity of the white settlers, who in spite of their number became not only supreme masters by terrorizing the indigenous populations with brutal force, but also could install themselves as the perpetual rulers of the latter. Consequently, he said “anything else they do to the same black people becomes logical in terms of initial cruelty.” He concludes, “To expect justice from them at any stage is to be naïve.” By that he meant, one cannot beg for human rights or justice: one must struggle for it. Although Jaarso and Biko talked about situations which existed in two different countries and about oppressors from different racial and cultural backgrounds, their views are similar on this and on many other points.
We must remember that, in our case, the initial cruelty of conquest and colonization of our country by the Abyssinians started with the genocidal killings of half of the Oromo population between the 1870s and 1900. The genocidal killings are on record. We are informed about the murderous campaigns of Emperor Yohannes IV (reigned 1872-1889) against the northern Oromo in the 1870s which had resulted in a bloodbath and the displacement of tens of thousands of men, women and children (see Asme’s (1901) book The History of the Oromo and the Kingdom of Shawa, translated and ed. by Bahru Tafla, 1987). We know that his vassal, Menelik, who as the King of Shawa (1868-1889), and later his successor on the imperial throne of Abyssinia-cum-Ethiopia (1889-1913) had conquered the Oromo country, extending the bloodbath further south. We know that Menelik and his generals such as Ras Darge, Dajazmach Wolde Gabriel and Ras Wolde Giyorgis had perpetrated genocide against those who resisted conquest and that his forces had committed the atrocious crime of mutilating thousands of Oromo men and women in order to coerce the rest to submit to his rule.
However, the consolidation of colonial occupation by Menelik and his successors had neither put an end to Oromo resistance nor dispelled the Abyssinian fear of the Oromo, created by centuries of Oromo dominance in the battles fought between the two peoples between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Consequently, any sign of Oromo resistance will bring back Abyssinian fear and provoke the killing of the Oromo. In fact the obnoxious tradition called Galla geday (Oromo-killer) had its origins in an environment filled with fear and hate. Margery Perham (see her The Government of Ethiopia, 1969) wrote that, for the Abyssinians, the Oromo were “heathens and enemies fit only for massacre or enslavement.” What she articulates here is both the Abyssinian elites’ opinion about, and actions against, the Oromo. To say the Oromo are “enemies fit for massacre” is to say “they don’t deserve the right to life”, and those who are “fit for enslavement” means those who do not deserve the rights and respect that belong to human beings. By and large, that is how the Abyssinian ruling elites have been treating the Oromo since conquest. Although his regime did not take Oromo lives on the same scale and with the same impunity as his predecessors or successors, one cannot say that the policy of Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-1974) towards the Oromo was benevolent. He chose cultural annihilation over physical mass destruction as a solution to “Oromo threat”.
In an article which deals with colonialism and which was published as a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (2010), Dominik Schaller states correctly that “colonial mass- violence should not be reduced to physical killing alone,” because “the intended annihilation of a group’s culture and identity” by colonialists “constitute an act of genocide” or ethnocide, as anthropologists call “the practices of cultural destruction.” Ethnocide is genocide committed without bloodshed. It is an erasure of cultural identity. The policy which the Haile Selassie regime had adopted to deal with the Oromo “problem” was ethnocide. It suppressed the Oromo culture, banned the use of the Oromo language for teaching, preaching and administration, and imposed Abyssinian culture and the Amharic language on them.
Historically, when the survival of a people is threatened, the normal reaction is self-defense. Raising arms in self-defense or waging political and cultural struggles has been the most frequent response when a people have been attacked or have been occupied and suppressed by others. This has also been the case with the Oromo. In the 1960s, the pan-Oromo Maccaa Tuulama Association (MTA) was formed just to resist, culturally and politically, the imperial regime’s policy of ethnocide. However, the MTA was suppressed and many of its leaders were imprisoned and killed. Consequently, the only choice the Oromo had was raising arms to reclaim their rights.
Although the military regime, officially known as the Dergue in Amharic, which came to power in 1974 with the fall of Haile Selassie had promised to end the policy of ethnocide in its declaration of the so-called Program of the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR) in 1976, the suppression of Oromo culture and language did not cease. In fact, the Dergue accelerated, albeit covertly, the spread of the Amharic language among the non-Amhara peoples of Ethiopia through its literacy campaigns and other “development” programs such as the resettlement of Amharic-speaking groups in the south and southwest en masse.
Although the demise of the old system had, without doubt, weakened the hold of the Ethiopian regime on the Oromo, it did not lead to respect for life. The killing of Oromos and others continued, and the agents of the Dergue conducted, among others, the so-called netsa ermijja–or instantaneous execution of suspects without any pretense at judicial procedures during the “Red Terror” of the mid-1970s. Oromo leaders such as General Taddese Birru, Qanyazmach Mekonnen Wasenu, Rev. Gudina Tumsaa and many other Oromo men and women became targets of the regime’s terror. Even Oromos who collaborated with and served the regime, such as Haile Fida, the Marxist scholar and the ideological mentor of its leaders, and General Demissie Bulto, a decorated commander of the Ethiopia armed forces, met death disrespectfully at the hands of the regime. Many Oromo men and women were imprisoned.
It is true that the Dergue was hostile to all opposition groups from all ethnic groups including the Amhara. It did not differentiate “the right” from “the left” in terms of political ideology. It attacked the EDU (Ethiopian Democratic Union) and the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) with equal ferocity. But, what made its hostility against the Oromo unique was the undeclared common front it had formed with the Ethiopianist organizations from the right and left against Oromo identity, labeling it unanimously as “narrow nationalism.” The Oromo were attacked from both the left and the right as the regime and the opposition targeted them from different directions, seeing them and the national identity they claim as anti-Ethiopian. That the Oromo were recognized officially as a nation in the PNDR mentioned above did not matter. The Dergue did not allow the collective expression of that identity by its bearers. Those who had expressed it openly were cruelly punished.
What made the cruelty of the military regime different from that of its predecessor was the imprisonment of women for political reasons. Under the regime, Oromo women became among the first group of female political prisoners in Ethiopian history to be kept in jail for a long time. The fact that they were mothers of small children whose fathers were either killed, were in jail, or were involved in the struggle away from home did not matter to the regime. Among those who were imprisoned for a decade were Addis Alem Ganatii, Demekech Bekele, Kuwee (Martha) Kumsaa, Na’amat Isaa, Tsahai Tolasaa. Na’amt, who was imprisoned together with her husband Mulugeta Mosisa for ten years, was pregnant with their first child when the regime detained her. She gave birth to a son in prison and he spent the first nine and half years of his life behind bars. The environment had negative consequences on his health. Thus, the families of Oromo nationalists were punished collectively by the Dergue. The tradition of imprisoning mothers with small children is continuing under the present regime. Oromo women were imprisoned in the concentration camps which, as I will describe below, were set up in different parts of the Oromo country in 1992. In many cases, small children are deprived parental care as both parents are put in jail for years. This is, for example, the case of the children of Lalise Wadaajo, journalist and wife of exiled TV journalist Dhabessa Waakjira, himself a former detainee. Their two young children are deprived of parental care as Lalise was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in March 2010 and their father is in exile.
As Paul Baxter, Jan Hultin and Alessandro Triulzi have stated in their introductory editorial chapter to the book Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries (1996), any Oromo movement is seen as “doubly subversive because it stood for a different sort of moral order” and that was why the Dergue “used its cruellest and crudest forms of violence against signs of distinctive Oromo identity.” Thus, the Abyssinian ruling elites’ fear and contempt of the Oromo outlasted the revolution. Narrow nationalism replaced armané Gallaa as hate words against the Oromo.
I want to make myself clear on what I mean by “hate words” in this connection. The Amhara do not hate the Oromo as human beings. They are disturbed by the social identity called Oromo. It threatens them. It is an identity they are reluctant to accept and accommodate. They do not want to allow it to flourish. Therefore, they will discourage its manifestation as much as possible. In the past, when they were in power the Amhara elites suppressed the expression of Oromo identity. Amhara school teachers forced Oromo children to change their names from Oromo names to Amharic ones. Those who ruled the empire imprisoned or killed those who persisted in the assertion of Oromo identity. Thus, the Haile Selassie regime killed leaders and members of the Maccaa Tuulama Association such as Haile Mariam Gamada, Mammo Mazamir and Dawit Abdi. The Dergue had imprisoned and killed many OLF members and leaders for the same reasons. As the reader might have noticed, even today, when an Oromo introduces himself or herself saying “My name is so and so and I am an Oromo”, the immediate reaction of the Amhara is generally “hullachinim Etiyopiawian nen” or “all of us are Ethiopians.” This, often, is a sign of the misrecognition of Oromo identity, because when a Gurage or a Tigrayan says I am a Gurage or Tigrayan there will be no reaction of that sort. There is no problem with being a Gurage or a Tigrayan. It is different with being Oromo.
The problem is that the lack of respect for or recognition of Oromo self-definition does not stop at the level of individuals. It is even more pronounced at the national level, and makes the co-existence of the growing self-assertion of collective Oromo identity or nationalism and the dominant Abyssinian (Amhara and Tigrayan)-cum-Ethiopian nationalism within the framework of one state problematic. The Oromo, more than the other dominated peoples, are regarded as a threat to the dominant and privileged position of the culture and language of the ruling elites. For this and other reasons they have been targeted by the homogenizing policies of the Ethiopian regimes more than any other nationality in the country in the past. Indeed, the expression of collective Oromo identity is seen even by the present regime and the Amhara political elites as subversive to the Ethiopia nation state and identity than that of, for example, the Afar or the Sidama ethno-national identity. However, the manner, in which some of the leaders of some of the pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations have lately been presenting their “vision” of a democratic Ethiopian state, suggests an easy transition from the present situation.
I will come back with comments on the “vision” of pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations particularly on that of the newly formed Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) later in this article. It suffices to point out here that the sense of reciprocal recognition among equals on which the basis for fraternal solidarity among citizens can be laid has been difficult to establish between the bearers of Oromo and Abyssinian the two national identities. The gulf between the colonizers and the colonized which had resulted from the conquest and annexation of the Oromo territory by the Abyssinian state at the turn of the nineteenth has not been bridged. By and large, the century old conflict is persisting. It has even become intense since the beginning of the 1990s as reflected in the policies and practices of the present regime and the Oromo response to them.
Violations of the Oromo Right to Life since 1991
The present Ethiopian regime has been lauded during the last two decades by foreign observers for achievements in terms of socio-political and economic development. Its former prime minister, the late Mr. Meles Zenawi, was praised particularly by politicians from the West as a progressive leader who had promoted peace in the Horn of Africa. These views are not shared by the oppressed peoples in Ethiopia, including the Oromo. By and large, the views are contradicted by scholarly reports and facts on the ground. Reports from regional and international human rights organizations such as the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa, genocide Watch, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also negate the rosy picture of Ethiopia’s socio-political development drawn by pro-regime sources. The following are some of the facts which are overlooked by those who present the yearnings of the leaders of the TPLF regime as an African success story.
To start with, for many years Ethiopia has been among the ten top countries which Genocide Watch has considered as “genocide risk” states. Countries which belong to the top ten on the list are those that have already reached Stage 7 of the 8 Stages. According to the director of Genocide Watch, Professor Gregory Stanton, Stage 7 means that mass massacres are already taking place. The Genocide Watch report (Genocide Warning – Ethiopia, January, 2012) points out the victims of genocidal massacres in Ethiopia are today the Anuak, Ogadeni, Oromo, and the peoples of the Omo River Valley and the killers are the Ethiopian military forces.
Speaking to an Inter Press Service (IPS) correspondent in 1995 about the atrocities committed by the present regime against the Oromo, Susan Pollock, a British nurse and human rights activist who had conducted an extensive survey in Ethiopia in 1996 said, “In a Sense their [Oromo] suffering is nothing new but this time they are suffering in a way they have never suffered before” (see IPS, Ethiopia-Refugees: Unwanted Abroad, Under Threat At Home”, 10 April 1996). Indeed, as I will show in this article, the violence of the present Tigrayan regime against the Oromo has been more atrocious than the Dergue. By and large, concentration camps, mass massacres, rape, and forced migration have been the experience of large sections of the Oromo population during the last two decades.
As I will discuss later, the agents of the TPLF regime have also been harassing and assassinating Oromo refugees in Kenya and Somalia making the Horn of Africa a vast killing field of the Oromo. In his book The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and other Group Violence, Ervin Staub has argued that the genocidal situation seldom comes out of nothing or from nowhere: it is an outcome of a continuum of escalating destruction of human lives consisting of and constituted by gross violations of human rights, the deterioration of economic conditions for the majority of the population, and mass repressions which culminate in wholesale killings of populations.
As “experts” of repressive measures, the leaders of the TPLF regime have, since they came to power, adopted an amalgam of policies and practices to repress the Oromo and other peoples in Ethiopia in the following manner.
First, they started to suppress the Oromo on an extensive scale in 1992 when they built numerous official and unofficial detention centers as well as Nazi style concentration camps where tens of thousands of have been herded, tortured, killed or made to “disappear” without trial. This has been in use, by and large, during the last two decades.
Secondly, adopting the old repressive methods of the military dictators of Latin American countries such as General Pinochet of Chile and General Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, the regime has been murdering its political opponents.
Thirdly, to control the Oromo the regime has combined the kebele system of the Dergue with its own system known gott and garee. In its well-researched document, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) writes that gott and garee system—a subsystem of the kebele, which is being used only in Oromia are “reportedly modeled on rural administrative structures that were put in place in rural Tigray by the TPLF during the war against the Dergue.” (HRW Report, Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, Vol. 17 (7A), 2005). However, as it is used now in Oromia, its surveillance technics are modeled more on the Stasi, the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) communist regime, than on any other known system. In his book The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police, John Koehler (1999) wrote that at its peak, the Stasi employed 850,000 full time officers for domestic political surveillance and monitored one-third of the East German population. We do not know how many agents are employed by the TPLF regime to monitor the Oromo population of over 30 million, but the gott and garre system, which is said to deploy an agent for every five Oromo household and controls every Oromo, must have more agents than the Stasi ever had.
Fourthly, the regime’s “villagization” policy, which is being used at present to control indigenous peoples in Gambella, Benishangul and in the Lower Omo Valley, whose farmlands and pastures are sold or leased to local and international commercial farmers and land grabbers combines elements of the so-called villagization system of the Dergue and the ideology that underpinned the establishment of Indian reservations in the US in the past
Starting with “concentration camps,” in the following pages I will discuss the consequences of the policies and cruel practices of present Ethiopian regime in terms of the violations of the Oromo people’s rights to life and the degrading effects they have had on Oromo humanity.
The TPLF-dominated regime added concentration camps to the repressive measures used traditionally by the Ethiopian regimes against the Oromo. It has established numerous prison camps all over Oromia and tens of thousands of Oromos have been detained in these since 1992. Notwithstanding a century of colonial rule, the magnitude of the mass imprisonment perpetrated against the Oromo by the TPLF regime was not experienced by them or the other oppressed peoples in the past. Although the large concentration camps such as Dhidheessa (often spelt Didessa) and Hurso are closed, there are dozens of smaller official and unofficial prison camps where numerous Oromo political prisoners are kept in conditions that are described as horrible by former inmates and external observers.
In a report which was based on an extensive research Amnesty International (Ethiopia – Acountability past and present: Human rights in transition, April 1995) concluded that there “were two systems for holding government opponents: the official police and prison system and a closed system run by the security service or the military.” Although violations of human rights occur in both, prisoners are at a greater risk in the closed system. The numerous secret prisons and detention-centers in the country are administered under the closed system, while the open and closed systems operated and continue to operate in the bigger concentration camps such as the Dhidheessa.
Although the concentration camps of the 1990s were said to have been established for the imprisonment of OLF fighters, the reports indicated that the majority of the detainees were women and children. That was the case of the Dhidheessa concentration camp in Wallaga, which contained 12 to 15 thousand detainees, and was the largest prison camps in the country during the 1990s. The demographic composition of the prisoners contradicted the TPLF-led regime’s propaganda that the detainees were OLF combatants. An interview with a former prisoner (see Ta’era & Schmitt “An EPRDF Prison from inside”, Oromo Commentary 4(1), 1994) indicated that less than 25 per cent of the prisoners in the Dhidheessa Concentration Camp were OLF fighters and that a large proportion of the civilians were “youngsters between ten and fifteen years old: some are even younger than ten. They were put in the Dhidheessa prison after the clash between EPRDF and OLF suspected as members of the OLF.” Among the prisoners were mothers of small children. According to the informant, one of these mothers was Zawditu from Wallo in the north who was imprisoned with her baby. Zawditu had nothing to do with the OLF activities. According to the informant her child cried most of the time because of hunger, and that Zawditu had no food or milk to give her child “except her tears.” Presumably the child did not survive the horrible conditions in the concentration camp. Even thousands of healthy men and women who were taken to the camp did not survive.
It seems that the demography of other concentration camps was similar to that at Dhidheessa. For example, it was pointed out by Rainer Eppelmann of the Human Rights’ Committee in the German Parliament, that there were many women and children in the Hurso Camp which he and Dr. Winkelmann, the German Ambassador in Ethiopia, had visited in December 1992 (see his interview with the Ethiopian Herald, 25 December 1992). He said that there was a severe lack of medical care in the camp and that the “wounded did not receive surgical treatment or bullets removed from their bodies.” He also pointed out that the prisoners even lacked cups for drinking water.
As noted above, the concentration camps were created as Oromo detention centers like the Nazi concentration camps were for the Jews. However, occasionally there were even non-Oromos in such camps because they spoke the Oromo language. This was witnessed by Magarsaa Dame who was imprisoned in Dhidheessa for some months in 1994 and 1995 accused of training the OLF militia. He told the Amharic weekly Urjii in March 1995 that the TPLF arrests anyone from the street and accuses him or her of being an OLF member and exterminates him or her. Giving an example he said, “For instance, one of his prison mates in Dhidheessa Dr. Aizo Angelo “spoke Oromo language, but was from Walayita and belonged to the Walayita ethnic group.” Magarasaa told Urjii that Dr. Aizo and two other prisoners were taken out of the camp and killed by a TPLF killing squad in a bush 50 km east of Naqamtee on March 18 1995. He was also taken along to be killed with them, but, as I will explain later, was able to escape death and tell the story of what he had witnessed.
Thus, the Dhidheessa concentration camp, among others, served as a place where political detainees were tortured, screened, taken away and killed. The informant said “Only a person who experienced personally what is going on in these so-called re-education camps and survived it can tell what it means.” Megressaa told the Urjii journalist mentioned above that “In all the prisons I was [Fitche, Holeta, Zeway, Sanqallee, and Dhidheessa], I saw many people, mostly Oromos, who were tortured.” He mentioned that there are three or four prison quarters in every concentration camp. Some of them are secret quarters that are accessible only to TPLF prison guards, torturers and killing squads. Magarsaa was kept in a secret quarter, and says, “Even the OPDO members who make up part of the EPRDF militia were not allowed to see us.” These sections are concealed from foreign visitors including those from the Red Cross. As the secret quarters are in separate settings “No one would suspect that prisoners would be kept there. Whereas the other prisoners were allowed to go out twice a day, we were allowed only once.”
According to the other former Dhidheessa prisoner (see Schmitt & Taera, “An EPRDF Prison Camp from Inside”, Oromo Commentary IV (1), 1994), the secret quarter is called Korea Safer (“Korea Quarter”). Here “The prisoners are not allowed to go out for toilet; they do not get water to drink or are allowed to wash themselves and clothing.” They were locked up in a crowded narrow space “with almost no possibility to move.” Since the conditions were extremely unsanitary the prisoners were infested with lice and suffered from diarrheal diseases such as typhoid fever.
The Dhidheessa Concentration Camp was not the only place where evil and death had triumphed over the sense of morality and human life in Oromia during the last two decades. It was estimated that a total of about 3,000 people died from malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea diseases in the four major prison camps of Dhidheessa, Agarfa, Hurso, and Bilate between 1992 and 1994 (see Pollock, 1996). According to the UK based Oromo Support Group (OSG) source, about 1,500 prisoners were said to have died because of contagious diseases and food poisoning in 1994 and 1995 in Hurso alone (OSG, Report 48, 2012). These estimates do not include those who were taken out and killed or died under torture in the camps.
Reports on the smaller prison camps also indicate very high death rates. For example two former detainees at Hamaresa military camp, in eastern Hararge, reported that 74 (12.4 per cent) of about 300 “OLF fighters” who were detained there died “during an eleven month period in 1998-1999. Six died in one night alone” (OSG Report 48, 2012). Torture, starvation, contagious disease and lack of medical treatment took their toll.
The Oromo have been massacred even outside the concentration camps. The TPLF forces have killed them in large numbers on many occasions and in different places. One such massacre was committed in the Weter area, in Hararge in June 1992. At that time over a thousand demonstrators were killed when the TPLF armed forces opened fire on thousands Oromos on two consecutive occasions (Source: personal communication with Aslii Oromoo, 20 May 2013).
TPLF killing-fields: open “graveyards” of Oromo martyrs
Under the TPLF-led regime many places and sites in Oromia have become killing fields. Those who had been killed were Oromo from of both sexes and all age groups; their killers are the TPLF forces who have been occupying the Oromo territory since 1991. Interviews made by the Voice of America (VOA) Afaan Oromoo program on February 21 2007 with Oromos whose families have experienced the cruelty of the present ruling elites, witnessed the existence of smaller and unknown prison camps in Oromia. The VOA had broadcast the interviews as a documentary titled “Gaara Suufii–The Killing Hill/Field”, in Afaan Oromoo with an English translation. The respondents described how, in early 2007, the TPLF-led regime had murdered many Oromos in the bushes of Gaara Suufii. Two of the cases covered in the documentary were a 14-year old school girl Ayisha Ali and a 72-year old farmer Ahmed Mohammed Kuree. The heart-wrenching stories about their fates were told by Shamsi Musa, the mother of Ayisha Ali, and Kadija Usman, the widow of Mohammed Kuree.
I will start with the story of Kadija Usman, who said to the VOA correspondent, “My husband Ahmed Mohammed Kuree was a farmer. Farming is all he knew. The tax man took him away to “China [Prison] Camp” … He was told he was going to pay his taxes. . …. After they took him….we searched for him for three weeks to no avail. After three weeks and having heard a rumor we went to Gaara Suufii. After two days of searching we found his prayer beads, his cloth and a single piece of his bone which the hyenas left behind after devouring the rest of his body and we took those items home. What is more, after we got home, they [agents of the regime] condemned us for going to Gaara Suufii and for mourning.” Kadijja told the VOA that for fear of repercussions, she did not conduct the customary burial and that even the Islamic prayer for the dead was not recited for her husband.
It should be noted here that mourning for those who were killed by agents of the regime was banned under both the TPLF-led regime and the Dergue. The Dergue interpreted mourning for its victims not just as grief over the loss of beloved ones but as “anti-revolutionary” or an expression of resistance to the enforcement of what it called ‘revolutionary’ justice. The TPLF regime saw it as an exposure of its criminal deeds to the public. Both punished those who mourned.
To go back to Kadija’s story, when asked how she found out that her husband was taken to Gaara Suufi, she said: “A meeting was called which some of our people attended. Our people enquired about my husband at the meeting. At that point they said to his sister (my sister in law): Your brother has died. …. give up the search for your brother.” She went home in tears.” It was also then that Kadija knew about the killing fields of Gaara Suufii and went there to search for her late husband’s remains.
Killing fields but no graves: “You are to be devoured by wild beasts”
The mother of the fourteen years old Ayisha Ali, Mrs. Shamsi Musa, was a single mother when her daughter was snatched from her side at night and murdered by the agents of the Ethiopian regime. She described the events leading up to her daughter’s murder to VOA as follows: the security agent was armed. “He arrived at 3 a.m. He woke her up from where she was sleeping and ordered her to get on the motor-bike he came on. Ayisha had a wound on her behind which she told him about. He said “forget your wound. You are to be devoured by wild beasts” and ordered the teenager to follow him. She followed him with only her skirt on her back. That was how he took my daughter away from me. Because he is [from] the government, we assumed he was taking her to a prison. I had always assumed she was detained and searched for her in detention camps for two weeks.”
But, like the search other numerous Oromos who had been kidnaped by regime agents since 1992, the search for Ayisha did not result in finding her alive. As the regime’s agent who dragged her out of her bed into the dark night said to her, she was murdered soon after her arrest, and her body was thrown into the bush. There, she was devoured by hyenas. Ayisha’s mother, Shamsi Musa, told the VOA it was when she heard the rumor about Ahmed Mohammed Kuree that she went also to Gaara Suufii in search of her daughter’s remains. She said: “There we found her skirt, sweater, under wears and her hair, braided and red [dyed] as it was when she was taken away. That was all we found of my daughter’s remains.” And that was the fate of a fourteen-year old girl and her hapless mother.
Regrettably, there are thousands of Oromo mothers, out there in the vast Oromo country, who are battling in silence with agonizing feelings of grief similar to that experienced by Ayisha’s mother. Mrs. Shamsi Musa told the VOA: “Besides my daughter’s we found many human remains.” Without doubt those were the remains of some of the “disappeared” sons and daughters, or fathers and mothers, whose families have been waiting with the hope of seeing them alive.
The horrible stories told by Kadija Usman and Shamsi Musa, were corroborated by other residents of Mi’esso. Abdulhakim Mohammed, a former prisoner, told VOA that in the two months of December 2006 and January 2007, hundreds of Oromos from the towns of Culloo, Ciroo, Baddeessaa, Habroo and Mi’esso have been herded to a concentration camp known as “China Camp”. Abdulhakim said, “After detaining them there, they took over twenty of them to Gaara Suufii in the middle of the night and shot them there.” He gave the VOA the names of thirteen of the victims including the districts and villages they were taken from. Among the names he mentioned were Ahmed Mohammad Kuree, who is mentioned above, and Kedir Aliyyuu, who was a grade eight student, also from Mi’essoo.
An elderly man who was also a prisoner in the “China Camp” for two and a half months (he wanted to be anonymous for fear of retaliation by the regime) also described the horrible human rights abuses at the camp in the following words: “There is always torture in that place. People are beaten day and night.” He gave the names of torturers and interrogators at the prison. He said the interrogators took the prisoners away at night between midnight and 4 a.m. He adds that many of those who were taken away never came back. He mentioned that there were camp inmates who were persecuted not because of any crime they had committed, but under the pretext of their family members joining groups that oppose the regime. The torturers “ask about the OLF army that prisoners are alleged to have been feeding. Women and the elderly are subjected to the same treatment.”
Speaking about the origins of his prison mates, the anonymous informant said that, “People are brought there from as far away places as Adaama and Dheeraa” towns in central Oromia and that communication between prisoners is not allowed. He adds that the atrocious abuses of human rights in the camp are not known to human rights’ advocates. Neither the Red Cross nor their relatives were allowed to visit the prisoners.
One of the many ways that is used by the TPLF regime to conceal its crimes is to arrest its victims out of public sight, including their neighbors, late at night. The victims are taken to locations far away from home, imprisoned often in non-official jails, and are kept incommunicado with the outside world including their families. They are transferred frequently from one prison to another to prevent them from establishing durable contacts with other prisoners. Many detainees are killed and their bodies are dumped in the wilderness for the wild beasts to feed on. The killings occurs also late at night.
In Cambodia, Bosnia and elsewhere where evil had triumphed, the killing-fields were also sites of mass graves. In Oromia the TPLF killing squads do not bother to dig graves and bury their victims. As we have seen with the case of Ayisha Ali and other Oromos who were killed at Gaara Suufii in 2007, they leave the job of “burying” to the hyenas and Nature. Mass graves can be opened and investigated; the remains of corpses devoured by hyenas and vultures, if at all accessible, are not useful in making conclusive investigations. The soil “assimilates” readily or more quickly the skeletons of numerous murdered Oromos that are scattered in the bushes than those buried in graves. That is how the victims of the TPLF regime are made to “disappear.”
However, bodies left in the bushes late at night are not always consumed by wild beasts and disappear at once. There are cases where the hyenas have left half-eaten human bodies that were recognized by people. This was the case of Suleman Ahmed and Bayan Ibrahim who were accused of supporting the OLF, taken from their homes in Baddano, tortured, killed and left in the bushes in 1996. Their bodies were partly eaten by hyenas and were found by shepherds (see Sherrer & Bulcha, War against the Oromo and Mass Exodus from Ethiopia, 2002: 83). There are also cases where bodies were found by farmers before the hyenas came over them. This was the case with 27 persons whose bodies were found at three sites near Babbo Gambel in west Wallaga on April 28, 1995 by farmers who had heard the sound of guns on April 27 and went to the place. Only three of the 27 men, Henock Yonatan Isaac, Mesfin Dagafa and Tsegaye Nagaraa were identified. The first two were known to the people in the area. It was reported that they were taken from a military camp in Najjoo on April 6, 1995, three weeks before the shooting. The rest were brought from elsewhere and killed there. Needless to say they belong to “disappeared” category of TPLF regime’s victims. Sue Pollock (1996) writes that the “Farmers reported that the bodies to the local administration in Jaarso, who made no investigation into the killing.” Making investigations of that sort is beyond the power of the local administration, and we also know that such cases are seldom investigated at any level. If at all, those who are in charge of an investigation are the perpetrators of the outrageous crime themselves. Jaarso Waaqo, the Oromo oral poet mentioned above, was pointing out just this when he chanted:
Even if they killed us, was there anyone who could stop them? If I were to accuse them, there they were in the office too.
Indeed, the rule of law does not exist in the country. Regrettably, justice for those who are oppressed in Ethiopia is absent not only at the country level. Although the crimes of the Ethiopian regime against humanity are well known through the numerous reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations, the international political organizations such as the UN, the African Union and the European Union seem to listen only to what the Ethiopian regime says—the lies it tells about the victims of its crimes. However, there are Oromos who, with the hope of getting the attention of the international community, will keep on telling the truth about the crimes which the Ethiopian regime is committing against their people, because, for them, to be silent is to “commit sin”. This was the case, for example, of a former prisoner and survivor of the TPLF regime’s killing-squad who, taking a great risk, told a journalist the following story in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) in March 1995.
A story told by a survivor from the TPLF killing-field
Unlike the Dergue which announced the murderous actions over the mass-media triumphantly whenever it killed its opponents, the TPLF-led regime never boasted about its “victories” over “the enemies of its revolution”. It did not display the corpse of Oromo youngsters such as the 14-year old Ayisha Ali as the Dergue did with the victims of its terror. Far from informing the public about actions they take against their opponents, it seems that they do not even tell those they will kill the truth while taking them to shooting grounds. In their “professional” jargon, “you will be released means you will be killed.” This was the experience of Magarsaa Dame, mentioned above, who was told on March 10, 1995 that he will be released. The next day he and three of his prison mates, Shimalis Taye, Tamrat Adugna and Dr. Aizo Angelo, were loaded on a military vehicle which was supposed to take them to Naqamtee town. But they were taken to a place near the town of Sire about 50 km east of Naqamtee and were made to spend the night in a bush.
The next day the prisoners were driven to a secluded place in a forest between Sire and Anno towns, were ordered to step out of the car and then blindfolded. Magarsaa said “My three prison-mates were then killed on the spot, but because I could see what they were doing through the blindfold I jumped into a ravine behind my back.” He skulked through the bushes into the town of Anno. After entering Anno he told a few residents (he mentions one of them by name) to collect the bodies of his prison-mates.
Asked if he could tell him what he had suffered in prison, Magarsaa told the Urjii journalist that “In Sanqalle prison camp, they pounded my testicles with sticks. A TPLF militia named Asmelash Berhe did so saying that Oromo testicles produced Oromos and would eradicate the Oromo ‘race’.” The cruel method was used not only to cause severe pain, but also to terrorize him and turn him into a submissive creature. However, after he escaped from his executioners he took the great risk of travelling directly to Finfinnee to “tell the people what I have witnessed, because to be silent over what I have seen is for me like committing sin” (emphasis mine). Speaking about his health and his plans, he said to the journalist “I am now healing [from the torture wounds] and on the way home. But I am not sure if I can make it. They can kidnap me on the way. They have secret abductors. That I have to tell you.” However, instead of succumbing to fear he took the risk to speak out about the atrocities he had witnessed.
Thus the disappearances and murder of Oromos such as the 72 years old Mohammed Kuree and the fourteen-year old school girl, Ayisha Ali, mentioned above were not rare incidents but part of systematic acts of terror conducted by the present regime during the last two decades to control the Oromo. The number of men and women who were recorded, with names and often also pictures, as victims of extra-judicial killings and “disappearance” induced by the present Ethiopian regime by the OSG is over 5,000 (Trueman to Bulcha, 2012-12-03 by mail). The figure indicates only known cases and may have not covered all victims: the reported cases are a fraction of the extra-judicial killings and “disappearances”. In her video documentary Ethiopia: the Night of the Hyena which depicts the atrocities which are being committed against the Oromo by the TPLF-led regime, Sue Pollock says that lack of adequate information from most of the districts in the Oromia Regional State where most of the incidents take place makes it difficult to record violations. However, she gives a long list of the names of Oromo men and women who had “disappeared”.
The tricks of blaming victims’ families and confiscate their property
What makes the TPLF-led regime’s crime against the Oromo different from that of its predecessors is the manner with which the regime’s agents try to shroud it. The TPLF security arrest people late at night to avoid observation by the public. The arrested are put in concentration camps located far away from their hometowns or villages in order to prevent family visits. Many of the prisoners are moved constantly from one prison camp to another presumably in order to conceal their whereabouts from their families. Magarsaa Dame who is mentioned above had been in five prisons between 1992 and 1995 when he was taken out the Dhidheessa concentration camp to be executed; Aslii Oromoo passed through six jails during the seventeen years of her imprisonment (personal communication, 20 May 2013). Sue Pollock (1996) wrote that visitors to the Zeway prison “are warned not to ask about the whereabouts of friends and relatives. Those who have been persistent have been imprisoned themselves.”
As indicated above, prisoners are taken out late at night and murdered in places that are far away from the concentration camps. This seems to be the way the TPLF will conceal it crimes from the public. Jamal Yusuf from Dire Dawa who was in the Hurso concentration camp for one and half years and managed and flee to Djibouti in 1995, told researchers that “the camp authorities made sure the executions took place without witnesses.” He said “individual prisoners ‘disappeared’ after they had been fetched for interrogation” and that the other prisoners knew that “they had been killed” (see Bruna Fossatti, Lydia Namarra & Peter Niggli, The New Rulers of Ethiopia and the Persecution of the Oromo: Reports from the Oromo Refugees in Djibouti, 1996)
The wickedest conduct of the regime is, however, the preposterous “searches” for persons it had already kidnapped and imprisoned or killed. Often the regime denies any knowledge about whereabouts of those its agents kidnap, imprison, torture and kill. It harasses the families of its victims in order to silence them or erase the traces of the crime it commits. The following is a story of one of the families against whom such a crime was committed.
Hamdia Mohammed, from Hararge, was a grade 9 school student and was helping to run the family shop when she was detained in 2006. Her father, Mohammed Abdulahi, was a driver who co-owned a vehicle. He was arrested many times and detained mostly in Gaara Mullataa. He “disappeared” in 2004. Her elder brother, Afandi Mohammed, worked as a chauffeur. He was arrested and “disappeared” in October 2005. The family lost the driving business. Hamdia’s mother tried to trace Afandi, became disturbed and had a stroke. Hamdia and her 25 year old brother, Ramadan, ran the shop.
However, the security men kept coming to the shop, harassing her and asking the whereabouts of her father and brother Afandi. She kept telling them “You are the ones who took them.” At 8.00 p.m. one night in October 2006, two soldiers came through the back door of the shop. They accused her mother of “being the wife of OLF.” The men took Hamdia and Ramadan to Misrak Iz (Eastern Command) military camp in Harar. She was tortured; her head was forced into a barrel of water containing chemicals which burnt her eyes and face so that she was temporarily blinded. She was repeatedly asked “Where is your father? Where have you hidden his documents?” The interrogators tried to intimidate Hamida and get the non-existing documents saying “Your brother has told us everything.” She was also told that her brother, Ramadan, had died in prison. They had killed him.
Hamdia told Dr. Trevor Trueman “I was a girl when I was detained, but they raped me, two or three of them mostly, every night for the first week and then every week or two. Three women were kept in my small cell. All of them were raped. I heard others crying out but I don’t know the numbers.” The other women noticed Hamdia was pregnant because she was vomiting. She was given an injection and tablets in the camp clinic and had a miscarriage. The rape stopped for two months and then resumed “one or two people every week.” Once when she resisted, she was beaten and exposed to the midday sun for an hour or so as punishment.
As the beatings and gang rape did not give results, and the interrogators were unable to justify why they were torturing her, they eventually told Hamida “We will release you if you work for the government.” She agreed to do so, “because all of my family had been killed anyway.” But, as soon as she was released she fled in April 2007 via Moyale to Nairobi, from where UNHCR took her to Dadaab refugee camp (all emphases mine).
In the past, the Ethiopian regimes have used scorched-earth policy of burning villages and mass killings to punish communities that are suspected of giving support to rebel movements. This was particularly the case under the Dergue. The collective punishment of the TPLF regime is focused on the less visible social unit, the family. As we have seen in the cases described above, the entirely family is affected whenever its member opposes the regime or is suspected of supporting those who oppose it. The collective punishment of the present regime is inflicted on several generations in the family. For example Dilgaasa, a 76-years old man from Wallaga, told Amnesty International in 1995 that he was imprisoned by the regime accused of being a sympathizers of the OLF. Because of that the TPLF soldiers shot and killed his son in cold blood in April 1993 and imprisoned and tortured his 16-year-old grandson. They also detained his daughter-in-law who was forced to leave her two month-old child in the care of neighbors. They confiscated his house. At the time of the interview Dilgaasa lived with relatives in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa). He explained that his son, grandson and daughter-in-law were not members or supporters of the OLF.
Rape – A Crime against Human Dignity
One of the crimes that people avoid talking about is rape. It is tabooed: therefore, we do not hear about it when it is committed against women and their community even on a large scale. As part of violent group conflicts, rape has been part of a process whereby killing the men and raping the women was a method for the annihilation of one group by another. In genocidal killings, the act of raping and denying women and members of their families the right to live often go hand in hand. The most shocking example is the atrocity known as the “Rape of Warsaw” committed by Nazi thugs in 1944 to punish an uprising in Warsaw against German occupation. In that incident, Polack women, including those who were wounded and sick and were in hospital beds, were raped and massacred together with tens of thousands of men and children in the city.
Rape is also used to revenge and humiliate opponents and terrorize others. When rape is used for that purpose, it is often meant to cause the feelings of shame and humiliation not only for its victim, but for her family. In Bosnia, rape was used by Serbian forces to take revenge against the Bosniaks. As I will describe below, one of the crimes that has been committed against the human dignity of the Oromo at large has been rape.
As noted above, the school girl Hamida was gang-raped by security guards in one of the TPLF unofficial prisons in Oromia. The purpose of the TPLF soldiers’ rape of female Oromo prisoners seems to be not only to take revenge against individuals but also to terrorize and prevent the people from joining or supporting political organizations such as the OLF which oppose the regime. Hinting at what this type of rape entails, Jaarso Waaqo asked the question:
They beat the husband and rape the wife, do you think there are any of our wives left?
The rhetorical question is not far-fetched. It alludes to what is happening against the Oromo community. Thousands of Oromo women were raped during the last twenty years, some of them in the presence of their family members. This was what had happened to Ahesha Moa Ukash and her husband Siraj Ahmed Ali whose story I will present in a moment.
Jaarso speaks in collective terms when he asks rhetorically “do you think there are any of our wives left?” He means that one should take politically motivated beatings and serial gang-rapes not as the problem of individual victims, but see it as the beating of all Oromo men and the rape of all of their wives. He saw the rape of Oromo women as a collective punishment of the Oromo nation. The gang-rapes seem to be a revenge on the OLF: most of the raped women were accused of being members of the OLF or its supporters. The rest were detained and raped because they were wives, sisters or daughters of the members or supporter of the organization. They symbolized the OLF in the eyes of the rapists—the agents of the regime.
Rape, revenge and repression
The gang-rapes are carried out to revenge for Oromo refusal to accept the TPLF rule. In general, the TPLF security men seem to see, in the defenselessness of the women whose arms they bind and rape in prison cells or violate at gun point at home in the presence of their husbands and children, is both the OLF and the Oromo people who have refused to accept them.
The case of Ahesha Moa Ukash and her husband, Siraj Ahmed Ali mentioned above shows how the supporters of the OLF and their families are being humiliated outrageously and punished severely by the Ethiopian regime. Ahesha and Siraj were from Daro Labu village in Eastern Hararge and were married in April 1995. Ahesha’s father was imprisoned for seven months in 1993, accused of hiding firearms for the OLF. Both Ahesha and Siraj were not only the supporters of the OLF, but also were, in 1991-1992, representatives of women’s and youth associations in their district respectively. Therefore, they were closely watched by the agents of the TPLF regime.
After their marriage in 1995, the couple’s house was searched numerous times, always after midnight. Ahesha told the late Lydia Namarraa “In February 1998 they [the police] came one night and they knocked on the door; my husband opened the door. They just rushed into our house around 3:00 a.m. One group took him to another room. The other group took me to another room, five of them. I was four months pregnant. All of them raped me in turn. I could hear my husband yelling and crying. I gained consciousness about five o’clock. I couldn’t move; I went to the room where my husband was. He was lying on the floor, covered by a sheet. His mouth was full of cloth. I uncovered his body. He was burnt by a hot iron” (Sherrer & Bulcha, 2002). He was dead. Ahesha said when her neighbors came to find out what had happened after the TPLF security had left, she became numb and could not talk or cry. The regime had killed her older brother seven months earlier and now her husband is their victim. The rape and the tragedy became too much for Ayisha. She miscarried.
In March, Ahesha’s other brother was an employee of the humanitarian organization Care was arrested in Finfinnee. Then she was approached by two TPLF security men in civilian clothes who said to her that she was talking too much and that “If you don’t stop saying the government killed your husband, and if you tell anyone that we came, you are dead.” Ahesha’s relatives were worried about her life and took her to Finfinnee by night. They couldn’t send her to Djibouti because its authorities were deporting refugees back to Ethiopia at that time. From Finfinnee she fled to Kenya. She learned in exile that seven members of her family, including her father, were arrested and that their property was confiscated.
Another rape victim, Abiiba Ali, 27, from Wachile, Borana in southern Oromia told Dr. Trevor Trueman that she was a housewife and a small trader of clothes, matches, sugar and other small items. Her husband was a supporter of the OLF but not a member. He was arrested in 2004 and taken to Harero town and then “disappeared”. Seven days after his arrest, eight uniformed soldiers came to her house demanding to see OLF documents. They took her to the bush with her one year old twin boys. From 8.00 p.m. to 12.00 midnight, the soldiers gang-raped her in front of her sons and left her there. She was unable to walk back to her house and was found by neighbors 9.00 a.m. next morning in the bush. Since that time she has frequency of urination−about every 10 minutes.
Back at her village, soldiers told village elders that she should not leave her compound or speak to anyone. Soldiers took all of her possessions and the money that they could find. She had hidden some money and took this, travelling with cattle traders on a four day walk to Moyale on the Kenyan border. She paid an agent to take her over the border. She then got a lift in a truck with goats and cattle to Nairobi.
In Kenya Abiiba lived in Kariobangi for two years, working as a cook in a hotel, and registered with UNHCR. However, her refugee life was not secure. Therefore, she was taken by UNHCR to Kakuma refugee camp in February 2008. She has not been called for status determination interview still in 2010 when Dr. Trevor Trueman interviewed her. She told him that “Life is a bit easier here. The main problem now is loss of hope (emphasis mine). I’m a single mother without refugee status. People consider you a prostitute, as a single mother. I don’t want to think of my present or past life. I get flashbacks. I have to keep busy.” The destruction of one’s family life and the compulsion of urinating every few minutes induced by a traumatizing gang rape is not something one can get over easily, if at all.
Biiftu (30) told Trevor Trueman in November 2011 in Djibouti that she was detained in Dire Dawa police station in eastern Oromia, together with her sister-in-law, in 2005. Her brother was on the local election board for the May 2005 elections. Just after the elections, he was accused of vote-rigging in favor of the opposition and disappeared. Biiftu, her mother and her brother’s wife were taken from their home by five policemen and put in a cell at Dire Dawa police station with three other women. They were all beaten with sticks on the first day. She was gang-raped serially by the policemen for 20 days. Her tormentors told Biiftu “We will do this every day until you bring your brother.” Her sister-in-law was also raped in another room.
As soon as she was released after almost a month in detention, Biiftu travelled to Djibouti with nomads. She walked seven days to reach Djibouti city. She has not seen her sister-in-law since their release. Because of the gang rape, Biiftu developed a uterine infection and is now infertile. Thus, the women in the extended family are imprisoned, beaten and gang raped and forced to go into exile because the regime had suspected one of its members of vote-rigging.
There are also those who were tortured and raped and died in prison, but whose stories we may never come to know. Some even died in prison with their children. The outrageous treatment of Qamaria Haaji Shabbu, who died with her child in prison in Roobe town, Bale in 1996 (see Urjii, Finfinnee, May 14 & 21, 1996) is a case in point here. Qamaria was married in 1995 to Saani Abdalla, a local businessman who was suspected by the TPLF security agents of supporting the OLF. Harassed and threatened, Saani fled to save his life leaving his young wife, who was pregnant with their first child, behind. The new home and life the young couple had just started to build for themselves was destroyed forever.
Soon after after Saani fled, Qamaria was dragged from her home without any warrant from a law court and was thrown into prison by the TPLF military. Her case was brought before the court, and the judge, seeing no reason for detention, ordered the prison authorities to set her free immediately. But the local regime cadres over-ruled the court decision and threw her back into prison where she was kept for four and half months, and subjected to torture. Her “crime” was marriage to Saani Abdalla and the possession of a basket with the OLF flag waved into it. Apparently induced by torture, she gave birth prematurely to a son who survived for only for a few hours. Her health deteriorated after that, but the TPLF prison officials did not allow her to get proper medication. Qamaria died alone in prison on March 24, 1996. She was in her late teens. Although it was not reported, it is most likely that Qamaria, like most of the other detained Oromo women, was also raped.
It is possible to say that Oromo women are among groups who have been the most vulnerable to sexual violence in Ethiopia during the last two decades. It is no news that the Oromo are politically repressed more than any other population group in Ethiopia. Consequently, the number of Oromo women who have been imprisoned, tortured and raped is large. Interviews carried out by Dr. Trevor Trueman in November and December 2011 in Djibouti and Somaliland among a small sample of 43 randomly selected refugees from Ethiopia showed that 23 (17 men and 6 women) were former detainees. “All of the 17 male former detainees reported being tortured, in almost all their places of detention. Four of the six female former detainees reported being tortured.” In other words, 91 per cent of the 23 former detainees were tortured (OSG, Report 48, May, 2012). What is equally shocking is the routine rape of female detainees. The survey shows that of the six female respondents who were prisoners, four reported that they were raped in detention. Only one reported not being raped. The interview with the sixth respondent (in Hargheisa) was interrupted because of security concerns.
Another report which was based on interviews conducted in 1998 among Oromo refugees in Kenya and Sudan by the late Lydia Namara and Tarfa Dibaba and Professor Christian Scherrer (see Scherrer & Bulcha 2002) confirms the appalling situation reported by OSG. Although the respondents were not asked about rape, many of them mentioned spontaneously that they were raped or that they have seen other women being raped in the TPLF-run prisons in Oromia. It seems that gang-rape is a “method” routinely used to torture Oromo women the TPLF agents see as enemies. Taking into account the taboo about rape, the number of women who are willing to reveal that they were its victims is astounding. My interpretation of this brave behavior is this: they are breaking taboos not to ask for sympathy but to remind us not to let the rapists continue with their abhorrent crime against other women, whether they are Oromo or not. They are claiming justice for every woman who has suffered and is suffering sexual assault in Ethiopia.
Most of the former female Oromo detainees and prisoners, who were asked about their experience by different researchers and in different places, report that they were gang-raped repeatedly. Rape was used to torture and obtain confessions from them or just to humiliate them. In general, the TPLF regime, it seems, is not satisfied by taking the life of an Oromo political opponent. It destroys his family and confiscates their property. Its security men detain and rape his wife, daughter(s) and sister(s), and kill or force them into exile. The horrific crimes committed against the five young Oromo women mentioned reflect this reality. They have not harmed anyone or committed any crime. Hamida’s, Ahesha’s, Abiiba’s, Biiftu and Qamaria’s crime was being wives, and in Biiftu’s case sister, of men who were suspected of being supporters or members of the OLF. For that they were subjected to the traumatizing experiences of imprisonment, serial gang rapes, torture, humiliation, the loss of family and impairment of health. Because of her gang rapes, Ahesha miscarried. Abiiba incurred urinary complications. Biiftu suffered infection and became infertile. Qamaria and her child died in prison. Deprived of their families, their property and their health, and unable to lead life worthy of human dignity in their country, the four women were forced to make the desperate choice of flight to foreign countries. Similar harms have been inflicted on tens of thousands of Oromo women and their families during the last two decades.
To summarize, the imprisonment, rape and murder conducted by the TPLF is systematic and less visible than the scorched-earth strategy of the Dergue. The killing is scattered all over the Oromo country. Small concentration camps like the “China Camp” and killing fields like Gaara Suufii have existed all over Oromia during the last two decades, and nobody knows how many Oromo men, women and children have been arrested, imprisoned or killed by the TPLF forces. During the dark days of the Red Terror, the Dargue charged the family of a murdered son or daughter the cost of the bullet it had used to kill him or her. In comparison, the TPLF-regime has made murdering the Oromo a profitable undertaking; the property of the victim’s family is confiscated. Remarkably, most of the affected families in both the rural areas seem to be better off than the rest of the people in terms of wealth and education: they belong to the category of petty bourgeoisie against whom the TPLF had declared war in its Hizbaawi Adeera manifesto of 1996.
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*Dr. Mekuria Bulcha is a Professor Emiritus of Sociology at the School of Sustainable Development of Society and Technology at Mälardalen University, Sweden. He is an author of widely read books and articles. His new book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.