Ambo Protests: A Personal Account
This account of events in the Oromia town of Ambo–events which began exactly one month ago, on April 25–was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.
Disclaimer: We are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers, and the following is a personal story, not a news report, and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, the Ethiopian Government, or the people of Ambo.
Friday, April 25th, the protests began in Ambo. We heard the sounds of a big crowd gathering at the university, walking east, yelling and chanting. The single paved road in town was barricaded, and traffic was diverted around the outskirts of town.
“What is going on?” we asked a group of high school boys.
“Oh, the students are angry. They have some problem,” they responded.
We called some friends at the university, who were able to explain further. Apparently, there are expansion plans for Addis Ababa, which would displace poor Oromo farmers and considerably shrink the size of the Oromia region. Justifiably, many Oromo people were upset. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, so demonstrations started across Oromia, mainly in towns with universities. Some of the protests turned violent.
Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were quiet, somewhat normal days in the town of Ambo. However, in other parts of Ethiopia, journalists and bloggers were arrested and thrown in jail.
Tuesday morning, the protests resumed. Friends in town called us to warn us not to go into work and not to leave our compound. Apparently there were protests at the preparatory school and the federal police were in town. We stayed home all day, listening to the sounds of the protests, denying to ourselves that the ‘pop, pop, pop’ we heard in the afternoon was gunfire. That night, the government-run news station reported that there was a misunderstanding between Oromo university students and the government. Other online reports said that the protestors were defending the Oromo’s right to their land.
Wednesday morning, the protests resumed, and our friends emphasized NOT to leave the house and NOT to answer our front gate. This time, we heard sirens. Ambo only has one ambulance – no police cars or fire trucks – and it wasn’t the normal noise. Again, we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ every few minutes. We poked our heads out of the compound gate and talked to our neighbor, who confirmed that they were, in fact, gun shots. Neighbors said the federal police had already shot and killed demonstrators who were participating in the protest. As we were finishing our conversation, a group of at least 30 adults ran past, glancing nervously behind themselves as they ran.
“Maalif fiigtu? (Why are you running?)” I shouted.
“Poliisii as dhufu! (The police are coming here!)” a man responded, ducking behind a corner.
An hour later, we headed to the nearest store to stock up on phone cards so we could put minutes on our cell phones and data on our internet device. The storekeeper is a tough older lady who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.
“Maal taate? (What happened?)” we asked.
She paused, looking down at her hands, her eyes welling with tears.
“Hara’aa….sirrii miti, (Today…..is not right)” she said, fighting back tears.
Ironically, as we sat at home, listening to gunshots all day long, John Kerry was visiting Ethiopia, a mere 2 hours away in Addis Ababa, to encourage democratic development.
Around 3pm, while the sounds of the protests were far on the east side of town, we heard gunshots so close to our house that we both ducked reflexively. An hour later, we talked to a young man who said, numbly, “I carried their bodies from their compound to the clinic.” Our two young neighbors – university students – had been hunted down by the federal police and killed in their home while the protest was on the opposite side of town.
Other friends told us other violent stories of what was going on in town, including an incident at a bank. Apparently, students attempted to enter the bank, and one was shot by the police. Not being armed with weapons, protesters retaliated against the shooter by hanging him.
Another friend told us about 2 students who were shot and killed by the federal police in front of a primary school…again, far away from the protest.
Wednesday night, we slept fitfully, listening to the sounds of the federal police coming around our neighborhood. They were yelling over a bullhorn in Amharic, which we didn’t understand, but was later translated for us: “Stay inside your compound tonight and tomorrow.”
Thursday, the bus station was closed and there weren’t any cars on the roads. That morning, a Peace Corps driver finally came to get us, looking terrified as he pulled up quickly to our house. We had to stop at the police station to get permission to leave town. While waiting at the station, we saw at least 50 people brought into the station at gunpoint, some from the backs of military trucks and many from a bus. Inside the police compound, there were hundreds of demonstrators overflowing the capacity of the prison, many of them visibly beaten and injured. After the U.S. Embassy requested our release, we headed out of town. The entire east side of town, starting from the bus station, was damaged. A bank, hotel, café, and many cars were damaged or burned. Our driver swerved to avoid the charred remains of vehicles sitting in the middle of the street.
We couldn’t help but shed tears at the sight of our beloved, damaged town.
To read more from the authors, visit their blog, Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.