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Accounts from 83 Oromo refugees in Cairo
The difficulties faced by 10,000 Oromo refugees in Egypt, however severe, may seem trivial compared to the horrors currently experienced in Ethiopia as the focus for government and Amhara nationalist forces has shifted from their genocidal war in Tigray to Oromia Region, where over 45 million Oromo civilians have been subjected to mass killings, forced displacement, ethnic cleansing and man-made famine.
Nonetheless, the telling of the stories of Oromo interviewees in Cairo is an important insight into the pattern of increasing abuse and oppression of Oromo and others of the marginalised majority of Ethiopia’s population for over a century which has been documented for the last three decades by the Oromia Support Group. Their histories are a distillation of human rights violations perpetrated by the TPLF-led EPRDF government from 1991 to 2018 and the accelerating abuses under the Prosperity Party government led by Abiy Ahmed since 2018.
57 Oromo refugees were interviewed in Cairo in September/October 2022, of whom 56 told of their history in Ethiopia. Another 26 were interviewed in May 2013. Their stories have hitherto remained unpublished. Thus, 82 first-hand accounts of abuses in Ethiopia are published for the first time in this report.
There has been at least a five-fold increase in the number of Oromo fleeing to Egypt in the last decade. All interviewees fled from severe, widespread human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
Interviewees in 2013 reported the killing of 76 civilians, of whom 33 were their parents or siblings. There were 38 summary executions, 29 of which were in 1992 and 1993. Another 20 close relatives who disappeared in detention are now believed to be dead. In 2022, the killing of 100 civilians and detainees was reported, including 15 family members and 84 detainees in Hamaresa military camp, E Hararge, in 1999. In addition, 40-50 captured Tigrayan soldiers were witnessed being murdered by lethal injection between January and June 2022.
Extraordinarily high rates of torture and rape of detainees, reported previously by Oromo asylum-seekers in the UK and refugees in Kenya, Djibouti, Somaliland and South Africa, were corroborated. Overall, 59 (72%) of 82 interviewees in Cairo reported being tortured – 77% of the 77 former detainees. Of 54 men, 45 (83%) were tortured – 88% of the 51 who had been detained. 14 out of 28 women (50%) were tortured – 54% of the 26 former detainees.
No fewer than 20 of the 28 women (71%) were raped by Ethiopian security forces – 77% of the 26 who had been detained. One male was also raped in detention.
Barbaric treatment by people-smugglers and traffickers who trade refugees as commodities on their journeys to Egypt has evolved from torture, enslavement and organ-harvesting to a more sustainably profitable business involving extortion, enforced by violence and rape after refugees arrive in Cairo.
Despite comprising the majority of Ethiopian refugees in Cairo, community-based Oromo organisations have no contact with UNHCR or its partner organisations. Although the Oromo Elders Union represents Oromo of all faiths and from all zones in Oromia Region, it is not trusted or accepted as such by UNHCR and NGOs, since corrupt practices by previous Oromo organisations and their contacts in NGOs were exposed several years ago. There is no longer any body which represents Oromo interests that has influence with UNHCR or other organisations in Cairo. UNHCR has not reached out to the Oromo community.
Xenophobia and hostility to refugees is very common. Although disputed by members of the NGO community, Oromo refugees reported that this was particularly directed at them because of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Egyptian government employees, health care professionals and UNHCR local staff and guards told them so. Police are corrupt and prey on refugees.
In Cairo, rates of street violence, especially sexual violence, are as high as or higher than anywhere else in the world. It is a growing problem. Whereas seven incidents of rape, robbery, beating, kidnap and attempted abduction were reported by 26 interviewees in 2013, there were over 70 such incidents reported by 57 interviewees in 2022. Other organisations corroborated this huge increase in violence and sexual violence in the last decade.
Apparently random street violence and targeted attacks by Ethiopian embassy operatives were commonly reported but the majority of violence and sexual violence was perpetrated by interconnected criminal gangs of people-smugglers and job brokers, to extort money demanded by traffickers taking refugees across Sudan to Egypt.
Very few refugees and their families have any regular income, relying on outside help and occasional casual work, usually cleaning or manual labour. Financial help from NGOs was reported in 2013 but only three of the 57 interviewed in 2022 received direct assistance, notwithstanding medical assessment and care, legal advice and counselling provided by national and international NGOs.
Several schools are available to refugee children but most, if not all, attract a small fee which some are unable to afford. Higher education facilities are not accessible, leaving young Oromo and their parents frustrated because of their lack of prospects.
Fear of random street violence and attacks by Ethiopian embassy operatives and people-smugglers prevented refugees, especially those interviewed in 2022, from working, seeking work, taking children to school or even mixing with other children to play.
Those who are not registered asylum-seekers and those who have been refused refugee status by UNHCR are particularly vulnerable because they are liable to detention and deportation.
Severe mental illness, suicides and attempted suicides were reported by interviewees in 2013 and 2022.
UNHCR is understaffed, underfunded and disinterested. The organisation is failing refugees, especially Oromo. There are serious and increasing delays in registration, refugee status determination and in hearing appeals against unjust and ill-informed refusals. Translation at interviews is inaccurate and inconsistencies are used to challenge the credibility of refugees.
UNHCR’s ability and willingness to protect refugees from detention and deportation has reduced in recent years.
UNHCR is virtually inaccessible to Oromo refugees and asylum-seekers, and their advocates.
The majority of Oromo asylum-seekers are refused refugee status by UNHCR. The refusal rate is increasing according to local NGO personnel.
Less than 1% of refugees in Egypt are resettled to a third country each year. More than 20 families experienced delays, disappointments and last-minute cancellations according to interviewees in 2022.
A leaked video shows a Fano leader confessing to various war crimes the Amhara forces committed during the two-year conflict in the Tigray region.
Amhara’s Fano militia group, which has been fighting Tigray forces alongside the Ethiopian federal forces and allied Eritrean troops admit committing a widespread atrocities in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region.
A leaked video seen by The East African Daily shows a Fano leader confessing to various war crimes the Amhara forces committed during the two-year conflict in the Tigray region.
The footage exposed Fano members explicitly accepting the grave crimes including rape and gang-raping they committed against women and girls in Tigray.
“Haven’t a Tigrinya women been gang-raped for three. Didn’t you rape?” The Fano leader says collectively accuses his colleagues at a meeting addressing a crowd of Fano members.
In 2021, an Amnesty International report accused the Ethiopian military and its allies including Fano militia forces of being responsible for widespread sexual violence against women in Tigray, using rape as a strategy of war.
The report then said the scale of violations in Tigray amounts to war crimes.
According to the human rights group’s findings, one Tigrayan woman was gang-raped in front of her children.
In a debate in front of the British parliament, Labor Party politician Helen Hayes estimated that at least 10,000 women in Tigray have been raped since the beginning of the war.
In the leaked video, the Fano leader also speaks about a large sum of money and food grains looted from Tigray.
“I possess in my hand evidence of 21 million ETB (roughly $ 400,000) looting by our members” he said adding “We will not let them get away with it”
“Didn’t we loot Teff grains? 86 quintals of food grain was looted from a house of one farmer.”
The looting of food grains was taking place as 80 % of Tigray’s estimated 7 million people were in urgent need of food and other humanitarian aid.
According to the Fano leader’s testimony, public schools and hotels were also among victims of looting.
The leader is seen confronting sharply wrong doings by members of the group.
He further accuses the Fano members for putting the looting blame on Tigray forces.
“46 laptops were looted from one school, not by TPLF, it is my friends who stole sold and shared the money”
“Didn’t we loot fridges? Haven’t an entire fridges and bed sheets been looted from a hotel?, TPLF didn’t loot Timuga school. Tell me who did?” the Fano leader asked the crowd who were listening in a mood of guilt.
“I am carrying all these crimes in my heart” he told the crowd.
He further spoke on incidents how Fano members slain each other over disagreement in the proportion of looted items to be shared among themselves.
The circulation of the leaked video comes only few days after Addis Ababa said Amhara forces were withdrawing from Tigray.
Ethiopia’s military last Thursday said members of the neighboring Amhara forces had left the Tigray town of Shire and surrounding areas two months after a peace agreement in the Tigray conflict.
The Amhara forces, like those from neighboring Eritrea, were not a party to the November, 2022 peace agreement signed between the Ethiopian government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Hence their continued presence in Tigray has been a major challenge to the implementation of Pretoria peace deal.
Fighting broke out in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in November 2020 after the central government accused Tigrayan fighters of attacking a federal army base and send forces to the region to depose Tigray leaders.
The bloody civil war may have killed as many as 600,000 people, making it one of the world’s deadliest conflicts of recent times, according to the African Union’s lead mediator in the peace talks that ended the two-year conflict.
“The number of people killed was about 600,000,” former Nigerian president and African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo told the Financial Times in an interview this week.
He recalled that on November 2 last year, the day the peace agreement was signed in Pretoria, Ethiopian officials said: “We have stopped 1,000 deaths every day.”
(The East African Daily)
‘We will not keep quiet until peace comes and the suffering of our people ends.’
Freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has cooled down since the signing of a peace deal on 2 November. But a separate conflict is intensifying further south in Oromia, where civilians are suffering as anti-government rebels step up attacks.
Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels were previously confined to the fringes of western and southern Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region. But analysts say the Tigray war created a security vacuum that has helped the OLA expand its long-running insurgency.
The security situation is now “fast deteriorating”, the UN’s aid coordination agency, OCHA, warned in a report last month. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been uprooted and essential services are not functioning in some conflict-affected areas.
“We were afraid [that] the kinds of things you see in the media were happening in our city,” said Oromia resident Naol Tesfaye, describing an OLA attack in November. He said the group briefly seized his town, Nekemte, before melting into the countryside.
The OLA feeds off grievances among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. They account for around 40% of the population but claim a history of oppression. Resentment has festered futher under current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is himself an Oromo.
The government has responded to the rebellion with a counterinsurgency offensive. But the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has documented extrajudicial killings by government troops.
Ethnically based massacres are also increasing. The OLA is accused of targeting Amharas who live in Oromia, while ethnic militias from the Amhara region – which borders Oromia – have killed Oromo civilians. Many hundreds, if not thousands, have died.
Frustrated at the situation, Oromo lawmakers from Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party wrote a letter last month to the prime minister’s office and the speaker of the national parliament, demanding a peace deal similar to the one in Tigray.
Among the authors was Buzayehu Degefa, whose constituency in Oromia’s East Wollega region is badly affected by the conflict. Degefa told The New Humanitarian that the situation cannot be resolved through military means.
“The government has been trying to defeat the group through military operations for three or four years and still there is no solution,” he said. “That is why we need another plan. We are demanding a peace deal brokered by a third party like the African Union.”
Until recently, the OLA mostly conducted small-scale hit-and-run operations. It has raided banks and conducted kidnappings to fund operations that include targeted assassinations against government officials and police officers.
The conflict has gone mostly unnoticed outside of Ethiopia amid heavy focus on the northern Tigray war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and dominated headlines about the country for the past two years.
But as implementation of the Tigray peace deal shows signs of progress – Tigrayan forces reportedly handed over their heavy weapons this week – Oromia has morphed into Ethiopia’s “most volatile region”, according to ACLED, a conflict monitoring group.
Violence is spreading to rural areas not far from the capital, Addis Ababa, and “the conflict is more or less engulfing the whole of the Oromo nation,” Merera Gudina, the chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party, told The New Humanitarian.
In western Oromia, the OLA is now controlling territory and pulling off increasingly complex attacks. And whereas it previously turned down new volunteers due to limited training capacity, it now holds big graduation ceremonies for recruits.
In recent months, there has been a flare-up in OLA attacks that may be linked to the Tigray peace deal, said a diplomat in Addis Ababa, who requested anonymity to preserve working relations with authorities.
“The OLA are stepping up their operations and expanding their control over some areas to score propaganda points before battle-hardened federal troops redeploy from the north,” the diplomat said.
‘I had never heard gunshots before that day’
Several Oromia residents who spoke to The New Humanitarian described deadly OLA raids in recent months. Naol from Nekemte – an urban hub centred on a major road junction – said it was dawn when he awoke to the sound of gunshots.
He said he spent six hours lying on the floor of his home as the OLA clashed with security forces. When he went outside, he saw the bodies of three people caught in the crossfire. “I had never heard gunshots before that day,” Naol said.
Nekemte residents said hundreds of OLA fighters took part in the November attack. Their target appeared to be local jails and police stations, where the rebels stole weapons and claimed to have released an unknown number of prisoners.
The regional government’s clumsy counterinsurgency strategy has made the conflict worse. Poorly trained soldiers have abused communities accused of harbouring rebels, while federal airstrikes have killed scores of civilians, rights investigators say.
Also complicating matters is the involvement of the Fano, an Amhara militia. The group claims to be defending Amhara civilians and interests and has launched several attacks into Oromia.
“In my village alone, 37 civilians were killed.”
Three Oromia residents and an official from Oromia’s Kiramu district, close to the border with Amhara, told The New Humanitarian that Fano fighters have killed ethnic Oromos and torched villages in a series of raids since mid-October.
Lemessa Jabessa, a hotel owner, said his father was wounded by a bullet on 18 November during a raid by what he called “Amhara extremists”. His wife was killed eight days later in a separate attack, he said.
“I told her to take the children to the bush, and it was during this that she was hit,” Lemessa said. “In my village alone, 37 civilians were killed.” He added that, “many homes, government offices, and [other] properties were burned and looted.”
In total, 214 civilians and 244 members of Oromia’s regional security force were killed in Kiramu between 15 October and 10 December, according to a local official, who did not want to be named. They said over 80,000 people were displaced during this period.
The OLA are accused of atrocities too. The Amhara Association of America (AAA), an advocacy group, claims the rebels, Oromo youth, and Oromia security forces killed 27 Amhara civilians in Kiramu between late November and mid-December.
Overall, the AAA estimates that at least 1,566 Amhara civilians were killed in Oromia last year. This includes a massacre in Gimbi district in June that saw Oromo-speaking gunmen – identified by residents as OLA – kill hundreds of Amharas.
Roots of the rebellion
The OLA is not a new group. It was formed in the 1970s as the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The rebels fought the communist Derg regime, and maintained a low-level insurgency against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-dominated regime that came after.
In 2018, the OLF signed a peace deal with Abiy’s government that saw it invited back from exile in Eritrea. But a band of hardline OLA commanders held out, choosing to continue their guerrilla campaign rather than disarm.
Oromo anger at Abiy has aided their cause. Abiy rode to power on a wave of mass Oromo-led protests and his early reforms created “an exaggerated expectation from the youth that all their problems would be solved”, said an analyst of Oromo politics.
“Obviously that was unrealistic, and [the Oromo] were disappointed,” added the analyst, who asked for their name to be withheld, citing a risk of reprisals.
The OLA got a further boost in 2020 following the murder by unknown individuals of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo pop icon. After Hachalu’s death triggered protests in Oromia, the state cracked down and arrested prominent Oromo figures.
“The major influx of young people into the OLA happened after Hachalu’s death,” said the analyst of Oromo politics. “People were angry and the OLA was portrayed as the champion of the Oromo cause.”
The roots of this cause stretch to the late 19th century, when lowland Oromia was conquered and violently absorbed into the highland empire of Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. To cement his hold on the area, Menelik II introduced armed Amhara settlers to rule on his behalf, and for many Oromo this sense of oppression is still felt today.
Activists claim the Oromo remain insufficiently represented at the highest levels of government and business, despite comprising Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Other flashpoints include border disputes with Amhara, allegations of land grabs, and the status of Addis Ababa.
A threat to Addis Ababa?
Though the OLA is gaining strength, its political and military structure is murky. The group is led by a veteran bush fighter known as Jaal Marroo, but it lacks command and control and has voiced no political agenda beyond claiming to fight for the Oromo people.
It is not clear how many fighters are in its ranks, and the rebels are thought to lack heavy weaponry. Analysts therefore caution against overstating its strength and ability to threaten Addis Ababa.
“The OLA does not come close to being what the Tigrayan rebels are fighting-wise.”
“The OLA does not come close to being what the [Tigrayan rebels are] fighting-wise,” said another analyst, who has deep knowledge of Oromo issues but also did not want to be named. “I don’t think they will ever be in a position to walk into Addis one day; we are talking about guys with AK47s.”
Still, for Buzayehu, the Oromo lawmaker, there remains much to worry about. “People [in Oromia] are dying on a daily basis, but the world is silent,” he said. “We will not keep quiet until peace comes and the suffering of our people ends.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.