Kulani Jalata | June 26, 2014
On April 25, 2014, a reported 47 peacefully protesting students were gunned down by federal security forces in Ambo, Oromia region, Ethiopia.
“The government of Ethiopia doesn’t want the world to know about what has been happening with the [Oromo] student protests, that federal forces have used violence against the students, that there have been mass arrests of students, that there are allegations of beatings and brutality. The government doesn’t have any incentive to have outside forces to do an investigation. So there are certain barriers to spreading the word.”
These are the words of Amy Bergquist, a human rights attorney at Advocates for Justice, in a newly produced documentary by the International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA). During April and May of this year, Oromouniversity students across Oromia, Ethiopia, organized peaceful demonstrations against the “Integrated Development Master Plan”, a government plan to expand the capital into the state of Oromia.
The capital city’s municipal expansion into Oromia would invariably result in mass evictions and the displacement of millions of poor farmers. When students decided to peacefully protest the expansion plan, they were met with bullets, as reported by BBC (video), Al Jazeera, and the Guardian. Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Africa director stated, “Ethiopia’s heavy handed reaction to the Oromo protests is the latest example of the government’s ruthless response to any criticism of its policies.
UN member countries should tell Ethiopia that responding with excessive force against protesters is unacceptable and needs to stop.” On May 6, 2014, Ethiopia was summarily grilled at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review regarding its human rights violations against Oromo student protestors.
While it is true there have been “barriers” as Bergquist notes to documenting the protests and the Ethiopian government’s violent response because of the absence of free media in Ethiopia, diaspora Oromo communities organized worldwide protests in May and created a website to raise awareness about the Oromo student protests.
Now, the International Oromo Youth Association is embarking on a social media campaign, starting this weekend, to continue advocating for the rights of the Oromo students that were not only gunned down and killed, but that were also imprisoned and are currently languishing in Ethiopian prisons known for torturing prisoners of conscience and their inhumane living conditions (BBC, U.S. Dept of State).
Below is IOYA’s documentary on the Oromo protests, including eyewitness accounts from Peace Corps volunteers Jennifer Klein and Josh Cook.
Jennifer and Josh had been working in Ambo on a health project when the protests began in Ambo and security forces responded: “Every few minutes, we were hearing gun shots. Sometimes we would hear what sounded like an explosion followed by a round of 30 or 40 gunshots. Sometimes there were gunshots within a block or two of our house…the gunshots were so close that it frightened both of us a lot.”
Not only did Josh and Jennifer bear witness to the massacring of students that day as well as the loading up of buses and trucks of protesting students by police officers to be shipped to prisons, but they also witnessed Ethiopian police officers follow two of their neighbors into their home while the protests were taking place across town and shoot them to death.
“That’s when Jen and I were very frightened,” Josh said. “We couldn’t believe that the police would enter somebody’s private home and shoot them in their home. It was awful.”
The Ethiopian government’s response to the Oromo student protestsis only the surface of the Ethiopian government’s repressive and violent approach to governance and politics.
In 2005, unarmed Oromo students protesting against fraudulent election results were also met with violence and live ammunition, political imprisonment, and torture, and for years, Human Rights Watch has been reporting the government’s use of surveillance, arbitrary detention, and torture to severely restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
In the documentary, Josh notes that people in Ethiopia today are “not allowed to say anything” in critique of the government, otherwise risking imprisonment. “People have absolutely no voice at all.”
Amane Badhasso, the current president of IOYA, says that the purpose of the IOYA campaign on the Oromo student protests is to raise global awareness and to ask for the immediate release of thousands of Oromo students currently being held in detention and very likely being tortured for simply protesting against the Integrated Development Master Plan. “We want to show the world that a government’s disregard for basic human and constitutional rights is unacceptable,” she says.
 The Oromo are the largest ethnonational group in Ethiopia, constituting almost 40% of the population.