The Advocacy for Oromia expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the MH17 plane disaster. We are so sorry to hear such tragedy. Tragedies like this have a devastating affect on both the global community and local communities – our thoughts are with everyone touched by these events, in Victoria, all over Australia and overseas, at this difficult time.
“ I think they were killing people on purpose” Yeshi, mother of man shot dead in April in Ambo. “Yeshi” is still trying to come to terms with the trauma of discovering the body of her son being carried through the streets of the Ethiopian city of Ambo.
A 27-year-old rickshaw driver, he had been caught up in deadly protests between the police and students in the city in April.
They were demonstrating about plans to extend the administrative control of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia state.
Oromia is the country’s largest region and completely surrounds Addis Ababa – and some people feared they would be forced off their land and lose their regional and cultural identity if the plans went ahead.
The government says the “Masterplan”, as it is known, would allow them to better extend city services to rural areas.
However for Yeshi – who asked for her name and those of her family to be changed – the heavy-handed response by the security forces that saw her son shot in the head is hard to fathom.
She had come across a group of people carrying a body and overheard people saying it was her son, Tamiru.
Unable to recognise his features as they were too disfigured, she identified him by his “clothes and shoes”.
“I think they were killing people on purpose,” she told the BBC, saying that Tamiru was not directly involved in any trouble that day.
Five other young people were also killed with bullet wounds to the head, she says.
One of her other surviving sons, Ibsa, said he was unable to believe that his brother was dead and asked for the coffin to be opened.
“His head was blackened and torn apart. The bullet had gone through his temple. You couldn’t identify him by his face but I recognised his body,” he said.
“He was a very good boy, level-headed. He did well in his studies. Nobody has a bad word to say about him… But what good is that now?”
Three months later it was a very different atmosphere in Ambo, which is about 125km (77 miles) west of the capital and was the focal point of the protests.
When the BBC team visited, it was in the middle of the graduation season and the area around the university was full of graduates in their gowns and caps ahead of their big ceremony.
Students were posing for photographs with armfuls of red roses wrapped in cellophane and the mood was one of celebration.
Yet this was the same place – the main entrance to Ambo University – where witnesses say the protesters and police clashed in April.
The government says that 17 lives were lost in the violence. Opposition, human rights groups and some eyewitnesses say the figure is much higher.
Ethiopia’s Information Minister Redwan Hussein old the BBC the dead included five students and 12 civilians and strongly denies that the government was responsible for any of the violence.
The protest was hijacked by “rabble rousers” with a political agenda – “hell-bent on raising havoc”, he said.
“They were shooting, they had guns – ammunitions,” Mr Redwan said.
“They were attacking and fighting so it was not through the government shooting, or the police shooting that people died.”
He dismissed accusations from international human rights organisations that police and government security forces shot at unarmed protesters.
“Whatever they said was not actually founded on facts.”
The students, the minister added, had a right to ask questions about the “Masterplan” and that the government was “ready to discuss” it with them.
Mathewos Asfaw, general manager of the “Masterplan”, told the BBC that the demonstrators had completely misunderstood the project and that no-one would be forced off their land.
“The plan doesn’t have a single concept or idea of expansion, because it’s not possible to expand the city of Addis beyond the current boundary and jurisdiction.”
Ethiopia is no stranger to accusations of intolerance when dealing with its critics and opposition groups.
The UN Human Rights Council recently recommended that the country improve on its media freedom and pay more attention to human rights.
Mr Redwan says he has “no objection” to the recommendations as they are already “being implemented”.
This is no consolation for Yeshi, who remains dressed in traditional mourning clothes.
“I’m very sad – until now I’m not right in the head. I’m walking around like a zombie. I’m not OK.”
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.
(A4O) — A 21-year old Oromo student, Nuredin Hasen, who was abducted from Haromaya University late last month and held incommunicado at undisclosed location, died earlier this month from a brutal torture he endured while in police custody, family sources said.
Members of the federal and Oromia state police nubbed Hassen (who is also known by Alsan Hassen) and 12 other students on May 27 in a renewed crackdown on Oromo students. Friends were not told the reason for the arrests nor where the detainees were taken.
Born and raised in Bakko Tibbe district of West Shawa zone, Alsan, who lost both of his parents at a young age, was raised by his grandmother.
The harrowing circumstances of his death should shock everyone’s conscience. But it also underscores the inhumane and cruel treatment of Oromo activists by Ethiopian security forces.
According to family sources, on June 1, a police officer in Dire Dawa called his counterpart at West Shewa Zone Police Bureau in Ambo and informed him that Alsan “killed himself” while in prison. The officer requested the local police to tell Alsan’s family to pick up his body from Menelik Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
The West Shewa zone police relayed the message to the district police station in Bakko Tibbe and the latter delivered the message to Alsan’s family. Three family members then rushed to the capital to collect the corpse of a bright young man they had sent off, far from home, so that he can get a decent shot at college education.
Upon arrival, the hospital staff told the family to search for his body from among 30 to 40 corpse’s kept in a large room. According to our sources, what they saw next was beyond the realm of anyone’s imagination. The details are too gruesome to even describe.
They found their beloved son badly tortured, his face disfigured and barely recognizable. His throat was slit leaving only the muscles and bones at the back of his neck connecting his head to the rest of the body. There were large cuts along his eyelids, right below the eyebrows as if someone had tried to remove his eyes. There were multiple wounds all over his face and head. Both of his arms were broken between his wrists and his elbows.
It appeared as if the federal forces employed all forms of inhumane torture tactics, leaving parts of his body severely damaged and disjointed. The family could not grasp the cruelty of the mutilation carried upon an innocent college student.
Their ordeal to recover Alsan’s body did not end there either. Once the body was identified, the federal police officer who brought the body from Harar told the family to pay 10,000 birr (roughly $500) to cover the cost of transportation the government incurred. They were informed that the body will not be released unless the money is paid in full.
The family did not have the money, nor were they prepared for the unexpected tragedy. After friends and relatives raised the requested sum to cover his torturers costs, Alsan’s body was transported to Bakko Tibbe, where he was laid to rest on June 2. There was little doubt that Alsan was murdered while in detention, but in police state Ethiopia, the family may never even know the full details of what happened to their son, much less seek justice.
In an increasingly repressive Ethiopian state, being an Oromo itself is in essence becoming a crime. To say the gruesome circumstances surrounding Alsan’s death is heart-wrenching is a gross understatement. But Alsan’s story is not atypical. It epitomizes the sheer brutality that many Oromo activists endure in Ethiopia today.
On June 6, another Oromo political prisoner, Nimona Tilahun passed away in police custody. Tilahun, a graduate of Addis Ababa University and former high school teacher, was initially arrested in 2004 along with members of the Macha Tulama Association during widespread protests opposing the relocation of Oromia’s seat to Adama. He was released after a year of incarceration and returned to complete his studies, according to reports by Canada-based Radio Afurra Biyya.
Born in 1982, Tilahun was re-arrested in June 26, 2008 from his teaching job in Shano, a town in north Shewa about 80kms from Addis Ababa. He was briefly held at Maekelawi prison, known for torturing inmates and denying legal counsel to prisoners. And later transferred between Kaliti, Kilinto and Zuway where he was continuously tortured over the last three years. Tilahun was denied medical treatment despite being terminally ill. His death this week at Black Lion Hospital is the third such known case in the last two years.
On August 23, 2013, a former UNHCR recognized refugee, engineer Tesfahun Chemeda also died under suspicious circumstances, after being refused medical treatment. In January, a former parliamentary candidate with the opposition Oromo People’s Congress from Calanqo, Ahmed Nejash, died of torture while in custody. These are the few names and stories that have been reported. Ethiopia holds an estimated 20 to 30 thousand Oromo political prisoners. Many have been there for more than two decades, and for some of them not even family members know if they are still alive.
While Alsan, Chemeda, Nejash and Tilahun’s stories offer a glimpse of the brutality behind Ethiopia’s gulags, it is important to remember thousands more face similar heinous abuses everyday.
Since Oromo students began protesting against Addis Ababa’s unconstitutional expansion in April, according to eyewitnesses, more than a 100 people have been killed, hundreds wounded and many more unlawfully detained. While a relative calm has returned to university campuses, small-scale peaceful protests continue in many parts of Oromia. Reports are emerging that mass arrests and extrajudicial killings of university students are far more widespread than previously reported. Last month, dozens of students at Jimma, Madawalabu, Adama and Wallaggauniversities were indefinitely dismissed from their education. In addition, an unknown number of students from all Oromia-based colleges are in hiding fearing for their safety if they returned to the schools.
Given the Horn of Africa nation’s tight-grip on free press and restrictions on human rights monitoring, in the short run, the Ethiopian security forces will continue to commit egregious crimes with impunity. But the status quo is increasingly tenable. For every Alsan and Tilahun they murder, many more will be at the ready to fight for the cause on which they were martyred. As long repression continues unabated, the struggle for justice and freedom will only be intensified. No amount of torture and inhumane treatment can extinguish the fire that has been sparked.
*The writer, Amane Badhasso, is the president of International Oromo Youth Association, and a political science and legal studies major at Hamline University. Badhatu Ayana is an Oromo rights activist.