Ethnic violence in Ethiopia leaves deep wounds

Ethiopia has experienced one of its worst population displacements due to violence in recent times. Now stuck in camps, displaced Ethiopians are trying to come to terms with what their future may hold.

The young woman sitting on the warehouse floor in a striking pink abaya remains completely silent as fellow Oromo around her recall the evictions that resulted in about 50,000 of the Oromo ethnic group leaving Ethiopia's eastern most Somali region.

"She was throttled so badly they damaged her vocal chords," said a doctor in the industrial park on the outskirts of the city of Harar.  About 3,500 of the evicted Oromo are housed here. "She can't eat anything, only drink fluids," the doctor added.

At the same time the Oromo were heading west out of the region, ethnic Somalis living in the neighboring Oromia region were heading east. Violent ethnic reprisals tore apart communities that previously had integrated peacefully, often for centuries.

Protests and riots

One of Ethiopia's largest internal displacements due to violence in recent times was triggered by events on September, 12 in the usually peaceful and bustling trading city of Aweday, between the cities of Harar and Dire Dawa.

On that day, protests by Oromo escalated to rioting that left 18 dead, according to official figures. The majority were Somali traders of khat, a plant that, when chewed, acts as a mild stimulant. The Somali who fled Aweday dispute the number, saying at least 40 were killed.

In the numerous camps that have popped up to absorb the displaced, Oromo and Somali tell equally convincing stories of ethnic violence, primarily carried out, they claim, by each region's special police forces. They display the scars and wounds to back up their tales of violence.

Vertriebene Oromo suchen Schutz in einem industriellen Lagerhaus

Displaced Oromo looked for shelter in an industrial warehouse

Mutual accusations

Both regional governments deny that their special police forces were involved. They accuse each other of causing trouble and using unrest for shadowy political ends. At the federal level, the government faces accusations ranging from not doing enough to turning a blind eye, to even abetting violence for political ends too.

"It's very difficult to tell if there have been acts of omission or commission at all levels," the head of one international humanitarian organization in Ethiopia, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told DW. It is also possible that the government simply does not have the capacity to effectively counter such widespread violence. Both the displaced Oromo and Somali say that even if federal forces intervene to stop the violence, they are unable to maintain long-term stability and safety. 

The role of the diaspora

Meanwhile, accusations go beyond domestic political malice to include the Ethiopian diaspora opposition and social media."The real Oromo administration is not in this country—it is outside," said a Somali man who fled Oromia's southern Bale zone after attacks and looting by Oromo militia. He now lives in a camp housing tens of thousands of displaced Somalis. "They are the trouble makers," he said.  

Whatever, or whoever, may be behind the unrest, the results are all too painfully clear. A woman standing near the man who fled the Bale zone lifted the hem of her dress to reveal scars running up her leg—shrapnel wounds from a grenade local police tossed at her and three other women.

Vertriebene somalische Frau im Rollstuhl

The Somali woman in the wheelchair pretended to be dead to escape the violence

"We'd always lived with the Oromo peacefully until the regional special police force turned up and started burning the houses of Somalis," she said. "I ran to the local police station with three other women, but the police told us: 'This is not the day when Somalis are protected'."

No protection

The grenade was thrown as the women turned to flee. The woman wounded on her leg managed to stagger on after the explosion and escape. But she doesn't know what happened to the other women. She says she thinks they were caught.

Other Somalis in the camp reported widespread rape and pregnant women miscarrying while being evicted in overcrowded trucks. Others pulled up clothing to reveal old bullet wounds, scars and lesions from burns, broken bones that never healed, and more.

The Oromia and Somali regions are the two largest in the country. They share a border of more than 1,400 km (870 miles). The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, numbering about 35 million. Other ethnic groups are deeply wary of the Oromo and this applies especially to Ethiopia's 6.5 million Somalis.

The cause of violence

A pastoralist’s pain

"It’s stressful, I’m still trying to accept it," says 40-year-old Mohammed Noor. Like many Somali-Ethiopian pastoralists from Ethiopia’s Somali region, he travelled hundreds of kilometers to Somaliland’s coast following rumors of rain and fresh pastures there. But there wasn’t enough for the numbers that descended. Only 30 of Mohammed’s original 100 goats are left. One camel died, two survived.

Bitter late rains

Pastoralists are now returning to homes in Ethiopia, a tortuous crawl through Somaliland’s barren Awdal region. Weakened livestock struggled to continue their journey. Some animals collapsed from exhaustion, while others, like these ones, died of hypothermia when the rains finally arrived, cruelly late. Drought has killed more than half a million animals in the region.

When transport breaks down

70-year-old Abdulahi Amir once owned three camels; now only one emaciated beast remains. "We’re stuck here, my sick camel can’t carry anything," Abdulahi said amid his possessions strewn on the arid ground. Abdulahi is accompanied by four family members; five others remained in Ethiopia’s Siti zone. "We will wait," he said when asked about his future plans.

Professional travellers

It takes this family less than five minutes to load their camel with all their possessions: sacks of grains and pulses, yellow jerry cans, bottles of cooking oil and bits of fabric and plastic which can be draped over sticks to make rough bivouacs. After a final check of the ropes to see that everything is secure, the family sets off re-joining the trek southwards to Ethiopia.

A lifetime's savings

A pastoralist has a reflective moment with a kid goat. Borders between Ethiopia, Somaliland and Djibouti have little significance for ethnic Somali pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. Living off the land, they roam where they need to, searching for water and pastures for their precious livestock that provides them with everything they need. A herd represents the savings of a lifetime.

An end to their way of life

Herds of livestock are driven south through Somaliland’s Awdal region towards Ethiopia. The Somaliland coast is now dotted with the mass graves of animals. Some pastoralists lost as many as 500 livestock, their entire way of life wiped out. Remaining livestock are so weak they can’t travel far each day, increasing journey times, exposure and the chance of further losses. It is a vicious circle.

Everyone pitches in

Living in such tough conditions, everyone in a pastoralist family has an important role to play. Young boys carry axes (child-size, admittedly) so they can help chop and collect firewood once the day’s trekking is complete and the family sets up camp.

Forced to settle

Somaliland-based pastoralists have also been hit hard by the drought. Many have responded by turning to agro-pastoralism, settling in one place and building permanent bivouac structures. Baderi Adam stands outside his home with some of his children in Magaalo Xayd village, in Gabiley region, east of Awdal. Twenty years ago his family roamed the land, but not anymore.

A new future?

"There are still some extremely successful pastoralists, as you have a huge livestock trade through Djibouti, but the poorer ones are losing animals through drought and becoming destitute," says John Graham, Ethiopia country director for Save the Children. "So the important question is how to provide them, and especially their young people, with alternative employment."

Who is responsible for the pastoralists?

How do pastoralists survive such an inhospitable terrain? And who is responsible for them as they cross borders from country to another? "Governments in the region need to talk more to each other about this," says Abdirashid Haji, country director for the Somali region with the charity Concern Worldwide.

Ethnic conflict along the border between the two regions and in the regional rural hinterlands has been going on for a long time. But ethnic violence in urban areas well removed from the border is rare, and all the more shocking for seemingly coming out of the blue.    

In 2004, a referendum to decide the fate of more than 420 kebeles —Ethiopia's smallest administrative units — around the border gave 80 percent of them to the Oromia Region. This led to thousands of Somalis leaving for fear of repercussions.

Some say the referendum could be one factor behind the current conflict. The other may be the on-going drought, which puts further pressure on pasture and resources, though many observers don't believe this to be sufficient cause. 

"There's been drought before and no violence happened," said Abdishakar Adam, vice administrator of one of the Somali regional zones badly hit by the drought. "The main reason is politics and is hidden—this is all man-made." 

How to stop the bloodshed

Ethiopia's ethnic federalist system devolves power to regional states. Some observers note how this leaves the government in the difficult position of respecting devolution while also protecting the constitutional rights of minorities.

The recent troubles occurred mainly where sizeable minorities live: Somalis in Aweday, for example, and Oromo in the Somali regional capital Jijiga. More diverse cities such as Dire Dawa, with a less clear majority, have escaped violence for now.

"The government must start investigations, hold the political elites involved accountable and arrest the perpetrators,” said a Somali official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Otherwise the bloodshed will not stop."

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Africa on the Move | 06.10.2017

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