‘Death sentence’: Massacres fuel protests, resentment in Ethiopia

Mass protests brought towns in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region to a standstill last week as demonstrators, largely university students, took their frustration to the streets over the June 18 massacre of hundreds of civilians by rebel fighters.

Protests began in the capital, Addis Ababa, on June 25, before larger demonstrations were held in the cities of Gondar and the Amhara capital, Bahir Dar, through July 1. Protesters denounced the killings and criticised the government’s inability to curb worsening ethnic violence.

“I went to the demonstration because I’m sick of violence against women and children,” said Geremew Habtemariam, a student in Bahir Dar who took part in protests last week. “Being ethnic Amhara is becoming a death sentence in some parts of the country.”

Days after the protests, reports emerged of yet another mass killing of civilians in the country’s Oromia region on Monday.

In the tragedy that triggered the protest, armed men killed hundreds of people two weeks ago in the Gimbi district of Oromia, some 380km west of Addis Ababa. The victims all belonged to the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, and witnesses say killings began in the morning and continued unabated until the rebels left at about 4pm that day.

Weeks later, bereaved father Abdu Ahmed said he remains broken over the loss of his teenage daughters Hayat and Birtukan. “They shot at everyone, even children and the elderly,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone. “What kind of madman targets defenceless girls?”

“I’ve personally lost count of the number of bodies I’ve buried,” Ali Said, a survivor told Al Jazeera. “Many died from gunshots or in the fire, but I’ve discovered bodies that were hacked to death as well.”

‘Red legacy’ vs ‘green legacy’

At a press conference on Thursday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told reporters that the death toll currently stands at 338 and that fighters from the OLA (Oromo Liberation Army) carried out the massacre. Abiy has also condemned the violence, saying his government had “zero tolerance” for mass killings of civilians.

The OLA rebel group, which has been at war with the federal army since 2019, controls parts of the region but has denied involvement in any civilian attacks. It accused Addis Ababa of deploying rogue former OLA elements to carry out the June 18 killings.

Days after the massacre, a smiling Abiy and dozens of other government officials were at a launch ceremony for the country’s “green legacy” campaign to encourage the planting of trees for environmental purposes. State media outlets and the prime minister himself encouraged social media users to adopt hashtags promoting the campaign.

However, an Amharic language hashtag meaning “red legacy” in reference to the recent bloodshed outperformed it among Ethiopian TikTok and Twitter users for most of last week. Social media users uploaded pictures of themselves carrying placards with the hashtag in solidarity with protesters.

Tedros Tirfe, chairman of the US-based Amhara Association of America group, believes that frustration among Ethiopians and the ethnic Amhara in particular, has peaked.

“Abiy demonstrated his obliviousness to the plight of Amhara early on by deeming the growing Amhara movement a problem,” he told Al Jazeera. “His negligence, incapacity and complicity in these massacres have been denounced by Amharas repeatedly. Youths are protesting demanding for PM Abiy’s resignation and protection for Amharas outside of the Amhara region.”

Also trending in Ethiopian circles was the release of a new single by popular Ethiopian musician Teddy Afro lamenting nationwide killings. The single, which has accumulated at least five million views on YouTube in under two weeks, subtly criticises Ethiopian authorities for their inability to protect civilians around the country.

‘No one came to our aid’

Across Ethiopia, insecurity is a constant.

A civil war, which broke out in the country’s northernmost region of Tigray in November 2020, continues. Fighting is also ongoing in the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz states. Elsewhere, there is violence over territorial disputes amid worsening ethnic tensions. In total, about 5.1 million people were displaced across Ethiopia in 2021, a world record for a single year.

Observers say last month’s massacre is among the worst violent episodes in the country in recent memory.

“The United States is gravely concerned by reported killings of civilians in the Amhara community of the Oromia Region of Ethiopia this weekend,” read a statement by US State Department spokesman Ned Price.

Like many of Ethiopia’s 80-plus ethnic groups, the Amhara, approximately a quarter of Ethiopia’s 118 million people, have intermarried and integrated into communities far beyond the frontiers of their region.

But in recent years, mass killings have regularly targeted them in western Ethiopia. More than 50 civilians were slain in similar attacks that took place between February and March 2021. In November 2020, gunmen ambushed and massacred at least 54 civilians after they had assembled at a school compound.

“The administration’s incompetence to protect the security of its own citizens has so far imperilled the lives of thousands of innocent civilians,” Addisu Lashitew, research fellow at the Brookings Institution told Al Jazeera. “Politically, the government has failed to hold officials accountable for this monumental failure to protect the security of civilians. The administration should immediately allow an independent investigation to help bring to justice the perpetrators of this heinous act and their accomplices.”

The growing frequency of such episodes and a perceived lackadaisical approach by the authorities in addressing the issue has led to demonstrators accusing the government of complicity.

Six survivors of the massacre in Gimbi told Al Jazeera that members of a local government force tasked with protecting the area suddenly departed unannounced on either June 16 or 17, leaving residents defenceless. They returned hours after the rampage had ended.

“There is no explanation for why [government soldiers] left,” Ali Said said. “Even if they left, there are other security forces nearby. But no one came to our aid.”

This has fueled claims by activists that officials in Oromia cooperate with rebel groups keen on cleansing the region of its ethnic minorities.

“Federal and regional officials and the security apparatus made no effort to stop such attacks and in many cases were complicit in them,” Tedros explained. “In fact, known perpetrators have often been rewarded, given government positions and land.”

Tedros’s Amhara Association of America, which has been documenting the atrocities, published a statement on its website calling for Abiy and the Oromia regional president, Shimelis Abdisa, to resign for “negligence, complicity, and/or direct involvement in the state-sanctioned Amhara Genocide in Ethiopia”.

Such allegations follow previous massacres of civilians.

In late 2020, five government officials in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region were arrested and accused of complicity in an attack that left more than 100 people dead.

On Tuesday, Ethiopian federal lawmaker and Oromia native Hangasa Ahmed took to Facebook Live to tell his over 180,000 followers that members of the ruling Prosperity Party of which he is a member, orchestrated recent massacres.

“Unless action is taken to round up government officials in the region, killings in Oromia will continue,” Hangasa said. He added that he feared for his life but had no regrets “if I’m killed tomorrow.”

The lawmaker’s shocking allegations have provoked a social media uproar and the live stream has been circulated widely among Ethiopians.

But the Ethiopian government has denied any involvement and insists it is putting perpetrators of violent attacks on trial. “We have a probe currently underway,” said Fekadu Tsega, Ethiopia’s junior justice minister. “We will update the public when the probe is complete and act on our findings.”

In Amhara, that pledge may not be so reassuring or end the protests.

A recent federal decision to disarm Amhara rebel groups it deemed unruly triggered anti-government protests in May. In response, security forces arrested more than 4,000 demonstrators, journalists and opposition politicians across the Amhara region.

For survivors, there is fear that more attacks may yet come and that there will be no help.

“There’s no point in sending in the military or police after we’ve lost all of our friends and families,” Ali Said said. “I don’t care what the politicians say. Nobody here trusts them anymore.

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