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Analysis: Stranded uni students in Yirgalem sustain severe abuse by security forces as campus reneges on promises

Women students weren’t spared the wrath of the men in uniform when they converged on the Awada campus on March 26th

Etenesh Abera @EteneshAb

Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan  &

Zecharias Zelalem @ZekuZelalem

Addis Abeba, May 12/2020 – As many as fifty college students, including dozens of women, were beaten by baton wielding police, who also struck another woman student with a bullet, near the Southern regional state town of Yirgalem a few weeks ago, Addis Standard has learnt.

Twenty students were arrested in relation to the incident which took place at the compound of the Hawassa University’s Business and Economics College, on 26 March. The college is now contemplating pressing charges against students it says were responsible for the incident on 26 March.

The incident began a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the temporary closure of the campus. The Ministry of Transport in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education had subsequently announced that colleges and universities everywhere would help cover the travel expenses of students who live in faraway regions. But while majority of the 45 government universities, such as Aksum university, Haramaya University, Matu University have all helped transport their students to their respective places, Hawassa University Awada campus students who spoke with Addis Standard say that campus officials have decided they would not be offering the promised assistance, which led to on campus protests by stranded students prompting heavily armed police to come in and start attacking protesting students.

“They started shooting so I ran in fear,” one student recalls. “But a policeman caught me and struck me in the head with his baton. I blacked out and don’t remember anything after that.”

The campus, also known as the Awada campus, is located about an hour’s drive from Hawassa, the capital city of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s  regional (SNNPR). The students accuse the police of conspiring with the college administration to cover up its own corruption and maladministration. They also say campus security have attacked first and were soon backed by security forces from outside.

The college’s dean disputes the accounts by the students and said that the police have intervened after rioting students threw stones and damaged property. But what is not disputed is the violent nature of the subsequent police crackdown.

“The way the police attacked us, no girl should ever be attacked that way,” a another woman student told Addis Standard. She sent a picture that show scars that show she sustained physical violence. “I was hit everywhere. Finally, I was struck in the back of my head and fainted. I woke up in the hospital, in deep pain.”

Police wore face masks to protect them from the coronavirus and at least four, according to student testimony, were armed with AK-47s. Addis Standard learned that at least one student was shot and lightly wounded. She is expected to make a full recovery.

“I managed to hide in my dorm,” another student said. “But my friends were caught. They just beat them mercilessly.” This student also said that she knew of “at least ten” girls who were attacked by the police. “I saw a girl kicked in the head while she was lying on the ground crying in pain. Another had her phone snatched by a policeman before he beat her with a baton,” she recalled.

In the days that followed, up to twenty students were rounded up by police and kept in a detention facility in the town of Yirgalem. The students were tortured and kept without charge for as long as a week in some cases. The college has since closed, and students have left for their homes.

Now the students say the college administration is planning on pressing charges against a number of them while expelling others.

As a result of the widespread fear among students that they might be targets for expulsion if they speak out, Addis Standard will be using surnames for the remaining students interviewed for this article.

The events of 26 March at Awada campus of the Hawassa University’s Business and Economics College in Yirgalem began with an initially peaceful, yet tense standoff between the college’s dean, Teshale Shode, and the students.

“They kept us waiting for two days,” Sami recalls. “We were told to wait for buses that would take us straight to our regions. Then the dean suddenly told us that we were on our own.”

Protesting students walking in peacefully around campus before being forcefully dispersed by armed security forces

Nati, an economics major, says that students who are from nearby towns or Hawassa city had already begun packing up and leaving. But for many students that came from as far away as Bahir Dar, and parts of Tigray and western Oromia, trips could last up to two days and cost hundreds of birr, depending on the route taken. The expenses to be incurred were as sudden as the pandemic itself. For many families, especially for those from rural farming communities, the government’s announcement was a source of relief.

After the Ministry of Education announced that those living in faraway regions would have their travel taken care of, members of the student body union were told to have the students sign registration forms,” Nati explains. “The students on the list were about a thousand. Many came from Amhara regional state and the buses were supposed to take them straight to Bahir Dar.”

Zewude Mekonnen, the college’s Managing Director, was to oversee the arranging of transportation and ensure his students depart on time. Students say that on 26 March 26, the managing director changed his mind.

Zewude Mekonnen, Managing Director at the Hawassa University’s Business and Economics College in Yirgalem and believed to be behind a decision to renege on obligations to assist students with transportation expenses

“A friend of mine works on the student body,” another student, Elias, tells Addis Standard. “The student body was told by the Managing Director that the list of students was incomplete.”

The student body union was left with no choice but to tell the students that they had to register a second time, if they needed the college’s assistance. By this time, students had finished packing, and were kept waiting on campus for days. Most didn’t understand why there was a holdup as the college pushed the departure date.

Three students who spoke to Addis Standard say that a day earlier on 25 March, the Managing Director Zewude Mekonnen told a gathering of students that they would instead be bused to nearby city of Hawassa. From there onward, the Hawassa University main campus would arrange the travels for students heading to distant parts of the country. Students were unhappy.

“There are thousands of students at the main campus,” said business student Sami. “At this time, when the coronavirus is forcing people to avoid crowds, the college endangered students by asking us to go to the main campus. It wasn’t right.”

On 26 March, the classes had ended, professors had departed and local students had gone home. The rest, who were left behind had up to a thousand kilometers of road ahead of them. But when no buses showed up that morning, frustrated students traveled to Hawassa as per the college’s advice. Upon arrival, that they learned that they were on their own.

Students gathered around Dean Teshale Shode’s office waiting for answers while discussions between the dean and protest leaders take place

“A group of students were told that buses headed to Tigray region were waiting at the main campus in Hawassa, so they headed there. But when they got there, there was nothing. They asked the dean in Hawassa, but he had no idea what they were talking about. They were stranded and started calling those of us who were left behind, to tell us not to come to Hawassa. That’s when we were certain we were being lied to,” Elias said.

It was from this point on that students converged on the dean’s office demanding answers. According to the student, Dean Teshale Shode told them that the college had reversed its decision and would no longer shoulder their travel expenses.

“We were angry,” says Elias. “The government had ordered the college to assist us with travel. The college had no right to refuse. They kept us waiting for two days, just to tell us that we were on our own. I felt especially bad for those who were tricked into using what little money they had to travel to Hawassa.”

Addis Standard was put in touch with a student who’ll be referred to as “Abel,” who managed to get home only after his friends on campus chipped in to pay the fare that would take him to his rural hometown in Amhara region.

“My parents can’t afford to send me back and forth as much as I want. The tariffs combined cost around 700 birr.” he explains. “So I usually spend holidays on campus and only return home when the semester is over. When the college told us we had to cover our own travel, I got nervous. I didn’t know what to do.

As word got out the dean had ordered all the remaining students to leave campus premises, leading to the students to protests. “We were peaceful in our conduct,” says Nati, who says he was among those who marched. “We are students not criminals. We deserved an explanation. This is our right.”

A month later, students tell Addis Standard that they are recovering from their beatings, but that they are afraid to return to the college

Addis Standard has been handed photographs and a short video clip that appears to support the students’ version that students expressed their opposition to this decision peacefully. In it, around a hundred students, mostly young men, are seen walking in an orderly fashion around the campus. Loud jeers and hooting can be heard in the video, but there doesn’t appear to be any chaos, violence or the sort of conduct that would warrant the deploying of riot police, let alone a contingent of armed officers.

Students accuse the college of corruption, and attempting to misappropriate the money that should have gone to cover the transportation costs of nearly a thousand stranded students.But Dean Teshale Shode denies that the college had refused to arrange transportation.

“There were no problems with finances,” the dean told Addis Standard when reached over the phone. “The main problem was that there was a lack of vehicles in Yirgalem. That’s why we told students to go to Hawassa. But they didn’t want to go there and instead started breaking windows and damaging their school. So we called the police.”

Nati rejects this allegation. “To suggest that all this started because we weren’t willing to add an extra hour to our travel is laughable. We had heard from students who were tricked into going to Hawassa. The dean is lying. He has been lying the whole time.”

“The dean ordered campus security to force us to leave,” Nati says. “We said we wouldn’t unless we came to an agreement. And that’s when a security guard started beating students.”

When students were struck by the guard, a number of others retaliated by throwing stones, smashing a glass window. The broken window, Nati says, was used as a pretext for the police clampdown that would come less than half an hour later.

“Dozens of police including some with weapons came in,” he recalls. “I heard them shooting so I ran. I saw them beat many of my classmates, including girls.

“I was simply sitting with my friends nearby,” Abebe, who majors in economics remembers. “A policeman charged at me unprovoked, even though I was sitting. We all got up to run but I was singled out, I’m not sure why. I was hit in the shin three times with a baton. The pain was horrible.”

Rediet, another student, says that she was completely uninvolved in the lead up to the violence. “I was off campus compound, and was walking back to my dorm. I had no idea what had happened. Suddenly I was surrounded and attacked by police. I begged them to stop, but they wouldn’t stop until I was bleeding and bruised.”

Rediet accused security forces of attacking her until she was bruised

The injuries visible in the pictures provided to Addis Standard appear consistent with blows from blunt objects. Students were hit across limbs and buttocks. Many had difficulty walking in the days following their beatings.

But Dean Teshale denies and says no students were assaulted by police. “No students were attacked. The police belong to the community, they come when we need their help. They don’t attack students.”

When told that Addis Standard had received a host of pictures and testimony suggesting otherwise, the dean explained it away: “There are students who fell while trying to flee the chaos. Some of them went to hospital.”

Teshale also refuted claims that the students chose not to travel to Hawassa because there were no transport buses to take them from there onward . “There was transportation waiting for them in Hawassa. They refused this and instead started attacking people, throwing rocks and destroying school property. We are still confused as to why they resorted to violence when everything was arranged.”

The dean, who told Addis Standard that he was present from the beginning to the very end, is insistent that the sole reason for the students protest was their unwillingness to travel to Hawassa.

However, ordering the students to head to Hawassa would still clash with the recommendations given by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education which stated that university students should be bused out with the utmost precautions taken to ensure that they aren’t exposed to the virus. This includes ensuring buses are cleaned and that students aren’t sent off in large groups putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus. From Dean Teshale’s statements, it appears that the Awada campus had decided to send students off to Hawassa for the main campus to deal with them.

When asked about the shooting in which a student was injured, dean Teshale initially refrained from explaining but later on denied the account all together. “I don’t recall seeing any weapons,” the dean simply said.

Teshale Shode, dean of the Yirgalem based Awada campus

Teshale confirmed the students’ fear that the school was contemplating legal actions against twenty students who were briefly detained in the aftermath of the chaos but were released since. He insists they were directly involved in the destruction of college property and that this is what led to their arrests.

The list of the students detained shows they are aged between 20 and 27. the college maintains that they were all caught in the act. Among the twenty, seven had spent a week behind bars and were subjected to abuses by the police. Others were detained for two or three days before being released. One of the students insist they are innocent and that some of them had been targets of the college’s management.

“The managing director Zewude Mekonnen, has long been known for corrupt practices at the school,” Nati says. “This scandal with the transportation money is the latest. Three of the students were members of the student body that had registered students for travel. They had a history of questioning some of the practices at the management. They had nothing to do with the broken windows. They weren’t even on campus grounds at the time.”

Sandals left behind by students who fled in every direction as security forces violently disperse protesting students in Yirgalem on 26 March

Zewude Mekonnen wouldn’t answer repeated phone calls or text messages requesting for his comment. But Dean Teshale Shode said that the college ended up covering the transportation expenses of a number of the students, although he wouldn’t state how many.

Rediet says she wasn’t one of them. “When my parents learned that I was hospitalized they almost came to Yirgalem themselves. I couldn’t allow that. So my friends paid for my travel expenses and I got home. My parents couldn’t eat for two days after they saw my injuries,” she said.

“I stayed the night at the home of a friend in Yirgalem,” says Abel. “The next day, classmates gave me money for food on the road and travel.”

No, I left on my own. I was too scared to stay another day,” said Helen, another student who also added that she was far more concerned with the well-being of those she said received blows to the head. “They almost killed a girl in front of me. They even stole our mobile phones from us. How could I stay after the way they treated us? I don’t know how I’ll be able to return.”

While the allegations regarding misuse of school funds cannot be independently corroborated, it’s likely that independent investigation or not, the students may end up shouldering the blame for what happened in Yirgalem. They have already left the area one way or another; but whether they will return back when campuses resume teaching learning process is uncertain. AS

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