Addis Standard

Feature: PM Abiy Ahmed visits Ambo, protest epicenter in search of answers

Liyat Fekade

Addis Abeba, April 12/2018 – For Demekech Biratu, a mother, and  Tufa Tefera, a brother – both families of victims of state crackdown against civilians in Ambo city – things have changed for good since January 2016.

Demekech Biratu, a street vendor and a resident of Ambo, was agonizing over the fate her son, a second year student at Ambo Technical and Vocational Education College, who disappeared in mid-January 2016. “He went to school and vanished into thin air,”she told Addis Standard at that time.

Later on, Demekech would learn that her son, whose name she is still afraid of telling, was held in detention in Guder town, 11 km from Ambo. He was one of the thousands of youths (Qeerroo in Afaan Oromo) thrown into jail in the midst of then two and half months Oromo Protests.

But unlike Demekech, Tufa and his family had a devastating closure. Kumsa Tefera, Tufa’s brother, used to cook and sell French fries, mostly after his school, on the sidewalks in his residential area in Ambo city, Kebele o2. The kids in his neighborhood loved him as much as they loved his affordable, street cooked French fries. But in the afternoon of January 21, 2016, Kumsa went to attend the annual Timqet celebrations, one of the colorful public festivities observed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Kumsa didn’t come home at the end of the day; he was shot dead by security forces who believed the only way to disperse a protesting crowd was by shooting live bullets. “We lost him way too young,” his brother Tufa, told Addis Standard at that time. “He got into selling the fries to help our mother. I don’t know if she will ever recover from this.”

Two and half agonizing years later, Ambo, the city where Demekech and Tufa are still living, hosted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who made his second in country visit after Jigjiga, the capital of the Somali regional state, on Saturday April 07.

Symbolic Ambo is…

At the time the people of Ambo were subjected to repeated state sponsored assault by security forces, Dr. Abiy Ahmed was a part of the OPDO leadership, the party in charge of governing Oromia regional state, which is the epicenter of the four years anti-government protests, led often by events that first take place in Ambo and its environs.

West Shewa, as it is known by the current federal arrangement, is the pulse and gravity of not only the Oromo protests but also the birth places of prominent opposition leader, Dr. Merera Gudina, Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and singer and song writer,  Haacaaluu Hundeessa, among countless individuals who have shaped the protests in their own way.

So it is only fitting for PM Abiy to say, in his speech delivered in Afaan Oromo, the mother tongue of Demekech and Tufa, that he wants to turn Ambo become “a tourist destination.”

 

…in search of answers

But before turning Ambo become a tourist destination, PM Abiy seemed to realize that uttering soothing words to a city devastated by death and destruction for four straight years since April and May 2014 was important. He therefore urged a gathering of more than 30,000 strong who came from some three dozens of towns and villages surrounding Ambo, to “develop the culture of listening to each other.”

Demekech was not at the event; she has her daily street business of selling merchandise from tissue paper to candies to chewing gums. Asked by phone to comment on the PM’s remark of “listening to each other,” she told Addis Standard :”It is good; but for years, we have been listening to them. Now it is their turn to listen to us. I want Dr. Abiy to hear the story of my son,”she said.

Her son was released from Guder prison after being held for eight months without charges, she said. But he left Ethiopia around the end of 2017. “I never heard from him since then. I don’t know where he is; I hear a lot of stories of young men and women who are enslaved in Libya. I also hear about deaths in the sea. I don’t know which fate has met my son. I haven’t heard from him,” she repeated herself and broke into silent tears.

Tufa, a jobless Qeerroo at 26, and who took over the demanding task of caring for his ailing mother, Damitu Araga, is less impressed by the plea to “listen to one another”, and more by the words of Lemma Megerssa, president of the Oromia regional state, and one of the guests who addressed the crowd before PM Abiy did.  “Today, we didn’t come to put out a fire like before, but to light up hope, to deliver a message of good news,” Lemma said.

“It is good to hear that and I hope he meant it,” Tufa told Addis Standard by phone. “But most importantly I want to get the answer to my mother’s question of who killed the love of her life; who killed my brother? Why did they kill him? Where should we go to look for justice?”

The delegation led by PM Abiy and was also comprised of other bigwigs, including Dr. Workneh Gebeyehu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, & Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of ANDM, observed a minute of silence to those killed during the four years Oromo protests.  Each also took turns to praise the Qeerroo, a movement once the subject of federal police investigations. “Qeerroo are the shield for all people”, said PM Abiy, followed by his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, who said the Qeerroo were the “engineers of change and agents of our renaissance.”

But Tufa, a staunch supporter of Lemma Megerssa, wants to see action. “I can only believe this if  I see that they stop haunting the young and the brightest in this country,” he said. “Odduu qofaa fayiida hinqaabu,” he resorted to speak in Afaan Oromoo: “talk alone has no relevance.”  For all his reservations of the talks, however, Tufa said he was comforted to hear Lemma’s tribute to those who died asking for nothing but equal opportunities. “I pay eternal respect for the martyrs,” Lemma said.

Tufa felt there was at least “someone who considers my bother as a martyr.” But Demekech is still waiting to hear her phone ring and hear the sound of her son. AS