Etenesh Abera @EteneshAb and
Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan
Addis Abeba, July 15/2020 – Oromia regional state erupted into multiple protests a few hours after prominent Oromo artist Haccaaluu Hundessas was assassinated in the capital Addis Abeba on Monday June 30/2020 at approximately 9:30 PM local time.
As protests against the assassination swelled, they were followed by a spate of targeted attacks against religious and ethnic minorities in various parts of Oromia region accompanied by excessive use of force by security apparatus. By the government’s own counting, 177 people were killed, more than 200 were injured and countless amount of property were damaged.
The following is firsthand account that Addis Standard was able to gather in the last few days.
The air throughout the country was filled with the shock and grief that gripped Ethiopians of all background after the assassination of Haccaaluu Hundessa, a beloved Oromo singer/song writer. But it was Oromia regional state, the largest state of the federation, that saw multiple protests erupt. Thousands of young men and women have descended into the streets from East Hararghe to west Shewa, from Bale to Borana, to Arsi and east Shewa zones of the regional state expressing their shock, grief and anger. Initially, most protests were peaceful, although some protestors have chanted slogans on the need to avenge the assassination of an artist who has been the soundtrack of the Oromo people’s struggle for freedom and equality. “Today, they killed Haccee, tomorrow it will be us. We cannot sit back and watch this happen,” said one young man in a Facebook message posted shortly after the news of the assassination.
Under siege in Ziway (Batu)
As the hours went by, some protests have already morphed into violent confrontations in Ziway (Batu). A group of people who were staying at a hotel in the city were attacked by young people who broke into their hotel rooms at around 4:00 AM Tuesday morning. According to an account from one of the victims, the young men have at first searched the guests, checking their ethnicity on their identity cards. Some of the attackers have assured the guests that they will not be harmed; they were after the Hotel. The owner of the Hotel, an ethnic Ghuraghe, came shortly afterward and helped escort the group (and others who were staying in his Hotel) out of the premises to a safety of a private family. He couldn’t save his hotel.
Later in the day the private family who were hosting the hotel guests fell victim themselves when a business center they own in the city was ransacked and destroyed. Their crime? They rented part of their business center to ethnic Amhara families; they were notified by the attackers, who hail from Oromo ethnic background. These events took place in the early hours of Tuesday June 30. “When they escorted the guests from the hotel to the safety of the private house at around 7: 30 AM Tuesday morning, the city was already burning,” a relative of one of the victims told Addis Standard.
The attacks and destruction that occurred mostly on Tuesday and Wednesday have left the city looking like a ghost city. Residential houses, businesses, flower farms, and cars were all looted first and set ablaze next.
But it didn’t stop the hosts of the group from continuing to provide shelter and security for their guests, whose car was eventually burned. Despite being victims themselves, their hosts spared no expense in sheltering and hosting the stranded guests in their house for three days until the city has calmed down and the visitors left for their respective homes.
Other cities, towns and villages particularly in Arsi, west Arsi, and east Shewa zones of Oromia regional state are replete with similar or worse stories as the protests against the killing of Haccaaluu have quickly morphed into targeted attacks against minorities, especially the Amhara and Guraghe community members living in Oromia region. These attacks have also targeted followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church and protestant Christians, particularly in Arsi Negelle, where gruesome killings were reported.
Destruction in Shashemene
The city of Shashemene, located some 250 km off Addis Abeba in West Arsi zone of Oromia region, is devastated. The city center looks nothing short of a war zone. It didn’t happen without the suffering of its residents. The wee hours of Tuesday was when the nightmares began, with groups of young people, some from the city itself, others who came from other places, began to march through the streets attacking their victims, looting and eventually burning their properties.
“At first, we thought it was the usual protests and road blockages but after they blocked the road in our neighborhood, they looted our house and started burning it,” said Saber Langoba, a father of eight and a native of the city whose parents migrated from present day Silte Zone in SNNPR decades ago. Saber is one of the countless people who lost everything they have worked for in a span of few hours.
Bekele (name changed), is an ethnic Amhara and a father of four. He is currently sheltered at St. George Church in the same city he has lived his entire life. According to him the violence started on Monday shortly before midnight and after the announcement of the assassination of Haccaaluu was broadcast on state TV. “We didn’t know what was happening in the city but the youth were already out of control,” he said, “Within one day we lost all what we had.” He sheltered himself and his family as a desperate measure to stay alive. “I don’t speak the language so I was scared to stay and explain that I decided to take shelter here. I don’t know what has happened to my property.”
But he added that particularly in the second day of the attacks on Wednesday both non-orthodox Christians, non-Oromo Muslims as well as Oromos themselves were targeted as the looting spread throughout the city.
Belay (name changed) is another witness who is sheltered in the same church and has corroborated Bekele’s accounts that the attacks have targeted ethnic and religious affiliations. But he added that particularly in the second day of the attacks on Wednesday both non-orthodox Christians, non-Oromo Muslims as well as Oromos themselves were targeted as the looting spread throughout the city.
Meskerm, who wants to go by her first name only, is born and raised in Shashamne. She is a mother of four and currently one of the hundreds sheltered at St Takele Haymont church in the city. “I was born here, I have lived my entire life here, got married here & had my children here,” Meskerem said. She described being subjected to three separate attacks by different groups between Tuesday and Wednesday. “The attackers came in three rounds; two on Tuesday & the last one on Wednesday. The first ones asked about my ethnicity & told me to flee if I had kids; then a second group came and took some of my valuables; on Wednesday another group came, attacked me and looted all the valuables I have including my wedding ring.” She also described an episode where she had to beg her assailants to leave her eight & 16 years old daughters alone. “I am still in shock.”
In a sheer chaos and lawlessness, what started as a targeted attacks particularly against minority Amharas and Guraghes in the city has turned into a full blown, random attack against people of all background who possess properties such as small local shops, cafes and residential houses.
“We came to Shashamne during the era of Emperor Haileselasie I, I started a family here & this is the second time a similar attack happened to us. The first time was 11 years ago,” Said Jawar Aman, an 80 year old resident of Shashamne. “It took us two years to recover from the first attack. What makes this one worse is the attackers have also ambushed my son who is currently in Hawassa for treatment.” Speaking tearfully about the psychological impact of the violence that left him without his lifetime labor, Jawar said, “I am 80 years old but I am subjected to live through this.” What he lost is not quantifiable, he says “On Allah even if they give me 10 million ETB, it will not compensate for what I have lost at this age of mine.”
… first they robbed my residence, took every valuable I labored through years to accumulate; as if it was not enough my husband is now in a hospital, fighting for his life
Rahma is a former domestic worker who came back from the Middle East and is a mother of a new born. She recalls her ordeal when “they began attacking my husband while we were fleeing; first they robbed my residence, took every valuable I labored through years to accumulate; as if it was not enough my husband is now in a hospital, fighting for his life.”
Hajj Mohammed (who only wanted to go by his first name), is an Arsi Oromo business owner & a native of Shashamne. He recounts the horror that Wednesday was. “They went crazy, they were blood thirsty, and I don’t know where they came from or what they wanted. I am an Oromo & a Muslim and I had to beg them to leave my place of business alone.” He too lost everything he had.
Shashemene is perhaps the most devastated of all places in west Arsi zone, where the destruction in the city included Lucy Education Center, which has around 350 employees and 4, 200 students enrolled from kindergarten to secondary school. Its High school and preparatory compounds were also completely destroyed along with the offices, classrooms and libraries. According to Yohanes Woldie, its owner who spoke to several media outlets, the Center’s Aposto branch was also burned to ashes. Haile Resort, owned by the famous Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebresellasie, is the other notable property looted and completely destroyed.
Two weeks after this tragic event, Shashemene is left reeling. Communities who have helped stop the violence are now supporting the victims who are sheltered in Churches and Mosques. Fifty-seven individuals (All ethnic Silte) from 26 households have taken shelter in a mosque located near the area called Malkaa Odaa, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Shashamne. They are all being cared for by community members both from Muslims and Christians in the city. Two orthodox churches (Makane Selam St. George & Debre Sebhat St. Takele Haymont) have become shelters to Christians who fled the violence. Some 480 individuals have taken shelter in these two churches. They too are being cared for community members, both from Christians and Muslims. According to community organizers, there hasn’t been any help from authorities yet.
Shibiru Sultan, Shashemene city deputy mayor and head of the city’s enterprises bureau, said some 251 households were displaced from the city alone and are currently sheltered in Churches and Mosques as well as community members; 89 hotels, 249 residential houses, 79 vehicles and 36 three-wheel Bajajs were reduced to ashes during the two day mayhem.
Tragedy in Dera (Dheera)
Located some 25 km between Adama in east Shewa & Assella in Arsi zones of Oromia regional state, Dera (Originally spelled Dheera in Afaan Oromo) city saw the most appalling human loss and property destruction which affected 280 households, leaving hundreds of civilians seeking shelter in two churches (St. Michael & St. Medhanalem churches) in the city. Several others have left the city all together.
According to two eye witnesses, who don’t want to be named for fear of reprisal, the attacks and looting of selected private properties started in Kebele 02 in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. “My son was out and about with his friends. He usually comes home at midnight but on Tuesday night, he failed to show up after midnight. I thought he was safe with friends, but deep in my heart I knew I wasn’t going to see my son again,” said his devastated 46 year old mother. Mid morning on Tuesday, her son’s body was found badly disfigured and dumped in a ditch in the other side of the city from their residence. “My son had never had any argument with anyone” his mother said, “He was a joyful, kind soul.” She moved to the city with her son in 1998 from north Shewa, in Amhara regional state, after her husband died of illness and she lost her belongings in family tussle that followed. “All I wanted to do was take my son and leave everything behind and that was what I did 22 years ago. I raised my son alone; he was my eyesight.” She asked both her name and her son’s name not to be mentioned for fear that she will be retaliated for speaking about his death. A double agony.
“I lost a flour mill to sheer vandalism,” said the owner, who is a Ghuraghe whom came from Butajira area to Dheera 18 years ago. “It didn’t stop there, my residence, which is in the next compound was also broken into, robbed and set ablaze. When I saw what happened to my flour mill, I ran away with my wife and three kids so I thought my house was safe. But when I returned in the evening, I found my house itself reduced to ashes,” he said sobbing. But if it is any comfort, “my family is safe. We are all alive. But we lost everything. Where do we begin to put our lives back together?” he asks.
The anguish of both families was further compounded by the inability of the local security forces to protect helpless civilians, especially on Tuesday when, like in Shashemene, the attacks were more targeted at non-Oromo individuals and people of different religious backgrounds. “I was at a police station by the time my flour mill was being looted and burned, but the police did not show up until late afternoon,” he said.
Both eye witnesses spoke of being overrun by people from outside the city; “young people who we never saw before,” the man said. “In this city, everyone knows everyone, but I have seen young people that I have never seen before
The mother who lost her son also said she was not able to file the records of the death of her son until two days later because “the police do not even seem bothered by what took place. We have received no support from local authorities, we are living from handouts from community members,” she said, still shaken.
Both eye witnesses spoke of being overrun by people from outside the city; “young people who we never saw before,” the man said. “In this city, everyone knows everyone, but I have seen young people that I have never seen before roaming the streets when I was trying to collect my son’s body,” the woman said.
Sasu Tamirat, another victim who is a native of Dheera, believe it is a well-coordinated attack, aided and abetted by local authorities. “It was organized & it was not a one day plan,” said Sasu, “I lost more than 4 million ETB and my family is now divided between Adama & this Church (St.Medhanialem).” Sasu also said that the attacks were religious based and points to Oromo Christian victims who took shelter in the same church. One such victim is Tsehay Hailu, a grandparent who is originally from the town of Sire (a town in Arsi Zone of Oromia regional state). She moved to Dera 36 years ago. “Surrounded by the smell of gasoline that they poured all over the house, I kneeled & begged them for my life,” she says remembering the events tearfully. “I asked them ‘when did I do you wrong my children?’ then I pleaded with them in the name of Allah to not hurt me or my family. They laughed amongst themselves & after robbing every valuable I had they told each other, ‘let’s leave this old woman alone’”.
According to officials, ten people were killed in Dheera including one police officer. Mi’raaf hotel, the most famous landmark of the city was also destroyed during the violence, as were banks, hotels and business centers.
Many of the eye witnesses and the victims who spoke to Addis Standard described the events in Dera as being “organized & supported somehow by city officials and law enforcement officers,” both Tesfa & Sasu said. All of them have described the police’s inaction & the assailants having access to information which can only be obtained from Kebelle offices. “The attackers had lists such as which properties belonged to who & what their ethnicity & religious affiliations were.” Said Sasu Tamrat; this kind of organized list can only be obtained from official registries, he adds.
City authorities have asked residents who were affected by the violence to register their damaged properties and provide proof as to how & by whom it was damaged. But many of them complained the process unpractical as visual proof is hard to obtain, acquiring eyewitnesses willing to testify nearly impossible, and implicating the culprits, especially those who came from outside, totally impossible. Berhanu Debelle, a resident said, “It is very difficult as many eye witnesses are scared and hence unwilling to testify on behalf of the victims.”
Those who spoke to Addis Standard described a feeling of loss not only of lives & properties but also the loss of the sense of security in their own country.
Back in Shashamne, Addis Standard obtained a pamphlet written in Afaan Oromo & distributed in neighborhoods days after the violence stopped. “Any native resident of the city who tries to help those who were affected, buy, sell or stand in proxy on behalf of them (the affected families), we will burn them & their entire families.” The pamphlet ended with the phrase, “It is the Qeeroo that avenges Qeerroo’a blood.”
As these tragic events left communities torn apart, the lingering question victims disoriented and in fear remains “what is next”? From Ziway (Batu) to Shashemene to Dheera, community members are left to provide and shelter one another. All of the victims interviewed for this story share one thing in common: they were left unprotected by law enforcement agents they were pleading with. “They did nothing” was the collective answer from many.
In what appears to be an acknowledgement of failure to protect civilians, Oromia regional state police commission commissioner Ararssa Merdassa told government media that 44 government officials and 20 members of the regional law enforcement apparatus were detained. They include mayors – including Temam Hussien, the mayor of Shashemene – senior zonal and woreda administrators. So far a sweeping 4988 people are arrested in connection with the violence. Several eye witnesses speak of indiscriminate arrests in both Shashemene and Dera, which, in some instances, included victims and their families.
Late last week Ararssa also gave the ethnic breakdown of the victims. According to him 114 are Oromos, 46 are Amharas, one is Sidama, and two are Gamo, while the ethnic identifies of three victims are unknown yet.
In a statement it released on 3 July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged the presence of targeted attacked and excessive use of force by the security. the statement said the Rights Commissioner noted “with concern that the protests following [Haccaaluu] Hundessa’s killing have increasingly taken on an ethnic undertone. We therefore call on all, including young people, to stop carrying out ethnically-motivated attacks and to stop inciting to violence, acts that only serve to exacerbate underlying tensions. We also urge the security forces to exercise restraint when managing protests and to refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force.”
On July 03 for example, 13 people were killed by security forces in west and east Hararghe zones where residents spoke about a sweeping arrest and indiscriminate killings by security forces following protest marches. Zonal administrators on their part deny the number of causalities but admitted security measures were being taken to prevent violent confrontations.
However, apart from the numbers, the government has not yet released data on how many people were killed by the targeted attacks and how many were killed by its security apparatus, leaving more questions than answers. AS
Correction: The translation from the Pamphlet in Shashemene ended with a phrase “The Qeeroo will take what’s theirs.” However, this translation is wrong and is now replaced with the correct translation: “It is the Qeeroo that avenges Qeerroo’a blood.”
Editor’s Note: At the request of the victims of these tragic attacks for fear of their safety, some of the names in this story are changed, some are only referred to by their first names, while we have refrained from featuring eye witness pictures. We would also like to notify our readers that due to the two weeks internet shut down and fear of eye witnesses to speak over phones, these accounts are only the ones Addis Standard was able to gather firsthand under a tight security environment.