Ambo Protests: A Personal Account

Large truck overturned during protest
Large truck overturned during the protests

This account of events in the Oromia town of Ambo–events which began exactly one month ago, on April 25–was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. This post is the first in a series from Jen and Josh about their experiences in the wake of the student protests.

Barricade on main road in Ambo
Barricade on main road in Ambo

Disclaimer:  We are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers, and the following is a personal story, not a news report, and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, the Ethiopian Government, or the people of Ambo.

Friday, April 25th, the protests began in Ambo. We heard the sounds of a big crowd gathering at the university, walking east, yelling and chanting. The single paved road in town was barricaded, and traffic was diverted around the outskirts of town.

“What is going on?” we asked a group of high school boys.

“Oh, the students are angry. They have some problem,” they responded.

We called some friends at the university, who were able to explain further. Apparently, there are expansion plans for Addis Ababa, which would displace poor Oromo farmers and considerably shrink the size of the Oromia region. Justifiably, many Oromo people were upset. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, so demonstrations started across Oromia, mainly in towns with universities. Some of the protests turned violent.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were quiet, somewhat normal days in the town of Ambo. However, in other parts of Ethiopia, journalists and bloggers were arrested and thrown in jail.

Main road in Ambo, cars were burned in the streets
Main road in Ambo, cars & buildings being burned

Tuesday morning, the protests resumed. Friends in town called us to warn us not to go into work and not to leave our compound. Apparently there were protests at the preparatory school and the federal police were in town. We stayed home all day, listening to the sounds of the protests, denying to ourselves that the ‘pop, pop, pop’ we heard in the afternoon was gunfire. That night, the government-run news station reported that there was a misunderstanding between Oromo university students and the government. Other online reports said that the protestors were defending the Oromo’s right to their land.

Wednesday morning, the protests resumed, and our friends emphasized NOT to leave the house and NOT to answer our front gate. This time, we heard sirens. Ambo only has one ambulance – no police cars or fire trucks – and it wasn’t the normal noise. Again, we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ every few minutes. We poked our heads out of the compound gate and talked to our neighbor, who confirmed that they were, in fact, gun shots. Neighbors said the federal police had already shot and killed demonstrators who were participating in the protest. As we were finishing our conversation, a group of at least 30 adults ran past, glancing nervously behind themselves as they ran.

Maalif fiigtu? (Why are you running?)” I shouted.

Poliisii as dhufu! (The police are coming here!)” a man responded, ducking behind a corner.

An hour later, we headed to the nearest store to stock up on phone cards so we could put minutes on our cell phones and data on our internet device. The storekeeper is a tough older lady who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.

“Maal taate? (What happened?)” we asked.

She paused, looking down at her hands, her eyes welling with tears.

“Hara’aa….sirrii miti, (Today… not right)” she said, fighting back tears.

Ironically, as we sat at home, listening to gunshots all day long, John Kerry was visiting Ethiopia, a mere 2 hours away in Addis Ababa, to encourage democratic development.

Around 3pm, while the sounds of the protests were far on the east side of town, we heard gunshots so close to our house that we both ducked reflexively. An hour later, we talked to a young man who said, numbly, “I carried their bodies from their compound to the clinic.” Our two young neighbors – university students – had been hunted down by the federal police and killed in their home while the protest was on the opposite side of town.

Other friends told us other violent stories of what was going on in town, including an incident at a bank. Apparently, students attempted to enter the bank, and one was shot by the police. Not being armed with weapons, protesters retaliated against the shooter by hanging him.

Another friend told us about 2 students who were shot and killed by the federal police in front of a primary school…again, far away from the protest.

Wednesday night, we slept fitfully, listening to the sounds of the federal police coming around our neighborhood. They were yelling over a bullhorn in Amharic, which we didn’t understand, but was later translated for us: “Stay inside your compound tonight and tomorrow.”

Thursday, the bus station was closed and there weren’t any cars on the roads. That morning, a Peace Corps driver finally came to get us, looking terrified as he pulled up quickly to our house. We had to stop at the police station to get permission to leave town. While waiting at the station, we saw at least 50 people brought into the station at gunpoint, some from the backs of military trucks and many from a bus. Inside the police compound, there were hundreds of demonstrators overflowing the capacity of the prison, many of them visibly beaten and injured. After the U.S. Embassy requested our release, we headed out of town. The entire east side of town, starting from the bus station, was damaged. A bank, hotel, café, and many cars were damaged or burned. Our driver swerved to avoid the charred remains of vehicles sitting in the middle of the street.

We couldn’t help but shed tears at the sight of our beloved, damaged town.

One of several vehicles burned during the protests
One of several vehicles burned during the protests
A restaurant/gym damaged during protest
Our favorite restaurant/gym, damaged

To read more from the authors, visit their blog, Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.

More posts about the crisis in Ethiopia:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Going Back (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

The Torture and Brutal Murder of Alsan Hassen by Ethiopian Police Will Shock Your Conscience (by Amane Badhasso at Opride)

#OromoProtests in Perspective (by Ayantu Tibeso at Twin Cities Daily Planet)

23 thoughts on “Ambo Protests: A Personal Account

  1. Reblogged this on The Human Rights Warrior and commented:

    Please read and share this eyewitness account! The government has control over media and telecommunications in Ethiopia and has been largely successful so far in keeping the story of the student protests quiet. Two brave Peace Corps volunteers who were stationed for 1 1/2 years in Ambo but left this week because of the violence have asked for our help in spreading the truth about what is happening.

  2. There has been a social media campaign called #OromoProtests going on, to raise awareness of what’s going on. Every American should feel responsible, as Ethiopia is one of the biggest risipant of US foreign aid. And they are using the aid it to kill, torcher and controll the citizens. I think we should push the us government to review it’s foreign aid policy. Dictators do not deserve or shoul not get the Americans tax money.

  3. For the last 23 years TPLF led Ethiopian government have done so many crimes on Ethiopian citizen in the same manner, some of them are registered by Aminsty international and human right organizations. Regarding mass media coverage it was strictly controlled by government including independent international media from out side either by denial of access to the area of such incident, controlling over internal out lets and even jamming if some informations leak out. The crime so far includes ethnic cleansing, war crime and genocide. All things related to Oromo and in Oromia is worst compared to oppression and repression to control different regions. The government some of the government institutions even used donor money and resources from western and UN aided for food shortage areas for controlling citizen and to work against fundamental human rights and silencing the citizen at large.

  4. “Dhugaan hinqallatti malee hincittu”. It is impossible to oppress the Oromo’s struggle toward freedom and liberation by gun shot, shading the innocent blood, crushing, torturing, and killing. So the Human Rights Warrior sound, sound, sound our voice to the entire world for justice and freedom.

  5. But this is what is reported in other in other media too. The pictures taken by the eyewitnesses show damaged properties. Who started the riot? The students or others? Where is the truth? What makes this article different from the others? Because they are foreigners?
    I have never seen you in reporting the human right violation in Ethiopia and why only the recent protests in Ambo et el? I started to wonder if the Minnesota Oromo community is paying you to report all these or what?
    Better you change your name to Oromo rights advocates instead.

    1. Thank you for your comment and your questions. As your questions suggest, fact-finding is extremely challenging in an environment where people do not feel free to speak against the government, particularly when people fear the government will retaliate against them if they say something negative. It’s important to consider all of the available information, and we think this first-hand account, along with the photographs, helps shed new light on what transpired in Ambo April 25-May 1. From this first-hand account, it’s not clear how the damage to buildings and vehicles happened, but it’s important to document that the damage happened, as well as documenting the other highly troubling things the eyewitnesses saw and heard. Certainly destruction of property does not warrant the extrajudicial executions alluded to in the post.

      You suggest that The Advocates for Human Rights is only recently reporting on human rights in Ethiopia, but that’s not the case. For decades, we have represented asylum-seekers from Ethiopia, so our concerns about human rights in that country are not new. Also, please take a look at these publications:
      (1) Our 2009 publication, “Human Rights in Ethiopia”>Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora (;
      (2) UN reporting we’ve done on human rights in Ethiopia:
      a. Report for the UN Human Rights Council’s second Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia (submitted in 2013 for the May 6, 2014 review):
      b. Report for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (submitted in March 2012):
      c. Report to the UN Human Rights Committee (submitted July 2011):
      d. Report for the UN Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia (submitted in 2009)

      Finally, The Advocates for Human Rights has long partnered with many diaspora communities to promote human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. Our new publication, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities (, arose out of that work. As a Minnesota-based organization, we would be remiss in ignoring the large Oromo diaspora here in our home state as we go about this important work.

  6. Hola! I’ve been following your web site for a while now
    and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out
    from Huffman Tx! Just wanted tto say keep up the excellent work!

  7. Thank you foor the auspicious writeup. It in truth used tto bee a
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