Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora
H.E. Mr. Minelik Alemu Getahun, Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office in Geneva
H.E. Mr. Minelik Alemu Getahun (left), Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office in Geneva

This fall was a busy time for advocacy at the United Nations on human rights in Ethiopia. It was also a great time to see The Advocates for Human Rights’ new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, in action.

Universal Periodic Review Concludes with Some Fireworks
In a one-hour session on September 19, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the outcome of its second Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia. You can watch the video of the session here.

I’ve blogged about the UPR of Ethiopia before, and the adoption of the outcome is the last step in the process. The adoption of the outcome is also the only opportunity civil society organizations have to speak during the UPR process.

The Advocates for Human Rights is based in Minnesota, not Geneva, so we don’t generally get a chance to address the Human Rights Council during the UPR process. But I often watch the live webcasts, and this time I got up early to livetweet.

Ms Renate Bloem from Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation addresses the Human Rights Council
Ms Renate Bloem from Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation addresses the Human Rights Council

Several non-governmental organizations took the floor and raised concerns about the human rights situation on the ground in Ethiopia. Civicus World Alliance for Citizenship Participation, for example, expressed concern about Ethiopia’s refusal to accept recommendations to remove draconian restrictions on free expression. Renate Bloem (left), speaking for Civicus, added:

While relying on international funding to supplement 50-60 percent of its national budget, the government has simultaneously criminalized most foreign funding for human rights groups in the country. These restrictions have precipitated the near complete cessation of independent human rights monitoring in the country. It is therefore deeply alarming that Ethiopia has explicitly refused to implement recommendations put forward by nearly 15 governments during its UPR examination to create an enabling environment for civil society.

The Ethiopian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Minelik Alemu Getahun (top), lashed out at the NGOs that commented, particularly Civicus:

I regret the language used by some of the NGO representatives and particularly the call for action some of them made against Ethiopia in the Council for alleged isolated acts. Some of the language used in the allegations, particularly the remarks by CIVICUS on our budget is outrageous and incorrect. I can assure the Council that Ethiopia relies on its peoples and their resources, which is not unusual supplemented by international support.

The Human Rights Council then adopted the outcome of the second UPR of Ethiopia. The recommendations Ethiopia accepted are contained in the Report of the Working Group and an addendum, available here. Some of the more promising recommendations that Ethiopia accepted in September are:

  • Implement fully its 1995 Constitution, including the freedoms of association, expression and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups and non-government organisations (Australia).
  • Take concrete steps to ensure the 2015 national elections are more representative and participative than those in 2010, especially around freedom of assembly and encouraging debate among political parties (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
  • Consider implementing the pertinent recommendations from the Independent Expert on Minorities, with a view to guaranteeing equal treatment of all ethnic groups in the country (Cape Verde).
  • Monitor the implementation of the anti-terrorism law in order to identify any act of repression which affects freedom of association and expression and possible cases of arbitrary detention. In addition, develop activities necessary to eliminate any excesses by the authorities in its application (Mexico).

Now it’s up to people on the ground in Ethiopia, as well as people outside of Ethiopia like the Oromo diaspora, to lobby the Ethiopian Government to implement the recommendations it accepted and to monitor whether the government is keeping its word.

The next UPR cycle for Ethiopia will begin in about 4 years, when NGOs will have a chance to submit new stakeholder reports demonstrating whether Ethiopia has implemented the recommendations it accepted,  pointing out any developments on the ground since the last review, and advocating for new recommendations that will improve human rights in Ethiopia. Learn more about how you can get involved in the UPR process of Ethiopia (or any other country) on pages 200-210 of Paving Pathways.

Opportunities Ahead for Voices to be Heard
African Commission on Human and People's RightsThere’s much more to be done in the effort to build respect for human rights in Ethiopia. In addition to the next steps mentioned above, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights will be reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record in its December 2014 session. In September, the Advocates and the International Oromo Youth Association submitted a lengthy alternative report to the African Commission, responding to the Ethiopian Government’s report. The African Commission will conduct an examination of the Ethiopian Government and then will issue Concluding Observations and Recommendations. You can read the African Commission’s Concluding Observations from its first review of Ethiopia, in 2010, here. To learn more about advocacy with the African Commission, read pages 268-280 of Paving Pathways.

On Wednesday, November 19, Amane Badhasso and I will have a talk with the Amnesty International chapter of the University of Minnesota Law School. The students are eager to learn more about human rights in Ethiopia, and they want to participate in a collective activity to show their support. There’s been a lot of attention lately to a report Amnesty just released on human rights violations against the Oromo people.

Organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights and Amnesty will be ineffective if they work on their own. The Oromo diaspora, as well as other diaspora communities from Ethiopia, have a critical role to play in leading the way to promoting human rights, justice, and accountability in Ethiopia. The Advocates for Human Rights hopes that Paving Pathways will lay the groundwork for many more fruitful collaborations.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? Do you know people who are living in the diaspora? What steps can the diasporans you know take to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin or ancestry? How could Paving Pathways and The Advocates for Human Rights assist them?

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts about the crisis in Ethiopia:

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

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: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

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)

Too Young to Wed

too young to wed close

I’m traveling to Geneva next week along with representatives of the International Oromo Youth Association to meet with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to talk about children’s rights in Ethiopia. We submitted a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in July, and the Committee invited us to meet with Committee members in a 2.5 hour, closed-door session next Friday.

hall overview 2As I get ready to head back to Geneva, my thoughts turn to my last visit to the United Nations, back in March. As I wandered through the Palais des Nations complex of buildings after a busy day, I came across an exhibit that left me speechless. This exhibit was in the majestic main hallway of the old League of Nations building—a space with towering ceilings and beautiful views of Lake Geneva. But in that grand setting was a photo exhibit about a pernicious contemporary global human rights violation: child marriage. Child marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, but as it turns out, several of the girls in the exhibit are from Ethiopia.

And the exhibit is particularly timely right now. On Monday, Bangladesh approved a law that will impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who marries a girl under age 18. And on Wednesday, a judge in India admonished the parents and in-laws of a 14-year-old bride, stating “Child marriage is an evil worst than rape and should be completely eradicated from the society.” The magistrate continued:

There are serious outcomes of child marriage. It is the worst form of domestic violence against the child, not only by the respondents (husband and his family) but also by her own parents. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education and are at a higher risk of being physically abused, contracting HIV and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth.

The traveling exhibit, called “Too Young to Wed” (more information at the bottom of this post), is a striking example of how art can inform our understanding of human rights issues:

Yemen: Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah. Yemeni women’s rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society.
Yemen: Young girls sit inside a home outside of Al Hudaydah. Yemeni women’s rights groups agree that child marriage is rampant in every part of Yemeni society.
Yemen: Galiyaah, age 13, Sidaba, age 11, Khawlah, age 12. In Yemen, where marriage can resemble a business transaction, sisters Galiyaah (left) and Sidaba (center), marry the brothers of their cousin, Khawlah (right), who wed the sisters’ uncle.
Yemen: Galiyaah, age 13, Sidaba, age 11, Khawlah, age 12. In Yemen, where marriage can resemble a business transaction, sisters Galiyaah (left) and Sidaba (center), marry the brothers of their cousin, Khawlah (right), who wed the sisters’ uncle.
Ethiopia: Debitu, age 14. Debitu escaped from her husband after months of abuse. Seven months pregnant, she is now homeless and uncertain of her future. “I didn’t want to get pregnant because I was very small. I wanted to wait until I am old enough. . . Sometimes I think I will die [during child birth].”
Ethiopia: Debitu, age 14. Debitu escaped from her husband after months of abuse. Seven months pregnant, she is now homeless and uncertain of her future. “I didn’t want to get pregnant because I was very small. I wanted to wait until I am old enough. . . Sometimes I think I will die [during child birth].”
Nepal: Surita, age 16, Bishal, age 15. Bishal accepts gifts from visitors as his new bride, Surita, sits bored at her new home. Here in Nepal, as in many countries, not only girls, but boys too are married young.
Nepal: Surita, age 16, Bishal, age 15. Bishal accepts gifts from visitors as his new bride, Surita, sits bored at her new home. Here in Nepal, as in many countries, not only girls, but boys too are married young.
Nepal: Sumeena, Age 15. Sumeena leaves her home to meet her groom, Prakash, 15. The harmful practice of child marriage is common in Nepal.
Nepal: Sumeena, age 15. Sumeena leaves her home to meet her groom, Prakash, 15. The harmful practice of child marriage is common in Nepal.
Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11, Addisu, age 23. Addisu and his new bride Destaye are married in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in a rural area outside the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. Community members said that because of Addisu’s standing as a priest, his bride had to be a virgin. This was the reason Destaye was given to him at such a young age.
Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11, Addisu, age 23. Addisu and his new bride Destaye are married in a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox wedding in a rural area outside the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. Community members said that because of Addisu’s standing as a priest, his bride had to be a virgin. This was the reason Destaye was given to him at such a young age.
(right) Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11. Destaye, now 15, intended to continue her schooling, in spite of the teasing she endured from her community. “They used to laugh at me for going to school after marriage,” she said. “But I know the use of school so I don’t care. . . . But people laughing at you makes it more difficult.” But after the birth of her son six months ago, Destaye no longer had time for classes. “I feel sad because I quit learning,” she said.
(right) Ethiopia: Destaye, age 11. Destaye, now 15, intended to continue her schooling, in spite of the teasing she endured from her community. “They used to laugh at me for going to school after marriage,” she said. “But I know the use of school so I don’t care. . . . But people laughing at you makes it more difficult.” But after the birth of her son six months ago, Destaye no longer had time for classes. “I feel sad because I quit learning,” she said.
Ethiopia: Members of the Fistula Girls Club and the Community-based Reproductive Association get ready to perform a traditional dance during a performance against child marriage in Shende village in Ethiopia. This is one of many events hosted by the groups to discourage early marriage and other harmful practices in the Bure district.
Ethiopia: Members of the Fistula Girls Club and the Community-based Reproductive Association get ready to perform a traditional dance during a performance against child marriage in Shende village in Ethiopia. This is one of many events hosted by the groups to discourage early marriage and other harmful practices in the Bure district.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11. Ghulam plays in the village on the day of her engagement. Removed from school just months earlier, she said she is sad to be getting engaged because she wanted to be a teacher. Parents sometimes remove their daughters from school to protect them from the possibility of sexual activity outside of wedlock.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11. Ghulam plays in the village on the day of her engagement. Removed from school just months earlier, she said she is sad to be getting engaged because she wanted to be a teacher. Parents sometimes remove their daughters from school to protect them from the possibility of sexual activity outside of wedlock.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11; Faiz, age 40. Ghulam and Faiz, age 40, sit for a portrait in her home before their wedding in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of State report “Human Rights Practices for 2011,” approximately 60 percent of girls were married younger than the legal age of 16. Once a girl’s father has agreed to her engagement, she is pulled out of school immediately.
Afghanistan: Ghulam, age 11; Faiz, age 40. Ghulam and Faiz, age 40, sit for a portrait in her home before their wedding in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of State report “Human Rights Practices for 2011,” approximately 60 percent of girls were married younger than the legal age of 16. Once a girl’s father has agreed to her engagement, she is pulled out of school immediately.
Yemen: Nujood, age 12. Nujood Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband, who was more than 20 years her senior. Nujood’s story sent shock waves around the country and caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.
Yemen: Nujood, age 12. Nujood Ali, two years after her divorce from her husband, who was more than 20 years her senior. Nujood’s story sent shock waves around the country and caused parliament to consider a bill writing a minimum marriage age into law.
Ethiopia: Street girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project (GRIP) in Addis Ababa. This Ethiopian humanitarian shelter provides skills training and health care to thousands of street girls—three-quarters of whom have escaped early marriages in the countryside.
Ethiopia: Street girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project (GRIP) in Addis Ababa. This Ethiopian humanitarian shelter provides skills training and health care to thousands of street girls—three-quarters of whom have escaped early marriages in the countryside.
Yemen: Asia, age 14. Asia washes her newborn at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-oldl daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth, yet has no knowledge of how to care for herself or access to maternal health care.
Yemen: Asia, age 14. Asia washes her newborn at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth, yet has no knowledge of how to care for herself or access to maternal health care.
Ethiopia: China, age 18. A young sex worker named China sits stunned after being beaten up by a client. Many of the girls who run away from child marriages end up trafficked to brothels where they often face intense violence.
Ethiopia: China, age 18. A young sex worker named China sits stunned after being beaten up by a client. Many of the girls who run away from child marriages end up trafficked to brothels where they often face intense violence.
Afghanistan: Jamila, age 15. Kandahar policewoman Malalai Kakar arrests a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife, 15, and mother of two children, for disobeying him. When asked what would happen to the husband for this crime, Kakar replied, “Nothing. Men are kings here.” Kakar was later killed by the Taliban.
Afghanistan: Jamila, age 15. Kandahar policewoman Malalai Kakar arrests a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife, 15, and mother of two children, for disobeying him. When asked what would happen to the husband for this crime, Kakar replied, “Nothing. Men are kings here.” Kakar was later killed by the Taliban.
Afghanistan: Mejgon, Age 16. Mejgon weeps in the arms of the case worker near fellow residents at an NGO shelter run by Afghan women in Herat, Afghanistan. Mejgon’s father sold her at the age of 11 to a 60-year-old man for two boxes of heroin.
Afghanistan: Mejgon, Age 16. Mejgon weeps in the arms of the case worker near fellow residents at an NGO shelter run by Afghan women in Herat, Afghanistan. Mejgon’s father sold her at the age of 11 to a 60-year-old man for two boxes of heroin.
Yemen: Tehani, age 8. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tehani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for a portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their home in Hajjah.
Yemen: Tehani, age 8. “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” Tehani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for a portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their home in Hajjah.
India: Sarita, age 15. Sarita is seen in tears before she is sent to her new home with her new groom. The previous day, she and her 8-year-old sister Maya were married to sibling brothers.
India: Sarita, age 15. Sarita is seen in tears before she is sent to her new home with her new groom. The previous day, she and her 8-year-old sister Maya were married to sibling brothers.
(left) India: Rajani, age 5. Long after midnight, Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of the morning. “It becomes a secret the whole village keeps,” explained one farmer.
(left) India: Rajani, age 5. Long after midnight, Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of the morning. “It becomes a secret the whole village keeps,” explained one farmer.
India: Rajani, age 5. Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.
India: Rajani, age 5. Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at home until puberty, when a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.
Ethiopia: Agere, age 32. Agere breastfeeds her twin newborns. Agere was married at age 12 to her husband, who later gave her AIDS. The twins have tested HIV positive. Now abandoned, she does not have enough money to buy them uninfected milk.
Ethiopia: Agere, age 32. Agere breastfeeds her twin newborns. Agere was married at age 12 to her husband, who later gave her AIDS. The twins have tested HIV positive. Now abandoned, she does not have enough money to buy them uninfected milk.
Nepal: Niruta, age 14. A nine-months pregnant Niruta carries grass for her family’s farm animals in Kagati Village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Niruta moved in with the family of Durga, 17, and became pregnant when they were only engaged.
Nepal: Niruta, age 14. A nine-months pregnant Niruta carries grass for her family’s farm animals in Kagati Village, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Niruta moved in with the family of Durga, 17, and became pregnant when they were only engaged.
Afghanistan: Bibi Aisha, age 19. In a practice known as baad, Bibi Aisha’s father promised her to a Taliban fighter when she was 6 years old as compensation for a killing that a member of her family had committed. She was married at 16 and subjected to constant abuse. At 18, she fled the abuse but was caught by police, jailed and then returned to her family. Her father-in-law, husband and three other family members took her into the mountains, cut off her nose and her ears, and left her to die. “I was a woman exchanged for someone else’s wrongdoing. [My new husband] was looking for an excuse to beat me.”
Afghanistan: Bibi Aisha, age 19. In a practice known as baad, Bibi Aisha’s father promised her to a Taliban fighter when she was 6 years old as compensation for a killing that a member of her family had committed. She was married at 16 and subjected to constant abuse. At 18, she fled the abuse but was caught by police, jailed and then returned to her family. Her father-in-law, husband and three other family members took her into the mountains, cut off her nose and her ears, and left her to die. “I was a woman exchanged for someone else’s wrongdoing. [My new husband] was looking for an excuse to beat me.”
(left) Afghanistan: Roshan, age 8. Female relatives of the bride-to-be, Roshan, prepare food and tea for guests on the day of her engagement to Said, 55, at her home in rural Afghanistan. Upset about the engagement of her daughter, Roshan’s mother exclaimed, “We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children!” (center) Yemen: Tehani, age 8. Tehani works in the fields just outside her village in a rural area of Hajjah, Yemen. (right) Nepal: Surita, age 16. Village leader Pudke Shreshta Balami blesses the home of Surita directly following the wedding ceremony in Nepal.
(left) Afghanistan: Roshan, age 8. Female relatives of the bride-to-be, Roshan, prepare food and tea for guests on the day of her engagement to Said, 55, at her home in rural Afghanistan. Upset about the engagement of her daughter, Roshan’s mother exclaimed, “We are selling our daughters because we don’t have enough food to feed the rest of our children!”
(center) Yemen: Tehani, age 8. Tehani works in the fields just outside her village in a rural area of Hajjah, Yemen.
(right) Nepal: Surita, age 16. Village leader Pudke Shreshta Balami blesses the home of Surita directly following the wedding ceremony in Nepal.

Too Young to Wed is part of a transmedia campaign led by VII Photo Agency photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented the global issue of child marriage for nearly a decade. The original photos in the exhibit were taken by Sinclair and Jessica Dimmock. Too Young to Wed is a partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and VII, a premier photo agency known for focusing on social issues and human rights. Sinclair and Dimmock collaborated on the project. Learn more about the project here.

You can read more about child marriage. The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program maintains the Stop Violence Against Women (StopVAW) website, which includes information and resources about child marriage. In December 2013, an organization called Women Living Under Muslim Laws submitted the results of its multi-country study on child and forced marriage to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

How can you use words, images, cartoons, and other media to be an advocate for human rights?

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

For more on children’s rights in Ethiopia, read the report by The Advocates for Human Rights and the International Oromo Youth Association to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

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Today, The Advocates for Human Rights, along with Human Rights First, the International Oromo Youth Association, Oromia Support Group Australia, the Oromo Community of Minnesota, the Oromo Studies Association, and World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, sent a letter to six of the United Nations’ special procedure mandate-holders, urging them to request and conduct country visits to Ethiopia to investigate actions taken by the Ethiopian Government in response to student-led protests in the state of Oromia.

The request comes on the heels of last month’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where the Government of Ethiopia agreed to “grant full access to Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedures Mandate holders to visit the country, notably the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education,” and to “accept the outstanding requests for visits from the special procedures” of the United Nations.

The letter, addressed to the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, notes that country visits from these independent UN experts “are urgently needed because no entities in Ethiopia are able to conduct independent fact-finding.”

“Moreover,” the letter notes, “the situation is grave. The June 1 death of a student in custody suggests that demonstrators are being subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment while in custody.”

Click here to read the full letter.

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: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

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)

Ambo Protests: Going back

Flower in barbed wire fenceThis account of events that took place during the second week of May in Ambo, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia. Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. In their second post, Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy?, Jen and Josh describe being followed by two strange men during their time in Addis Ababa, and their fears that the Ethiopian government was closely monitoring the Peace Corps Volunteers’ words and actions. This post takes up their story from there.

1After deciding that we wanted to leave Ethiopia, we had [to] return to Ambo to pack our bags and say goodbye to our friends. Packing our bags turned out to be the easy part.

When we arrived back in Ambo, the destruction was still apparent, although the cleanup had already started. The burned cars were pulled to the side of the road. The debris from the damaged buildings was already being cleared. The problem, however, was that the courthouse was one of the buildings that was burned. How do they plan on having trials for those hundreds of people we saw in jail, we wondered.

2We wanted to tell all our friends why we were leaving, but how could we say it? Maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for the police to hunt down young people and shoot them in the back.” Or maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for us to have to cower in our home, listening to gunshots all day long.” Or maybe we should say, “It’s not OK for the government to conduct mass arrests of people who are simply voicing their opinion.” Since the communication style in Oromia is BEYOND non-direct, with people afraid to really say what they mean, we knew exactly what to tell people:

“We are leaving Ambo because we don’t agree with the situation,” we repeated to every friend we encountered. Everyone knew EXACTLY what we were talking about.

We told our friend, a town employee, we were leaving, and he said, “Yes, there are still 500 federal police in town, two weeks after the protests ended.”

3We told a neighbor we were leaving, and he said, “Now there is peace in Ambo. Peace on the surface. But who knows what is underneath?”

We told a teacher at the high school we were leaving, and she was wearing all black. “Maal taate? (What happened)” we asked. One of her 10th grade students was killed during the protests.

We told the local store owner we were leaving, and she said, in an abnormally direct way, “When there is a problem, your government comes in like a helicopter to get you out. Meanwhile, our government is killing its own people.”

After a traditional bunna (coffee) ceremony, and several meals with some of our favorite friends, we were the proud owners of multiple new Ethiopian outfits, given as parting gifts so we would ‘never forget Ethiopia.’

How could we forget?

We still don’t know exactly who died during the protests and the aftermath. It’s not like there is an obituary in the newspaper or something. But questions persist in our minds every day:

  • Our two young, dead neighbors remain faceless in our minds…was it the tall one with the spiky hair?
  • Students from the high school were killed…had any of the victims been participants of our HIV/soccer program?
  • What about that good-looking bus boy that is always chewing khat and causing troubleis he alive? in jail?
  • How many people were killed? How many arrested?
  • If we knew the exact number of people killed or arrested, would it actually help the situation in any way?

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All photos except the top image are courtesy of the authors. To read more from the authors, or to share your appreciation, please 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: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (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)

candleThis account of events that took place in early May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia. Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. This post takes up their story from there.

After the protests and violence in Ambo, we fled to the capital city of Addis Ababa and stayed at a little hotel called Yilma. Immediately, we started telling everyone about what happened in Ambo. We called and texted our friends, we talked to anyone at the hotel that would listen, and we posted things on Facebook. If we tell everyone about the protesters in Ambo being imprisoned and killed, surely it will stop, we reasoned.

The next day, two strange men – one tall with dark skin, the other short with lighter skin – struck up a conversation with us in the hotel restaurant.

“We’re from Minnesota, here to visit our family in Wollega,” they said.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul!” we replied, excited.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul, too!” they said, pulling out a fake-looking Minnesota driver’s license.

The address said Worthington, not St. Paul.

“How long have you lived in St. Paul?’ we asked.
“Yes.” the tall man said, nervously.
“I mean…how long have you lived in St. Paul?” we said, slower.
“Just 2 weeks.”
“And you’re already back in Ethiopia. And you just drove through Ambo, past all the protests and the police, to visit your family in Wollega?” we asked, thinking about the single paved road that heads west through Ambo.
“Yes.” he replied.
“You must be very brave,” we said, thinking about how the road was closed due to the violence.
“Why?” he asked, baiting us with a stoic face.

We froze, afraid to speak further. At that moment, after 20 months in Ethiopia, we finally understood why so many people in Oromia are afraid of spies. When we first arrived in Ambo, people thought WE were C.I.A. spies, which we found amusing…spies who couldn’t even speak the language? If we had been spies, we certainly weren’t very good at our job. But now, the tables were turned.

The two men began following us around the hotel area, sitting next to us whenever possible, walking slowly past our table, then returning slowly past our table – sometimes up to 10 times per hour. A different man followed us to a restaurant about a mile from the hotel, then sat at the closest table to ours, rudely joining a young couple’s romantic dinner.

For the next three days, we stopped telling people about the protests and the imprisonments and the killings in Ambo. We were afraid that the two men would be listening. We were afraid that someone was monitoring our communications on the government-controlled cell phone service and the government-controlled internet. Were we just paranoid? Were we really being monitored? Maybe we had just integrated too much, to the point where we had become Oromo, afraid of government spies and afraid of speaking out and being put in jail. While being ferenji (foreigners) gave us some level of protection, thoughts of the Swedish journalists thrown into an Ethiopian jail in 2011 lingered in the backs of our minds. The journalists “were only doing their jobs, and human rights group Amnesty International said the journalists had been prosecuted for doing legitimate work.” Did we seem just as suspicious to the government as those Swedish journalists? We didn’t want to find out.

Peace Corps gave all the volunteers strict instructions NOT to blog or post on Facebook about the protests or killings across Oromia. It is just too dangerous to say anything about the Ethiopian government, they pointed out.

That’s when we decided to leave Ethiopia. For us, staying in Ambo, not ruffling any feathers, was not an option. How could we go back and pretend that our neighbors, students, and and fellow residents didn’t die or didn’t end up in prison?

To read more from the authors, or to share your appreciation, please 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: A Personal Account (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)

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…..is 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)