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Gambella, Ethiopia. It began on Saturday with the ambush and mutilation of eight people. By the end of the weekend, it resulted in as many as 400 dead, many wounded, dozens unaccounted for, and nearly 500 homes burnt to the ground. In the following weeks, a local government official would go missing, there were detentions, rape, murder, and retaliation. Almost two months later, another massacre.

The worst single incident but not isolated. Part of an ongoing pattern of what appears to be ethnic cleansing on the part of the Ethiopian governments—two subsequent, nonaligned regimes. While this is an overview of human rights abuses over some thirty years, it is also partly the story of how the one of the country's many ethnic groups has been singled out for what may very well be partial or total extinction.

Other than a brief period in the mid 1980s when it was "hip" to pay attention and care, for the most part, Ethiopia has been just another one of those ignored African countries. The drought and resulting famine during that period created a terrible humanitarian crisis that was pushed to the forefront by the entertainment community as the cause du jour. It left many on the West with the image of Ethiopia as a desert country full of poor, sick and starving families—especially children with the distended bellies of the protein deficient—and the flies. While not technically inaccurate, it is a decidedly incomplete picture of the country.

Drought and famine have been problems for many years before and since (to varying degrees). There was and continues to be humanitarian crises throughout the country. There are desert portions in the Northeast and Southeast. It has a high mountainous central plateau divided by the Great Rift Valley. But in the Western and Southwestern portions of the country contain areas that are viable for agriculture and grazing, particularly near the rivers (including the Blue Nile) where periodic flooding enriches the soil with alluvial deposits. This is where the Anuak live.

Ethiopia is divided into nine states (and two self-governing administrations) with borders loosely based on ethnic boundaries. It is a country of numerous ethnic groups, many who speak different languages. The Anuak live primarily in Gambella (its capital, Gambella town, resides about 500 km west of the country's capital Addis Ababa).

The Anuak
The Anuak are the second most populous (according to a census that they strongly contest, claiming skewed results counting Sudanese Nuer and low counting Anuak) ethnic group in the state with the Nuer the most. One problem with ascertaining actual population statistics is the number of refugees that go back and forth between Ethiopia and The Sudan as the result of the ongoing civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (the Nuer and some Anuak are "indigenous" to both sides of the border). The Anuak are primarily agriculturalists who do some grazing and the Nuer are primarily pastoral. While it is true that both groups have had conflict throughout the decades (competition for land resources), there has been a traditional means for the groups to resolve their differences through relatively peaceful means. These methods to avoid conflict and bloodshed had been fading in the last twenty years or so for a variety of reasons. Despite a large number of Anuak in Gambella, the group does not represent a significant number in the overall population of the country.

While part of the Abyssinian Empire, the minority group was often kept as slaves for the upper classes and despite slavery being abolished under British rule (early twentieth century), after World War II it was reinstated—even during the British period, they were kept as slaves if they were born into it or were already indentured. Anuak claim that even though slavery was officially ended they have suffered years or prejudice and discrimination as a result. They also have darker skin than the people in other areas ("highlanders") which is used as an excuse for treatment.

Even into the 1970s, many ethnic groups functioned mostly autonomously, maintaining traditional community and governance. Major changes took place within a few years of Emperor Halie Salassie being deposed in 1974. The governing power that emerged was the Marxist Dergue (or Derg: "the committee"), which despite some lip adherence to ideology was not much different from other corrupt repressive regimes—consolidation of power, control, and wealth for itself.

Life under the Dergue

"Land reform"
A series of land reform measures were put into effect intended to lead to development of large-scale agriculture (this was outlined with help from the United States and final proposal was signed by the European Economic Commission). This was gone about by waiting until after the harvests were in and then sending in bulldozers to clear away whole villages. Anuaks and others (many from other ethnic groups who were "resettled") were used as free labor to build new villages and agricultural areas. Many Anuak fled to the bush, some made their way to refugee camps across the border in Sudan. Not all made it, as government troops would round them up or simply kill them. There were reports of planes bombing people trying to cross the border.

Meanwhile, other underlying reasons for the "reforms" became evident. People were linked to villages and unable to "legally" leave (those who did were beaten, imprisoned, or killed). It was similar to what Guatemala did with its "model villages." It controlled the population and maintained power. The resettlement also cleared out some of the opposition groups in other states. Also similar to Guatemala, the soldiers would "recruit" (kidnap) people for the army. They would go on raids to find any eligible male and conscript him. They were even charged for transportation to training camps. Those who couldn't pay (the equivalent of four dollars) were jailed until the money was raised. There were also reports of men being shot for not being able to come up with the money. Resistance to "recruitment" was dealt with as harshly as possible.

The people were forced to work the farms (which were inefficient and poorly designed). While they toiled at growing food, the government was warehousing it and trucking it away. The food had primarily two recipients. The first was the people of Addis Ababa, the constituents, members, and power base of the government. Surplus food in the city made it cheap and cheap food kept things stable and people supportive of the Dergue. The other was the army. In much the same way, a well-fed soldier without worry about where his next meal was coming from was a soldier more likely to carry out orders and not desert. It also benefited the government by making those in the settlements to dependent (thus easier to control) on the government and the meager food they are allowed.

Actions like these in a country full of ethnic groups used to more autonomy led to resistance groups, the most notable one being from Eritrea which wanted to break free and form its own country (it eventually did in the 1990s). There is still an unresolved dispute over the border which erupted into war in 1998, ending in 2000 with a ceasefire (the United Nations is still negotiating a settlement as of this writing). This led to an even stronger militarization of a country whose army was always at some level of conflict with some "liberation" groups. It got worse in 1983 when the Dergue called for a general mobilization of all males. It led to aggressive recruitment. Soldiers would show up in the middle of the night or come to the schools and pull males out of class. Eventually, females were also forced into service.

These practices led to more people fleeing which in led to an army crack down on those evading service (beating, torture, imprisonment, summary execution). This put those who remained in the settlements at greater risk—beyond curfews, detentions, beatings, torture, rape, murder—because they were subject to more abuse ("punishment" for friends or family who ran from service). It also led to the breakdown of family and culture. And left many females without protection.

Resettlement and cultural destruction
In the mid 1980s (using the famine as cover) resettlement grew considerably. In 1985, it was announced that the heads of over 17,000 families had been moved to the Gambella area (called "virgin, fertile" land by the Dergue). Not only not "virgin" but the effects of the forced agriculture was ruining the "fertile," too. Soil was eroding fast and timber being cut for more farms. The problem is that the underlying forest soil isn't suited to agriculture like the areas near the river. This was something the Anuak knew well: forests were for hunting, not growing crops. Not that much hunting was possible as troops began to confiscate livestock and clear out wild game. Lack of a forest and underbrush to help filter water drainage, the quality of water in the rivers began to drop as the silt load grew over time. During that period, schools would sometimes be emptied of all their students to use them as forced labor (including young children). Those Anuak who still had their own villages and refused to leave had their crops plowed under. Hunger forced them to move to the new villages or flee to Sudan refugee camps.

Actions have been taken to disrupt and destroy cultural traditions. Marriage beads which are used by the Anuak as dowries were confiscated by soldiers in what appears an attempt to slow population growth. The Anuak found other items—including cows—to get around that but there was no abundance of the animals and they were expensive. In one case a priest from one of the other groups came to a resettlement village. Representatives of the government presented him with a bride. A bare-breasted Anuak woman. He refused. She was brought back later (clothed) and he refused again saying that polygamy was against his religion but the intent of the "gift" seems clear. Especially after reports of widespread rape during the 2003-2004 incidents. In one case, witnesses heard the men shouting out—as they threatened a ten year old girl with death for screaming—"We are going to kill your men and the next generation of Anuaks will be produced by us" (www.genocidewatch.org).

The resettlement and "villagization" continued into the late 1980s. Militarization and forced labor in the population did as well. Food was used as a weapon to favor or punish as those who ran the villages saw fit. Adults were receiving 15 kg per month of unground grain (children got half) while the "recognized standard ration for famine victims is 20 kg/mo of mixed foods" (www.culturalsurvival.org). People were encouraged to inform on others adding to animosity and resentment among ethnic lines (a lesson well-learned from a colonial past—keep the people fighting amongst themselves and they are less of a threat to those in power). A charge of being disloyal could lead to a painful, if not fatal, result. With increased militarization the usual abuses continued full steam. If you don't work hard enough, you can be beaten. If you are "suspected" of a "crime" or you dissent, detention almost certainly accompanied by torture and possibly execution. Even trading firewood to people outside the settlements for a little extra food could lead to severe retribution.

Resistance was sporadic and weak. Some had old Italian rifles from earlier in the century, others had only sticks and knives and spears. There was little chance of fighting back a country that was spending almost half of its GNP on the military. This treatment of the Anuak (while not alone in being repressed and abused, they are the hardest hit) is arguably genocidal. There is intentional forced resettlement of people from traditional homelands and the destruction of their homes. There is widespread, often targeted abuse, harassment, forced labor, and killing. Intentional destruction of cultural values and traditions. Appropriation of resources and destruction of the environment. Attempts to get them to "interbreed" with lighter-skinned "highlanders" in integrated settlements. And forced military service, making them participate in wars they have part no of—but are required to be kill for, die for, or return maimed or wounded.

Regime change
Droughts and famine (along with the policies of the Dergue) were still in place as the 1990s began. But support from the Soviet Union had all but dried up, making maintaining a large military difficult. And the resistance movements were gaining ground. Two of the largest had begun coordinating movements with success: the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Tigray People's Liberation Front. A coalition of forces gathered under the banner of the Ethopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Supply lines for the Dergue government were cut and the regime announced it was abandoning socialism. This led to people leaving the villages to return to ancestral homes. Government officials at the regional level were run off (including ones put in place because they were from local ethnic groups; they were seen as collaborators or traitors). Some were killed. By May 1991, the EPRDF controlled significant amounts of territory and the beleaguered, ammunition-poor army (also suffering from low morale) lost control and much of the will to fight. The EPRDF took the capital.

As the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) took power, many in Ethiopia felt this to be an important moment in history and (not entirely unlike the Dergue in the early days) moves were made to improve the country. Rather than a strongly centralized government, it was proposed that Ethiopia would be a collection of federated states with a degree of autonomy. The new constitution even provided the various states the means by which they could secede—which Eritrea did (with a 98% affirmative vote from registered voters) in 1993. States were drawn up more or less along ethnic lines which brought some of the problems that plague this sort of arrangement—namely that ethnic groups overlap, particularly the more pastoral groups, like the Nuer. It also created minority populations within the states causing additional strife over representation.

The first elections highlighted many of the problems that would get worse. Due to the many ethnicities and other ideological feelings, over 200 parties were registered. This meant few would get represented and those of the larger groups would be favored. Besides logistical, material, and organizational problems, there were a multitude of reports of certain parties being intimidated up to and including violence. Offices were shut down, candidates and supporters jailed (the EPRDF not being responsible in all cases). It was much like elections in Guatemala or El Salvador (despite US claims to the contrary) during the 1980s and 1990s. The press, which supposedly had full freedom was suppressed, arrested, and sometimes attacked (both of which continue to be a human rights issue for the country). Because of the inadequacies and actual danger, some of the groups dropped out of the process all together (a move that can only help those already in power) and in some areas elections simply were not held. All these problems were duly noted by election observers. The results were accepted by the TGE.

In some ways, conditions did improve. Somewhat better economy, slightly better health and education (again like the early days of Dergue) but it wasn't long before it became clear the new boss was a lot like the old boss. The TGE disbanded the police and the 440,000 man army and put the EPRDF in charge of internal security/policing. A police force was reinstated in 1994 and many soldiers phased out of the EPRDF became part of it. Many others were suddenly out of a job and resorted to crime.

The EPRDF was viewed with suspicion by many Ethiopians because of its power and ethnic makeup (primarily a single group). The force also began disarming and demobilizing many of the smaller resistance groups that had once worked with it. This was often done through force or harassment, making some of these groups actively oppose them. This has led to sporadic clashes between various groups and EPRDF forces. "Internal security" has also led to harassment, arrests, and the deaths of a number of intellectuals, students, opposing political parties, and dissenters (and the press as noted above). On the positive side, forced recruitment was abolished.

The TGE enacted a policy of decentralization that would give more power to people on the local level. It also dissolved what was left of the collective agriculture. But there was a dark side to this. The people appointed on the local level also had more power than citizens had expected. In general, the land was owned by the state, but individual farmers were allowed the right to work the land. The local leaders had the ability to favor those they liked and disfavor those they did not. It also helped perpetuate their office because of the power over allotment. During the 1994 and 1995 elections, observers noted that there were "indications that this atmosphere [of fear] had influenced a massive rural vote in favor of the ruling party and its regional affiliates" (www.hrw.org). These local affiliates often had ties to the EPRDF. They would have their own regional militias for security purposes. Though it is claimed they are not affiliated with the government or the EPRDF (though they may sometimes work together), the claim does not hold up to scrutiny. Decentralized, perhaps, but the power spreads from the top to the local level.

Returning to Gambella
Gambella is not only home to arable land but has other resources desired by the government and Western nations. Gold, platinum, and tungsten are found there as well as some petroleum (gas and oil). Several companies have had or hold rights to extract the resources These "rights" are granted through the government not the people. There are already western companies (US-based Canyon Resources, mining gold and UK-based Jubilee Platinum) working near Gambella. Some Anauk are subsistence miners ("Artisanal") whose livelihood would be endangered if the big companies come in. Even if they were hired they would probably receive less in wages than selling the gold themselves. Crime, prostitution (very serious, given Ethiopia's AIDS problem), and environmental degradation are also the result of the companies moving in, stripping resources, and moving on—patterns can seen throughout Africa and Latin America. This is another reason for governmental dislike of the Anuak because of the potential to disrupt the process of resource extraction (which is beneficial to the government and the companies but not to the people of Ethiopia).

Inter-ethnic conflict has grown in the last years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. It is a culmination of the above. Poor economic policies, failed land reform, forced immigration, erosion of tradition and culture (and traditional/cultural conflict resolution), repression, corruption, and others. The decentralization has left local officials with a great deal of power and influence—which is usually wielded in favor of the official's ethnic group. This has created strong tension between the two main groups of Gambella, the Anuak and the Nuer.

Nuer encroach on Anuak land and when they cannot subsist traditionally, they move to larger cities like Gambella town where there is the possibility of work as well as schools and medical care. Others come from neighboring states looking for land/water. Anuak already living there feel like they are being crowded out by the influx of other groups (many non-indigenous). Additionally, the war across the border in Sudan has led to many Nuer to cross over into Ethiopia as well as the drought which has made what little land there is an even more important resource. As noted, the Anuak dispute the census claiming a smaller population. While both languages were taught in the schools starting in the mid 1990s, Nuer teachers have left (to take government posts, claim the Anuak) and only Anuak is taught.

Politically, the Anuak feel underrepresented. Many party officials representing the group have been arrested or harassed. Intellectuals jailed, politicians replaced with people supportive of the government. They are not allowed to manage their own affairs as promised in the constitution.

Another problem is the easy access to weapons left over from the army or Sudanese rebel forces. The government claims to have disarmed its citizens but many Nuer have armed themselves. The Anuak (made easier because they were farmers rather than pastoralists) were disarmed. There have been incidents of violent conflict. It should be recalled that these people aren't in conflict simply over "land rights" like cattle barons in a western, this is key to their very existence. Not so much "livelihood" but "life," itself. Ethiopia is constantly on the edge of drought and famine, if not having already slid into one or both at a given time. Overcrowding and overusing precious resources like arable land and water can lead to starvation. Already there are a number of refugee camps trying to feed and shelter people pushed off their land or fleeing from Sudan or conflict within Gambella.

In all this, the government remains silent and even seems to encourage infighting among the minority ethnic groups. Over the last decade or so, Islam has become more solidly rooted in Ethiopia and clashes between Muslims and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians has also increased (of course, it would be wrong to assume that religion is responsible any more than ethnicity—violence is not inherent to either and both tend to be used as excuses to justify the conflict rather than be a pure cause). Even when the government steps in to stop conflict, it almost inevitable leaves a body count. Churches get raided and there are mass arrests, crowds get beaten, and there is collective punishment (often people who are not part of the conflict). And the violence begets more violence. The soldiers move out and let the anger and frustration of the opposing groups take control of the situation.

Massacres and Massacres....
In December 2003, the violence exploded in Gambella. It began on the 13th when a van carrying UN refugee workers and a few others from the Immigration and Returnees Affairs Authority was ambushed by unidentified attackers. The bodies were mutilated, hacked to pieces. Of the eight victims, four remain unidentified. The defense forces who found the bodies, put them in a sack and drove to Gambella town. Instead of taking the bodies to a secure place, the soldiers showed them to the crowd (made up of mostly non-indigenous highlanders) which became enraged. The crowd escorted the van to the office of the Chief Administrator and became shouting and throwing stones at the building. The crowd determined (without evidence) that the murders had been committed by Anuak. Meanwhile EPRDF soldiers surrounded the town.

Returning with machetes, axes, knives, and a few small arms, the crowd began targeting Anuak civilians living in the town. Many were forced to seek sanctuary in the local churches while outside, the crowd shot, stabbed, cut up, tortured, and raped innocent people. Houses of Anuak were vandalized and burned to the ground. But this was not just the action of an angry mob. This was not just encouraged but participated in by the EPRDF. Soldiers also targeted and shot at Anuak. There were reports that the soldiers also worked off lists of Anuak names as they aided in the massacre. Other reports described soldiers shooting and wounding fleeing Anuak, then standing by while the victims were butchered. At the same time, the EPRDF had surrounded a nearby town and (apparently a planned action) started attacking the people (in that case, there was some resistance). There were also mass arrests.

Those in the churches stayed for a week because the violence had not entirely subsided (though soldiers tried to coax them outside). Many who had escaped to the bush were hunted down and arrested or killed. Public offices were closed until the 22nd and schools did not reopen until after the start of the new year (many Anuak children were still not attending as of March). The government claimed that the numbers killed were "56 but this could be as high as 60." It also claimed that "Reports by other independent (non-Ethiopian) individuals" who surveyed at the same time the government did "gave figures not far from the official figures" (www.mfa.gov.et).

Refugees who fled gave substantially higher numbers. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council was able to identify at least 93 of the dead (42 of the wounded) in its 5 January 2004 report on the massacre. This only includes the identified. It is also difficult to tally because of those who were removed by defense forces, buried, or missing. Genocide Watch/Survivors Rights International, in its 16 February report (updated 25 February 2004), determined at least 424 killed and more than 200 wounded (85 unaccounted for). In late February, the US State Department requested a "transparent, independent" investigation into the massacre (based largely on the reports mentioned above). The government denied any participation in the violence.

The massacre and subsequent violence (not a small amount perpetrated by the 5000 security forces sent in to restore order) led to a mass exodus of refugees. The number has been given as low as 2,000 and as high as 15,000 (almost certainly exaggerated—most sources give a figure of 5,000). When asked about this large movement of so many, the response was "they are enjoying the right of movement to live anywhere they like and to enjoy their own pursuit of life" (www.mcgillreport.org/genocide). In early January, the president of Gambella went missing, possibly fleeing into exile.

By February, estimates were that 500 Anuak were in prison with family members allowed to visit describing evidence beating and torture. The president's brother was one of the detainees. He was last seen in a visit at the end of January. He was clearly beaten and was coughing blood. Further visits were denied. More EPRDF troops were brought in, roads closed off to stem the tide of refugees, as well as a general restriction of movement. It was reported that EPRDF soldiers were bragging to Anuak about their participation in the massacre. Added to that were more instances of rape (including reports where school classrooms were emptied of girls who were taken and gang-raped) and extrajudicial killing. On 30 January, Anuak miners attacked the soldiers who came to disarm them. The soldiers were forced to retreat (casualty numbers on either side are not known, though it is thought the total to be 160). The miners then, using abandoned weapons from the EPRDF, attacked other (non-Anuak) miners. Shortly after more EPRDF forces showed up and killed 13 Anuak officials (two of whom were suspected to have had a part in the December massacre).

In the aftermath, there were more mass arrests and fears that anyone who would not cooperate with the authorities would be killed. Soldiers went into nearby refugee camps and killed Anuak and other displaced persons.

Without apparent end.
While things have quieted down somewhat, violence continues. Also, the government has plans to resettle a million people by May 2004—the Dergue only resettled 600,000 in its entire 17 years in power. They have already moved 170,000 in 2003. There is a great deal of skepticism as to the efficacy of the program and whether it might create more problems than already exist. The government claims otherwise, but NGOs already report medical conditions to be dire (especially for children) in the resettlement camps and the ability for the land to sustain the people is in question. With extent conflict in the area among groups competing for resources, this could lead to (worse) disaster. It didn't work before and doubtfully will this time—particularly given the huge scale and time frame of the move.

On 5 March 2004, it was reported that the government of Ethiopia had apologized to the people of Gambella: "The government has apologised for not acting proactively and promised to stand on the side of the victims to see that justice is done." This is after the US (as well as the UK) asking for the investigation of the ongoing violence (it appears the government released the statement earlier in February). The prospect of any such "transparent, independent" investigation that will resolve anything is about zero.

(A detailed look at the December massacres and the aftermath can be found here: Massacres in Gambella)


  • Much info from www.countryreports.org/ethiopia.htm
  • Numerous articles available from the Integrated Regional Information Networks site: http://www.irinnews.org/frontpage.asp?SelectRegion=Horn_of_Africa&SelectCountry=Ethiopia
  • "Ethiopia" Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=114677
    "The Anuak - A Threatened Culture" 30 June 1984
    "Ethiopia's Policy of Genocide Against the Anuak of Gambella" 30 September 1986
    "resettlement and Villagization - Tools for Militarization in SW Ethiopia" 31 December 1987
    "Anuak Displacement and Ethiopian Resettlement" 31 December 1988
    "Oil Development In Ethiopia: A Threat to the Anuak of Gambela" 31 October 2001
    From Cultural Survival Quarterly found here:
  • "Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights" December 1997 (report) Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1997/ethiopia
  • "Breaking the Cycle of Conflict in Gambella Region" 3 January 2003 (report) United nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia: http://www.uneue.org/Archive/DownloadableReports/Gambella1202.pdf
  • "On a Bloody Saturday, Ethiopia Chose Genocide" 1 January 2004 Doug McGill: http://www.mcgillreport.org/genocide.htm
  • "A Ferocious Attack Committed In Gambella Region" 5 January 2004 (report) Ethiopian Human Rights Council http://www.ehrco.net/reports/special_report_72.pdf
  • "Today is the Day of Killing Anuaks" 16 February 2004, updated 25 February 2004 (report) Genocide Watch and Survivors Rights International:
  • "The Current Situation in Gambella" Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Ministry of Federal Affairs:http://www.mfa.gov.et/Press_Section/publication.php?Main_Page_Number=410

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