As an international development worker who has worked on the Rohingya issue for about two years now, I have experienced my fair share of despair in the face of the many atrocities marginalized communities endured. Through my work, I have become familiar with an ever-growing list of violations against marginalized communities, which have increasingly convinced me that the Rohingya – widely recognized as the most persecuted minority in the world – are the victims of crimes against humanity and genocide. Not a conclusion I arrived at lightly, but one which I have grappled with over time.
Even so, nothing prepared me for what happened in Oromia region of Ethiopia early July.
I lack the vocabulary to process, let alone describe what happened to Non-Oromos and Christian Oromos in Oromia regional state of Ethiopia. Such extreme expressions of hatred, bigotry and violence are beyond my comprehension. The thought of being at the receiving end, beyond my imagination.
What words do I know to capture the agony of a husband who was forced to see his 9 months pregnant wife being slaughtered or the ordeal of a sister watching her brother being burnt alive. Or a young girl gang-raped by a horde of men, just after her father has been shot point blank? How can I even begin to describe the sheer fatigue of an old woman forced to run for her life, with no cloth, no food, while carrying a grand child whose parents were just brutally murdered? Or the all-encompassing loss of a family of five – home burnt, family killed, dignity torn to shreds?
Can my imagination be wild enough to comprehend the courage of a mother who saw the blood thirsty genocidaires cut her sons throat, gouged his eye out or the desperation of a businessman whose years of labor turned into ashes in a single day? What about a child who saw his father being heinously stoned to death? The pain of an aspiring entrepreneur who is disheartened when his business is vandalized and ruined before his very eyes? Or the anguish of brother who was denied the mutilated body his dead, left in the bushes for hyenas and vultures? What words in what language can describe the sense of betrayal that must be felt by the countless Christian Oromos, Non-Oromos who were handpicked and targeted for these atrocious massacres, displacement, starvation and humiliation.
Close to 239 non-Oromos and Christian Oromos were targeted and massacred. To this day thousands seek refugees in churches and many more flee the place they called home for generations. Each of them scarred, starving, traumatized, hunted, degraded, persecuted, fatigued. Each of them denied their identity, branded liars, systematically persecuted, labeled less human to have to live in Oromia region by the murderous mobs, hatemongers, and extremist propaganda machine called the Oromo Media network.
And not for the first time.
The Non-Oromos and particularly the ethnic Amhara have been beaten down, detested, dehumanized and systematically destroyed in Oromia region. Over, and over and over and over again.
There is a genocide happening before our eyes. If only we can bear to look.
The ethnic Amhara genocide in Oromia region didn’t begun in October 2019 or July 2020. It has been steadily going about its business as the world went about its own, for three decades.
Under international law (the UN Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute ), genocide is defined as killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births or forcibly transferring children of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group with the intention of destroying the group in whole or in part.
For over 30 years, the TPLF led government has been engaged in wholescale persecution of the Ethic Amhara in Oromia region; denial and deprivation of their right for self-rule; denial and mislabeling of their history and identity; denying them land ownership and forced Oromization; forced displacement; arbitrary arrests and killings; all with the cumulative intent of denying their participation in society, driving them out and destroying them. This systemic and structured persecution has been interspersed with waves of acute violence carried out by state and non-state actors alike – in 1991, 1992, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2012, 2018, 2019, 2020; and has been fueled by the most vitriolic propaganda campaign which has brainwashed a jobless youth in Oromia into reviling and fearing the ethnic Amhara and Orthodox Christians.
For too long, the calls of human rights advocates like the late Professor Asrat Weldyes have been ignored, dismissed, muted. For too long, other labels have been used so as not to offend or tarnish image of the government. ‘Inter-communal violence’ cried national media in October 2019, when the state apparatus lined up with Islamist Oromo extremists to kill, plunder, drive out and displace hundreds of Ethnic Amharas in Arsi and Bale area of Oromia region: ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ whispered the activists who saw a deathly 30-year-old pattern. Earlier this week, the representative of Oromia regional state warned journalists and news media outlets not to label the recent massacre as act of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
Genocide never happens in isolation, nor is it inevitable. It is denied, enabled, enforced; through lies, complicity, counter-narratives, propaganda, turning a blind eye, weighing human life against economic and geopolitical gain. For genocide to be possible, the right environment has to be carefully cultivated over many years. For it to actually be carried out, the rest of the world has to be too divided, conflicted, selfish or indecisive to – even for a short moment in time – come together to protect those under fire. In the Ethnic cleansing of Amharas and Orthodox Christians in Oromia region, we see all these ingredients and more. History repeated itself often. The genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, the Rwandan genocide, the Rohingya genocide had similar patterns. Denial preceded genocide.
The arbitrary denial and deprivation of the ethnic Amharas in Oromia region has played a pivotal role in how they are perceived and treated. The ethnic Amhara, who are the largest ethnic group in Oromia region next to Oromos, have faced targeted exclusion and persecution at least since the 1991; but it the 1995 constitution which entrenched their statelessness. The Ethnic Amhara were denied equal citizenship because they are an unwanted minority, they are labeled as invaders. Once made stateless, this was used to reinforce the dominant narrative that they are not from Oromia, that they are illegal settlers from the Northern parts of the country. Their statelessness was drawn on to deny their identity (they are from the North who invaded Oromia with Menelik, they don’t belong here) and their history. It became the justification for the suffocating restrictions imposed on ethnic Amhara. It mattered not, that there was no national and international law or historical basis for any of this. The statelessness of the Amhara, their resultant treatment and the surrounding discourse, paved the way for what was to follow. Contested histories have become an extremely potent tool for those who engage in the business of deceit – they shift focus from the present to the past and divert attention from the clear and present danger ethnic Amharas and orthodox Christians are facing in Oromia region.
The Oromo extremists and their allies within the government apparatus justify the brutalization of the Amhara, by pointing to the era of Menelik II, the King who founded modern day Ethiopia back in 1880s. It is a convenient narrative that feeds off a wider (mis)belief that the Amhara have ruled over the rest of the country for over 150 years. The state – and particularly the state-owned media – were intent on painting the Amhara as provokers, invaders and settlers for two reasons. First, to justify state crimes against the Amhara. Second, to garner domestic and international support for the terror that the violent mob is unleashing in different parts of Oromia region.
The amateurish propaganda of the Oromia Regional State and Federal Government to belittle the incident as inter-ethnic conflict has been dwarfed by the testimony from among thousands of displaced who have fled to seek refuge in nearby churches, as well as the few reports that have been possible for independent reporters who visited the places these heinous crimes happened recently.
Abiy Ahmed is increasingly criticized for his position on the recurrent atrocities inflicted upon ethnic and religious minorities in Oromia region. However, many of these criticisms still flatter. He is implored to break his silence. He is called upon to exercise his moral authority to ease the pain of ethnic minorities and the Orthodox Church in Oromia. However, often Abiy is being sympathized with for being in an impossible position. He is being given more latitude than a slowly turning oil tanker. His pedestal may not be as shiny or tall as it used to be, but world powers are still propping it up. He shields their inaction, as he shielded the perpetrators of the atrocities happening in Oromia region. The ever-diminishing sense is that things cannot be so bad if he has acted early on. The recent arrests made are the right steps toward ensuring peace and justice in Oromia region.
There is, however, another way of perceiving Abiy. He has not been silent. He has used his voice to strike hatred, to promote love and unity across the nation. To accuse extremist elements of colluding with external enemies to destabilize the country. To be fair, Abiy is sowing what was seeded by the TPLF led government for previous 27 years. But, if Abiy can’t take decisive action he will be remembered as a miserably failed leader in Ethiopia’s history, who watched his country burn, his people turn against their neighbors, his government apparatus silently watched the most unspeakable and atrocious crimes happening. He will be remembered as a leader who took a calculated and cynical decision to stand with the perpetrators.
Distortion by mis-characterizing genocide as ‘communal conflict’, the Amhara as ‘invaders and settlers’ and the present human rights and humanitarian crises as ‘under control’; denial by grossly underplaying the extent of the violence, the role of the Oromia region security apparatus being complicit to the violence and the impunity with which it is all happening; and the impunity with which such acts are being carried out calls into strong question the much touted ‘change and reform’ of Ethiopia.
What is next for the Amhara, other minorities and Orthdox Christians in Oromia region?
The way things are now, the ethnic Amhara and other minorities will continue to be persecuted and excluded, misrepresented and unwelcomed and lack any form of control over their own destinies. But, this cannot and must not be so. Not in the 21st century. Not after Rwanda. Not in a world of human rights, where it is the duty of the international community to protect the most vulnerable. ‘Statelessness’ is the ultimate test of the effectiveness of international human rights law. The stateless are the only truly direct subjects of the law, for they do not additionally benefit from national protection. And the ethnic Amhara and other minorities in Oromia origin are the most vulnerable of all the world’s stateless persons.
Human rights principles challenge all of us to act not out of self-interest, but out of a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable. Importantly, this obligation arises not from a sense of charity, but from an understanding that by protecting the most vulnerable and creating the space for them to partake in society as equals we strengthen democracy, stabilize the economy and increase security.