Latest violence in Ethiopia reveals ethnic rifts, threatening democratic dreams of the country


Abebech Shiferaw, a 49-year-old widow whose house was burnt down in the attacks, with her child.

Sawra Tafari / The Globe and Mail

The crowd of young men, carrying machetes, entered the neighborhood with a list of the names and ethnicities of its inhabitants. “This land is the land of the Oromo,” they chanted.

Abebech Shiferaw, a 49-year-old widow of the Amhara ethnicity, cried out for her children to flee as crowds burst into her home. She rushed off, carrying her youngest child, and saw crowds set fire to her home and neighboring homes in Shashamene, the epicenter of the latest violence in Ethiopia.

“We’ve waited almost a lifetime to own a house and they destroyed it in the blink of an eye,” she told The Globe and Mail. “They didn’t just make me homeless – they broke my will to live.”

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At least 239 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested in the violence that erupted after unknown gunmen on June 29 assassinated popular singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a former political prisoner who has become an icon of the Oromo people.

The inter-communal violence, combined with a brutal response from the Ethiopian security forces, has exposed ethnic rifts and political divisions that could jeopardize the democratic aspirations of the country’s Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed.

For years, authoritarian governments had quelled ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. But a wave of anti-government protests by the Oromo people helped Mr. Abiy, himself Oromo, to come to power in 2018. Since then, he has released political prisoners and lifted the ban on political parties. opposition, but internal tensions in Ethiopia continued. escalation, forcing more than a million people to flee their homes.

In an attempt to control the latest violence, the government deployed military forces and shut down internet services for more than two weeks. Internet access remains sporadic and reports from cities like Shashamene are slow to spread.

Burned commercial buildings that were set on fire by a mob in the violence following the assassination of pop singer Oromo Hachalu Hundessa in Shashamene, Ethiopia on July 19, 2020.

Sawra Tafari / The Globe and Mail

“We are investigating reports of violence and lack of response from the security forces, as well as attacks against ethnic minority communities, including killings, destruction of homes and businesses and displacement,” said said Laetitia Bader, director of Human Rights Watch for the Horn of the Africa Region. “So far, the material damage appears on a larger scale than in previous episodes of unrest.”

Among those arrested since June 30 are dozens of politicians and journalists, many of whom are being held incommunicado in unknown locations, according to a report released this week by Amnesty International.

“The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to reveal their whereabouts,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty Director for East Africa.

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Mr Abiy’s government has attempted to balance the growing demands of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnicities, including the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. But many Oromo leaders were disappointed that Mr. Abiy refused to give them greater power. His plan to transition to multiparty democracy “has led to dangerous ethno-nationalist friction,” according to a report released this month by the International Crisis Group.

Shashamene, a town of around 100,000 in the Oromo region, is a commercial center and former tourist hub, well known for its Rastafarian community which celebrated former Emperor Haile Selassie. But in recent months, its ethnic conflicts have increased.

The attack on Ms. Shiferaw’s home on June 30 left her and her four children in refuge at a local church and worried for their safety.

“I was born and raised in Shashamene, it’s the only place I know. But to the rioters, I was suddenly a stranger who didn’t belong here, ”she says.

Tigabu Yigzaw studies the damage at a hotel he owns in Shashamene, Ethiopia.

Sawra Tafari / The Globe and Mail

The same morning, the day after Mr. Hundeessaa’s assassination, the owner of the Shashamene Hotel, Tigabu Yigzaw, was awoken at 5 a.m. by the bells of a nearby church, sounding the alarm over the incident. arrival of angry crowds.

He arrived at his hotel to find it on fire. Rioters would steal his alcohol, smash his windows, and take his furniture away in trucks without license plates. Her security guard was tied to a tree and beaten. Her son, the hotel manager, was unconscious and bleeding after a machete attack.

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“It was a nightmare,” Yigzaw said. “My business has been attacked because I am Amhara.”

He said he no longer felt safe in Shashamene. He fears that Ethiopia will suffer genocide.

A restaurateur, Munir Ahmed, investigates the damage to his business in Shashamene.

Sawra Tafari / The Globe and Mail

Munir Ahmed, manager of one of the city’s most popular restaurants, saw his restaurant destroyed by hundreds of rioters who deliberately targeted non-Oromo businesses on his street.

“We cried, we begged them to stop,” he said. “For them, we were the enemy. They had a plan, almost like a mission, and they carried out what they came to do. Everything has been destroyed.

Most of his employees went into hiding for several days and then fled the city, he said. “For the first time, our ethnicity is a burden. The rioters won.

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