According to official statistics, at least 239 people were killed during a week of violent unrest in Ethiopia sparked by the assassination of a celebrated singer, Hachalu Hundessa, on June 29. He was a politically significant figure for the historically marginalised Oromo community, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and his death sparked protests, riots and brutal killings across the country.
An internet blackout imposed by Ethiopia’s government ensured few details of the violence have emerged publicly. However, the Mail & Guardian was able to speak to relatives of the deceased who gave eyewitness accounts of the unrest.
“They were merciless: they killed my son in the most disgusting way possible,” said Dereje Feleke, a resident of Dera, a small town of 17 000 inhabitants in Oromia Region, southwest of Addis Ababa. “What did we do to deserve this?”
According to Dereje, on the night of June 28, hundreds of young Oromo men armed with clubs and machetes targeted ethnic minorities in Dera. They roamed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, stopping at the homes of people like Dereje, who is of ethnic Amhara ancestry.
The assailants targeted Dereje’s son Mersha, 28. He was dragged outside, stabbed multiple times and finally beheaded by members of the jeering mob. Dereje managed to escape with the help of neighbours, but witnessed his son’s killing.
Mersha’s body was left in the street and the house was burnt down. The engineer and Arba Minch University graduate had recently applied for a job with Ethiopian Airlines.
Seven people were killed in Dera that night.
“My son died the worst kind of death — even criminals don’t deserve this sort of cruelty,” Dereje said. “It troubles me every day.”
Dereja spoke to the M&G from Dera’s Medhanealem Church, which is currently sheltering about 50 people who were made homeless in the violence.
“I’ve built a life here in Dera,” Dereje said. “We have been raised with the Oromo who are our friends and family here.”
As the killers proceeded from house to house, ethnic Amhara residents fled to the homes of their Oromo neighbours, who were able to offer protection. Dereje went into hiding until the next morning, when displaced and newly homeless survivors made their way to the refuge of the church compound.
Hewan, who requested to withhold his last name, also from Dera, fled the town with family members. “My uncle was cut to pieces on the street. His son is in a coma: they hit him in the head with a blade.”
He said: “Dera is where I was born and raised. Oromia is home: I was raised here; I speak the language too. I have represented Oromia in school sporting competitions at national level. Where do they expect someone like me to go?”
Another man, also sheltering in the church, said: “The killers moved from home to home. They knew their targets and they were quick and methodical with the way they poured gasoline over properties. Nobody in town recognised any of them. They aren’t from the area, but someone from here must have guided them.”
Residents of Dera who spoke to the M&G claimed that the regional Oromia Special Police Force did not intervene to stop the violence. According to another survivor, at least 150 members of the force were housed at Dera’s stadium, minutes away, as the carnage unfolded.
“We kept calling them and begging them to help,” he said. “They told us that without orders, they couldn’t get involved. They saw the fires and the fleeing people and stayed put.”
Oromia regional state security chief, Colonel Abebe Geresu, did not answer phone calls or text messages from the M&G asking for a response to these claims. A spokesperson for the Ethiopian military also failed to respond to requests for comment.
According to the government, at least three members of the Oromia Special Police Force were killed during the unrest, although the location and manner of these deaths have not been confirmed.
The regional police unit was founded less than a year ago, and saw its latest recruits graduate in March, to much fanfare. The force reportedly took over the town shortly after the attackers had left.
In the absence of the police, the quick thinking of ethnic Oromo residents in Dera likely saved many lives, although more than 60 homes were burnt down. In other towns, such as Shashamane, schools and businesses were attacked by arsonists, with scenes of total devastation shown on state media broadcasts.
Back in Dera, residents have continued to support displaced people by bringing food and clothing to the church. “This isn’t us,” said one such man, an ethnic Oromo resident of Dera, who was visiting displaced people at the church. “They’ve lived with us for decades, but someone out there is trying to pit us against each other.”
Similar scenes were replicated in other towns and cities in the region. In Addis Ababa — which is entirely surrounded by the Oromia region — violence targeted ethnic Oromos, with scores displaced from their homes. Footage emerged on social media showing what appeared to be clashes between police and large groups of young men in the capital, some of whom hurled rocks or brandished clubs or sticks.
In response to the unrest, the Ethiopian government has arrested more than 3 500 people, including Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo opposition leader; and Eskinder Nega, a journalist and activist who has previously compared the organised groupings of Oromo youth — known as the Queero — to the Interahamwe, the youth militia that participated in the Rwandan genocide.
It has also accused three men of planning and executing Hachalu’s murder, and has arrested two of them. On Friday, Ethiopia’s attorney general, Adanech Abiebie, announced: “The man who pulled the trigger is named Tilahun Yami; he has admitted to doing so while in our custody. Abdi Alemayehu is the name of his accomplice.” She added that a manhunt continues for a third participant, identified as Kebede Gemechu. All three are accused of belonging to a splinter faction of the Oromo Liberation Front, a once-banned political organisation that advocates for greater Oromo representation in government.
The attorney general revealed little about the nature of the killings earlier this month. But as calm is slowly being restored, more details are emerging.
Some of the violence was committed by the state itself, according to witnesses. In Negele Sigalo, a village about 175km south of Addis Ababa, there was no protest activity, according to residents.
“Ours is a small peaceful village. There were never any protests or anything of that nature,” said Shubee Adam. But that didn’t stop soldiers, who were deployed to calm tensions, from using excessive force, he said. “My brother was a family man. He was sitting when one soldier clubbed him in the head, unprovoked. When Aman stood up to defend himself, another soldier shot him dead.”
Aman Dube Ganamo was a 43-year-old father of four. According to his younger brother Shubee, he had no links to any armed groups, and supported his family through farming and running a small shop. “We lost my father when I was young, so Aman became an older brother and a father to me,” Shubee said. “Now I have to become a father figure for his four children because the military murdered their father.”
Aman’s children, a 22-year-old daughter and three younger sons, have fled to a neighbouring town to seek refuge with relatives.
This was not the only incident in which the army was implicated. Hachalu’s cousin, Moti Hundessa, told the Washington Post that six people were killed by soldiers as they were transporting the musician’s body to his hometown of Ambo for burial.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International published a critical report, which accused the Ethiopian army of routine human rights violations, including rape and extrajudicial killings. Amnesty warned that: “These violations and abuses could escalate out of control unless the government takes urgent measures to ensure security forces act within the law and remain impartial in undertaking their duties.”
Government officials have not revealed how many people were killed by security forces. They have been reluctant to expand on the nature of the violence. One of the few indications came from the Oromia Region police commission’s Ararsa Merdasa, who said that as of July 4 some 50 civilians belonging to ethnic minorities in the region — mostly Amhara — had been killed.
Hachalu’s older brother, Habtamu Hundessa, wasn’t willing to speak about the details surrounding his brother’s death when he was contacted by the M&G. But he did say: “Hachalu always stood for justice. He had a stubborn character, but always wanted to do right in the eyes of the oppressed. He would have been very sad if he were around to see all this death today.”