NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The heavily armed men appeared around the small farming village in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, scaring residents already on edge after recent clashes between government forces and rebels.
“The militants assured us that they will not touch us. They said they are not after us,” resident Nur Hussein Abdi told The Associated Press. “But in reality they surrounded our entire village in a deadly massacre. What happened the next day was a total bloodbath.”
Abdi escaped by hiding on a roof, a shocked witness of… one of the worst mass murders in ethiopia in recent years. Hundreds of people, mostly ethnic Amhara, were massacred in the village of Tole and the surrounding area on June 18 in the latest explosion of ethnic violence in Africa’s second most populous country.
Multiple witnesses told the AP they are still discovering bodies, some in mass graves containing dozens of people. The Amhara Association of America has confirmed that 503 civilians have been killed. The Ethiopian authorities have not released any figures. A witness, Mohammed Kemal, said he witnessed 430 buried bodies, with others still being uncovered and decomposing.
Kemal pleaded with the Ethiopian government to relocate the survivors and said the gunmen had threatened to return.
“They have killed babies, children, women and the elderly,” said resident Ahmed Kasim. The Amhara Association of America said the dead included a 100-year-old and a one-month-old baby, and some were murdered in a mosque where they had tried to hide.
Oromia residents and regional officials have blamed the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed group that the government of Ethiopia has declared a terrorist organization. An OLA spokesperson denied it, claiming that federal troops and regional militias attacked the villagers for their alleged support of the OLA as they withdrew from an OLA offensive.
Again, Ethiopians question why the federal government has failed to protect them from the violent side of the country’s ethnic tensions — and why ethnic minorities in a federal system based on identity are so vulnerable.
Teddy Afro, Ethiopia’s much-celebrated pop star, released two songs this week highlighting the crisis that has worsened over the past four years and dedicating his songs to citizens who have lost their lives.
“It’s never an option to remain silent when a mountain of death comes right in front of me,” says one of his lyrics.
On Friday, thousands of students from Gondar University in the neighboring Amhara region protested the killings and demanded justice.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said security forces have launched a military operation against the OLA, but many Ethiopians seem skeptical after seeing the deadly cycle in the past.
The president of the Oromia region, Shimelis Abdisa, acknowledged on Thursday that it will be difficult to arrange security in every location, but said the current operation will “cripple the enemy’s ability to move from place to place”.
Ethnic Amhara is Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group but has been attacked in some areas where they are outnumbered. In the past three years alone, dozens have been killed in attacks in the regions of Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia.
“Ethnic Amharas living outside their region have no legal and political representation, resulting in no protection,” said Muluken Tesfaw, a community activist who tracks abuses against the Amhara. “There were even speeches by government officials in the Oromia region who are trying to reduce Amharic-speaking people.”
“An anti-Amhara story has been spreading for more than 50 years,” said Belete Molla, chairman of the opposition NaMA party. “The Amhara living in Oromia and Benishangul are therefore being targeted.” He also accused some members of the ruling party of the Oromia region of “working for or sympathizing with the Oromo Liberation Army.”
The latest massacres caused international alarm. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged Ethiopian authorities to conduct “quick, impartial and thorough” investigations. The US State Department called on Ethiopians to “reject violence and pursue peace”.
Ethiopia still faces ethnic tensions in several parts of the country and a deadly conflict in the northern region of Tigray that has hit its once-fast-growing economy hard, but the prime minister is adamant that better days are to come.
“There is no doubt that Ethiopia is on the path of prosperity,” he said in a parliament address this month.
But Ethiopians who have escaped the latest onslaught are looking for answers.
Nur Hussein said he and other Tole villagers called nearby officials about the gunmen’s appearance shortly before the violence exploded. “Their response was muted. They said there were no specific threats to respond to. But look what happened,” he said. “God willing, we’ll get over this, but it’s a scar that will stay with us forever.”