Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 12/11/2010
A Conversation With Obang Metho
Note: A report by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program on the Anuak concluded:”From December 2004 to at least January 2006, the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces) attacked and abused Anuak civilians in Gambella region – wantonly killing, raping, beating, torturing, and harassing civilians in response to ongoing Anuak rebel attacks. These abuses left Anuak villagers fearful of leaving their homes at night, going to the fields and farms outside of town, or fetching water from the water pumps or streams.”
These are excerpts from an extended conversation I had with Obang Metho, the well-known Ethiopian human rights advocate, in solemn anticipation of the seventh anniversary of the December 13-16, 2003 Anuak massacres this coming Monday. The interview is captioned “forgotten genocide” because very few people know what happened to the Anuak seven years ago was genocide as defined under Art. 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention. In the interest of full disclosure, in September 2006, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the University of California, Los Angeles premier of “Betrayal of Democracy”, a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching documentary on the Anuak massacre produced by the Anuak Justice Council, Obang Metho, Executive Director, in collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Alemayehu: As you know November and December are very sad months for Ethiopians. In November 2005, following the election that year, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were massacred in the streets. The world knows a lot about those crimes. But I am not sure if too many people other than the Anuak remember what happened in December in 2003. To be frank, with the exception of some Anuak I have met, I don’t recall having any serious conversations with other Ethiopians about what happened to the Anuak people in Gambella seven years ago. Do you think your other countrymen and women really care about what happened at that time?
Obang: First of all, I want to thank you on behalf of the Anuak for joining with them in remembering some of the darkest days of Anuak history and for bringing this tragedy to the attention of Ethiopians now in 2010. I am sure that Meles never expected that seven years after the genocide of the Anuak that others, like yourself, would have joined together to commemorate this day.
You ask whether other Ethiopians really care about what happened to the Anuak. At the time of the massacre, the only Ethiopian organization that came to the defense of the Anuak was EHRCO [Ethiopian Human Rights Council]; otherwise, it was either overlooked or was not known among most Ethiopians. This was not surprising for several reasons. First, the Anuak were a remote, tiny and marginalized ethnic group who were not part of the mainstream of events in the country. Secondly, Ethiopians were very divided by ethnicity, region, skin color, political view, language, culture and to a lesser extent, by religion; so what was important was what happened to one’s own group and the rest tended to be ignored. Thirdly, even today, what happens in Addis Ababa has always received far more attention than what occurs in the rural parts of Ethiopia where most Ethiopians live. Fourthly, the Ethiopian government does its best to cover up their crimes so it does not get out to the mainstream media. If the news does get out, they simply deny their own responsibility, twist the truth and blame others or try to excuse what happened as one of the regrettable consequences of “ethnic conflict” or use other justifications to avoid responsibility. The government even issues a whitewashed report absolving itself of any responsibility in the massacres.
It is true that the November 2005 killing of 194 unarmed protesters in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the country created a groundswell of outraged response from many sectors of the Ethiopian community because they could identify with the victims, and the killings were carried out in plain view. It became impossible to hide, even to the international community.
However, this was not the case in the majority of violent incidents that have taken place over the past two decades all over the country. We have over 86 different ethnicities; many of them live in remote, rural and marginalized communities and are silenced violently like the Anuak were in 2003 without too much publicity. In fact, the Anuak genocide is now much better known and more remembered than most of the other incidents that have been perpetrated by the TPLF [Meles Zenawi’s party] against Ethiopians.
For example, in July of 2002, 200 Mazengers — neighbours to the Anuak in Gambella — were brutally killed, but who knows about this? In 2001, 100 Sidamo were massacred. Who remembers these victims today? Ethiopians were killed in 1992 in Badenyo and in Arba Gogu. In all few remember these anniversaries. I say ask the Oromo about the tens of thousands of their people who have been beaten, tortured, imprisoned and murdered in the last twenty years by the Meles regime. How can we remember an anniversary when there are so many incidents and they are still ongoing? Ask the Afar about the displacements and human rights abuses they are facing right now. Ask the Benishangul about the same displacements and human rights abuses in their area. Ask the Ogadeni about the genocide being committed against them as we speak. It is not all about “remembering,” but about standing with the victims against such barbaric aggression. We can keep going on for the list is endless and many cases are still unknown.
This is why the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) was formed. We must no longer mourn alone; it is time to take action. Meles’ government cannot stop on 80 million people if we all stood up for each other and together. I believe we Ethiopians will finally come together in this way to stop this oppression. Only then will we hear the countless stories that have never been told of the immeasurable suffering of our people, and not just the Anuak.
Alemayehu: Let’s nail down the facts about what happened in Gambella during the infamous three days in December in 2003, and in the days preceding and following. What are the established facts?
Obang: Meles and those carrying out the atrocities against the Anuak believed them to be expendable people; they thought of them as road blocks on the way to the oil fields, the fertile lands and abundant water and rich natural resources on indigenous Anuak land. They targeted those individuals who were the voices of the community and have a say in the exploration and development of oil on their land. As you might remember, when the killing squads went through Gambella town looking for the next Anuak to brutally kill, they chanted, “Today there will be no more Anuak,” “Today there will be no more Anuak land”. As they raped the women they said, “Today there will be no more Anuak babies.” Within three days, 424 Anuak were dead.
When I received news, it was the darkest day of my life. My world was turned upside down. Among the 424 Anuak killed, I personally knew 317 of them. They were my family, my classmates and many others with whom I had been working to bring development not just to the Anuak, but to the region. Most were educated and outspoken. I have no doubts that I would have been one of the victims had I been living there at the time.
The Anuak genocide occurred as a surreal event as no one discussed it. When international news covered the massacre, they picked up the Ethiopian government’s spin, which described it as an ethnic conflict between the Anuak and the Nuer. That is not true. Later on, Oromo soldiers, who had not even been in the area, were scapegoated for the killings. When I testified before the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in March and April of 2004, I did not speak only about the Anuak, but spoke of the Oromo and others facing persecution.
However, it was only after I testified before the US Congress in March of 2006 that I became more involved in the mainstream Ethiopian community. By that time, I had been to the capital cities of most of the donor countries in Europe and in North America exposing the Anuak massacre and ongoing human rights violations against the Anuak. After the November 2005 killing of unarmed election demonstrators in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country, other Ethiopians joined in this effort. Unfortunately, most tended to cluster around their own individual ethnic or political party interests rather than joining together as a whole. Sometimes we were working at cross purposes. I often wonder where we would be today had we been willing to collaborate then. I hope we don’t have to ask ourselves that question five years from now.
Alemayehu: I don’t believe many of us in the larger Ethiopian community adequately expressed our outrage against the crimes perpetrated against the Anuak. Perhaps many of us did not particularly care, didn’t know or were just indifferent. After all, the Anuak are a tiny minority. Do you sense indifference among other Ethiopians to the plight of the Anuak?
Permit me to answer this question by asking another question. How many mainstream Ethiopian people you see writing about the ongoing genocide in the Ogaden or about the displacements of people as foreign investors align with this one-party government in grabbing the Ethiopian peoples’ land and resources in places like Benishangul-Gumuz, on the borders of the Amhara region or even in Addis Ababa where graves are to be bull-dozed to make room for someone who seeks “ownership” of the land? This is not just indifference to the Anuak, but it is indifference to the problems our people are experiencing all over the country. The Anuak are only one example. This is why we need a “NEW ETHIOPIA!”
Not seeing the full humanity of each of us is the reason we have so many liberation fronts created not simply to break away from the country, but instead, created predominately to protect the interests and lives of the people that are not valued by others. As long as some feel they are more Ethiopian and see others as being of less worth, we will have indifference to the plight of others. This is why we have formed the SMNE, to fight for a new Ethiopia that values all her children the same way regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, political view or any other distinctions. The reason why many of these separatist groups do not want to associate with “Ethiopia” as they see it because they don’t see much inclusiveness in the larger Ethiopian community. Meles has had an easy time of dividing and ruling; and until we all change from the heart, we will not emerge from our collective suffering.
Alemayehu: When you came out in public in 2006 and sought help to put a light on the Anuak massacres, did you get your much support from other Ethiopians? Did you make an effort to mobilize Ethiopians in the Diaspora, and if not why not?
Obang: In the midst of the genocide and ongoing human rights crimes, I sought organizations and government officials who were in the best position to intervene. Genocide Watch president, Dr. Greg Stanton, was one of the first to respond to my call for assistance. At the same time, some Anuak and their friends in Minnesota had already decided to send a team, which soon included me, to interview Anuak survivors and witnesses to the genocide who had fled to a refugee camp in Sudan. We hoped to gather information and evidence while the memories were still fresh. At Dr. Stanton’s suggestion, we added a seasoned human rights investigator in our group. Following the investigation, we issued a report, “Today is the Day for Killing Anuak.” A subsequent investigation was also completed resulting in the report, “Operation Sunny Mountain,” which linked the massacre to the top officials of Meles in Addis Ababa.
Human Rights Watch did an investigation and issued two separate reports, “Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region“( 3/24/05) and “Ethiopia and Eritrea: Promoting Stability, Democracy and Human Rights“(5/5/05). The International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School issued another report, “We Are Now Hoping for Death“, (12/14/06). In all, the Anuak Justice Council was involved in coordinating the completion of five separate human rights investigations on the massacres.
We did not attempt to mobilize Ethiopians until 2006, following my testimony before the U.S. Congress when I made strong connections with other Ethiopians. At the time, ethnic and political divisions created competition between Ethiopians. Rather than working to advance similar goals, some tried to hijack the work of others or refused to collaborate. Even though this continues to be a characteristic shortcoming of many in the struggle for Ethiopian freedom and justice, I believe today Ethiopians are discarding peripheral differences to work together in common cause. I think Ethiopians suffering in the country would be highly encouraged if they saw real progress towards this goal among us in the Diaspora. It is only then that we can work together to mobilize the people within Ethiopia towards a national rather than an ethnic solution!
Alemayehu: How do we keep the memories of the Anuak massacre victims alive? What can we do as individuals and as a community, that is Anuaks and other Ethiopians together?
No one except the Anuak may have cried for them in 2003, but today, millions of Ethiopians know about the Anuak genocide. On December 13th, Ethiopians may remember the pain and suffering of the Anuak; speaking to others about it, praying for the survivors, joining with Anuak they know in a service of remembrance or calling them to personally talk. Many Anuak will shed tears as they remember those dark days and the subsequent grief and hardship resulting from their losses. May this remembrance be a call to all Ethiopians to reflect on the losses of their own loved ones or those of others in the country. We have suffered much as a country. We should try to lift up others with similar losses and wounds.
For me, I will join with other Anuak in Minnesota in a service to remember December 13th; honoring the memory of those who lost their lives and praying for the future of the people and Ethiopia. For me, the pain has somewhat subsided, but my memory of this horrific loss motivates me to work to prevent it from happening again to the Anuak or anyone else. If Ethiopians have forgotten the memory of the Anuak genocide in 2010, the reasons may be somewhat different than 2003.
First of all, we Ethiopians are in great distress right now. It is natural for memories to fade, but when we are still struggling for survival, it is easy to become diverted with one new crisis after another. It is important not to forget so that we can take hold of a better future, but part of remembering “rightly” will take place when peace comes to Ethiopia, when justice is finally served and when the perpetrators and their bosses are held accountable.
Another reason for the memory subsiding is that the Anuak are not alone. Many others have also suffered at the hands of this regime both before and after the Anuak genocide. Look at the genocide going on right now in the Ogaden. Look at the daily beatings, killings and imprisonment of innocent Ethiopians now carried out by this repressive regime all over our country.
Due to the current dictatorial regime, Ethiopians must first become free before official memorials will be constructed, but that time will come. Several years ago I talked about how the death of the Anuak will never be forgotten as long as there are those who care about justice. Even though the current regime would like to obliterate or “whitewash” the memory of these shameful acts, we Ethiopians must be sure they are not forgotten.
When this TPLF government finally collapses, not only do I envision a memorial for the Anuak in Gambella, but also in Addis Ababa where not only will the Anuak be represented, but many others known and unknown who have tragically died at the hands of the Meles regime. At that time, Ethiopians will build a wall of shame where we can go to remember how the government that was supposed to protect the people turned out to be their mortal enemy. It will serve as a sobering reminder of how we must work to preserve a respect for the humanity in each of us.
Alemayehu: Is there anything being done to bring to justice those who committed the crimes against the Anuak in 2003? Are there any efforts underway?
Obang: Yes! We have a very strong legal foundation in place for that day in court where Meles and others will finally be held accountable. This is due to all the human rights investigations and documentation completed by groups like Genocide Watch, Human Rights Watch and others. The case of the Anuak alone is very strong; but when combined with others, all of this abundant evidence may easily form the foundational basis for future prosecutions. The case of the Anuak is before the International Criminal Court (ICC) right now and the UN High Commissioner is looking at the case referred by Dr. Greg Stanton regarding the pattern of human rights abuses in Ethiopia at the hands of this government. I am confident that the time will come for Ethiopians to finally obtain justice. Look at the case of Cambodia where evidence collected and secured over twenty years ago produced convictions just this year. Meles is no different than Omar al Bashir. The tide is certain to change and we will be ready!
Alemayehu: From what you have been able to gather, is there systematic persecution still going on against the Anuak?
Obang: The new systematic persecution has everything to do with the “new fever” for Anuak land and resources. It is being advanced with speed and intensity in the case of the Anuak and other indigenous peoples of Gambella, but is also going on throughout the country; wherever there is resistance to this plan to dispossess the people of their land and assets. People from Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromiya, Afar and Ogaden have officially been put on notice to move from their homes to be resettled in camps. Those who speak out have been harassed, threatened or beaten. In the case of the Anuak, some have turned up dead, floating in the river or have been beaten to death. We do not know what will happen to the people if they refuse to leave their homes; something that is a definite possibility. It certainly could trigger fresh violence by government security forces.
How should we, as Ethiopians, work together to prevent the type of genocide that happened to the Anuak does not happen to any other groups in Ethiopia?
December 13th should act as a reminder of the shared pain of our people and act to bring us Ethiopians together to “mourn under one tent” as has been done in our traditional culture for many years. Inside the tent is the land of Ethiopia and our beautiful and precious people. The roof of that tent is the sky over our beloved country. Because of the pain, misery and ongoing threats to our survival as a nation, we must come together to find a common vision and lasting solution. This is at the heart of everything the SMNE and others have been trying to do.
Now is the time to change our thinking about each other and BEGIN to build a healthier, more inclusive society. No one but the Anuak and their friends cared about them in 2003, but we have a chance to do it over. The land grabs and human rights abuses going on right now; not only to the Anuak but to all the people of Ethiopia should sound the trumpet to gather together. Some only want to gather if they are in charge. This attitude will surely defeat us. We must ask ourselves how much we really care about potential tragedy if egos or hunger for power stand in the way. I do think we are better in 2010 than we were in 2003, but we are still not where we need to be.
The many loved ones I lost can never be replaced, but I trust God that their lives were not lost in vain. Ethnic domination and marginalization of others due to ethnicity, skin color, culture, education, gender or religion is unjustifiable. It was the reason the Anuak were singled out to be slaughtered among the 50,000 people who also lived in the city of Gambella. It was the reason why the government viewed them as a threat rather than as valuable human beings. As most survivors among the Anuak say, the Ethiopian government does not want the Anuak people, but only the resources. These resources on their indigenous land remain today as the chief threat to their survival as they stand in the way of the regime’s ambitions in the area; yet the Anuak are not alone as Ethiopians are becoming more accepting of each other.
Over the last seven years, I have met many wonderful Ethiopians like yourself, who have come into my life, contributing in some unique and special ways. You asked me about a story I have told many times about my experience in Washington DC some years ago with an Ethiopian cab driver who could not believe I was Ethiopian. I must say, Ethiopian cab drivers today are among the most educated and politically astute Ethiopians around. They know about the Anuak and the other diverse people of Ethiopia. Now, when I get in a cab in Washington DC, a more common experience I have is the driver who refuses to accept any fare for the ride saying, “I want to contribute to the struggle.” This is not about me or the Anuak, but about caring about the suffering people of our beautiful country. Yes, we should remember our painful history as a lesson for the future, but we must also embrace each other as we collaborate to create a New Ethiopia where there is room for all of us!
Alemayehu: With all the land-grabbing and population displacement, some 45,000 plus people from Gambella being moved to make way for international land-grabbers, do you have fears that what happened in December 2003 could happen again?
Obang: Yes, because once again, this regime’s greed for “more” is leading to robbing the most vulnerable people of Ethiopia of their land and resources. Because these people “do not count,” they are simply in the way of what this regime wants. If the people resist, the Meles government has been known to use any justification to use military force to subdue them; which could easily lead to ethnic-based killing. I do not think the people will all peacefully cooperate in this plan to displace themselves they have lived on for millennia. In 2003, the genocide was about oil. In 2010, it is about land, gold, potash, natural gas and even sand for concrete.
These are the new precipitating factors that could lead to genocide, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations. However, there is also the passive side of a new form of “genocide” that could lead to putting at imminent risk, large populations of some of the most vulnerable people of our country; not necessarily in terms of direct killings, but in terms of jeopardizing the long-term survival and well being of huge groups of people who are being forced from their homes and land all over the country. How will these people support themselves?
We need to care about the pain of each other more than we care about the power and advancement of one particular group of Ethiopians for “none of us will be free until all are free.” By the time I spoke before Congress in 2006, when our paths first crossed, I had already come to the conclusion that justice would never come to the Anuak until justice came to all Ethiopians; that until we cared about the wellbeing of others based on the God-given worth of every person–putting humanity before ethnicity–that Ethiopia would only produce serial dictators who would take turns preying on the vulnerable.
This is why when I testified I said I was not there not only for the Anuak, but also for the Tigrayans who disagreed with the cruelties of the Meles regime, the oppressed Oromos, the Somalis, the Afar and the other ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia who have been targeted by this regime. I said I was there for the Ethiopian woman whose son or daughter had been shot dead on the streets of Addis Ababa after the national elections and for the CUD leaders and young student protesters who had been taken away from their families and put in prisons and detention centers. I was there for those courageous prisoners of conscience, languishing in prisons throughout Ethiopia. I wanted my voice to not be my own but theirs; warning others that our country was in grave danger; that our nation was dying.
This was an effort to break out of our isolated boxes of caring only for our own tribe or ethnicity. It was the beginning of the SMNE. Today, the danger is greater than on that day and unless we put aside our differences and find common ground to unite, we have no hope. This regime will kill again and are doing so as we speak. Yet, God can help us change and I see a rising momentum for such change coming from many different groups of Ethiopians.
In 2003, we would never be having this discussion; yet, today, you are bringing these issues to the forefront. Both you and I have worked closely over the past four years on many issues. Through your many informed and insightful commentaries and analyses, you have contributed much to the discussion of the current situation by exposing the true nature of the regime and by creating greater international awareness and factual understanding of the dictatorship and repression in Ethiopia. This interview is just another example of your willingness to think beyond the ethnic-based paradigm that has defeated us for so many years. Because of people like you, who are willing to become the voices for a different kind of Ethiopia, a “new Ethiopia” of the future. May it inspire others to join with us! Thank you so much my friend!
Alemayehu: Thank you Obang for sharing your thoughts. It has been an honor working with you all these years. They say, “If you want peace, work for justice.” We all want peace in Ethiopia and for the Ethiopian people. So, we’ll be right there with you working for justice; we are with you in trying to bring to justice those perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It’s only because of scheduling conflict that I am unable to join you and the Anuak community in Minneapolis for the memorial on December 13. But be assured that all Ethiopians join you in observing this tragic date in spirit. I hope the Ethiopians in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, my old “stomping grounds”, will come out in full force and attend the memorial and show their solidarity with our Anuak brothers and sisters.
Obang: Thank you.
REMEMBER THE FORGOTTEN ANUAK GENOCIDE OF DECEMBER, 2003.
 Obang Metho is the Executive Director of the Anuak Justice Council and the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia.
Resource links on the Anuak massacres: http://www.mcgillreport.org/anuak_genocide_links.htm