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The Name of the Abominable Crime is Politicide: The Mass Massacre & Imprisonment of ORA Orphans – Wallaga 1992-93 July 28, 2014

Posted by OromianEconomist in Aannolee and Calanqo, Colonizing Structure, Ethnic Cleansing, Free development vs authoritarian model, Genocidal Master plan of Ethiopia, Hetosa, Human Rights Watch on Human Rights Violations Against Oromo People by TPLF Ethiopia, Janjaweed Style Liyu Police of Ethiopia, Jen & Josh (Ijoollee Amboo), Knowledge and the Colonizing Structure. African Heritage. The Genocide Against Oromo Nation, Land and Water Grabs in Oromia, Nimoona Xilahuun Imaanaa, No to land grabs in Oromia, No to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, NO to the Evictions of Oromo Nationals from Finfinnee (Central Oromia), Omo Valley, Oromia Support Group, Oromia wide Oromo Universtiy students Protested Addis Ababa Expansion Master Plan, Oromian Voices, Oromians Protests, Oromiyaa, Oromo, Oromo and the call for justice and freedom, Oromo Diaspora, Oromo Identity, Oromo Nation, Oromo Protests, Oromo students movement, Oromo students protests, Oromo the Largest Nation of Africa. Human Rights violations and Genocide against the Oromo people in Ethiopia, Oromo University students and their national demands, Stop evicting Oromo people from Cities, The Colonizing Structure & The Development Problems of Oromia, The Mass Massacre & Imprisonment of ORA Orphans, The Tyranny of Ethiopia.
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The Name of the Abominable Crime is Politicide

(Part One)

The Mass Massacre & Imprisonment of ORA Orphans – Wallaga 1992-93

By  Mekuria Bulcha*

 

“…. many of us lost our parents and relatives and were cared for by the Oromo Relief Association (ORA) for our survival and wellbeing. With the support of the international community and Oromos abroad, some 1,700 of us have been taken care of in exile in the Blue Nile Province of the Sudan. … The ORA gave us the chance to survive” (from a letter by “Raagaa”, one of the ORA children 1993).

“The life of those of us who did not experience the sweet love of parents, but had known only an organization [ORA] was devastated when the organization collapsed; we were left alone without relations. There are many who shared my misfortune; regrettably the whereabouts of many of them remains a mystery” (from an interview by the author with another former ORA child, Leensaa, March 2014).

“We appeal to you to do all you can to shed light upon the fate of the more than 1,600 children from ORA camp in Kobor. Where are Sagantaa Useen, Tolina Waaqjiraa and Duulaa Tafarra and all others?” (from a letter sent by the teachers and pupils of Heinrich-Goebel-Realschule to Dr. Klaus Kinkel, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, November 2, 1992)

Introduction

The three quotations presented above are from documents used in writing this article and reflect, in one way or another, the fate of about 1,700 Oromo children who were looked after by the Oromo Relief Association (ORA) in the refugee camps of Yabus, Damazin and Bikoree in the late 1980s. The first quote is from a letter written by one of the ORA children to the ORA office in Germany after he escaped from the Dhidheessa concentration camp in 1993. “Ragaa” is a fictive name as the letter writer lives in Ethiopia. The second quote is from an interview with Leensa Getaachoo who was one of the ORA orphans. First incarcerated at the age of ten in 1994, she had been in seven Ethiopian prisons before she fled from Ethiopia in 2000. A brief account of her more than a decade-long odyssey across three continents and her sojourn in six countries in search of a safe haven is included in the last section of this article. The last quotation is from a letter written by students and teachers of a school in Germany appealing to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them find out the whereabouts of the ORA orphans. Their school supported the ORA project materially and the pupils were pen friends with the ORA children.

The main purpose of this article is to shed light on what happened to the ORA children in western Oromia during the summer months of 1992. Associating them with the Oromo Liberation (OLF), the Tigrayan Liberation Front (TPLF) imprisoned hundreds of them in 1992 and 1993 along with thousands of Oromo civilians and OLF fighters in the Dhidheessa concentration camp. Although I knew that many of the ORA children were imprisoned, I only got a hint of the full magnitude of the crime committed against themlast year when I came across a report written in 1996 by the UK based Oromia Support Group (OSG Press Release No. 13, 1996). The OSG wrote about the flight of the ORA children and their guardians chased by the TPLF forces. The report noted that“After three weeks on the run, with rain, mud, hunger and sleeping rough in the bush, the remaining 600 or so children were attacked in the Gunfi area.…. Local informants claim that the fleeing children were hunted like kurupé, a small antelope which leaps to see its way while fleeing through tall vegetation.” (Emphasis mine) This reminded me of what I read about the now extinct indigenous inhabitants of the island of Tasmania. They were hunted and killed by white settlers just like wild game and were exterminated. It is embarrassing that we have failed to record the story of the ORA children properly during the last twenty-two years. However, I believe that it is our obligation to record their story now and bring it to the attention of particularly the Oromo people. As the first two quotations above indicate, most of the children were parentless; the majority had no families to remember them. It is our duty to remember them by recording their story.

An inquiry into the intention of the crime is another aim of the article. The crime was carried out systematically and over a long period of time. The question is: why? Why did the TPLF forces chase children and adolescents for over three months and capture or kill them, when they knew that they were unarmed youth and that the adults accompanying them were not fighters but their guardians? Based on information gathered through interviews and the description of the manner in which the TPLF security forces have treated them inside and outside the concentration camps, the article will argue that politicide,[1] was perpetrated against the ORA orphans. The TPLF was in an open war with the OLF when the children were massacred in the summer months of 1992.  Consequently, it wouldn’t be farfetched to argue, as I will do in this article, that the atrocities committed by the TPLF against the ORA children and their guardians constitute a war crime.

Thirdly, the article will show that the persecution of the ORA children was a springboard for the TPLF policy of liquidating those individuals and groups its makers see as bearers of the seeds of Oromo nationalism, and that this has culminated in the current widespread war against Oromo students. I will describe, albeit briefly, the case of other Oromo children and youth who have been accused of “supporting” the OLF or branded as “terrorists” and treated with incredible cruelty.The many crackdowns on Oromo students during the past fifteen years, including the ongoing war against secondary school and university students throughout Oromia, which I will discuss in another forthcoming article, are guided by the same odious policy which led to the massacre and imprisonment of the ORA orphans. Based on my readings of its cruel treatment of the educated Oromo youth, my assessment of the main objective of the TPLF regime’s policy has been to deprive the Oromo nation of its current and future leaders. In short, what has been going on in Oromia since 1992 is clearly politicide. Oppressive Latin American dictatorships, which were led by military generals such Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973 to 1999, and Jorge Rafael Videla, Leopoldo Galtieri and others in Argentina between 1975 and 1983. Although not widely known and acknowledged, the politicide carried out against Oromo intellectuals, businessmen and students—who are often labelled by the TPLF regime as “OLF supporters” or “terrorists”—surpasses in its ferocity that of the Latin American dictators against the so-called communists. Its treatment of its Oromo victims is in many ways “dirtier” than the “Dirty Wars” which the Argentinian military dictators carried out against left wing politicians and others between 1975 and 1983. Politicide takes on genocidal characteristics when carried out against members of an ethnic, linguistic or “racial” community. The policy of the Tigrayan ruling elites against the Oromo displays these characteristics.

Sources of information

The article is based on information collected from both primary and secondary sources. The primary sources comprise

  1. correspondence which I had with a former teacher and head of the ORA children’s project who was also with the children during their flight from the TPLF in western Oromia,
  2. written and telephone interviews with two former ORA children who live in an African country and one who lives in England,
  3. telephone interviews conducted with Oromos who were imprisoned by the Ethiopian regime in the 1990s. These Oromos, who are now scattered across different countries in Africa, North America and Europe and who know what happened to the children during the second half of 1992 or later.

I have consulted reports and documents from the archives of ORA as a secondary source of information.  These include a short letter written in Afaan Oromoo by one of the ORA children who were deported to the Dhidheessa concentration camp in June 1992. He escaped from the concentration camp in 1993 and found his way to Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) from where he wrote the letter to the ORA office in Germany. The letter was translated into English by Tarfa Dibaba. The other secondary source of information, an OSG (Oromia Support Group) report, was based on interviews with the surviving children, teachers, guardians and local Oromo population of western Oromia in 1996. The third document used here is a short article based on an interview given in 1994 by a former prisoner of the Dhidheessa concentration camp. The interview was in Afaan Oromoo and was translated to English by Yoseph Taera & Kathrin Schmitt and published as “An EPRDF Prison Camp from Inside” (see Oromo Commentary, Vol. VI (1), 1994). The informant was a detainee at the Dhidheessa concentration camp. Other documents obtained from the ORA archives in Germany include most of the photos used in the article, and a copy of the letter written by the teachers and pupils of Heinrich-Gobel-Realschule of the city of Springe in Germany to the German Minister for Foreign Affairs in November 1992 mentioned above. The article has three short parts including this one. The second part will discuss imprisonment and death in the Dhidheessa concentration camp. The third part consists of short life stories of some of the children, both dead and alive.

The Oromo Relief Association: Its Origins and Objectives

The Oromo Relief Association (ORA) had its origin in a clandestine committee created during the dark days of the so-called Red Terror which was unleashed by the Dergue (the Ethiopian Military Regime) and devoured thousands of the educated youth in Ethiopia in 1977-78. The objective of the committee was to assist families whose breadwinners were jailed, had “disappeared” or had been killed. The committee was known as “Funding-raising Committee”, and functioned mainly in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa). Oromo government employees and businessmen made contributions to assist the work of the clandestine committee. [2]

When it was formally established abroad in 1979, one of the objectives of ORA was to assist in bringing up the children of those Oromos who had died or were imprisoned because of their role in the national struggle for freedom. ORA provided humanitarian assistance to needy people in the OLF-held areas and offered medical and social service for Oromo refugees in the neighboring countries of the Horn of Africa. The Sudan was one of the countries in which the association was established and was recognized by its government.

ORA’s humanitarian activities in the Sudan

I visited the ORA offices in both Khartoum and Damazin in the Sudan for the first time in November 1981. From December 1982 to February 1983 I was again in the Sudan and could see the progress which the association was making in providing crucially needed services to Oromo refugee communities settled in the Blue Nile Province of the Sudan. In all the places I visited in the Sudan, the largest concentration of Oromo refugees was in Yabus, a district located south of Kurmuk town near the Ethiopian border.

Picture 1: The head of ORA, Fakadu Waaqjiraa in the ORA office in Khartoum, Sudan; Photo: Mekuria Bulcha, November 1981

Being one of the remotest districts in the Sudan, Yabus lacked not only a clinic and a school, but also all means of communication including roads. In February 1983, I presented a report entitled “Some Notes on the Conditions of Oromo, Berta and other Refugees in the Kurmuk District of the Blue Nile Province, Republic of Sudan” (Bulcha, 1983) to the UNHCR and NGOs in Khartoum, to raise awareness about the problems which were facing Oromo refugees in the remote districts of Sudan’s Blue Nile Province, particularly the health problems and high death rate among children. I also pointed out that the only organization which was assisting the refugees in the province was the ORA, and that it had almost no resources at its disposal to support even its staff. The UNHCR and NGOs responded positively to my short report. The UNHCR sent a staff member to Damazin and followed up the problem. Among NGOs was Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, who participated in providing medical service to Oromo refugees and the ORA children whose stories are given in this article. Researchers from Europe and the US were also in the region and to conduct further studies of the problem facing Oromo refugees.[3] The reportwas also presented during workshops organized by ORA support committees in some European countries.

Picture: 2. On the Road from Yabus to Darsumma near the Ethiopian boarder in 1983; Yabus was inaccessible by vehicle during the rainy season and barely accessible even during the dry season. The Toyota Land Cruiser was a donation from the ORA Support Committee in Holland and was fitted with spare parts for the rough terrain. The person standing farthest from the camera is the late ‘Goota Bobbaas’ Bunee (d.1991) veteran of both the Maccaa Tuulama Association and the OLF. Photo: Mekuria Bulcha, February 1983.

Picture: 3. a group of Oromo refugees in Yabus in 1983. Stranded in the middle of nowhere in inaccessible border areas, hundreds of Oromo refugees were suffering from hunger and diseases when I visited Yabus in 1983. Malaria and diarrheal diseases were taking their toll particularly among the children. Photo: Mekuria Bulcha, February 1983

Through hard work and assistance from Oromo Support Committees in Europe and the US, the ORA was able assist Oromo refugees in the Horn of Africa, particularly in the Sudan. Through its children’s program, the association provided education to young refugees, and took care of parentless children in shelters it had built in the Sudan (see Tarfa Dibaaba’s book: It is a Long Way: A Reflection on the History of the Oromo Relief Association (2011).

Picture 4a (Above Left): Tarfa Dibaba former head of ORA office in Germany and coordinator of ORA activities abroad at a school event in Oldenburg, Germany, talking about ORA and its activities;

Picture 4b (Right): Relief shipments with clothing, school material, toys, sports equipment and musical instruments for the ORA children in the Sudan arriving at the ORA office in Delmenhost, Germany.

Picture 5 Right: A child getting treatment with glucose under the shade of a tree in Yabus. Her name is Berhane; she fled to the Sudan with her parents and their neighbors who were displaced from Kusaayee, a village west of the town of Gidaami by the resettlement program of the Dergue. Berhane was only about 6 years old but in the picture she looks like an adult because of severe malnutrition. The ORA medical staff saved the lives of many children and adults in the remote refugee settlement of Yabus (Photo: Arfaasee Gammada, 1985)

Pcture 6 Left: Members of ORA-Germany Arfaasee Gammada and Gerda Klein, both of them trained nurses, in Yabus in 1985

The social backgrounds of the ORA children

As described in the first two quotations at the beginning of this article many of the children, who were supported and educated by ORA in its children centers in Yabus, Damazin and Bikoree in the Sudan, were parentless. They lost their parents and relatives during the Dergue period. Most of them were small when they came to the ORA camps. For example, the record shows that of the 244 children who fled Yabus to Damazin, 24 percent were between six and ten years old, 67 percent were between 11 and 15, and 9 percent from 15 to 17 years old (source:ORAdocuments, Berlin, Germany).

Picture7a Picture7b

Pictures 7a & 7b: Some of the ORA children in Yabus and in Damazin in the late 1980s (Photo: Tarfa Dibaba). 

Picture8a Picture8b

Picture 8a & 8b:  Some of the smallest ORA children in Yabus in 1988: In the forefront are the ‘inseparable sisters’ Sadiyyaa and Nuuriyya Tolasaa (see also 8b above, Photo: Tarfa Dibaba). Many of these children were viciously killed, imprisoned and tortured by TPLF’s forces in the 1990s.

The 1989 flight from Yabus

Quoting Amanda Heslop and Rachel Pounds of the London-based agency “Health Unlimited,” who were working as volunteers in Yabus as a teacher and a nurse respectively when it was attacked by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the New African (April, 1990) wrote “In mid-December 1989, Oromo children started arriving in an Oromo refugee camp in Damazin, Central Sudan in a severe state of malnutrition and shock. The New African added “They were orphaned children who, among 6,000 Oromo refugees, had fled from the South Sudanese town of Yabus”. According to another source (Dhaabaa, November 21, 2013) some of the children were moved to Damazin and the rest were sent to Bikoree when Yabus was attacked by the SPLA. The SPLA was fighting the Sudanese army and was backed by units of the Ethiopian army when it attacked Yabus.

Picture9Picture 9: The 244 children who fled from Yabus to Damazin in December 1989 were quartered in tents on their arrival. The tents and other ORA properties including trucks and large amounts of food in store were confiscated by the Sudanese government in 1992 supporting the Tigrayan regime in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa). The tents were donated by the German Ministry for Development Aid. Photo Tarfa Dibaba

The children who were in the ORA children’s camps in the Sudan in the mid-1980s returned home in 1992. According to the ORA, the first batch of its1033 children returned to Oromia from Bikoree in early 1992. They were joined in May 1992 by 691 children from Damazin.  In addition to the 1,724 returnees from the Sudan, there were over 300 children in two camps—one in Caanqaa and the other Mummee Dhoqsaa in OLF controlled areas (source: Dhaaba as above). 

Following the demise of the Dergue regime, “Those from Bikore, aged 12-18, were moved to Asosa in 1991. Because of the poor security situation there, they were moved to a site near Mendi (Wallaga) for one year. Nearby clashes between the OLF and the TPLF forced them to be moved around April/May 1992 to Kobor, 10-20 km in the direction of Asosa from Begi” town. Soon after, “the 5-15 year olds” from Damazin also arrived in Kobor (OSG Press Release, No. 13, 1996).

“We were all full of joy to be back in our country”

Research on international migration shows that, irrespective of age, sex and profession, a spiritual and physical return to the lands of their ancestors is uppermost in the minds of most of those who find themselves outside of their homeland against their wishes. Indeed, the ORA children must have been very happy to return to their homeland. The parents of many of them had sacrificed their lives fighting for its freedom. In a letter he wrote to ORA-Germany, Raagaa, who escaped from the Dhidheessa concentration camp explained,

When the situation seemed favorable to move back to our country, arrangements were made to take us back to our home areas of western Wallaga. … First, we were taken to Mendi and from there to Begi. We did not see anything of the fighting between the TPLF and the OLF. We did not know anything about the problem. We did not see any armed units on the way. We enjoyed a short-lived peaceful time. We continued our regular lessons under shady trees and in small village schools and spent most of the time outside enjoying the cool climate of our country. We were all full of joy to be back in our country (emphasis mine).

Raagaa belongs to the batch of children who returned from Bikoree in early 1992. The joy he described above did not last long. Those who returned from Damazin in May 1992 did not get a chance to experience even the short-lived peaceful life that the returnees from Bikoree experienced. Their dream of a happy life in a free homeland was shattered by terror perpetrated by enemy forces who occupied their homeland. The children were deprived not only the right to live and grow in freedom and happiness in their ancestral homeland, but many of them were also deprived of the right to life itself.

A walk into a death trap

The return of the ORA children from Damazin to Oromia coincided with the encampment of the OLF forces which was mediated by representatives of the US and Eritrean governments and signed by the OLF and the TPLF, preparing the ground for elections planned to take place in June 1992. But that did not happen. As we all know, following the withdrawal of the OLF from the local elections scheduled for the third week of June, its camps were attacked by the TPLF soldiers, who were not encamped like those of the OLF.

Regrettably, it was not the peace and happiness for which the children were longing, but violence, horror and death that was waiting for them at home in the shape of a new enemy that had occupied it. Ironically, from the relative security in refugee camps in the Sudan, they walked into a death trap laid out by the TPLF-led regime in their homeland. The shelters for the children at Gabaa Jimaata (for those from Bikoree) and at Ganda Qondaala (for those from Damazin)—both near Kobor—were attacked as if they too were OLF camps. So were the smaller shelters at Mummee Dhoqsaa and Caanqaa. The fact that the shelters were both homes and schools for children was known to the public. This was not hidden from the TPLF troops. They would have been informed, not only by their intelligence agents, but were in the area for weeks before they started their murderous attack on the children. In other words, the assaults on the shelters were carried out with the intent of harming the children. At that time of the attack, 1,724 children who returned from the Sudan and 22 who joined them at home (altogether 1,746 children) lived with their 37 caretakers and 35 teachers in the two ORA children centers mentioned above. In addition, the two smaller centers at Caanqaa and Mummee Dhoqsaa run by the OLF, housed and supported about 300 internally displaced, poor or parentless children. All in all the assault targeted over 2000 children. According to Dhaabaa (November 21, 2013), at that time the children were receiving training in different skills in addition to the education given in public schools.

Describing what had happened to the children he had bravely tried to protect from the TPLF killers during their three-month long bewildering flight, Dhaaba (November 21, 2013) wrote,

Ijoolleen mirga namummaa, kabaja ijoollummaa isaani illee utuu hinsafeeffatamin addamsuun, irratti dhukaasuun, madaa’uu fi ajjeefamun akkasumas hidhaatti guuramuun carraa isaanii tahe”

Translated into English the statement reads,

“The children were denied human rights; they were hunted, shot at, wounded and killed. Those who were captured were dragged into prison in violation of ethics that ought to be respected. That became their fate.”

Picture10

Picture 10: A classroom in a school ran by ORA for refugee children in Damazin

As reflected in the eager faces of these pupils, children in refugee camps often have an amazing thirst for education. They see in it a better future. Regrettably, the life of these knowledge thirsty ORA children was cut short by the TPLF regime. They lacked protection, parental, organizational and legal. Photo: Tarfa Dibaba, 1988

 Picture11

Picture 11Obbo Shifarraa was one of the assistant teachers and caretaker of ORA children in the ORA school in Damazin 

ORA and the OLF ran schools which taught classes up to grade six. This was also the case in areas under OLF control inside Oromia. It was here that together with the literacy classes that were given to Oromo refugees in different places in the Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia and elsewhere that the qubee based educational system adopted by all school Oromia in 1992 was laid down.

 Picture12

Picture 12: Shows a classroom in Bikoree in 1990. It is difficult to say how many of these lovely kids were killed during the June-July 1992 TPLF onslaught or died in Dhidheessa concentration camp later. (Photo: Tarfa Dibaba)

Through Forests and Marshlands and Over Mountains with Killers on their Heels

Dhaba reported that they, the teachers and caretakers (hereafter the guardians), fled with the children into the Charphaa forest. From there, they sent some of the children away to Gidaami and some of them to Begi to look for relatives or hide among the local population. The TPLF forces arrived after sometime and opened fire on the group. In the shooting that followed some of the children were killed or injured. The children and their guardians fled from Carphaa to the Gaara Arbaa mountain range. Helped with information about the whereabouts of the TPLF forces provided by the sympathetic local population, they had been hitherto ahead of their hunters. However, soon aftertwo days after their arrival in Gaara Arbaa area, they detected that the TPLF fighters were building a ring around the forest wherein they were hiding. The children were forced to rush down the hillsides towardthe Dabus River. As the month of June is part of the season when the rainfalls are the heaviest, the valley had turned into a marshland and was covered with impenetrable tall elephant grass. Fleeing on foot through thewild and impenetrable vegetation was taxing. Blood-thirsty insects swarmed in the tall grass making travel through them immensely difficult and unbearable even to the most experienced adults: they had to fight off biting insects and struggle to walk through the grass at the same time. The children and their guardians found the Dabus was in full flood and unfordable on foot. Fortunately there were canoes owned by the locals. However, they carried only 2 or 3 individuals at a time. Therefore, it took many hours filled with fear and anxiety to take the children to the other side.  After ten days, the children and their caretakers came to Mummee Dhoqsaa on the banks of the Dillaa River, a tributary of the Dabus after ten days (Dhaabaa, December 9, 2013).

The Dillaa was also in flood and, as the children were trying to cross under similar stress and circumstances (as when they crossed the Dabus), the TPLF, whose soldiers were still on their heels opened fire on them in the Gunfi area. According the OSG report mentioned above, an unknown number of children were killed or wounded and some were captured by the soldiers. The rest were separated and scattered in different directions. Dhaabaa reported (December 9, 2013) that a clinic in Gunfi (where children who were suffering from malaria and other diseases were getting medication) was surrounded by the TPLF soldiers who opened fire on them. Although caretakers were assigned and had accompanied each group (Dhaabaa, see above) it is difficult to say how many of the children were able to escape the TPLF troops as they continued to chase and capture or kill them for many weeks.

Picture13Picture 13: Some of the ORA teenagers in Bikoree, Sudan, having a good time together in 1990. This and the other pictures taken in exile show that that the children were well cared for by ORA. Photo: Tarfa Dibaba

As mentioned above, there is no doubt that the TPLF forces knew that those who were fleeing from them were children, as well as their caretakers and teachers, and not Oromo soldiers or fighters. Although they might have been “carrying out” orders from above, they behaved monstrously as though the children they were chasing and killing were not human beings like themselves. It seems that they captured, persecuted or killed the children as a matter of duty.

Killed by TPLF bullets or taken by floods while fleeing from them

Nobody knows how many of the ORAchildren were killed or captured and imprisoned by the TPLF.  Different incidents are mentioned by the sources in which the children incurred casualties at the initial stage of their flight. According Abdalla Suleeman, a former OLF fighter, in one attack at a place called Yaa’a Masaraa near Kobor in Begi district over 30 children were killed when the TPLF forces bombed a building in which the fleeing children took shelter. He also mentions that many children had also drowned when the pursuing forces opened fire on them on the banks of the Dabus River (personal communication, March 2013). One of the eyewitness-accounts of the TPLF assault was given by a 13-year old girl, “Milkii” (fictive name as she is married and lives in Oromia now). Milkii was among the group of children who were sent in the direction of Mendi in the north. Although wounded when her group was attacked on the banks of the Dabus River, she was lucky to escape together with her 11-year brother and many of her companions. Regrettably, it was not all the children in her group who had that luck. She said that between 35 and 40 children in her cohort were killed on the riverbank or drowned while trying to cross to the other side seeking safety.

Since we do not have any other eyewitness of the incident described above, we have to accept Milkii’s account with caution. This, not because I believe she is telling lies, but because of the situation under which she had made the observation. However, it is important to note that other sources also indicate that a number of the ORA children had drowned while crossing the Dabus River or its tributaries.The OSG, for example, mentions that about 20 children had drowned while Dhaabaa mentions only one child who died in such an accident. Since the children were dispersed and fled in different directions, nobody seems to know how many of them had drowned or were killed during the flight. It is also difficult to verify whether the sources are referring to the same or to different incidents. In general, given the information we have, it is impossible to account for the fate of the majority of the 1,724 children who returned home, nor of the 300 who were in the Caanqaa and Mummee Dhoqsaa shelters when the TPLF attacked them in June 1992. However, regarding the number of children killed by the TPLFforces,the OSG (Press Release no. 13, August 1996: 17) wrote that “Between 170 and 200 bodies of children were found.” The OSG indicated that the figures were based on “Interviews with surviving children, teachers and carers, and interviews with residents in Wollega province over the last twelve months”. In short, although wecannot confirm the death statistics given above, there is no doubt that many of the ORA children were killed during their three-month long vicious pursuit and assault by the TPLF forces. Among those who were gunned down by the TPLF forces were the three boys—Tolina Waaqjiraa, Duula Tafarraa and Sagantaa Useen—mentioned in the letter cited at the beginning of the article (Dhaabaa, December 9, 2013). As mentioned above, over 300 children were captured and imprisoned in the Dhidheessa concentration camp. As will be revealed in the next part of this article, many died there from hunger, diseases and torture.

Crime against guardians and sympathetic local Oromo population

Noteworthy aspects of the flight of the ORA children were the courage that their guardians—their teachers and caretakers—had shown in protecting them as well as the support given them by the inhabitants of the districts they traversed. The price which both the guardians and many sympathetic peasants have paid to protect and support the children was high. Some were killed during the flight. It seems many were also caught and imprisoned. Among the children’s guardians who were killed were Abbaa Jambaree and Adabaa Imaanaa. The killing of the physically handicapped Adabaa Imaanaa was carried out with barbaric brutality. Dhabaa wrote (November 21, 2013) that

Adabaa Imaanaa was a guardian of the ORA children starting in Bikoree until the time of the TPLF assault. As he couldn’t walk, I got help from the people who gave us a mule to be used by him during flight from the assaulters. We were followed by the enemy from place to place and arrived in Mummee Dhoksaa on the banks of the Dillaa Gogolaa. After sometime we were surrounded by the enemy. They opened gunfire on us. One of the children’s caretakers, Abba Jambaree was killed. We managed to cross the river by canoes. Since his mule was frightened by the gunfire, panicked and galloped away, we sent away Adaba Imaanaa to limp to his village hiding from the enemy. When I went to his village later and I heard from his neighbors that he had reached his village with difficulty. But the TPLF agents had traced him, surrounded his house, took him out and killed him in late 1992.

However, in spite of the risks involved, the Oromo inhabitants of the districts through which the children passed, sheltered, fed, and directed them to the safest routes, informing them about the whereabouts of the TPLF forces. They had also volunteered to receive and hide those children whom the ORA staff were forced to place in their guardianship. The generosity shown to the fleeing children and their guardians by the inhabitants of the many villages through which theypassed, did not go unpunished by the TPLF. According Dhaabaa (November 21, 2013), the first person to be accused of helping the ORA children was a priest the village of Gabaa Jimaata mentioned above. His name was Abbabaa. He was dragged out of his house by the TPLF soldiers and shot in cold blood. A farmer called GaaddisaaDaaphoo was killed for feeding the children and their guardians in Harrojjii, a village in which they stayed during their flight.

It is difficult to imagine the hate that makes people commit such atrocities. Why did they kill, for example, a physically handicapped old man? Is it because he was an Oromo? What did the Oromo do to them? How can one hate a people amongst whom one lives in such a manner? Some probable answers to these questions will be discussed in the forthcoming part of this article.

[1] Politicide” means “a crime committed with intention on political grounds.” More fully, it is a deliberate killing or physical destruction of a group who form (or whose members share a distinctive characteristic of) a political movement.
[2] I was a contributor for a short time before I left the Ethiopia in September 1977.
[3] See for example, Virginia Lulling, “Oromo Refugees in a Sudanese Town”, Journal of Northeast African Studies, 8(2&3), 1996;

 

*Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999).

 

The Name of the Abominable Crime is Politicide

(Part Two)

Deportation and Death in the Dhidheessa Concentration Camp

By  Mekuria Bulcha*

Introduction

In the first part of this article, published on this website on June 22, 2014 under the title “The Name of the Abominable Crime is Politicide: The Mass Massacre and Imprisonment of ORA Orphans – Wallaga 1992-93,” I described the humanitarian activities of the Oromo Relief Association (ORA) among Oromo refugees in the Sudan in the 1980s and discussed the repatriation of some 1700 orphans, who were taken care of by the association, to Oromia in 1992. As I mentioned in the article, the initial TPLF onslaughts on the fleeing ORA children and their guardians took about three months. The different sources that I consulted indicated that between 170 and 200 children were hunted down and killed or drowned in flight. In addition, an unknown number of their guardians—as well as inhabitants of the districts through which they passed who helped during their flight—were killed during the onslaught. At the start of the onslaught about 300 children were captured and sent to the Dhidheessa concentration camp.

Deportation, torture, and political indoctrination

As mentioned before, most of the children were either placed in the care of the people or were sent away to look for relatives before their teachers and caretakers scattered to hide or flee back to the Sudan to seek refuge. However, the TPLF search for ORA children continued for more than a year after the initial onslaught came to an end.  Apparently, many of the children who escaped the TPLF-forces’ bullets, and who were not arrested during the onslaught were traced, arrested and sent to jail. One of the survivors H.S. (who lives in a country neighboring with Ethiopia) told me:

I was about eight [years] old when the TPLF attacked us. I fled with the other children and adults in our camp.  After sometime, we smaller children, who were unable to keep pace with the rest in the flight, were given to families in different villages along the route. I was placed with a family in a village called Gaara Arbaa. Two of my shelter mates, Kuusaa and Dingata, were also placed in the neighborhood in the same village. However, after a few weeks, the TPLF found and captured us and took us first to Begi town and then to the Dhidheessa prison camp.

Consequently, the number of the ORA children who ended up in the TPLF jails and died whilst kept captive remains unknown. The limited information I could gather confirms that, generally, the children were treated with cruelty in the concentration camp.  In his letter to ORA (see the first part of the article), Raagaa mentions the names of some of the friends he left behind in the Dhidheessa concentration camp grieving that,

The fate of those children mentioned in this note, many hundreds of them, is that they were accused by the TPLF that they were brought up by the OLF and as such need to go through “re-education programs” of the TPLF. Can anybody imagine the children would fight the EPRDF/TPLF back? The truth is the children did not understand anything about the war.

Concerning the TPLF “re-education program,” another informant has also reported that “frequently the children are asked about their attitude towards the EPRDF” and that their “hands are fettered behind their backs” during the interrogations and that “the children’s skin was cut and wounded around their wrists from the rope” with which they were tied. To change their “political attitude,” the TPLF forced the children to participate in a “political education.” The OLF was demonized and the participants (prisoners) were instructed about the “crimes it had committed” and were made to shout anti-OLF slogans at the top of their voices.

The so-called political education was forced not only on the ORA children who were detained in the Dhidheessa concentration camp but also on the tens of thousands of Oromo prisoners kept in the numerous open and secret prison camps run by the TPLF regime in the early 1990s. One of the prisoners forced to experience the TPLF “political education” was Jamal. He was imprisoned in the Hurso concentration camp, outside of the eastern Oromo city of Dire Dawa. Jamal escaped from Hurso and fled to Djibouti in 1993.In August 1997, whilst in Djibouti, he met the two Swiss journalists Bruna Bossati and Peter Niggli as well as the late Lydia Namarraa of the ORA (UK) and told them about his own experience of the “political education” that was given by the TPLF cadres to Oromo prisoners as follows:

The lessons [were] given by the OPDO [and] were supervised by armed TPLF soldiers. The prisoners were instructed that the OLF was a criminal organization with a misguided anti-democratic program directed against the people. The teachers measured the success of their efforts by the enthusiasm with which their ‘pupils’ shouted slogans such as:  “The OLF kills and slaughters the people” and “We will destroy the OLF.”

Jamal said “Whoever didn’t agree with the slogans was forced to stand up and repeat them at the top of his voice.” Those who showed insufficient enthusiasm were punished. They were beaten. Any resistance, according to Jamal, would have risked death (see Bruna Fossati, Lydia Namarra & Peter Niggli, The New Rulers of Ethiopia and the Persecution of the Oromo Frankfurt am Main: Evangelischer Pressedienst, 1996, Nr. 45e , p. 25). The treatment of the imprisoned ORA orphans followed the same pattern. However, reports indicate that there were those among the ORA children imprisoned in Dhidheessa who resisted the intimidation of the TPLF “political educators,” thus risking their lives. Tarfa Dibaba notes that one of the survivors of the Dhidheessa concentration camp whom he met in Khartoum in 1998 told him about one of the ORA children who was hung upside down during one of the sessions of the TPLF political education and was ordered to tell its other participants to “give up” the idea that “Oromia shall be free.” But the boy was not intimidated into following the order. He refused to tell his prison mates anything nor did he repeat anti-OLF slogans. He paid with his life. He was tortured and left hanging upside down and died in the same position in the evening. According to the same source the boy was about 13 years old. An OPDO-TPLF militia participated in his torture.  Another report (Dhaabaa, January 7, 2014) indicates a boy called Simeesso was also killed in the circumstances similar to the above. The report also mentions the names of two other ORA children, Soreessaa and Asabo, who were tortured for showing similar resistance. It is reported that these two adolescents were separated from the other children and were taken away. Nobody knows what happened thereafter.

When a prisoner is “taken away” by the security agents of the TPLF regime, it can mean two things: either execution or solitary confinement in another section of the prison camp, or transfer to another prison in another part of the country. As noted by a former prisoner, Magarsaa Dame who escaped from a firing squad in March 1995 (see the Amharic Weekly Urjii Newspaper, March 1995), prisoners were taken out of the Dhidheessa concentration camp, executed and their bodies left in the open to be devoured by wild beasts. According to another former inmate (see Schmitt & Taera, “An EPRDF Prison Camp from Inside”, Oromo Commentary IV (1), 1994), the Dhidheessa camp constituted several prisons, some of which were open for inspection by international human rights organizations such as the Red Cross, while others, such as the so-called Korea Sefer, were secret. He said that some of the ORA children were kept in a secret prison “separate from others.” He reported that,

In December 1992, for instance, about 40 children were locked up in a very narrow dark room [and] those kids, who become ill, physically or psychologically, due to the hot climate of the Dhidheessa lowlands and torture, are not given medical treatment (Taera & Schmitt, as above 1994: 25).

According to the same source, the argument of the camp authorities for denying the children medication was that the children were not ill but that their problems were “related to their political attitude towards the EPRDF” (Taera & Schmitt, as above 1994: 25). “Political attitude” stands here for affiliation with the OLF and animosity toward the EPRDF (TPLF).

In the “Korea Sefer” and the other sections of the camp, untreated wounds caused by torture inflicted by the TPLF thugs and their OPDO prisoners of war, thirst and hunger, and above all, contagious diseases which flourished in the overcrowded filthy prison rooms, also caused the death of many prisoners. In the interview he gave in 1993, a former prisoner from Dhidheessa (as above Taera and Schmitt 1994: 25) explained,

In the so-called Korea Sefer section of concentration camp where the ORA children were kept, the prisoners are not allowed to go out to urinate, they do not get water to drink and are not allowed to wash themselves and their clothing. They are not allowed to go out to get fresh air. On a very narrow space many people are locked up with almost no possibility to move, heavily guarded from outside. As the consequence of the abhorrent sanitary conditions that prevailed in the concentration camp there were cases of typhoid fever. Since there are few facilities for washing, many prisoners are also suffering from lice.

However, there is no information whether the two boys mentioned above were taken to a firing squad or to another prison within or outside of the Dhidheessa concentration camp. Describing (in his letter mentioned in the first part of this article) the barbarisms to which he was exposed in the Dhidheessa concentration camp, Raagaa wrote:

I escaped from one oppressor and fell into the hands of another oppressorWhen one oppressor is replaced by another oppressor life begins to be miserable. To adjust oneself from an Amhara military oppressor [the Dergue] to a crueler regime of a Tigre oppressor is not an easy case.

Obviously it was not. It is impossible to expect human being to adjust to the cruel treatment which the ORA children received in the hands of the agents of the current regime. As Raagaa’s description of the prison conditions suggests, it is plausible to assume that many of them might have not survived imprisonment in Dhidheessa.

Many have pains in their hearts and their feelings …
Some died like insects”

The words in the sub-title, above, are from Raagaa’s letter. The horrendous atrocities which, according Raagaa and the other sources cited here, the ORA children and apparently Oromo prisoners in general were made to endure in the Dhidheessa prison camp, are painful even to imagine. However, no information is available about the exact number of those who died from diseases, hunger and torture in the filthy concentration camp. Malaria, in particular, seems to have taken its toll.In the letter, Raagaa expressed the inhumanity he saw and the pains he felt as follows:

Those of us who were detained were between 10 and 16 years of age. Many of us became ill from malaria and lack of food. Many of us were sick from diseases that affect children. Many have pains in their hearts and in their feelings. The worst sight which I will not forget is when the kids got sick from malaria and became crazy and talked nonsense. When their condition became serious their hands and legs were tied and they were made to lie on bare ground to keep them silent. During these hours nobody attended them and gave them medicine. Some died like insects. I do not know how many. I can only remember few of the names of the children I stayed all those days, weeks and months. I and these children have nothing to do with the political and military problems [of the TPLF and OLF]…. How can they do such things to children? Nobody can imagine this (Translated from Afaan Oromoo by Tarfa Dibaba. Emphasis mine)

Phrases such the “children became insane,” “have pain in their hearts” and “died like insects” indicate the excruciating pain felt and the unspeakable suffering the children experienced in the prison camp. Raagaa mentions with grief Maritu (female), Waanca (female), Burqaa Nagaasaa (male), Guutuu Injigu (male), Iddoosaa Ammayuu (male), Saloome Abdiisa (female), Galaanee Taariku (female), Aster (female), Almash (female) and Mitiku Abdallah (male) as some of the many former friends and playmates he left behind in the Dhidheessa concentration camp in the conditions described above. The camps in which the TPLF regime incarcerated tens of thousands of Oromos, irrespective age, were death camps. According to Susan Pollock (see “Ethiopia: A Tragedy in the Making”, Oromo Commentary, Vol. VI, no.1, 1996), 3000 men, women and children had died in four of the TPLF regime’s concentration camps from malaria, diseases and lack of food.  Dhidheessa was one of these camps. A former prisoner from the Dhidheessa concentration camp has described the conditions that resulted in the death of inmates in the following words.

Many prisoners had lost their lives or become mentally ill as a consequence of illness or maltreatment in the camp. Extremely bad is the situation of the OLF fighters who were disabled in the fight against the Dergue and in the conflict with the EPRDF. Among them, there are many who are blind, and some have lost their arms and legs. They are not offered any support although they are in the most terrible conditions in the camp since they are not able to wash themselves or their clothes or to go to the latrine without help of others. They suffer from unimaginable dirt and lice. (Taera & Schmitt, 1994: 25)

The horrific maltreatment described above was not limited to the inmates of the Dhidheessa prison. Similar conditions prevailed in the many hidden and official concentration camps which had been erected all over the Oromo country by the TPLF in 1992 and after.

Rape crime against imprisoned children

In an article published on Gadaa.com on May 28, 2013 I described that rape has been one of the dehumanizing torture-methods that are routinely used against Oromo detainees in the TPLF-run prisons in Oromia. The Dhidheessa concentration camp was no exception. One of my informants, Dhaabaa (December 4, 2013), gives the names of 10 of the ORA female children (the names are withheld here) who became pregnant in Dhidheessa prison after being raped by TPLF prison guards.  These, it seems, were only some among the many children who were exposed to this outrageous crime in prison. According to the same source, the father of one of the girls (name withheld) committed suicide on hearing that his child had been raped by guards in the concentration camp.The sources also indicate that some of the adolescent girls were forced to marry TPLF soldiers.

“Where are Sagantaa Useen, Tolina Waaqjiraa and Duulaa Tafarra?”

As indicated above, nobody knew what exactly had happened to the ORA children and their guardians once they were back in their homeland. Therefore the story described in this article is sad news to everyone who knew them or was involved in helping them.  The inquiry “Where are Sagantaa Useen, Tolina Waaqjiraa and Duulaa Tafarra and the others?” which was raised by the teachers and pupils of Heinrich-Gobel-Realschule of city of Springe in Germany in their letter reproduced below was not answered. They were the only people who tried to find out what had happened to the children after they returned to their homeland in the spring months of 1992. They appealed to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, the German Commission for UNESCO and the UNCHR Branch Office for Germany, to speak for and protect the ORA children. The following is the content of their letter addressed to Dr. Claus Kinkel the German Minister of Foreign Affairs dated November 2, 1992.  I have reproduced its content unabridged in order to give the reader a grasp of the concern of the letter writers and the relations that existed between them the children in question.

Dear Dr. Kinkel,

We are deeply concerned about the fate of 1,600 Oromo orphans in Kobor near Begi in West-Wollega/Ethiopia. We have not received any information from the children’s camp there since July of this year, when Ethiopian government troops marched into West Wollega and also Begi. The ‘Oromo Relief Association’ (ORA) in Addis Ababa, which has been looking after and feeding these children for many years, was unable to establish contact to the camp.

In February 1985, our school organised an African Day with the Ethiopian teacher Terfa Dibaba. In this context we got to know about the starvation and civil war in his homeland and about the work of the indigenous refugee relief organisation ‘Oromo Relief Association’ (ORA). Since that time our school has continuously traced the work of ORA for parentless refugee children. We received oral and written reports and photographs regarding the opening of the refugee settlement in Yabus/Sudan, the opening of the children’s camp in Damazin/Sudan in early 1988, the day-to-day, medical and educational care for the orphans by the devoted and unpaid work of the ORA staff. The pupils, their parents and the teaching staff of our school have organised relief shipments with clothing, school material, toys, sports equipment and musical instruments since 1988.

The number of children in Damazin was increasing, and therefore, ORA opened another camp in Bikore/Sudan in 1990. The last time we received photographs, a letter and some children’s drawings was in August 1991. Duula Tafarra, a 12-year-old boy, closed his letter with the words: “Nagaa nu hundaaf haa tahuGARA JERMANII“. It means “To Germany: Peace be with us all” (emphasis mine).

In spring 1992 the children from Damazin and Bikore could return to their homeland Ethiopia. Our last relief shipment included, amongst other things, 200 notebooks, into which our pupils wrote – in view of the return: “I wish you peace and a good future in your homeland.” “Yeroo biyyakeetti galtu, nagaa fi hegeree gaarii akka argattun siifi hawwa.

In the meantime, we have received information about several incidents of brutal attacks by Ethiopian government troops (EPRDF) against the Oromo population. The election observers, who were assigned to the regional elections in the Oromo regions of Ethiopia by your Ministry in June this year [1992], told us that they had been asked by the parents of arrested children [not ORA’s] to speak up for their release. Now we heard that in July minors from the ORA camp in Kobor have been arrested [also] and deported to the EPRDF camp in Didessa. Is this information correct? Are they 250, as we heard, or are they more?

We appeal to you to do all you can to shed light upon the fate of the more than 1,600 children from the ORA camp in Kobor. Where are Sagantaa Useen, Tolina Waaqjiraa and Duulaa Tafarra and all the others? Please take action to protect these children. Please try to arrange for the 1,600 Oromo orphans to be returned to the care of their previous guardians and teachers and make sure they can be supplied by the relief organisation ORA as before.

Yours faithfully

For the teaching staff of the Heinrich-Goebel-Realschule: J. Brennecke, Headmaster, and [14 signatures of teachers], Representing the pupils of the Heinrich-Goebel-Realschule [5 Signatures]

(The letter is translated from German by Kathrin Taera, November, 2013)

Duulaa and his group returned to Oromia in May 1992 and their camp was attacked in June that year. He wrote the letter (below) on behalf of the ORA children in Damazin.

Date 13-7-1991

From the [ORA] School in Damazin,

To pupils [of Heinrich-Gobel-Realschule, Springe) in Germany,

First of all we send you our greetings. How are you? We are well. We who are greeting you are the Oromo children at the school in Damazin. We will like to inform you that we have received the gifts such as balls and other sport materials you sent us and that we are using them. We are happy with the gifts and thank for your generosity. [We] the Oromo children who fled from [our] country and are in Damazin in the Sudan are given the opportunity to learn [and we are happy about that]

We urge you to write to us. He who wrote this letter is Duulaa Tafara. He is in grade five and is 12 years old. May peace be with all of us!

(The letter is translated from Afaan Oromoo by the author)[1]

Regrettably, Duulaa and his friends were deprived not only the peace which he wished for all, but also of the right to life. As I have mentioned in the first part of this article, Duula and his two school (camp) mates mentioned in the letter by the pupils and teachers of Heinrich-Gobel-Realschule, were among the victims of the TPLF assault on the ORA orphans. Tolina Waaqjiraa was killed on the first day when the TPLF forces opened fire on their camp in June 1992. Duula Tafarra and Saganta Usen were killed by the same force in the Carphaa forest where they took shelter with other children after their camp was attacked (Dhaabaa, December 9, 2013).

Notwithstanding the praiseworthy efforts of the pupils and teachers of the Heinrich-Goebel-Realschule, it seems that, neither the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor the officials of the two UN organizations who had received their appeal letters, took the initiative to confront either the late Mr. Meles Zenawi or his regime to find out the whereabouts of the ORA children in 1992 or after. It is unlikely, therefore, that the authors of the letter were informed about what had happened to the children. To my knowledge, this article is, regrettably, the first response to the enquiries they raised twenty-two years ago.

ora-kidsPhoto  (Left) This photo is said to be that of Duula Tafarra, Saganta Usen, and Tolina Waaqjiraa. The person (Dhaabaa) who sent it me did not identify who is who in the photo. The only thing he said he knew is that the photo is that of the three boys taken together. I have included the picture here hoping that someone who knew them can help us to identify them.

The case of Duula, Saganta and Tolina reflects not only the fate of many of the ORA children, but also of the numerous other unnamed Oromo children who perished inside and outside the TPLF regime’s concentration camps during the last two decades.

 

A case of politicide

The sources indicate that the ORA children were very conscious of their identity and were, above all, eager to repatriate and live in their homeland in peace. An Oromo scholar who knew the ORA children in the Sudan (mail communication with Asafa Dibaba, July 4, 2014) wrote,

I lived in Damazin two and half decades ago and together with Nagaasaa [killed in 1992 in a battle with the TPLF] I used to visit the children in Bikoree from time to time. The children were, as far as I remember, between 7 and 15 years and most of them had passed the Gammee age group (0 to 8 years). Their knowledge of Oromo history and culture was beyond expectation. Their knowledge of makmaaksa (folktales), riddles hibboo (riddles) and the flora and fauna of Oromia was also remarkable. The children narrated their family histories and genealogy as if they were growing up in family homes with their parents and grandparents. Although their education was based on a curriculum that followed by schools in Ethiopia, it reflected the cultural and education programs laid down by the OLF. They used to tell me that their hope was to return to an independent and Oromia to grow up and serve their people (freely translated from Afaan Oromoo by the author).

Once they started an open war with the OLF, the TPLF leaders did not want to leave the ORA children in peace. The fact that the said children were brought up by an organization which was associated with the OLF was enough for the TPLF to see them as potential enemies and persecute them. Its argument about “political education” mentioned above indicates that the ORA children were seen as “carriers” of Oromo nationalism, a “problem” which the TPLF leaders associate with the OLF. In his letter to ORA mentioned above Raagaa noted,

We [the ORA children] were accused by the TPLF of being brought up and educated by the OLF. Can anybody imagine the children would fight the EPRDF/TPLF back? The truth is the children did not understand anything about the war.

The three-month long pursuit of the fleeing children by the TPLF troops in the summer of 1992 and the search for children who were entrusted to the local households in western Wallaga by their guardians indicates that the children were, as indicated above, seen as bearers of the seeds of Oromo nationalism and the OLF aspiration of establishing an independent state. Therefore, I will argue that the TPLF believed that their best course of action was to exorcise the ideas and inspirations with which they believed the Oromo children were imbued (through their association with the OLF) before these spread among the Oromo youth at large.The so-called political education was, for example,to brainwash and make them subjects loyal to the TPLF-led regime. Those who were resistant to the process were eliminated physically.

In general, the intention behind the atrocious massacre committed by the TPLF-led regime against the ORA children and the murderous crackdowns which it has been conducting currently against Oromo high school, college and university students during the last fifteen years can been seen as a policy of politicide with the aim of nipping Oromo nationalism in the bud. As the comments which were repeatedly made on many occasions by the late Meles Zenawi reflected, the TPLF saw in any and every socially and politically conscious Oromo, a potential member or sympathizer of the OLF. It is common knowledge that tens of thousands of Oromos who were labelled as such have been in one way or another victimized by the TPLF-led regime. Therefore, its criminal actions against the ORA orphans in the 1990s and against Oromo students during the last fifteen years are hardly surprising.

Children labelled “terrorists” and killed by the TPLF

Associating and killing of Oromo children by the TPLF-led regime did not stop with the assault on the ORA orphans in western Oromia. Many Oromo children were detained and killed in other places for the same reasons. The Oromia Support Group (OSG Press Release No. 13, 1996) notes that in 1996 the government forces killed Usen Kaallu, aged 12, Badiri Shaza, also aged 12, Awal Saani, aged 13 and Awal Idire, aged 16 years old in Tukaana village near the town of Gasera in Bale in the southeast. Their “crime” was tattooing the initials “ABO” (the Oromo version of OLF) on their hands. It seems that, not knowing the consequences, schoolchildren have been tattooing the initials on their bodies or embroidering them on their capsand clothes in many places throughout the Oromo country. The same report indicates, for example, that seven other children between the ages of 12 and 14 years of age were imprisoned, accused of committing similar “crimes” in the nearby Dabool village at the same time. The report gives their names and ages as Muyidin Haj Useen (14), Kaliil Useen (13), Eliyas Haj Abdo (12), Idris Aman (13), Qadiro Useen (12) and Shitta Usman (12). However, the report does not indicate how long they were imprisoned nor any details about what had happened to them in prison or afterwards.

After the al Qaida 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, the TPLF-regime changed the characterization of its “Oromo enemies,” including schoolchildren was changed from members or supporters of the “OLF” to “terrorists.” The Human Rights Watch (HRW, 2005) wrote that “In early 2004, police in Dembi Dollo, arrested a twelve-year-old schoolboy and imprisoned him after discovering that he had tattooed ‘ABO’, the Afaan Oromoo acronym for ‘OLF’, onto his hand.” His father told HRW that

They [the police] said he was a terrorist.  They said he was a supporter of the OLF.  The child’s family petitioned the local authorities and secured his release after two weeks of detention, but the police continued to follow and harass the boy until the family was forced to send him to live with relatives in Addis Ababa.

The HRW notes that between 2001 and 2005, “At least twenty other children under the age of fifteen have been imprisoned for similar reasons in Dembi Dollo alone” (emphasis mine). Furthermore, a relative of a boy who was arrested in 2003 told a HRW reporter, “I had an eleven-year old relative who wrote ‘ABO’ on the blackboard at school. He was dragged off to the police station and imprisoned there.  They released him after several days because there was “too much noise about it” from the local people who were affronted by the imprisonment of an 11-year-old child.  However, the HWR writes that the “child also experienced problems with the police after his release and eventually left [home] to live with relatives in Canada.” The TPLF regime did not see the 11 year old boy as a child but as an enemy—a terrorist and a supporter of the OLF.

There are international conventions signed by the UN member-states to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity of which the 1948 Human Rights Convention was the first. Regrettably, however, the conventions did not end the evil which was the cause for the origins of the convention—the evil which is epitomized by the acts of Adolf Hitler and his cronies.As mentioned in the first part of this article, the telling metaphor “hunted like kurupé” (used by Oromo peasants to describe the predicament of the fleeing children they had witnessed) reveals not only the physical movement called forth by the existential instinct to escape from life-threatening danger, but also the horror and angst the children felt as a consequence of the unconcealed vicious intentions of the armed units who were chasing them from one district to another, shooting at them and wounding or killing them. Notwithstanding the size of the affected population, the cruelty reflected in the assault on the ORA children brings to mind the evil deeds of the Nazis against Jews, and in particular, incidents which Serge Klarsfeld (2010) describes in his book French Children of the Holocaust—a Memorial concerning deportation to death camps. In his descriptions of some of the incidents, Klarsfeld reveals how Jewish children who attempted to escape deportation were callously shot down by the Gestapo as though they were not human beings. Even the TPLF action against the local peasants who helped the fleeing ORA children and their guardians was reminiscent of what Nazi thugs did to those who tried to rescue the European Jews and their children from deportation to the concentration camps. The nature of the evil, the intent to harm their victims with impunity which underpinned the actions of the TPLF forces, reflects a shocking similarity with the murderous behavior of the Nazi criminals. Nothing is as evil as treating human-beings as wild game as the TPLF forces did to the ORA children.

Disturbing silence over crimes against humanity

As noted by the famous physicist Albert Einstein “The world is too dangerous to live in – not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who stand by and let them” (cited in S. Bruchfeld & P. Levine, Tell Ye Your Children: A Book about the Holocaust in Europe 1933-1945, Revised Edition, 2012, p. 14).

It would not be an exaggeration to construe that today the world has become too dangerous for the Oromo to live in.  Whether it is at war or at “peace” with the Oromo and the other oppressed peoples in Ethiopia, the TPLF regime has been committing crimes against them and “against humanity” during the last twenty-three years.

A crime against humanity targets a given group and is carried out as a “widespread and systematic” violation of their human rights. By definition, crime against humanity differs from war crime in that it occurs not only in the context of war, but also in times of peace. Under international law, examples of war crimes include, among others, the persecution and deportation of the civilian population of an occupied territory, and the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war. (See for example Gary Solis,The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War (2010: 301: 3). By and large, all the crimes mentioned here have been committed against the Oromo children. The crimes which were committed against Oromo prisoners in general (see my articles from May 28 and July 31 in Gadaa.comor Ayyaantuu.com) are acts that appear in the definition of crimes against humanity in the ICC Statute of 1998 and in other international conventions on human rights. In short, one can say that the characteristic elements of war crime and crime against humanity overlap clearly in the persecution of the Oromo children by the TPLF. A war situation prevailed between the OLF and the TPLF forces when the children were attacked and killed. The children were unarmed and non-combatants. However, the TPLF forces chased and killed or captured the children with the intention of harming them. The TPLF associated the children with the OLF and attacked, captured and incarcerated hundreds of them in a concentration camp. Many of them were denied the right to life. The ORA, an internationally known and supported humanitarian organization, was banned, and its properties were confiscated. The foundation it had laid for the physical and intellectual development of the orphans was destroyed.  Consequently, as I will describe in the third and last part of this article later, the life chances of those who survived the assault and imprisonment were shattered.

Regrettably, there is an ominous silence, not only over the less known massacre of the ORA children described in this and the first part of this article, but also on the many well recorded crimes committed by the TPLF-led regime against humanity during the last two decades. In August 1943, Fl. Hällzon, editor of the Swedish newspaper Hemmets Vän, frustrated by the continued silence over the holocaust, wrote that

The mass graves of Jews cry out to the world; yes, they scream, and the screams pierce the skies up to God in Heaven. Woe betide Germany and those responsible when the bloody crops are harvested. Woe betide the world, which through its sins has participated in this blood-soaked crime being committed in our days (F. Hällson, Hemmets Vän, August 1943, cited in Bruchfeld & Levine, as above, 2012: 60).

Implicit in Hällson’s frustration was that the silence over the Holocaust was not because of lack of information, but his country’s lack of the will to save the Jews. As reflected in the heroic deeds of Raul Wallenberg between July and December 1944, the Swedes finally acted to save the Jews, but it was too late. By then millions of Jews had been killed. The Nazis were defeated by the allied forces in 1945 and the leading holocaust criminals were also brought to justice.

Whether it could have been possible for the international community to intervene and save more Jews before 1944-45 or not remains a controversial issue. However, the type of problems that could have hindered international intervention against the Nazi onslaught on the European Jews do not exist today. The UN was established to end human rights violations. The purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the UN member states signed is to safeguard the right of every human being to life, liberty and security of person. Therefore, the silence of the international organizations over the atrocities committed against the Oromo is as frustrating— if not more so—than that over the fate of the Jews in the early 1940s. I am not saying that the Oromo are being killed on the same scale or at the same speed as the Jews were in the 1940s, but that the plight and fate of the tens of thousands Oromos who were incarcerated in the prison camps bear similarities with that of the millions of Jews who perished in the Nazi concentration camps. The congestion, the lice and the rats, the filth and diseases, the dearth of medical care and the lack of food and water which the Oromo prisoners (including the ORA children) suffered and died of in the outrageous concentration camps run by the TPLF regime bear striking similarities with the conditions associated with the Nazi concentration camps. As the recent excavation by a Turkish construction firm near a previous site of the TPLF concentration camp Hamaressa revealed, mass graves of Oromo victims bear signs of the crimes committed by the present regime. As it was with the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, the Oromo are being persecuted today because of their ethnic identity. The policy of the TPLF regime regarding the Oromo reflects elements of the Nazi policy of destroying a group based on race or nationality. The difference is that the Nazis believed they would solve what they called the Jew problem with the annihilation of the entire population of European Jews while the TPLF leaders intend to solve the Oromo “problem” with elimination of the politically conscious class of the Oromo population. Hitler’s policy was to rule a Europe “free” from Jews. He conducted genocide. The TPLF policy is to destroy current and future Oromo leaders and to become the rulers of the Oromo people. They have been committing politicide. As stated in the Hizbaawi Adera (The People’s Trust), the official quarterly of the ruling party TPLF/EPRDF, their policy is to eliminate Oromo intellectuals and businessmen who are labelled as the “enemy of Revolutionary Democracy.” They argued,

Higher echelon intellectuals and big business people are narrow-minded. Their aspiration is to become a ruling class only to serve their own self-interests. They are so greedy that they want to “eat” alone. As they are desperate, they can be violent. … Unless the narrow nationalists are eliminated, democracy and development cannot be achieved in Ethiopia (see Hizbaawi Adera, Vol. 4, no. 7, 1996, emphasis mine)

Tens of thousands of Oromo intellectuals, journalists, teachers, students, businessmen and their families have been the victims of this policy. One may argue that the crime against the ORA children was committed in a remote part of the country and was unknown. But, in general, the silence over the crimes committed against the Oromo was not due to lack of information. There are numerous, reliable reports by local and international human rights organizations such as the Human RightsLeague of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA), the Oromia Support Group (OSG), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) which indicate that the TPLF leaders and their security forces have been serial abusers during the last twenty-three years. The crimes which have been committed against the Oromo were systematically conducted and widespread. In other words, we are not talking about sporadic cases of rape, rare cases of mass killings, or occasional disappearances of few individuals, but crimes that have been consistently committed all over the Oromo country for more than two decades. The extra-judicial killings which the TPLF forces carried out in Oromia have involved not just a few men and women, but thousands of individuals. They have been the outcomes of an official policy which has been systematically implemented to terrorize and subjugate the entire Oromo nation of more than thirty-five million members.

Concluding remarks

The atrocities described in this article constitute what the international human rights statutes define both as war crimes and as crimes against humanity. Yet the international organizations and governments of democratic states have continued to conduct business with the TPLF-led regime as usual. I will say more on the role of bystanders regarding the violation of human rights by the TPLF-led regime in the third part of this article. It suffices to note here that, in general, the international organizations’ silence over the crimes committed by the Ethiopian regime is alarming. It is alarming because it makes the UN and its conventions irrelevant in the eyes of millions of people. It is important to note that the silence over the April-May 2014 massacre of Oromo students is particularly shocking to many observers, particularly among the Oromo. This is particularly so because the students were killed while participating in peaceful demonstrations to oppose the government plan to expand the city of Finfinnee (the indigenous Oromo name of Addis Ababa) thereby forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of Oromo families. In addition, Finfinnee, which serves as the capital city of both Oromia and of the Federal state of Ethiopia, is also the diplomatic headquarters of the continent of Africa. The headquarters of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the embassies of UN member states, and the headquarters of the African Union (AU) are located in the city. Given the proximity of the “place of crime” to the seats of the representatives of international organization and states, the total silence over the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian regime is both astonishing and offensive to many people worldwide. Regrettably, the Oromo predicament is being repeatedly ignored by the entire diplomatic community their city is hosting.

By and large, the situation created by the recent mass massacre and widespread persecution of Oromo students has led to a new development in current Oromo affairs. The incident has made it clear to every Oromo that the survival of his/her community is under serious threat. This new insight has brought Oromos together everywhere to protest against the anti-Oromo policies of the Ethiopian government. This is a positive sign. It is also encouraging to witness that in some places like Minneapolis in US and in Canberra in Australia, Oromo communities have been able to solicit the support of important politicians and national political institutions to voice their protests against human rights violations in Oromia. These international responses will help considerably and should be stepped up and continued. However, it is not enough by itself to solve the Oromo problem or remove the regime from power. It is a deadly illusion to expect that foreign pressure would bring down the TPLF-led regime. We know that there is no interest among the great powers to do that. The Oromo themselves must do that. Therefore, there is the need for a strong Oromo organization that can strengthen the Oromo struggle for freedom at all levels, both at home and abroad, to ensure the survival of the nation. Needless to say, the recent reunification of the two OLF factions can be seen as a promising development in this regard and it is expected that other Oromo organizations will follow suit.

________________

[1] My gratitude is to the long-time Chairperson of the German ORA Support Committee to Rüdiger Jentsch and Obbo Shorroo Gemechu for sending me copies of this and other documents regarding the ORA children).

 

*Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999).

Read @http://ayyaantuu.com/articles/deportation-and-death-in-the-dhidheessa-concentration-camp/

 

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