Oromo Tragedy By Sam Donkoh
Quietly, surely and systematically, human rights violation of massive proportions are being perpetrated against people in the various regions of Ethiopia - particularly the populations in Oromia and Ogaden - by the nation's new regime, a Scottish health worker who recently undertook a fact-finding visit to the country has charged.
Susan Pollock, a 35-year-old nurse-midwife from Glasgow, spent four weeks - between December, 1995 and January, this year -travelling around southern Ethiopia to collect evidence of alleged human rights abuses against members of the Oromo ethnic group by the five -year- old government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
What Pollock had to show and say from her report at a weekend public rally at the University of Toronto's Innis College, organised by the Toronto Chapter of the union of Oromo in north America, was powerfully shocking and revolting.
The Oromos, who number 28 million, or over half of Ethiopia's population of 55 million, live mainly in the central and southern regions of Ethiopia.
With a livelihood that is mainly dependent on subsistence agricultural activities, 85 per cent of the Oromo population are peasants and farmers living in rural areas.
Historically, Oromia was an autonomous entity until it was annexed at the turn of the century by what was then Abysinia.
Because of their modest background and the high level of illiteracy among the Oromos, they have been exploited and oppressed by successive regimes. They also wield little or no influence in the country.
Even worse is the tragedy this is unravelling in Ogaden. In 1993, when the Zenawi government started it's war against the Ogadenis, the people in the region numbered 8 million. Today, Abdi Mohamed Ali, human rights director of the Ogaden Somali community Association of Ontario, told Share that the number is down by a staggering 2 million as a result of the were and the resultant starvation.
The Ogaden, he said, is rich in deposits of petroleum, potassium, zinc, uranium, and iron ore, but these have been expropriated by the government which plans to cede them to western interests.
Like Oromia, the Ogaden was taken over towards the end of the last century by Abyssinia, under emperor Menelik II, in it's drive to expand and gain access to the sea.
Before the war, said Ali, Ogadenis wanted to live as an autonomous region within Ethiopia. Now they want self-determination and are asking for an internationally-supervised referendum to affirm that.
But, said Pollock, western governments, led by the United States, are not interested in the plight of Ethiopia's oppressed peoples and are ignoring the atrocities being perpetrated by the government formed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Tigrean People's Liberation Front.
Militia belonging to these two organisations were instrumental in the overthrow of the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
Eager to preserve their vested interest in Ethiopia's vast natural resources and maintain the Zenawi government as a valued customer of western arms and aid, Pollock said those governments and corporate interests are portraying the new regime as democratic.
An Amnesty International spokesperson said her organisation is aware of the information unearthed by Pollock.
Pollock, accompanied by Dr. Trevor Trueman, a British family physician who gave up his practice to work with a support group for the Oromos, has already visited Minneapolis and Montreal to address public rallies on the issue and to meet with local Oromo communities. The two attended a protest demonstration at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto on Monday and are scheduled to visit Ottawa later this week.
BREAKING THE GUILTY SILENCE
Featured as a World View article on Ethiopia in the The Scotsman's WeekEnd magazine, Saturday, 13 April 1996, pp. 10-13. (The Scotsman is Scotland's National Newspaper, Founded 25 January 1817).
If it wasn't for the gritty single-mindedness of Sue Pollock, few would have heard of the Oromo people of Ethiopia or their oppression by the Addis Ababa government. Colin Donald speaks to the Glasgow nurse who has championed a people the West would prefer to forget.
In a previous incarnation Susan Pollock would surely have been a medical missionary, severe and uncompromising, giving colonial authorities a hard time on contentious issues of native governance. No doubt 19th-century Scotland produced lots of feisty campaigners of her kind. Like her they would have been tough, bossy, compassionate, unselfconsciously courageous and more comfortable in the African bush than at home in prosperous suburban Glasgow.
This being a secular age, Sue Pollock's gospel is that of human rights. Her mission to is to alert the world to the plight of the Oromo people, the perpetual underdogs of the Ethiopian empire, oppressed by the creeping abuses of a regime that the West trusted to bring peace and stability to that disaster-plagued country.
The Oromos are a cause to which the diminutive, 35-year-old nurse has devoted herself with extraordinary single-mindedness and disregard of personal risk. Earlier this year she returned from a solo undercover trip to the Oromo areas of Ethiopia, where she spent a month compiling a thorough and far-reaching dossier on the persecution of the country's largest ethnic group.
And her recent report makes it all too clear that, after years of persecution by the Haile Selassie and Mengistu [Haile Mariam] regimes, the Oromos find themselves once again at the bottom of the country's fast-shifting, complex and eternally violent ethnic pecking order.
It was difficult operation, but the testimonials she gathered of torture, extra-judicial execution and imprisonment by forces answerable to the Addis Ababa government has won her guarded praise from Amnesty International and the Foreign Office, as well as from exiled Oromos themselves and their small band of supporters in the West. This month she flies to Canada to discuss her findings with Oromo supporters there.
Although appearing to relish the undercover aspect of her secret mission to Ethiopia (she found herself followed by people who may or may not have been government agents), she is peremptory in her dealings with journalists and wary of imparting any information that could endanger her informants. And she consistently downplays the danger of a single white woman travelling miles in remote and unstable areas of one of the poorest countries on earth.
With just a tourist visa, Pollock travelled to the east, central and western districts of the country's deliberately maintained ethnic patchwork, making secretive contact in flea-ridden hotels - often in the dark - with frightened and anonymous people. She used a tape recorder and a notebook into which she wrote in code. She photographed rotting bodies and the injuries inflicted by various methods of "cruel and unusual punishment".
She talked to 14 Oromo victims of alleged government persecution, including three who had suffered torture and others who could report horrors at second hand. She was robbed in Addis Ababa and involved in a bus crash on a dusty country road.
BUT IF SHE THOUGHT THAT the story of her mission, along with the distressing testimonies she had gathered, would make instant headlines, she was overestimating the British media. For one reason or another, the London dailies declined to feature the findings she presented to them, though there was some coverage in the Scottish press in February.
To paraphrase Alan Clark [former British defence minister, known for his biting remarks], no-one seems to concern themselves much with what one group of Africans is doing to another, and Third World liberation organisations or pressure groups seem long since to have lost their fascination for editors and readers.
Nor is Ethiopian political history a subject that lends itself to simple exposition. Outsiders are rightly wary of declaring that the Oromos, or any other group, have any monopoly on virtue. Ethiopia - twice the size of France, with the barest minimum of infrastructures - remains a country at war. The most visible manifestation of Oromo identity, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is one of several guerrilla groups (Amnesty International identifies six others) with the declared intention of overthrowing the government, although it is an entirely peaceful organisation, the Oromo Relief Association (ORA), which has supported Sue Pollock's research.
Of course, contextualising does not excuse abuses against Oromos of the sort she has described, but the situation does confound any clear separation of goodies and baddies. A foreign Office spokesman assured me that Britain already does "a great deal" for Ethiopia, including confronting its government with evidence of human rights abuses, and cited Band Aid as an example of Ethiopia's enduring "romantic fascination" for concerned Westerners, a tradition to which Sue Pollock might be said to belong.
Driven as she is by a biting sense of injustice, Pollock has little time for this kind of qualification. She and the Oromos go back to 1992 when, much against her instincts (her training was in child-rearing, not famine relief) she found herself in the blighted Horn of Africa. Working with a British NGO, her job was to help set up midwifery clinics near Wallaga in the traditionally Oromo Western part of Ethiopia. A doctor's daughter from Mount Vernon, Glasgow, with an unsuccessful marriage and three years' work in Pakistan behind her, she sees herself as a natural outsider, who admits that she "always wanted a mission" over and above her hobby of doll's house collecting. She talks about the latter - trade fairs to attend, tiny furniture to collect - with the intensity and lack of levity of the fanatical hobbyist. It seems she has never done anything by halves.
Her friends, she says, were completely surprised that her devoting her life to "the blacks" should take this specialised form. Other areas in Africa and the world interest her, but will have to wait "until I've sorted this one out".
Her commitment to the Oromo people has a lot to do with her presence at one of the turning points in their recent history. While working as a nurse-midwife in Oromo territory, she was forced to flee the country by soldiers of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who along with the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had overthrown the Marxist dictatorship - known by as the "Dergue" - of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
At 25 million the majority group in Ethiopia, the Oromos fought with the EPRDF/TPLF against the Dergue, and for a time it looked as though they might gain a place in a federal government promised by the Tigrean leader President Meles Zenawi, but their dream of self-government was quickly shattered, and they have been in armed opposition ever since, subject to brutal abuses by a government which the West seems to tolerate as the best of a bad lot.
"The politics of Ethiopia caught me," says Pollock. "I formed an affinity with the Oromos, who seemed to me to have some similarities with the Scots, though the oppression of the Scots has been much more subtle. They both have histories of tribalism, with powerful indigenous traditions. The Oromos are largely peasant farmers with relatively poor education and a low level of modernisation. Successive Ethiopian governments have considered them backward and lazy and historically they have been used as slave labour by other ethnic groups. Because they live on the most resource-rich land, they have been subject to constant encroachment."
Pollock and others also point to the development of schools, hospitals, factories, and power stations in the Tigrean and Eritrean sections of the country, and the lack of them in Oromia.
Granted that Ethiopia's "forgotten war" is something that the West can no longer ignore, it is worth asking if the country's chronic problems are really something for which the West should feel particularly culpable. The country is all but unique in Africa in having escaped Western colonialism (not counting Mussolini's eccentric and short-lived adventure there in the Thirties), even if it was an example of Western imperialism that inspired the cranky and despotic Abyssinian expansionism of Haile Selasse, "Lion of the tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Emperor of Ethiopia", source of the modern nation's instability and traditions of extreme brutality.
Sue Pollock has been demanding that the West now intervene on behalf of the Oromos, but where does she get the moral leverage to berate "damned diplomatics" and other Western policy makers?
"My interest in human rights stems from witnessing the invasion of Wallaga, and my personal experience of losing friends. I appreciate that there were always tribal wars in Ethiopia that the West can't even understand. But Africa is governed by the disastrous application of Western philosophy - the philosophy of the market - brought in without reference to the fundamental problems of Africa. A lot of people who determine the policy have no insight into Africa's problems.
"The West has lost control, and is now only interested in their own game, which in this case is investing in a government that happily sells off the Oromos' resources. As long as the West does this, atrocities will continue. The Tigreans seem to be able to convince the West that they are properly democratic but how does this give them a mandate to persecute the Oromos?"
"What we need is a body that is given a forceful mandate to intervene and investigate human rights abuses, the best possible such body would be an alliance of the West and other Africans. I'd like to see a monitoring body to oversee that international aid gets to the people who need it and is not, as now, intercepted by the government.
"The situation now is completely unruly and will get worse, but there's a chance that something wonderful might arise from it."
In the meantime, Pollock and the worldwide network of Oromo Support Groups are concentrating their anger against the Ethiopian Government's recent decision to close down the offices of the Oromo Relief Association and imprison staff through out the country on the pretext that the agency is supporting terrorist activities of the OLF.
On the contrary, says Lydia Namarra, chair of the London-based British branch, ORA is a solely humanitarian organisation supported by Christian Aid and others. Closing down these offices means the neglect of vital development work that enabled the largely peasant farming Oromos to work the land, educate their children and live peacefully.
AT THE ANNUAL GENERAL meeting of ORA UK, held in a shabby former school hall in north London, motions are passed deploring this latest assault on Oromo liberty by their old enemies and compatriots. Imbued with a spirit of sadness and anger the meeting nevertheless gives the lie to any perception of the Oromos as being militant or even moderately forceful in the advancement of their cause.
Evoking a vision of "sunrise in Oromia", the English lady academic in the chair calls for "all of those who call themselves our friends to show their support". This rallying cry not withstanding, the AGM remains a subdued affair, which warms up over a meal of traditional Oromo pancakes and stew served up by Sue, Lydia and other Oromo women.
Despite the worrying background of stepped up persecution in Ethiopia and somewhat exasperated encouragement from the committee, none of the London Oromos have been inspired to speak from the floor or even to vote on the various administrative motions.
The meeting's star turns are Sue Pollock's briefing and a report on the refugee situation in the horn of Africa given by Terfa Dibaba, a German-based Oromo intellectual. The UN High Commission for Refugees, he claims, has been discriminating against Oromo refugees in the Sudan border area, a fact which he ascribes to the high proportion of Eritreans and Tigreans among the agency's field workers.
How might he characterise the Oromos to an outsider? A stubborn belief in the rule of law, replies Dibaba, citing an example of friends of his who were prepared to go through he motions of no-hope trial through the Ethiopian legal process, against an opponent who had flagrantly violated property rights.
Inheritors of an ancient culture that successive Ethiopian governments have been at pains to eradicate, the Oromos, as Pollock's report puts it, are "far from grasping the essence of modern politics, let alone having access to the necessary skills for negotiation with modern media".
All that Pollock and others like her hope to achieve is to raise international awareness of the Oromos' existence, and to dent the image of a model multi-ethnic democracy that the EPRDF has cultivated since 1992. Maintaining this has been facilitated by the government's control of education, the media and the economy, and by the compliance of outside powers, many of whom have benefited from invitations to share in the exploitation of resources in Oromo areas.
The romantic appeal of Ethiopia, a "Christian island in a sea of Muslims and pagans", as one early explorer described it, has always gone hand in hand with the darkly secretive traditions of successive Ethiopian governments, who have seen suppression of other Ethiopians as essential to grandly conceived visions of their right to rule. The information supplied by a determined Scottish nurse might mean that their biggest secret - systematic oppression of majority people - might at last start to come to the light.
A dossier of persecution
THE Ethiopian government's persecution of Oromos suspected of aiding the OLF includes restriction of movement, searching, looting and burning of homes, harassment, detention, dismissal from jobs, enforced military conscription and assignment to special "villages". Sue Pollock's report quotes figures in the region of 45-50,000 as being imprisoned in concentration camps throughout Oromia between August 1992 and June 1994. Since then, the report suggests more that 5,000 have been arrested, while extra-judicial executions number at least 873, with 356 unexplained disappearances. Torture of men and women is widespread.
"Mirga" Hararghe, was arrested by the TPLF in December 1992 and taken to a prison in Western Hararghe: "They accused me of being an OLF member and when I denied this they started torturing me. They tied my arms behind my back and beat me with sticks, and metal bars and kicked me. I stayed in this place for about one month and was tortured daily for one to two hours, though not every day.
"One torture involved placing a heavy block of stone on my neck that weighed 70-80 kgs. I was forced to walk up and down stairs while TPLF soldiers beat my back with guns, sticks, metal bars and stones. They did this until I fell.
"After three months of this I gradually became weak, my hands could not hold things and I could not walk. I needed help to the toilet and washing. Eventually I was so weak that I was taken to the hospital in Hurso military camp where I lay on the bed for eight months. I did receive some physiotherapy, but this did not help. After eight months I was released. Now I lie in bed for 24 hours a day, and need constant care. I cannot move, walk or do anything. I am in a very bad condition. I am angry, sad and anxious because my life is damaged. I cannot work and I cannot fulfil my needs."
For copies of Sue Pollock's report, and further information about the Oromos, contact the Oromo Relief Association, UK, Unit 3, Aberdeen House, 22 Highbury Grove, LONDON N5 2EA (Tel +0171 354 5554).
Sue Pollock's full-page size photograph appears on page 11 with caption reading: Undercover mission: Sue Pollock travelled through remote and unstable areas of Ethiopia, making secretive contact with frightened people. Photograph: CHRIS BLOTT
A photograph of Oromo peasant families (covering top-middle of pages 12 and 13) with caption reading: Waiting for justice: mainly peasant farmers, the Oromos have been traditionally oppressed and exploited.
A column-wide excerpt from the artcile, in large characters, reads: 'Africa is governed by the disasterous application of Western philosophy - the philosophy of the market'.
"A dossier of persecution" appears as a side article on the last page.
END OF ARTICLE
AMNESTY IN PLEA OVER DEPORTATION (Daily Nation,Monday 25 March 1996, Nairobi)
By NATION Correspondent
Amnesty International yesterday appealed to the [Kenyan] Government not to deport five Ethiopian nationals.
The organisation said in a statement it feared that the five supporters of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front, may be detained indefinitely on arrival at Addis Ababa.
The statement says Dima Noggo (former minister of information), Mekonnen Galan (former secretary-general of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce), Hailu Darge, Tesfaye Dinsa and Dula Bosona (refugees), who were arrested in Nairobi on March 22, should be allowed to leave for a country of their choice to seek asylum.
HUMAN TRAGEDY IN THE MAKING ( Glasgow Herald , Saturday 10 February 1996, Glasgow)
After a month in Ethiopia, a Scots aid worker believes she has uncovered a 'secret war' by the country's new democratic government against the Oromo people. KIRSTY SCOTT reports.
SHE flew in on a tourist visa but the souvenirs Susan Pollock brought back were not the standard holiday fare. Tapes of alleged torture victims, photographs of bodies left to rot in fields, and page upon page of carefully copied testimony detailing claims of extra-judicial killings, disappearances, hidden detention centres, rape, and intimidation.
Pollock, 35, from Glasgow, spent four weeks travelling around southern Ethiopia last month, gathering what she says is evidence of human rights abuses on a major scale against the Oromo.
She has called for an international investigation into the situation and says unless the West starts asking some tough questions of the new Ethiopian regime, a fresh human tragedy may be about to unfold.
Political instability and representation have been hallmarks of Ethiopia's history, along with natural disasters, such as drought and famine, on an epic scale. But there have been high hopes for the new democracy since the overthrow of the brutal Marxist Dergue regime, known as the Red Terror, in 1991. More than 250,000 people across the country's 40 ethnic groups were estimated to have been killed in the preceding civil war.
The collapse of the Dergue dictatorship under Mengistu Haile Mariam was brought about by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Tigrean People's Liberation Front, and it was the EPRDF who formed the first democratic government after elections in 1992.
Pollock was in Ethiopia during the elections, working among the Oromo as a nurse-midwife for a British aid agency. At the time, the Oromo Liberation Front had withdrawn from the elections and was pitted against the EPRDF.
When hundreds of soldiers loyal to the EPRDF regime surrounded the community in which she was working, Pollock and her colleagues were forced to flee. After walking for four days they reached another settlement but eventually had to leave for the UK when it, too, was surrounded by soldiers.
In the intervening years she heard reports of repression of the Oromo and arranged to return to the region to gather evidence. The EPRDF regime, meanwhile, has consistently denied accusations of human rights abuses.
"The Oromos are seen as being very backward in their lifestyle," said Pollock. "They have always been the slave trade of the country, they have done all the hard work. They are not an educated people and they have been downtrodden for centuries. In a sense their suffering is nothing new but this time they are suffering in a way that they have never suffered before," she said, adding that the government fears the Oromo because there are so many of them. There are around 25 million ethnic Oromo in Ethiopia.
Arriving in the capital, Addis Ababa, as a tourist, she made contacts within the Oromo community and began to interview those who said they had suffered human rights abuses.
"Every day was a risk. I was aware that the people I was speaking to may have been watched, that I may have been watched. When I moved out of the city area into the countryside, I felt very tense at times, because I was aware of the tensions among the people around me. When I went to people's houses to talk to them, I didn't stay for long. Sometimes when I had arranged to talk to people I was taken away out of sight; a lot of it was done in secret."
Among the alleged torture victims, she found a young man in his 20s who had been arrested on suspicion of involvement with the Oromo Liberation Front and she taped his testimony.
He said: "One torture they used involved placing a heavy block of stone on my neck that weighed 70-80 kg. I was forced to walk up and down stairs while soldiers beat my back with guns, sticks, metal bars, and stones. They did this until I fell down.
"After three months of this torture I gradually became weak, my hands could not hold things and I could not walk. Eventually I was so weak that I was taken to a hospital where I lay on a bed for eight months."
Pollock said she examined the man and believed he had suffered permanent nerve damage. "He couldn't walk, couldn't move. He was just lying, 24 hours a day. He is a very young guy, and his life is completely damaged."
Others talked of massive concentration and detention camps, large numbers of people being arrested and detained without trial, and prisoners being summarily executed. She was also given photographs of bodies riddled with bullet wounds and dumped in fields.
In a recent report into the political and social situation across Ethiopia the human rights charity Amnesty International said several thousand suspected government opponents had been detained in 1994, there were widespread allegations of torture, and reports of scores of disappearances and extra-judicial executions.
Amnesty spokeswoman Kathy Daniel said they were aware of the information Susan Pollock had brought back with her and it would be useful to add to other reports.
Pollock, who has worked previously in Pakistan, is hoping to go back overseas once she has completed her report into Ethiopia. She is pessimistic about the West, looking more closely at what's happening in the country, but believes that they could be heading for a new ethnic crisis.
"At the moment it is doing this, it's bubbling," she says, waving her hands in front of her. "But I do envisage an uprising, because there is only so much that people can take. I believe that every single Oromo family has been affected. Every Oromo has a story to tell."
"ETHIOPIAN PEACE ELUDES MINORITY" (New York Times, Editorials/Letters, page A14, Wednesday 10 January 1996, New York)
To the Editor:
Re "Even With Peace and Rain, Ethiopia Fears Famine" (news article, Jan. 3): While I am pleased to see your reporting on Ethiopia (including a Dec. 31 news article on Ethiopia's seeking of a new identity), I am dismayed that you have so far missed the stories of the majority of the Ethiopian people of various nationalities who live in the southern part of the country far away from Lalibala, the religious center in the country's north.
One story that you don't cover is the persecution of the Oromo people, the most populous single group in Ethiopia, by the Government of Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. This persecution began at the time of elections in June 1992, when large numbers of Oromos were imprisoned, and it continues. Your Jan. 3 headline reference to peace in Ethiopia is inaccurate because there is sporadic fighting going on between the People's Revolutionary Democratic Front army and fighters of the Oromo Liberation Front.
But your Dec. 31 news article correctly states that "a small educated elite has returned from exile." One reason it is small is that most of the educated Oromo people who are in exile do not feel that Ethiopia is safe for them. The Ethiopian Government has appealed for food aid, as you report Jan. 3, but this same Government, via its Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, ordered the closure of the effective and much-needed Oromo Relief Association and the handing over of that agency's assets. Is this Government truly interested in relief and development? Joan Peters, Palo Alto, California.
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