I talked to a cousin on my mother's side. He hid under his head to survive. He saw a soldier kill a boy in the street. They told the boy to run and then they shot him. He saw another boy who was shot in the leg but wasn't killed; he was just lying in the street, calling for help. No one could go to him.

In December 2003, over the course of a weekend about as many people were killed in a single state of Ethiopia as US troops had died from May 1 through the beginning of March 2004 in Iraq. Continued violence From that mid-December weekend through the end of February nearly equaled the total number of "coalition" deaths since the beginning of the Iraq war (as of 10 March 2004). But the incident was barely covered by most Western media. If the story appeared at all, it was found in specialized places or in very short "item" type articles buried at the back of some section devoted to Africa.

This wasn't always the case. This country of over 60 million people with an area almost twice the size of Texas had a fleeting moment in the 1980s when it was front page news. The country was suffering from another of its drought/famines that have occurred periodically for decades. Celebrities got involved and the plight of the starving Ethiopians became important. Other nations, groups, and individuals helped send relief. A few years later it was forgotten again. Despite ongoing problems with hunger that still affect the country through the present.

Gambella is one of the states of Ethiopia. Like the others, its borders were drawn along ethnic lines after the 17 year regime of the Dergue (or Derg; "the committee") was ousted from power by a coalition of forces from various "liberation" groups led by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Unlike many people's perception of Ethiopia (deserts), Gambella is a green and fertile area in the western part of the country where rivers (including the Blue Nile) make agriculture possible. For that reason, the socialist Dergue forced the natives of the area into villages where they would work at large collective farms. They were forced to build the villages after their own homes and crops were bulldozed away. The farms were like work camps with harsh and sometimes arbitrary punishment for not working or working hard enough (men, women, and children), as well occasional rapes, imprisonments, and extrajudicial killings.

But the food wasn't for the people who lived there (or the thousands that were moved there from other places in the country as part of a resettlement plan) but for the major cities—primarily the capital Addis Ababa—where cheap, available food encouraged support for the regime; and for the army—one of the largest in Africa and for which the Dergue was spending almost half of the GNP. Keeping the army well fed keeps it ready to fight, less likely to suffer from people leaving or desertion, and perpetuates support for the government. Meanwhile, the rest of the people went without and those who had been able to subsist were not allowed to. The agricultural program was poorly designed and the land overcrowded. People from many different ethnic groups, many who do not even speak the same language, were forced together, disrupting tradition, culture, family cohesion, and group identity. Additionally, the farms were used to "recruit" for the military and the recruiters would not take no for an answer.

They burned down my mom's house and my sister's house. My mom said that about 400 Anuak were killed and they are still finding bodies in the bush and in the river

Anuak (and Nuer)
The two ethnic groups that are indigenous to the area are the Anuak and the Nuer. The Anuak are subsistence farmers who do some mining. The Nuer are pastoralists. Sharing the same area, there has been a long history of tension between the groups from their competition for land and resources. And though it has occasionally led to violence there were long time traditional methods of conflict resolution between the groups that kept things mostly peaceful. The "land reform" uprooted them culturally and made it difficult to resolve conflict. It was made worse by the mass influx of others (called "highlanders," as much of the country is a high plateau with a central mountain range). Land and resources were even more limited.

There was also been a long time assault by the Dergue and its successors that has targeted the Anuak for partial or total extinction. And while conditions for all of Ethiopia improved when the Dergue was taken out of power, the newer government has a poor (to say the least) human rights record of its own, suppression of the press and violence and repression against political opponents, students, intellectuals, and dissenters. Power was decentralized and given to local authorities (usually supporters of the government). Local government was also set up along ethnic lines based on population.

This brings problems due to an Anuak disputed census that says they are the second largest group in Gambella. They assert that it was taken at a time when it was difficult to get to Anuak villages. The border with Sudan is also problematic because Nuer also live there and there is much traffic back and forth because of the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia's western neighbor. The Anuak say Nuer from Sudan have entered Gambella, skewing the results. On the other side, the majority group has seen its language cease to be taught in schools (the Anuak say that Nuer teachers have left for more lucrative government jobs). It also hasn't helped that the Anuak—including their police—were disarmed after the EPRDF took power (they were also used as police and internal security after the new government was in place). The Nuer were only partially disarmed, though partly because being pastoralists it was harder to round them up. And because of the war in Sudan, weapons are not difficult to find.

As more and more people move into the region and its indigenous populations grow, the competition for land and resources gets ratcheted up. As land gets scarce, there are numbers of people (including many Nuer) who cannot subsist and move to the bigger villages and towns like Gambella town, the state capital. The Anuak feel they are being crowded out and losing any political power they might have had. A number of Anuak political figures have been arrested with little or no cause and held in jail for indefinite periods of time. Others have been kicked out of office and replaced with handpicked pro-government people.

The soldiers knew who they were looking for. They went only to the houses of the Anuak, and then mainly for the educated ones, the students, the leaders.

There are also governmental interests in the land because there have been findings of petroleum (gas and oil) as well as Gold, platinum, and tungsten. Several companies have had or hold rights to extract the resources ("rights" granted through the government). Some western companies (US-based Canyon Resources mining gold and UK-based Jubilee Platinum) are already working near Gambella. As noted, some Anauk are subsistance miners ("Artisanal") whose livelihood would be endangered by these companies. Even if they get hired, wages would likely be less than selling the gold themselves. Crime, prostitution (very serious, given Ethiopia's AIDS problem), and environmental degradation would also result from the companies moving in, stripping resources, and moving on—patterns that are seen throughout Africa and Latin America. The Anuak are a potential stumbling block for this resource extraction (which is beneficial to the government and the companies but not to the people of Ethiopia). This is one of the reasons that the government finds the Anuak to be a problem. And both successive governments have used ethnic conflict as a means of control and disposing of such problems. Though sometimes the army steps in to move things along.

My other sister ran with her family into the bush; we haven't heard from her. we don't know if she and her kids are alive.

December massacre
On 13 December, about 40 km outside Gambella town, there was an ambush by unknown attackers on a van carrying Ethiopian and United Nations refugee officials (Immigration and Returnees Affairs Authority). All eight bodies were found to have been horribly mutilated. Limbs and heads hacked off. The police officer who had been escorting the group had his genitals cut off and stuffed in his mouth. Only four of the victims could be identified, the other four are thought to have been day laborers working for the Authority but not on the list of official workers. When the defense forces arrived, they put the bodies in a sack and drove to Gambella town. Rather than securing them, they showed a gathering crowd the remains. The crowd was mainly made up of "highlanders"—originally non-indigenous, but in Gambella for reasons mentioned above (they also feel a lack of representation and political power). It seems the victims of the ambush were highlanders. The crowd became outraged and escorted the truck with the sack to the office of the regional council.

Within an hour of the discovery, EPRDF forces were mobilized and moved into positions surrounded Gambella town and nearby Pinyudo. Meanwhile the crowd remained stoked and things began to spiral out of control. Between angry shouts and accusations, the crowd began throwing stones at the building. During this time, according to one witness, soldiers grabbed two men—a 19 year old Anuak security guard and a man who was a driver for the church (they took the vehicle as well)—and tried to force them to confess that they and the vehicle had been part of the ambush (they failed to achieve their goal). Guards at the building tried to disperse the crowd by firing into the air but it was a lost cause. The Chief Administrator of the Region was forced to flee in his car, which was pelted and smashed with stones.

The crowd of highlanders was angry about the killings [of the people in the van]. They asked "Who killed these people? Who killed these highlander?" All these people followed the van to the hospital. They are all angry. One soldier fired his gun in the air, and all the highlanders scattered and ran home. In a few minutes they came back carrying anything they could get from their homes—knives, guns, machetes, spears.

Though it isn't quite clear just who made it (crowd, defense forces, people planted in the crowd), but a determination was made and it spread quickly that the Anuak were to blame for the ambush. The crowd armed itself, mainly with knives, machetes, spears, axes, clubs (some small arms) and began to target Anuak people (who already had difficulty fleeing because the armed forces blocked most exits). They had plenty of help from the soldiers. In fact, not long after, soldiers attacked at Pinyudo:

Almost an hour after what happened in Gambella [EPRDF soldiers] started shooting people in Pinyudo... The local people responded, and quite a number of troops were killed... People were really angry, because this thing has been going on for a number of years. Guns are taken from them, and so on and so on, and it never improves. So this time they said, "this is too much. We are going to respond now."

Unfortunately, it seems that only some of the people in Pinyudo resisted. Gambella was far worse. Anuaks tried to flee, some making it to the bush where many they were hunted down and arrested or killed. Others tried hiding in their homes. In some cases they would be tricked out and then killed. In others, grenades were thrown inside or the homes were set on fire. Other buildings were burned. A policeman (Anuak) was shot as he jumped out a window to escape the fire. He was then hacked to death. A pastor (also Anuak) went to lead his family to safety ahead of the flames suffered the same fate as soon as he was through the window. Soldiers (all in clearly marked uniforms according to witnesses—some were known by name) stood at strategic spots so they could pick off people fleeing the violence, having no problem shooting people in the back as they ran, whether they were man, woman, or child. It was almost sport. Witnesses saw soldiers shoot Anuaks and then let the mob hack their bodies to pieces whether they were dead or wounded.

"Let us kill them all. No one will find us accountable or arrest us."

A few thousand fled to area churches for sanctuary, while the killing and destruction continued. (It is worth noting that witnesses also saw a few non-Anuak soldiers and policemen who did not participate and even tried to help individuals or stop the killing. Additionally, some Anuak were given shelter in non-Anuak homes until the violence subsided.) Corpses and parts of corpses littered the streets as trucks ran over them. There were some mass graves and reports that the soldiers carted away bodies (to make it look like the number killed was far lower). One of the mass graves was said to hold 65 bodies (more than the government would later report had died). Witnesses claimed seeing EPRDF soldiers working (with masks and gloves) in the middle of the night to exhume bodies from one of the graves. That was around 1 February 2004

"Erase the trouble makers!" "Let's kill them all!"

It was clear to many of the Anuak that this was deliberate because of the systematic way soldiers worked through houses of Anuak, skipping those of the highlanders. Violence was mostly confined to Anuak areas. At least one witness claimed to have had knowledge of lists of targets made up by the EPRDF. It is suspected that a local official (an Anuak) helped prepare the list. He fled his office in Addis Ababa in fear of his life. There were mass arrests, at least 200 went to a military barracks where they were detained for long periods of time and almost certainly mistreated or worse. Though some were let go, many remained and arrests continued. By February 2004, there was an estimated 500 Anuak in detention. There are reports that prisoners are frequently subjected to hard labor.

"Today is the day of killing Anuaks."

Then there were the rapes. Survivors who were interviewed reported widespread rape. While difficult to determine the extent (though even if exaggerated, the consensus of the reports suggest that it did, indeed, take place in numerous instances) due to victims that were subsequently killed and the heavy stigma a victim of rape suffers from in the culture. In Pinyudo, a ten year old girl was threatened with death for crying (it isn't clear whether she was a victim of sexual violence or not). The men told her that "We are going to kill your men and the next generation of Anuaks will be produced by us" (www.genocidewatch.org). With many of the men detained or dead, women and young girls are extremely vulnerable and in the weeks following the massacre (non-Anuak) Gambella officials have reported as many as seven rapes a day. Ethnic cleansing through rape.

"...a mob of Ethiopian settlers or peasants fell upon them with clubs, hammers, axes, scythes, spades, and saws. Such instruments not only caused more agonizing deaths than by guns and pistols, but they were more economical, since they did not involve the waste of powder and shells... In this way they exterminated almost the whole local Anuak male population, including men of wealth and breeding, and their bodies, horribly mutilated, were left on the ground, where they were devoured by dogs and wild beasts."

By 15 December, officials were telling people who had gained church sanctuary to return to their homes (of course, many no longer had homes). Some stayed up to a week before leaving the shelter. In some cases the churches were ordered to be emptied by defense forces. Public offices and most businesses were closed through 22 December and schools were closed until after the new year. A few months later, many Anuak children had not returned to school or had ceased attending—for good reason: there were some cases where soldiers or highlanders had emptied schools of Anuak girls and taken them outside or into the bush in order to gang rape them. Between 21 and 25 December, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council visited Gambella to investigate the massacre. There were only able to identify 93 of the dead and 42 of the wounded. Based on their finding, the number of the was estimated at around 300 with 470 houses burnt to the ground. A report done by Genocide Watch/Survivors Rights International found there to have been 424 dead, more than 200 wounded, and 85 unaccounted for.

What did the government say? It denied any complicity (let alone participation) of itself or its forces in what happened. It was the product of a "mob of hooligans" (non-indigenous) and "a culmination of previous problems that were simmering." It claimed that there had been "56 [deaths] but this could be as high as 60." It further claimed that "Reports by other independent (non-Ethiopian) individuals" who surveyed at the same time the government did "gave figures not far from the official figures" (www.mfa.gov.et 1) When asked about the thousands (the estimate ranges from 2,000 to 15,000—the higher number is almost certainly exaggerated; most sources say 5,000) who had fled as refugees, the response was that "they are enjoying the right of movement to live anywhere they like and to enjoy their own pursuit of life" (www.mcgillreport.org/genocide). Even western sources (including the United States) gave higher estimates (low to mid 100s) as January wound down. In late February, the US State Department requested a "transparent, independent" investigation into the massacre (based largely on the reports mentioned above).

The New Year
On 12 January 2004, the president of Gambella State was reported to have gone missing along with his driver and two bodyguards. The government promised to investigate but it isn't clear that he has been found. The Genocide Watch report suggests he's fled into exile—and that EPRDF forces are arresting and torturing people for information on his (and other exiled leaders) whereabouts and rounding up and beating people in refugee camps for the same reason. Presumably to assassinate him. The president's brother was arrested, detained, and tortured. He was last visited at the end of February and had clearly suffered beating, if not torture (body and head swollen, coughing blood). Any attempt to contact or see him after that time was denied. Most assume he was killed.

More troops were brought in (in addition to the 5,000 brought in following the massacres to restore order), roads were blocked, and all movement was restricted (in part to stem the flow of refugees). On 28 January, a man was killed by soldiers for challenging them for having raped his ten year old daughter that day. On the same day, a gang-raped fifteen year old girl returned to her home and killed herself.

Dimma and beyond
The next day, Anuak miners near the town of Dimma retaliated after a fellow miner had been tortured and killed by EPRDF soldiers who had bragged about what they had done. The soldiers who came to disarm the miners on the 30th, were attacked and forced to retreat. The number of casualties is unclear but the estimate is about 160 total. The miners than attacked some non-Anuak miners, using weapons they had taken from fallen soldiers. Anuak families were told to flee the town before the EPRDF could retaliate. The government's take on this was that 196 people were killed (172 non-indigenous miners). It reported that 200 Anuak men were responsible and that they were posing as Anuak leaders. The precise details of what happened are less clear than what happened in December but the government has a poor record when it comes to truth.

Within a few days, reinforcements showed up and right away killed 13 Anuak local officials (two were suspected to have had involvement in the December massacre meaning that this may have partly been an attempt to insure silence). They then went to Dimma and killed about 40 Anuak that hadn't left the town, followed by an expedition to a nearby refugee camp where they killed more Anuak, as well as some Nuer and other refugees. There were mass arrests (150 to 300) of Anuak who were reportedly tortured for any information on weapons caches or the whereabouts of exiled leaders. The Gambella People's Liberation Force, one of the many "liberation" groups in conflict with governmental forces in Ethiopia, has been emboldened and begun (as of the Genocide Watch report date of 16 February) actively fighting the EPRDF.

On 24 February, the region's Chief of Security ordered all Anuak police officer to disarm.

Meanwhile, the government is attempting a resettlement that dwarfs the efforts of the Dergue. They want a million people settled by May 2004 (the Dergue only moved 600,000 during its entire 17 year run). Some 170,000 were moved in 2003, meaning the bulk of the mass resettlement will be done in the space of a few months. The goal is 2.2 million moved within three years. Most observers view this plan with skepticism, since it's unlikely to work (it didn't work before). Already, NGOs see a leap in illness, malaria, and infant and young child mortality. There's only so much food from relief groups and it's doubtful the land can sustain the load of the population explosion in western and southwestern Ethiopia. It'll likely lead to more conflict and deaths, if not huge numbers of refugees fleeing the country to uncertain future elsewhere. Continued disaster.

The violence and suffering aren't over by a long shot.

In a response probably due to political pressure (US and others), the Ethiopian government officially apologized for its response in the December massacre according to a 5 March 2004 report. In its statement it said "The government has apologised for not acting proactively and promised to stand on the side of the victims to see that justice is done." It also claimed that "Now that a sizeable contingent of the federal police have taken over, the victims might feel more confident than before." The government appointed investigative team said that "[the victims] regretted that the government, including the federal government, should have [but had not] detected the danger and prevented the violence. They argued that there were adequate signals and symptoms suggesting a mounting tension" (www.irinnews.org). This was a day after it was announced that Gambella State had requested Federal intervention (back in February). The government assures that the decision of the local government was "based on its own decision and will" (www.mfa.gov.et 2).1

But this is the same government that claimed that "The local police force was overwhelmed. This was the reason which called for the involvement of the army if it was not for the army, the killing and burning could have continued to the next day and spread to other villages and towns" (www.mfa.gov.et 1). The killing and the burning didn't stop and it did spread. And the army made sure of it.

(More detail on the background can be found at Human Rights and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia)

1The apology was apparently released well before the date it was reported. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs site does not date the statement, but it seems to have been February 12 (the news articles immediately before and following are dated the 12th). It was certainly released by 22 February (the date I printed out a copy). This may be a lag in coverage (though IRINnews is pretty good about being up to date) or simply a matter of an official announcement to the press outside of Ethiopia.


  • Much info from www.countryreports.org/ethiopia.htm
  • Numerous articles available from the Integrated Regional Information Networks site: http://www.irinnews.org/frontpage.asp?SelectRegion=Horn_of_Africa&SelectCountry=Ethiopia
  • "Ethiopia" Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=114677
    "The Anuak - A Threatened Culture" 30 June 1984
    "Ethiopia's Policy of Genocide Against the Anuak of Gambella" 30 September 1986
    "resettlement and Villagization - Tools for Militarization in SW Ethiopia" 31 December 1987
    "Anuak Displacement and Ethiopian Resettlement" 31 December 1988
    "Oil Development In Ethiopia: A Threat to the Anuak of Gambela" 31 October 2001
    From Cultural Survival Quarterly found here:
  • "Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights" December 1997 (report) Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1997/ethiopia
  • "Breaking the Cycle of Conflict in Gambella Region" 3 January 2003 (report) United nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia: http://www.uneue.org/Archive/DownloadableReports/Gambella1202.pdf
  • "On a Bloody Saturday, Ethiopia Chose Genocide" 1 January 2004 Doug McGill (unattributed italicized quotes from here): http://www.mcgillreport.org/genocide.htm
  • "A Ferocious Attack Committed In Gambella Region" 5 January 2004 (report) Ethiopian Human Rights Council http://www.ehrco.net/reports/special_report_72.pdf
  • "Today is the Day of Killing Anuaks" 16 February 2004, updated 25 February 2004 (report) Genocide Watch and Survivors Rights International:
  • "The Current Situation in Gambella" Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Ministry of Federal Affairs:http://www.mfa.gov.et/Press_Section/publication.php?Main_Page_Number=410 (1)
  • "Gambella State Gov't sought Federal Intervention" 4 March 2004 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia:http://www.mfa.gov.et/Press_Section/publication.php?Main_Page_Number=478 (2)