September 30, 2004
A Minnesota Anuak Finds Inspiration in
Ghandi, Martin Luther King
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- Obang Okello has been watching videotapes of the civil
rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama; and of lunch counter sit-ins in
Jackson, Mississippi; and especially of the Freedom Riders, the men and
women who challenged Jim Crow segregation by demanding fair service no
matter the color of their skin – and then impassively absorbing verbal
abuse and beatings without fighting back, following the strategy of non-violent
Not that Okello, an immigrant from Ethiopia and a recent graduate of
Bethel College in St. Paul, is feeling frustrated as a black man living
United States. Just the opposite. “We have a chance in the United
States to speak out freely,” he says. “My people in Ethiopia
don’t have that right.”
Still, he’s immersed himself in civil rights-era videos for a reason.
Last December 13, more than 425 members of his tribe, the Anuak, were
killed by uniformed Ethiopian troops carrying out summary executions
in the town
of Gambella, according to dozens of eyewitnesses. Since that day, some
900 more Anuak have been killed in similar fashion in small villages
throughout the western Ethiopian state also called Gambella.
King, Mandela, Ghandi
Many of Okello’s friends and relatives were lost in the killings,
and his parents are still living “under the trees,” he says,
because the Ethiopian army has commandeered all Anuak homes in his village
as troop quarters.
His older sister, Ariet, went missing as 10,000 Anuak fled the massacre
to a refugee camp in the southern Sudan desert. She has still not been
Okello spoke yesterday at a monthly public affairs program sponsored
by the Rochester Post-Bulletin, called Post-Bulletin Dialogues, held
Rochester Public Library. Later, he spoke with me.
Sometimes it drives me crazy,” he says. In retaliation for all
the killings, he says, he wants to hit back. And some Anuak living in
are trying to do that by raising money to form an armed Anuak resistance
to the Ethiopian army. But Okello is struggling within himself to follow
How can I train myself to be so disciplined, and so obedient, to fight
back only with words and never to hit anybody?” he says. “Martin
Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Ghandi did not use violence and they changed
the world. I think that’s the right way and it’s the most effective
“I want the Anuak to fight with their brains, not with guns,” he
He may get his chance. Last weekend, Okello was selected as chairperson
of the Anuak Justice Council, a representative group of the Anuak diaspora.
More Anuak exiles live in southern Minnesota than anywhere in the world.
In a tribe that numbers only 100,000, more than 1,500 Anuak now live
in St. Paul, Mankato, Austin, Rochester, and other southern Minnesota
Since last December, Minnesota Anuak have worked with roughly a dozen
churches in the state to raise thousands of dollars in aid money for
including the Christ Lutheran Church in Eagan; the Vineyard in Austin;
and the Christian Reformed Church in Worthington.
The offices of both Senator Mark Dayton and Senator Norm Coleman have
sent letters encouraging the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia to pressure the
for a full investigation of the December massacre, and to end human rights
abuses against the Anuak.
Okello is now setting his sights higher. Working with fluent English-speaking
Anuak immigrants in the U.S. and Canada, he has traveled to Washington,
D.C. and lobbied the U.S. Committee on Appropriations, which holds the
purse-strings on military aid to Ethiopia. New language in a committee
report proposes making all further U.S. military aid to Ethiopia contingent
on an immediate end to violence against the Anuak.
The Anuak Justice Committee is also now working with human rights lawyers
to lodge an official genocide case against Ethiopia at the International
Criminal Court in the Hague.
Our first goal is to stop the killing,” Okello said. “But we
also want to open Gambella to human rights groups who can investigate to
let the world know what happened, and to bring those involved to justice.”
Okello knows the price he’d pay for this work if he still lived
in Ethiopia. Sometimes he worries, even living here. But then he remembers
the videotapes of the Freedom Riders and of Martin Luther King.
I begin to think it’s a dangerous job, but it’s very worth
it,” he says. “Good leaders sacrifice their lives for others.
If I died today and a few years later the Anuak were free, there’s
nothing else I could do with my life that would be more worthwhile.”
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report