Dec. 15, 2009

At Last, the Minnesota Oromo Share Their Secret

By Douglas McGill

The McGill Report

MINNEAPOLIS -- Who knows the Minnesota Oromo?

Who knows their dark secret?

Fifteen thousand Oromo live in Minnesota but they blend in almost invisibly, like a stealthy, anonymous population in the state.

They are teachers, doctors and lawyers; they run retail shops and corporations; they attend Viking games, relax at coffee shops and stroll at malls. They are sometimes called "Ethiopian immigrants" because they are indeed from Ethiopia.

But among friends and family, or if you ask them specifically, they carefully call themselves "Oromo."

Who are the Oromo?

They are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, numbering 31 million, and they are the subject of a new report, "Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora," prepared by The Advocates for Human Rights, based in Minneapolis.

State Power

The report describes how the Oromo began immigrating to Minnesota from their homeland 30 years ago, and in the process explains why, despite their mostly successful assimilation, they remain relatively little-known here.

First, though, a warning. This column contains language that represents an awful reality, an affliction that at first may seem distant from us, but is actually as near to us as our neighbors -- that fellow at the football game, the woman at the mall.

A century of history, summarized in the report, provides the context for understanding the Oromo in Minnesota. From the days of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia in the late 19th century, and continuing through the tyrannical regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi today, the Oromo have been crushed down by state power.

The Oromo's low profile in Minnesota reflects a century of focused, systematic, brutal campaigns by Ethiopian rulers to render them impotent and voiceless.

Limited Rights

Successive Ethiopian governments for more than a century have defined the Oromo as second-class citizens holding severely limited rights to government representation, education, employment, free speech and property.

These strictures have prompted the Oromo to flee their homeland to a worldwide diaspora that numbers in the tens of thousands or possibly more -- with Minnesota hosting probably the largest concentration of Oromo refugees in the world.

But there is yet another reason for the Oromo's relatively quiet presence in Minnesota all of these years.

That reason is their secret, which is that they have been tortured, or deeply scarred by torture they have personally witnessed, or suffered in their family or among their friends.

"Few Oromos that the Advocates for Human Rights interviewed were unaffected by torture," the report says. "The particular experience of the Oromo people, victims of torture in extremely high numbers and of repressive practices designed to undermine their very culture, also continues to be felt by those in the diaspora.

"Traumatic experiences are relived over and over again by torture
victims, and this trauma has lasting effects on even those not directly on the receiving end of the torturer’s abuse," the report says.

Here are three personal stories told by Minnesota Oromo, chosen at random from scores of similar interviews collected in the new report:

"I was turned upside down. They started beating the bottoms of my feet with a piece of tire. Each time they whipped me they ripped my skin. The brought a bucket full of water and bleach in it. When they stopped beating me they put my face in the bucket. I thought I would die."

And this story:

"The killing of Mustapha created fear in us. They brought him to the city center where everybody could see his body. They nailed him to the ground. They removed his skin and took out his two eyes. They forced people to come and watch. At first I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't recognize him. I fainted when I saw him."

And this:

"It is hard for us to talk about this. They put flashlights in the sexual organs of the ladies. There is a woman that they put flashlight batteries in her vagina. She couldn't hold her urine and she used to urinate on herself."

Let me confess, I have some beefs with The Advocate's new report.

The biggest is that its historical sweep dilutes its potential present-day impact.

As horrific as they were, the human rights crimes of earlier Ethiopian dictators are now a part of history.

Meanwhile, the current dictator, now a bloody 18 years in office, urgently requires accountability that a more contemporary report could have provided with greater force.

The report's scope also leads to weakness in specifics. The cursory treatment of a massacre of 426 men of the Anuak tribe of Western Ethiopia, on Dec. 13, 2003, fails to mention the exhaustive evidence that the massacre was part of a government-planned genocide of the tribe.

The scant two-paragraph mention of the most urgent crisis in Ethiopia today, in the Ogaden region, is also troubling. As is the timidity, even the naivete, of calling upon the present Ethiopian government, which long ago showed the world its spots, to "immediately cease" its abominations.

Yet the report fulfills its most important function.

It helped the Oromo of Minnesota reveal their long-held secret.

With help from The Advocates, the Oromo have shown great bravery in speaking out. Will we return that courage by bravely listening?

After that, what will we do?

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report