July 19, 2004


Again and Again
By Doug McGill

A group of women huddle together, talking quietly. In their hands they hold small yellow berries called olemo that are the shape and color of the 25-cent gumballs sold in machines at the mall. Occasionally, one of them takes a small bite from a berry and makes a pucker face. The women are debating whether to feed the berries, one of the few sources of food and moisture available in the drought-stricken refugee camp, to their starving children. The berry is believed to cause diarrhea, so the choice they debate is a sickening one--risk their children's health in hopes of gaining a little nutrition or risk their death from starvation.

The recently formed Pochalla refugee camp is in Sudan, but it is not in Darfur, in the country's west, where humanitarian officials say the worst genocide since Rwanda is presently underway. Rather, Pochalla, in southeastern Sudan, is filled with refugees of the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia, who claim to have fled attacks on their villages led by the Ethiopian army. According to the United Nations, some 8,500 Anuak refugees descended upon this traditional Anuak village, just across the border from Ethiopia, in the early months of this year, more than doubling its population and straining its resources beyond the breaking point. A nearby riverbed has run dry, people are drinking from road ruts and eating leaves, and they whisper in the muted register of oppressive hunger.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the State Department have all made it clear in their recent annual reports that Ethiopia's human rights record is poor. Ethiopian forces have rounded up student protestors belonging to separatist groups, journalists have been jailed, and political dissidents have been detained for long periods. The State Department last year estimated that up to 1,500 unlawful killings were committed in Ethiopia in 2002, some by government security forces.

10,000 Refugees

But somehow, news about Ethiopia's seemingly interminable famine, and the good-faith attempts of many Western aid groups to address it, always trumps Ethiopia's human rights infractions in the headlines. In addition, the Ethiopian government, which receives roughly $300 million in annual foreign aid, has drawn much positive attention for its "modernization" and "democratization" efforts. The economic development policies of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have been held up as exemplary by economists and development experts in the West, including Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University (who has advocated increasing aid to Ethiopia under the United Nations Millennium Project, which he heads), and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, also at Columbia. In 2001, Stiglitz wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly in which he lauded Meles for his integrity. He was "quick to investigate any accusations of corruption in his government." And he was "committed to decentralization--to ensuring that the center did not lose touch with the various regions," Stiglitz wrote.

Now, the Anuak refugees are telling a different story about the Meles government--a tale of human rights abuse more ominous than any previously reported. The persecution of the Anuak reveals the dark side of Ethiopia's vaunted federalism, and their fate will say much about the future of this fractious African nation. While not on the scale of the Darfur tragedy (which has killed 30,000 and displaced 1.2 million) or the Ethiopian famine (7.2 million Ethiopians are in danger of starvation according to the United Nations), the violence described by the Anuak refugees compels attention precisely because of the tribe's small size. There are just 100,000 Anuak. Almost 10,000 of them are now refugees in Sudan and Kenya. Anuak leaders and several human rights groups--Genocide Watch, Survivors International, and the World Organization Against Torture--say more than 1,200 Anuak have been killed in an explicit campaign by the Meles regime, or a rogue element within it, to wipe out the tribe altogether. They aren't slow to use the word genocide.

December 13 Massacre

Evidence of a campaign of slaughter and rape by Ethiopian troops comes from several sources. There are eyewitness accounts of Anuak mass graves and the testimony of a former governor of the Anuak region, who says an Ethiopian army commander told him on December 13 about plans to eliminate the Anuak. But mostly, there are the Anuak refugees, all of whom recount the same basic story: Several hundred Ethiopian soldiers came to the town of Gambella, the capital of Gambella state in remote western Ethiopia, on the morning of December 13. There they incited the members of several local tribes that have long-standing tensions with the Anuak, collectively known as highlanders, to assault the Anuak with machetes and spears. The soldiers, according to the refugees, went door to door calling Anuak men into the street, where they were shot to death by the soldiers or hacked down by highlanders. They then torched the Anuak's mud-and-straw huts, which are called tukuls. Survivors have compiled a list of 424 killed in the attack, noting the manner of their death, either by "bullet" or "machete," gleaned by examining the corpses.

Through April, the refugees say, Ethiopian troops carried out scorched-earth raids on a dozen Anuak villages, where tukuls were burned along with seed stock, farmers and herders were shot, and women were raped and taken as sex slaves. It's difficult to verify these accounts, coming as they do from isolated villages without telephones, electricity, or running water. The fact that roughly two-thirds of the Pochalla refugees are not from Gambella, but rather from small villages in the state, however, suggests that something bad--bad enough to make people walk days through the bush to reach this camp--did happen.

Those lucky enough to get here face a precarious existence. The Pochalla refugee camp is rust-red and table-flat, a dusty desertscape strewn with lean-to shelters and shattered human beings. There are no old people here--they either died on the weeklong trek through the bush or remained in Ethiopia to face an uncertain fate. Young children, caked in grime and dressed in rags--if they are dressed at all--scamper around, pulling little bent-metal toys on strings and making tiny forts from straw. But their voices, like those of their parents, are mere whispers, and they cough. A medical worker at the camp estimates that 60 percent of the refugees suffer from diarrhea or low-grade infections, with the threat of malaria, yellow fever, and other ever-present illnesses. By late April, a dozen people had died at the camp from disease or hunger, the refugees say. The World Food Program, from a base camp across the border in Kenya, airdrops lentils, salt, and oil into Pochalla once every six weeks, but the food disappears quickly.

"Social Scums"

So far, the Meles government has denied there is any organized campaign against the Anuak. Meles told Reuters on April 29 that reports by Western NGOs that 1,137 people had been killed between December 13 and March 31 in the Gambella region were "a fiction." Barnabas Gebre-Ab, the Ethiopian minister for federal affairs for Gambella and the civilian chief of the armed forces in the state, tells me that some "tragic" deaths had occurred in Gambella on December 13 and that a mob of "social scums"--highlanders who supposedly had whipped themselves into a fury of ancient race hate against Anuak--was responsible. The only role the Ethiopian army played was to stop the killing before it spread, he says.

Why Ethiopia would try to eliminate a small tribe of mostly illiterate herders and farmers remains something of a mystery. In recent years, tensions between the Anuak and the central government have reached a boiling point over several issues, including rights to oil discovered in Gambella, Anuak representation in the Gambella state government, and, especially, the placement in Gambella of Sudanese refugees of the Nuer tribe, who, for centuries, have competed with the Anuak for land, grazing, and fishing rights. Since December, an armed Anuak resistance group called the Gambella People's Liberation Force has formed. On January 24, according to both the Ethiopian government and Genocide Watch, armed Anuak in the town of Dimma killed more than 150 Ethiopian soldiers in an ambush.

Tension Points

But perhaps the real reason the Anuak have been singled out is that the Meles government has decided to use them as a way to send a warning to other, more powerful separatist forces in Ethiopia. Formed by idealistic Marxist revolutionaries, including Meles himself, the government came to power after a grueling 17-year war waged against one of the cruelest regimes in African history. In the early years, a ruling coalition of the country's many ethnic groups was formed, a democratic constitution was written, and a grand strategy of "ethnic federalism" was announced. The dream was peaceful co-existence, but today, virtually all of the human rights abuses tallied each year stem from the Meles regime's suppression of one or another separatist movement. There is a liberation front for almost every one of the "ethnic federalist" states in the country--the Oromo Liberation Front, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (still battling Ethiopia over disputed boundaries), the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Sidama Liberation Front, and, now, the Gambella People's Liberation Front begun by the Anuak.

A 36-page article written under the pen name "Mathza," a pseudonym widely believed in Ethiopia to be used by Meles, and posted on the Web on April 6, seethes with rage against the "power mania" of "separatists, parties, organizations, groups, private press and individuals" who "condemned the government for not handing over the administration to them on a silver platter." "Fantasizing to dismantle the ethnic-based federal system is tantamount to conspiring to create chaos," Mathza writes. Most ominously, Mathza reminds his readers that "the bogus statements that Ethiopians were always united, that they enjoyed harmonious co-existence, that they were happy under the previous governments, etc., are all lies. ... The truth is the country was held together by force, not voluntarily, a situation that was likely to explode any time with dire consequence." The author says Switzerland and the United Kingdom are models for Ethiopia's ethnic state system, but the real model evoked is Yugoslavia, with Meles himself in the role of Tito, holding the country together with an iron fist. Mathza cites the recent violence in Gambella as the kind of local incident "instigat[ed] and fuel[ed]" by separatists who then "cry foul and human rights violations" when the Ethiopian army intervenes. All of which offers a clue as to why the Anuak, so tiny a tribe, would be so worrying to the regime. Mathza paints Ethiopia as fragile, filled with explosive tension points, a tower of matchsticks. In such a country, even a little olemo berry could trigger a dangerous chain reaction.

Doug McGill is the author of The McGill Report.