Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians
By IRIN-Lifting her robe the young woman revealed undulating scar tissue blanketing her breasts, stomach, and extending up her neck and along her arms.
“They poured petrol over me then lit it,” said 28-year-old Husaida Mohammed. “They were Somali boys.”
When IRIN met Mohammed she was in a camp of about 3,500 displaced Oromo people on the outskirts of Harar, the ancient walled city in Ethiopia’s Harari Region.
It had taken her over a month to make the 100-kilometre journey to safety from Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia’s far eastern Somali Region. For weeks she lay hidden in an empty Oromo-owned house tended to by friends as she recovered from her injuries.
Next to her in the large warehouse being used to shelter the displaced was a woman in a striking pink robe. She had no visible injuries but didn’t utter a word.
“She was throttled so badly they damaged her vocal chords,” a doctor explained. “She can’t eat anything, only drink fluids.”
Tit-for-tat ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s two largest regions of Oromia and Somali began in September and has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Local media have reported upwards of 200,000 displaced, humanitarian workers at the camps talk of 400,000.
The unrest began when two Oromo officials were reportedly killed on the border between the two territories, allegedly by Somali Region police.
On 12 September, protests by Oromo in the town of Aweday, between Harar and the city of Dire Dawa, led to rioting that left 18 dead. The majority were Somali khat traders, a mildly narcotic leaf widely chewed. Somalis who fled Aweday said the number of dead was closer to 40.
In response to Aweday, the Somali Regional government began evicting Oromo from Jigjiga and the region. Officials say this was for the Oromo’s own safety, and that no Oromo died as a result of ethnic violence in the region – a claim disputed by those displaced.
In addition to the camps around Harar and Dire Dawa – cities viewed as neutral safe havens – they have popped up elsewhere along the contentious regional border.
In these camps Oromo and Somali tell equally convincing stories of ethnic violence. They accuse the regional special police – in the Somali Region known as the Liyu, and in Oromia as the Liyu Hail – of being behind many of the attacks.
Both regional governments deny their police forces were involved.
The federal government faces fierce accusations ranging from not doing enough, to deliberately turning a blind eye to the violence.
The Oromo see this as punishment after their year of protests against the ruling party that led to a state of emergency.
There has also been a legacy of distrust of the Somali Region in Addis Ababa. The perception is that among the population there is revanchist sympathy for the idea of a Greater Somalia.
Another possibility is that the government simply has not had the capacity to effectively respond, so widespread has been the violence.
Oromia and Somali share a 1,400-kilometre long border. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, numbering about 35 million, a factor Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups remain deeply conscious of – especially its 6.5 million Somalis.
History of hate