Arbitrary Arrests, Beatings, and Torture
Between June 23 and June 29, Human Rights Watch conducted a research mission to Gorom refugee settlement, South Sudan, and interviewed 80 people who had fled the crackdown and villagization in Gambella.
Several dozen Gambella residents described to Human Rights Watch the Ethiopian military’s mass detention of scores of villagers, primarily young men, in Abobo woreda in late April and May, accusing the villagers of supporting what the soldiers referred to as “the rebels.”They said that men, women, and children were forced to march through the bush looking for so-called rebels and were beaten if they did not find any, or if they did not provide any names of suspects to the soldiers.
One man described being stopped by soldiers while carrying food, and then being forced to help them search for firearms in Perbong village near the Saudi Star farm. “The [soldiers] asked me ‘Where are you taking this food? To the rebels?’” he told Human Rights Watch. “They checked the food, told me to lie down, and beat me all over my back. [They said]: ‘We will take you to Perbong to check houses one by one. If we find a gun, we will kill you.’ So we went to the community leader’s house, my house, and others’ houses and they found nothing, so they released me.”
A dozen villagers said they were detained, then beaten and tortured in military barracks by soldiers until they revealed a name of an alleged rebel. Most victims described frequent beatings with sticks and rifle butts. Some also saw or experienced other forms of torture.
An 18-year-old named Omot told Human Rights Watch that in April he was arrested by soldiers in his home village and accused of being a rebel. He was taken with his arms tied behind his back to the military barracks in Pugnido where he was detained for two months. He said he was beaten daily on his back and legs with truncheons. After his release soldiers came to his home and threatened him again, causing him to flee to South Sudan.
A local police officer described being arrested by soldiers and accused of supporting the rebels. Soldiers detained him in Gambella’s military barracks where they tied him up and beat him repeatedly, often at the urging of a federal government security official who told them, “Beat him, he has something to say.” After his release the soldiers came to his home and beat him unconscious in front of his wife. His wife said the soldiers beat their four year old son in front of them. The family fled to South Sudan.
Ethiopian soldiers detained and tortured people in locations in addition to the military barracks. One witness said he was detained in a makeshift prison within a school in Chobo-Mender and witnessed soldiers torturing a young man by making him walk on hot coals. He told Human Rights Watch:“I saw a young guy who was forced to stand barefoot on fire coals for 15 minutes. Soldiers would push him back on whenever he would try to get off. He was blistered half way up his calves. ‘I am going to die,’ he would say. ‘Then show us where the rebels are,’ said the soldiers.”
Another local police officer described being beaten and tortured inside Saudi Star’s compound by Ethiopian soldiers shortly after the attack: “They said to us, ‘As people are being killed, yet you have not died, you must know who was behind this.’ So they took me to the Saudi Star farm and beat me there, inside the compound. There were many of us there: two police and others who had been picked up in the sweep. When they saw that I was not ready to talk, to say what they wanted me to say, they started removing my toenails. They were asking a lot of questions about the others who died: ‘Don’t you know who did the killing?’”
All youth appear to be at risk from the soldiers. An 18-year-old student at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital said that soldiers beat him and his friends when he returned to Gambella for a vacation shortly after the Saudi Star attacks. After showing his student ID card he was told by soldiers: “You are educated, you know all the political issues and things about governments so you are the ones encouraging the rebels.” They beat him unconscious.
Rape and Sexual Violence
Ethiopian soldiers frequently arrested and abused the female family members of young men they were seeking. Three women and a girl told Human Rights Watch that soldiers arrested, detained, beat, and then raped them to pressure them to disclose their male relatives’ whereabouts. Two additional women said that they witnessed other women being raped in detention.
One woman said her husband had been arrested after the attacks because “the soldiers said he knew where the rebels were.” When she went to the prisons to try and find him, soldiers followed her back to her home and raped her, she said. Her husband’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Another woman described what happened after soldiers arrested her in Wancarmie and took her to the military barracks in Gambella: “One night they took me out of the cell and said, ‘Show us where your husband is or else we will rape you.’ I persisted saying that I didn’t know where he was. Then finally they raped me. After that they released me and I decided to leave the country.”
Attacks and “Villagization” in Gambella
After the attack on the Saudi Star compound the Ethiopian military targeted five villages, all within a 16-kilometer radius of the area leased by the company. These villages had been affected by Ethiopia’s controversial “villagization” program, a three-year plan to relocate 225,000 people in Gambella – and over 1.5 million people across four states nationally – from their existing villages into new settlements purportedly to better provide them with basic services.
Human Rights Watch documented serious human rights violations associated with the first year of the villagization program in Gambella in 2011. The January 2012 report “Waiting Here for Death”: Displacement and “Villagization” in Ethiopia’s Gambella Regiondescribed how the Ethiopian government and military forced reluctant villagers to leave their homes and build new villages in arid, infertile areas, often intimidating, arresting, and beating people who refused to move. The most abuses were recorded in Abobo woreda, the location of the Saudi Star concession.
Many of the recently arrived villagers in South Sudan interviewed by Human Rights Watch in June said they had fled Gambella because of abuses experienced in connection with the villagization program, as well as the recent military operations following the Saudi Star attack.
They described new abuses in the second year of the government’s villagization program, including forced displacement, arbitrary arrests, and torture in detention. The new settlements are located far from water sources and the land is typically dry and arid. More than a year after people were forced to move to these villages virtually none of the promised basic services such as schools and clinics have been provided. To prevent resettled villagers from returning to their original homes soldiers have allegedly been destroying infrastructure in the old locations.
All of the Gambella residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch and who fled to South Sudan told Human Rights Watch that their resettlement was involuntary.
A 17-year-old girl from Abobo woreda who had recently arrived in South Sudan said that soldiers killed her father when he refused to move from their farm near Tegne to the new village: “We were sitting at our farm and soldiers came up to us: ‘Do you accept to be relocated or not?’ ‘No.’ So they grabbed some of us. ‘Do you want to go now?’ ‘No.’ Then they shot my father and killed him. We all fled into the bush. I still do not know where my sister or husband is.”
Human Rights Watch found that regional and state government officials appear to have a role in the forcible relocation of villagers. The former committee head responsible for villagization in Gog woreda told Human Rights Watch: “I was told [by regional officials] to make the community aware of the need to move. All the responses from the people were rejections, they did not like it. We went back and did our report [to the regional parliament] that they did not want to go. Parliament blamed me and said, ‘Why do you tell us this? Go do it by force.’ [A senior state official] said this to me directly. We then went with the military and did it by force.”
Villagers who have been unwilling to move or refuse to mobilize others to do so have been arrested and mistreated by the soldiers. An elder from Batpul village said he was ordered by woreda officials to organize the villagers and persuade them to relocate. “There were many trees and food in the old place and nothing in the new place so I refused to get them to agree,” he said. “Government officials told me, ‘Since you do not accept what government says, we jail you.’” The elder was jailed in Abobo for 17 days. “They turned me upside down, tied my legs to a pole, and beat me every day for 17 days until I was released.”
Soldiers burned down tukuls (huts) and broke water pumps in the original villages as soon as villagers were moved to their new locations, the displaced villagers told Human Rights Watch.
One man from the Majangere ethnic group, who lived in Gooshini village in Godere woreda, described the forced relocation in his village: “Those that resisted the second time were forced by soldiers to roll around in the mud in a stagnant water pool then beaten.” He said he returned to his old village after dark for seven nights before deciding to flee to South Sudan. Each night he saw that more and more of his village’s farmland had been cleared by the bulldozers of an Ethiopian investor who had been awarded the land by the government.