Since late 2003, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has committed numerous human rights violations against Anuak communities in the Gambella region of southwestern Ethiopia that may amount to crimes against humanity. These abuses have taken place in a region plagued by longstanding ethnic tensions to which the Ethiopian military has become a party.
On December 13, 2003, a brutal ambush allegedly committed by armed Anuak sparked a bloody three-day rampage in the regional capital in which ENDF soldiers joined highlander mobs in the destruction of the towns Anuak neighborhoods. As many as 424 people were killed, almost all of them Anuak. The mobs burned over four hundred houses to the ground and ransacked and looted many of those left standing. The December 2003 massacre was not the first time ENDF soldiers had committed human rights abuses against civilians in Gambella, but it was a turning point in Gambellas long history of conflict and insecurity.
In the fourteen years since the overthrow of the brutal Derg dictatorship in 1991, the new age of prosperity and peace promised by the government has eluded the people of Gambella. Long-simmering ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into violence that has left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, while federal and regional authorities have taken almost no effective action to protect victims or punish their attackers. The prevailing state of insecurity throughout the region and the instability of areas along Gambellas long border with Sudan have led to an ever-increasing Ethiopian military presence in the region.
Until December 2003, the garrison of ENDF soldiers stationed in Gambella had not become involved in the regions increasingly frequent ethnic clashes. It became more difficult for the army to remain uninvolved, however, as longstanding tensions between Gambellas Anuak population and its large community of onetime migrants from other parts of Ethiopia, known locally as highlanders, began to escalate. A series of attacks attributed to Anuak gunmen left more than twenty highlander civilians dead in the second half of 2003, and Gambellas mainly Anuak regional authorities proved unable or unwilling to bring the situation under control. The vast majority of the military personnel in Gambella are drawn from the same ethnic groups that make up the regions highlander community and December 13 marked the moment the Ethiopian military entered into the conflict against the Anuak. What had been a situation marked by long-simmering tensions that erupted sporadically into violence was transformed into a broad-based assault by the Ethiopian army against Gambellas Anuak population.
Since December 2003, the military has set about finding and destroying the disparate groups of armed Anuak collectively referred to as shiftaorganized Sudan-based rebels, farmers carrying out isolated revenge attacks in retaliation for past military abuses, and a small number of radicalized gunmenit believes to be responsible for attacks on the highlander population. This has become a pretext for numerous bloody and destructive raids on Anuak villages and neighborhoods; more than 100 Anuak men, women and children were killed since the December 2003 massacre in the nineteen communities surveyed by Human Rights Watch alone, entire villages were burned to the ground and thousands of families were driven from their homes.
The prevailing climate of impunity that now exists in Gambella has allowed ENDF soldiers to prey upon and terrorize the Anuak communities they patrol. In dozens of communities, soldiers have raped Anuak women, beaten and tortured young men to the point of serious injury or death and looted homes and public buildings. Ordinary people now flee upon spotting approaching ENDF soldiers, and thousands of Anuak have been displaced or driven out of the country as refugees.
The Ethiopian governments efforts to halt these abuses or punish those responsible have been grossly inadequate. A commission of inquiry set up to investigate the December 2003 massacre absolved the military of any wrongdoing, and federal authorities have taken no apparent action to investigate ongoing human rights violations in the region. When community leaders complain about these abuses to ENDF officers they are sent away with empty promises or even threats of further violence. Only a handful of soldiers have been held to account for any of the crimes ENDF forces have committed since December 2003. To date, higher-ranking ENDF officers have been effectively beyond the reach of justice because of the federal governments refusal to investigate persistent complaints of ENDF abuse.
The motivations behind the militarys assault on the Anuak populationand the governments failure to address itremain unclear. Many victims testimonies seem to indicate that ENDF officers and soldiers, frustrated by their inability to find and destroy the armed Anuak groups they are looking for, have come to believe that the entire Anuak population is colluding with their elusive enemies. Other abuses, including many of the reported rapes and incidents of looting, seem to be crimes of opportunity fueled by the near-total lack of accountability. Federal authorities, meanwhile, eager to see the troublesome region pacified, have at the very least shown themselves willing to turn a blind eye to what is happening. Whether or not federal officials are actively complicit in ongoing abuses or aware of precisely how widespread and serious they have been, they have certainly given the military a green light to employ tactics that could only be expected to result in a human rights disaster. The government should know what its military is doing to the Anuak and take steps to prevent it.
Human Rights Watch believes that the widespread human rights violations committed against the Anuak population are indicative of crimes against humanity. It urges concerned states, which have ignored serious rights abuses in Gambella since the December 2003 massacre, to pressure the Ethiopian government to halt the abuses and take serious steps to prosecute all of those responsible.
This report is based on a recent three-week Human Rights Watch research mission to the capital Addis Ababa and towns in Gambella, as well as interviews conducted with Anuak refugees living in Ruiru, Kenya. This report does not document every incident of human rights abuse that ENDF forces have committed in Gambella since December 2003; rather, it describes a continuing pattern of abuse of Anuak communities throughout Gambella since December 2003.1 It also describes abuses committed by armed Anuak groups against the highlander population. In most cases, the precise dates and locations of interviews and other identifying details have been withheld to protect the security of victims and witnesses.
 Human Rights Watch interviewed a total of eighty-four Anuak civilians from nineteen different towns and villages whose populations have suffered human rights abuse at the hands of ENDF soldiers since December 2003.