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The following account was told to Human Rights Watch by an elderly Anuak man from a village called Otiel in Gambella.  For three months in mid-2004, a small garrison of Ethiopian National Defense Force soldiers was stationed just outside of his village.  He told his story with particular eloquence, but it was similar to accounts told to Human Rights Watch by dozens of other people from Anuak villages throughout Gambella.

“When the soldiers arrived they said to the villagers, ‘Now we come to make peace.’  The villagers said, ‘Why?  Is there anything wrong?’  They said, ‘There are some bandits and anywhere we get them we will finish them.’  The soldiers stayed for three months.  They were many.  [One day when] the soldiers came back to Otiel from Boranger they met a man outside the village and killed him….We went out and found his dead body.  He was shot in his chest and in his forehead….The elders of the village asked them, ‘You said you come for peace but now we have found someone whom you have killed.  Why is that so?’  They said, ‘Anyone we find outside the village we will kill.’  We said, ‘Is this a way to make peace?’  They said, ‘You are lying to us.  And in any case we cannot identify who is a villager and who is not.  So anyone we find outside your village we will kill.’  After that, no one complained.

“After this one person was killed, they broke into the school and destroyed everything and took the medicines that were in the clinic.  No one from the village dared to ask them why they were doing this.  They broke the clinic doors and brought out the tables and chairs from the school.  They used the tables for beds.  In the school what was left were only blackboards….Some people were saying to the chief, ‘Why don’t you go and talk to them?’  The commander told him, ‘It was not we who broke these things but you yourselves who broke them.’

“The other problem was women.  When this became more and more the chief went to talk to the commander.  He said, ‘Last time you killed one man and said you cannot tell who is a villager and who is not, so we kept quiet.  But now you are raping our wives.’  The commander said, ‘I will talk to the soldiers.’  But the problem did not stop after this.

“Who are you who dares to report such things to the government?  It is the government that is doing these things!...Whenever the chief got away to come to Pinyudo he would sometimes try to report [rapes] to the wereda council, but they would deny it.  They would say, ‘Such things are not possible and it is not good for you to say this.  Leave it.’”

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 town’s 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 Gambella’s 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 Gambella’s 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 region’s increasingly frequent ethnic clashes.  It became more difficult for the army to remain uninvolved, however, as longstanding tensions between Gambella’s 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 Gambella’s 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 region’s 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 Gambella’s Anuak population.

Since December 2003, the military has set about finding and destroying the disparate groups of armed Anuak collectively referred to as shifta—organized Sudan-based rebels, farmers carrying out isolated revenge attacks in retaliation for past military abuses, and a small number of radicalized gunmen—it 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 government’s 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 government’s refusal to investigate persistent complaints of ENDF abuse.

The motivations behind the military’s assault on the Anuak population—and the government’s failure to address it—remain 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.

[1]  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. 

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