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The December 2003 Massacre

On December 13, 2003, in an apparent reprisal for a series of ambushes of highlander civilians carried out by armed Anuak,30 ENDF soldiers and highlander civilians launched a brutal attack on Gambella town’s Anuak population.  A large number of troops from the ENDF’s 43rd Division were in Gambella town when the massacre began and Human Rights Watch estimates that over one hundred of them participated in the massacre.31  Adult Anuak men were the primary targets of the violence but were not its only victims.  Soldiers raped several Anuak women, over four hundred Anuak houses were burned to the ground and huge numbers of civilians fled into the forest or took shelter in compounds belonging to two of the town’s largest churches. The commander of Gambella town’s military garrison, Major Tsegaye Beyene, was in Gambella town throughout the massacre and took no apparent action to stop it; indeed, he appears to have directly taken part in the violence.

On the morning of Saturday, December 13, 2003, a car carrying several employees of the federal government’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), a driver and apolice escort was ambushed some thirty kilometers outside of Gambella town.  All eight of the car’s occupants were killed in the attack and their bodies were badly mutilated.32   All of the victims were highlanders.  This attack was the immediate spark for the massacre that began later that day.  At the time of the ambush, the ARRA staff had been on their way to visit the site of a proposed new camp for Sudanese Nuer refugees.33  While the individuals who carried out the attack have reportedly never been caught, it is widely assumed both within and outside of Gambella that the ambush was the work of an armed Anuak group or Anuak shifta.  At the time, many Anuak were incensed that the government was planning to open a fourth camp for Sudanese refugees in addition to the three that already existed on what they regard as Anuak land.34 

Word of the attack reached Gambella town shortly after the ambush, and as the news spread a large crowd of highlander civilians gathered in the center of town to discuss and protest the killings.35  A short while later, some of the soldiers who had been sent to the scene of the ambush returned to town with the eight victims’ bodies.  By the time the vehicle carrying the corpses reached the center of Gambella town, it was part of a convoy of at least nine vehicles accompanied by crowds of highlanders.  The convoy proceeded directly to the regional council building, where military personnel displayed the mutilated bodies to the increasingly emotional crowd.36  The crowd, along with the bodies, then reportedly moved to the police station.

The commercial center of Gambella town.
On December 13, 2003, ENDF soldiers and local highlanders massacred hundreds of Anuak civilians living in the town.
© 2004 Human Rights Watch

Witnesses to these events describe an atmosphere of anger and tension that grew considerably worse after the eight bodies were shown to the crowd.37  Scattered gunshots were heard throughout the town and large groups of obviously angry soldiers and highlander civilians were seen moving through the streets.  One Anuak witness to the scene described what he saw as he drove through the town that morning:

We reached the Mobil fueling station but couldn’t pass because of the crowds of highlanders shouting, weeping and wailing.  There was a lorry full of soldiers, well armed, and so we turned the car and diverted our route.  In town we could not see an Anuak moving and we were scared.  I asked the driver to take me home, but we couldn’t reach there because there were soldiers marching and running throughout the town.  They were moving in all different directions…I walked home [and] saw some Anuak I knew.  They said the soldiers had chased them with guns away from a hotel they were walking by.  I said we must go home or they may arrest or beat us.  They took my advice and so we walked home together.38

Many other Anuak also began moving towards their homes for safety.  Some families locked themselves inside their homes hoping to wait things out; several witnesses described feeling nervous but doubting that anything serious would happen.39

Between noon and one o’clock, some witnesses reported that they heard what sounded like a large crowd shouting and cheering along with bursts of gunfire emanating from somewhere near the police station.40  Within several minutes of this commotion, groups of highlander civilians armed with machetes, axes, sticks and iron bars and accompanied by armed and uniformed ENDF soldiers descended upon several Anuak neighborhoods.  These groups varied in size from roughly five to thirty.  Witnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said that groups of soldiers and highlanders moved systematically from house to house searching for Anuak men.41  While generally leaving women and children alive, the attackers killed Anuak men after pulling them from their homes or running them down as they tried to flee.  One young Anuak man caught up in the first moments of the massacre recalled the terror and confusion that ensued:

I saw people running here and there.  Seeing people running, I also ran, knowing nothing of what was happening.  All of a sudden I saw and heard the government soldiers shooting.  On hearing the bullets, I ran even faster.  Because there were so many people running here and there we collided and I fell down.  I started to see people who were fallen down dead and so I got up and started running again.  I ran to the edge of town and hid myself under a bush.  I stayed there for a long time.  From my hiding place I saw people being shot, running and being killed.  The noise was very great.

He remained hidden for some time and saw his neighbors’ homes burned as they tried desperately to escape:

After a long time I saw one man crawling.  I tried to identify him.  He was covered in blood.  On looking further, I found out that he was Abraham….I knew him well because we lived close by and used to see each other often….I wanted to help him but I failed to do so because I was afraid.  Following that I heard a very big blast.  Then I saw a big fire burning in a house.  I saw a group of people running towards the river, followed by soldiers and a group of people with machetes.  Then I buried my head and didn’t see anything else.  I panicked.  I was too afraid to look up anymore42

One middle-aged woman was inside of her home with her family when a group of soldiers and highlander civilians arrived.  She described what happened after her husband went outside to confront them:

When they came we were in the house with our children.  My husband, they shot him [in front of our home]....After he was fallen my son could not hide himself anymore and he went out to see his father….They killed him as well.  It was the military with guns and lots of our highlander neighbors.  My son came out because he knew some of the highlander people very well and he tried to say, “Why are you doing this thing?”  They just cut him with axes and other tools.  He thought that because he had been together with them as neighbors and friends they could listen to him….My eldest daughter was crying, saying “Why did you kill my father and brother?”  So they came and they beat her with sticks.  I took a stick also and I tried to beat them but they just said, “Let us leave them.”  Until now my daughter does not work.  She is broken.  She was a student and used to carry water and crush maize, but she cannot do anything now.43

Where people refused to come out of their homes, their assailants battered the doors down or set the grass roofs of their small, circular tukuls ablaze.  When the terrified inhabitants of burning houses tried to escape through windows or doors, they were either shot by groups of waiting soldiers or set upon with machetes, clubs and other weapons by highlander civilians.  Several larger houses with tin roofs proved more difficult to break into or burn, so soldiers drove out their occupants by throwing grenades through the windows.  The house of a prominent Anuak pastor named Okwier Oletho was attacked in this way.  His house was a large rectangular structure with a tin roof that was divided into several rooms.  At least a dozenpeople had sought refuge there.  After a group of soldiers and highlander civilians surrounded the house, a soldier broke open a window and tossed a grenade through it into the living room.  As fire spread throughout the house, the people inside began scrambling through the windows.  Soldiers shot and killed most of the men who came through the windows, some of whom were picked off before they could even start running.  Pastor Okwier was among the dead; after he escaped through a window, a group of highlander civilians chased him down and murdered him with machetes and clubs.44

Pastor Okwier Oletho’s mother-in-law standing next to his grave near the ruins of his home in Gambella town.
ENDF soldiers and highlander townspeople killed Pastor Okwier when they attacked his home during the December 2003 massacre.
© 2004 Human Rights Watch

Most of the violence took place in a few neighborhoods where most of Gambella town’s Anuak population is concentrated.  The worst-affected neighborhoods were Omminingah, Owalingah, Tier Kidi and Addis Zefer.  In other parts of the town, soldiers and highlanders positioned themselves to intercept some of the people running away from the besieged Anuak neighborhoods.  One man who was hidden in the house of a highlander friend described what took place in an intersection a short distance from that house:

They were in a big group sitting there waiting for people because Anuak had to cross through that area to get to Anuak villages.  I could see through the window. I saw about seven people being killed with my eyes.  Four were knifed and beaten by highlanders and two were shot by the military….One man was shouting, “I am a Nuer, not an Anuak,” but they recognized him as Anuak….One [man], the soldiers tied his hands to his legs and put him on the road and then ran him over with a military truck.  This person had been running.  The soldiers caught him, between five and ten of them.  They tied his hands and legs and were saying, “Why do you want to shoot him?  We can kill him in another way instead.”  There were some highlander children there and they were crying, saying, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!”  They [the soldiers] put him on the road and they yelled, “Go over him, go over him!” and then the truck ran him over once.  Then the soldiers and highlanders clapped and cheered together.45

The Anuak neighborhood of Tier Kidi in Gambella town.
Many of Tier Kidi’s residents sought refuge from the December 2003 massacre in the nearby compound of the Catholic church.
© 2004 Human Rights Watch

ENDF soldiers raped several Anuak women during the massacre.  One woman whose house was invaded by a group of ten soldiers and highlander civilians described what happened to her family:

They threw stones through the window and one of them hit me.…I didn’t open the door for them and so they broke into the house by smashing the door….First after they smashed the door they came in and took a thirteen-year-old boy together with my son and took them outside.  My son was thirteen also.  Then they shot the other boy—it was soldiers who shot him.  Because my son seemed shorter than the other boy they ordered him back to me….I had fallen down and was bleeding because of the rock that came through the window.  They raped my sister while I was lying on the ground.  What I saw was the soldiers going and lying on my sister.  I saw all of them going to her, one by one.  Because their attention had shifted to her I saw a chance to escape and so I got up and ran out the door.46

Another woman, a primary school teacher, was alone at her school with two female colleagues when a group of soldiers approached them:

We knew them.  We used to prepare coffee and invite these soldiers to come and drink with us before December 13 under a big tree by the school….It was Saturday but three of us teachers were at school—one highlander and two Anuak.  They took the highlander teacher away.  They took [the other Anuak teacher] and I into a room used for resting by the teachers.  After they took us into the room, they raped us, me along with my friend.  My [highlander] colleague was crying, “You people can’t believe in God, why are you doing this thing!”…So they beat her even though she is a highlander.47

The officer who was in command of the military forces in Gambella town at the time of the massacre, MajorTsegaye Beyene, was present in Gambella town throughout the entire massacre.  Okello Akway, an Anuak who was then Gambella’s Regional President, was with Tsegaye throughout the day on December 13, trapped in the military barracks in the center of Gambella town because he was afraid to venture into the chaos outside.  According to Okello, at no point during that day did Tsegaye make any apparent attempt to stop the killing.  Okello said that when he challenged Tsegaye to intervene and stop the killing, Tsegaye responded, “Are we the ones killing the people?  It is the Anuak who are all butchers.”  “After that,” Okello said, “I simply became quiet.”48  After the massacre, Okello became increasingly afraid for his own life and eventually fled across the Sudanese border on foot before seeking asylum in Norway.49

One woman who was detained by the police early on December 13 told Human Rights Watch that she was raped bya senior officer while in ENDF custody.  In the early hours of the afternoon, while the massacre was raging throughout the town, ENDF personnel transferred her from the police station to the barracks near the center of Gambella town.  She described what happened there:

At night, [some soldiers] started saying that I am a member of the organization that attacked the car.  They said I am a cashier of that organization.  They also asked a lot of questions about my brother because they thought that maybe he is also one of them.  I said I do not know this organization and am not a member of any organization….They mistreated me because they said I am one of those people.  They started beating me, and then [officer’s name deleted] raped me.  I was taken to his room by two soldiers.  I refused and quarreled with these people and they started beating me again.  Then they took me to his room and I quarreled and fought with them.  They put a gun to my throat and said, “Be silent.”  It happened there, two times.  It was [the officer] both times with his colleague.  [The next day] they took me to the main barracks far from the town…I was kept in one room and I was mistreated there as well.50    

The violence continued throughout the day on December 13 and came to a halt at around sunset.  On the morning of the fourteenth, the killing began anew and continued until that evening.  Some witnesses reported that the attacks continued throughout the day of the fifteenth as well.  By all accounts, the violence came to a permanent halt by the evening of Monday, December 15.  By then at least 440 Anuak houses had been destroyed; most of those had been burned, while others had been blown apart by grenades.51  The Anuak neighborhoods of Omminigah and Owalingah were almost completely razed and most of their inhabitants were left homeless.52 

Hundreds of Anuak civilians fled into the bush on December 13 to escape the massacre.  Some returned that evening, only to be forced to flee a second time when the violence erupted again the next morning.53  Others spent several days hiding in isolated stands of trees several kilometers outside of town before returning home, generally without access to food or clean water.  In addition, 382 Anuak sought refuge behind the walls of the Catholic Church compound and well over a thousand took shelter in the compound of the Mekene Yesus church.54  Most stayed for roughly one week and some stayed for two or even three weeks.55   

The government has sought to downplay the number of Anuak civilians killed in the December massacre.  A government-appointed Commission of Inquiry found that sixty-five people were killed.56  That figure is clearly a gross underestimate; the twenty-four eyewitnesses to the massacre interviewed by Human Rights Watch alone witnessed more killings than this.  An independent inquiry conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the country’s leading human rights advocacy organization, a week after the massacre estimated that more than 300 Anuak had lost their lives in the violence.57  Anuak groups have compiled a list of 424 people they say were killed.  Based on the interviews Human Rights Watch conducted with eyewitnesses to the massacre, many of whom lost family, friends and neighbors in the attack, as well as Anuak community leaders and other knowledgeable sources, Human Rights Watch believes that the 424 figure is the most accurate.

[30] At least twenty highlander civilians were reportedly killed in ambushes by Anuak gunmen between August and December 2003.  Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa, late 2004; Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Minneapolis, November 12, 2004.

[31] This estimate is based on Human Rights Watch interviews in late 2004 with twenty-four eyewitnesses to the massacre.

[32] The attackers reportedly cut off the penis of the policeman, Solomon Tesfaye, and put it in his mouth.  Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), “A Ferocious Attack Committed in Gambella Region,”72nd Special Report, January 5, 2004.

[33] The Ethiopian government and UNHCR sought to relocate most Sudanese Nuer refugees from the camp near Pinyudo to a new site at a place called Odier because they believed the new site to be more secure.  There had been several violent clashes between Sudanese Nuer refugees and local Anuak around Pinyudo, and officials feared that they lacked the capacity to prevent further bloodshed if the Nuer refugees remained in the Pinyudo camp.  Human Rights Watch interview with Fernando Protti-Alvarado, UNHCR Regional Liaison Office for Africa Deputy Representative, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[34] Human Rights Watch interviews with Anuak sources, Addis Ababa and Gambella, late 2004; confidential research papers on file with Human Rights Watch.

[35] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #4 and 12, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Okello Akway, Norway, October 13, 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #2 and 13, Ruiru, Kenya and Addis Ababa, late 2004.  See also EHRCO 72nd Special Report.

[37] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #4, 12 and 63, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #12, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[39] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #16 and 61, Gambella and Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #5, 10 and 12, Ruiru, Kenya and Gambella, late 2004.

[41] Their physical features make Anuak clearly distinguishable from any of the groups that make up Gambella’s highlander population.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #11, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #32, Gambella, late 2004.

[44] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #18, 36 and 83, Gambella and Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #31, Gambella, late 2004.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #27, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #8, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[48] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Okello Akway, Norway, January 18, 2005.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with witness #2, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[51] Human Rights Watch interviews with regional government officials, Gambella, late 2004; confidential document provided by regional official, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[52] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #11, 12, 15, 21, 34, 57 and 63, Gambella and Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[53] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #10, 12 and 18, Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[54] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #30, 63, 85 and 86, Gambella and Addis Ababa, late 2004. The Mekene Yesus church is Ethiopia’s largest mainstream Protestant church.  In Gambella, the church is divided along ethnic lines into Nuer and Anuak congregations.  Anuak civilians seeking shelter took refuge in the compound of the church’s Anuak synod.  The Catholic and Mekene Yesus churches are located close to the Anuak neighborhoods of Tier Kidi and Omminingah, respectively.

[55] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses #16, 30, 31 and 57, Gambella and Ruiru, Kenya, late 2004.

[56] Report of the Commission of Inquiry to the House of People’s Representatives, July 2004.

[57] EHRCO 72nd Special Report.

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