RIO DE JANEIRO // A protest by Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa at the Olympics has shone a light on deadly clashes in his country – the worst unrest Ethiopia has experienced in a decade.
As Lilesa finished second in the Games marathon on Sunday night he held his arms over his head, his wrists crossed, in a gesture of support for members of his Oromo tribe who launched fierce demonstrations in November last year over government plans to reallocate farmland surrounding the capital for development.
Authorities scrapped the scheme in January, but protests flared again this month over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators.
Rights groups say hundreds have been killed, although the government disputes the figures.
“Oromo is my tribe ... Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa after his silver-medal performance, adding that he feared he would face consequences for the gesture when he returned home.
“Maybe I move to another country ... you get the freedom if you support only the government. You cannot work without that.”
Protests by the Oromo people are not the only ones to have turned deadly in Ethiopia in recent months. In Bahir Dar, the capital of the northern Amhara region, tensions remain high two weeks after the killing of at least 30 protesters by security forces, according to Amnesty International. Although as with the Omoro protests, the authorities disputed this figure, giving a much lower toll of just seven dead.
“I would say at least 50 people!” said Getachew, a protester who saw bodies arrive at the city hospital on August 7.
Dressed in black, Getachew, who would not give his full name, is mourning his younger brother Abebe, 28, who he says was shot twice – once in the back of the head and once in his side – as Ethiopian security broke up the protests with gunfire and gas.
“The ‘Agazi’ were on the rooftops. They started to shoot in the crowd. The police was launching tear gas,” Getachew said, referring to Ethiopia’s feared special forces with their distinctive red berets who were deployed to help crush the protests in Bahir Dar.
This small, pretty town on the edge of Lake Tana and close to the source of the Blue Nile is still in shock after the killings. The tourist hotels are deserted, the tour guides idle and the fear of government reprisals is palpable.
Since the demonstrations, arrests have multiplied, said Getachew, who was one of the few willing to speak following the protests in Bahir Dar. “Five friends of Abebe were arrested after they went to his funeral. We don’t know where they are.”
Many of the young protesters are angry at a government that has been in charge for almost their whole lives and that is seen to favour the minority Tigrean community who occupy key positions in government, the security services and public companies.
“There is a tangible development. You can’t deny the roads, the buildings, the power supply but the VIPs are all from Tigray. Tigreans dominate economically and socially. All the industries are in Tigray,” said Ashenafi, a young Amhara protester.
The government’s decision to join the northern province of Welkait to the Tigray region was the immediate trigger for the Amhara protests, but it seems no coincidence they have occurred at the same time as those by the Oromo people. Together, Oromo and Amhara people make up over 60 per cent of the population.
“They did not apologise for the people killed. They do not feel guilty. All they say is that if somebody comes out, they will take action,” said Ashenafi. “I do not see any sign that they will change.”
* Agence France-Presse, Reuters