Ethiopia Opinion Oromia

Irreecha 2016: An eyewitness account of what (actually) happened

Written by Lammi Begna

(OPride) ― In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch said the Ethiopian government’s botched crowd control effort, particularly the use of teargas in a confined space and the obstruction of exits by security personnel, caused the deaths and injuries at last year’s Irreecha festival in Bishoftu.

In a carefully worded 33-page report, “Fuel on the Fire: Security Force Response to the 2016 Irreecha Cultural Festival,” the New York-based rights group said “many people, likely hundreds, died in a stampede” that was triggered by the security forces, who later “shot and killed some members of the crowd.”

The report calls for credible and independent investigation, the release of all persons detained for attending 2016 Irreecha and urged authorities to “exercise restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival” slated for October 1, 2017.

“The security forces’ disastrous and disproportionate use of force should not be repeated this year,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha could be fraught with tensions. The government and the security forces should take all steps necessary before and during the festival to protect human life and de-escalate tensions.”

It is the most detailed account of the October 2, 2016 incident yet. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 Irreecha participants, health workers, and other eyewitnesses, and analyzed dozens of videos from the event.

I was there that day and witnessed the tragic incidents firsthand. Here is what I saw, heard and observed. It is my view that having been hit by waves of growing #OromoProtests for nearly 10 months, the Ethiopian government was waiting to use the Irreecha celebration to take revenge against the Oromo public for its unrelenting resistance.

Over the last decade, the Irreecha celebration at Hora Arsadi emerged as the only occasion for Oromo youth from across the country to come together in one place.  They often take the gathering as an opportunity to sing resistance songs, denounce ongoing human rights violations and demand respect of their rights. They had never harbored fear or expectation of attack.

On October 2, millions of Oromos from across the country and around the world gathered at Hora Arsadi, the sacred lake shore where the Irreecha rituals are performed. It was an important day for all Oromos, particularly those at the forefront of the budding protest movement: Attendees went to Hora Arsadi to offer thanks to Waaqa for delivering us from the dark and rainy season to the light and abundance of Birra. In my heart and, I believe also in the heart of many of my compatriots, I was prepared not only to thank Waaqa for helping us in our 10-months long fight against the government but also to reaffirm my resolve to continue the struggle with renewed spirit and strength.

Early preparation by the government

The Ethiopian government knew that millions of Oromos and friends of Oromo people will attend the Irreecha festivities at Hora Arsadi that day. I believe that the government was keen to hijack this well-attended gathering for its own political gain. It wanted to manipulate the ceremony by boasting about the registration of the Gadaa system as an intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. This is evident from how the government spent days propagating the news of Gadaa’s registration using state-owned television and radio stations.

Then government representatives officially started to register their party members and supporters at the local level to attend Irreecha en masse and gave them instructions on how to block anti-government protesters from approaching the stage. The ruling Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) spent more than a week organizing and transporting their members and supporters to Bishoftu. I learned about this scheme from one of the local OPDO members who was selected from Nekemte town, in western Oromia, to attend the Irreecha celebration. The official expressed fear that the government plan to control Irreecha for its political gain could astir further resistance from congregates.

In the meantime, security forces prepared themselves and stood ready for a direct order from authorities to violently put down the uprising as soon as the events are deemed “out of control.”

Security forces were divided into three categories to respond to the protesters:

1) The unarmed Oromia police in uniform.

2) Federal special commandos who were deployed to mix in with the festival goers wearing Oromo cultural clothing to blend easily with the crowd.

3) Thousands of paramilitary forces deployed to surround and encircle the gatherings from the nearest possible distances.

Eyewitness accounts indicate the presence of unknown persons, who were searching and checking the area around the center stage, in every direction including at the ditches where thousands of people fell to their death in a desperate and tragic attempt to save their lives. The security forces prepared the dragnet in a way that people would be forced to run as soon as firing and shootings began. In other words, they knew exactly the frantic crowd would run to their deaths. This arrangement reveals a well laid plot by the security forces to make the incident seem like a tragic accident ― a stampede.  It was a man made scheme to ensure death to those who ran from bullets and teargas.

OCTOBER 2, 2016

Despite the tight security checkpoints at every entrance to Bishoftu, millions of Oromo youth managed to reach Hora Arsadi ahead of the Irreecha ceremony. Carrying coqorsa, the sacred grass used for thanksgiving rituals, the youth went to malka, the river bank, for Irreeffannaa, expressions of celebration. Our grand intentions were to express and uphold our culture in defiance of the regime’s efforts to suppress it. This was done through singing and dancing to traditional songs of resistance and modern assertions of Oromummaa ― the oromo identity.  

We cheered together to send echoes of a budding revolution to be heard by Ethiopia’s rulers and around the world. This was at night. Dawn came. A beautiful sun appeared in the east. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of Oromos turned toward the lake ― turn by turn ― giving thanks to Waaqa for the appearance of Birra, and with it a unified resolve to see an end to Oromo’s continued marginalization. An estimated 4 million people descended on Bishoftu that day, possibly the highest number ever to attend Irreecha.

As usual, authorities sought to take over and manage the stage of the event with its own loyal members and supporters up front. There were attempts to block the movements of any person near the stage to hold off protesters at a distance. But this plan failed. The government’s attempt to have a more visible role in the festivities also failed to materialize. People saw that authorities were trying to play a dirty political game even at a sacred gathering thereby denying us our proper dignity. For example, the duly elected and legitimate representative of the Oromo Gadaa Council, Abba Gadaa Bayana Sanbato, was mysteriously held back. In his stead, authorities brought forth a retired Abba Gadaa, Nagasa Nagawo, who is widely perceived to be closely aligned with the government.

They also brought newly-elected OPDO political officials to the stage, who had no right to oversee such an occasion. The youth refused to allow government officials to takeover the stage, and, in fact, booed the imposters off the stage. The chaos, tensions and anger over these machinations quickly  turned to unified expressions of protest. We held up crossed wrists above our heads – a popular gesture that has by then become the symbol of Oromo protests. The mood at Irreecha festival shifted as celebrants began protesting against attempted takeover of the event by the government. Oromo youth started chanting and singing resistance songs. However, no one offended the security forces, no one used force against officials or against their collaborators; the singing, chanting and displaying of slogans were all peaceful, non-violent expressions of resistance to what was happening on the stage.

It was in the midst of such a peaceful protest that Ethiopian military helicopters began to fly above the crowd at low altitude, escalating fear and tensions. Defying military effort to intimidate the gathering crowd using helicopters, some protesters started to push forward to the stage. At this point, from the back of the stage, heavily armed paramilitary forces also started moving toward the sea of crowd below. This further angered festival goers and aggravated the situation.

Mass killings followed

The jubilant youth defiantly rejected official intimidation and attempts to stop them and started climbing on the stage. A new Oromo hero was born in the midst of a chaotic scene. Gamada Wario grabbed microphone from one of the emcees and started chanting, in English, “Down, Down, Woyyane!” The millions below proudly replied, “Down, Down, Woyyane!” Woyane is a colloquial term for the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders. Gamada’s courageous act dramatically transformed the atmosphere of the festival into a revolutionary moment. Then, another Oromo youth, who had breached the security perimeter, took microphone and began asking the crowd, “What do we need today?” The crowd replied, “Freedom!”

Unable to resist the anger and frustration that had accumulated over the previous 10 months, many Oromo youth became emotional, some simply crying, some singing and some standing motionless in defiance of the enemy for once and for all. Then the Ethiopian government raised its heavy hand against civilian protesters. First, teargas was unleashed into the crowd from every direction, including from the air. This was followed by shooting, as soon as people were blinded by the teargas. Unable to run due to the massive crowd and confused about where to go, several people fell to the ground to save their lives. I could only hear the victims on the ground yelling, “Gubannee” ― we are burnt down ―  and “Jarri nu fixxe” – they have finished us. It was clear that something unknown was unleashed on the crowd; it was not only the teargas from the helicopters and the gunshots that rang out. Since the road leading to the town had been closed by design, everyone run in the direction of the ditches.

The ditch and the TPLF drama

The old ditch, which swallowed hundreds of Oromo lives, was approximately 20m deep and 3m wide on one side and 5m wide on the other side. Prior to the festival, many had raised concerns and requested the Bishoftu City Administration to close the ditch. But no actions were taken on time. The well-designed and prepared drama includes: Refusal to close the ditches, holding back of Abba Gadaa Bayana perhaps to provoke intentionally violence, and the blocking of all possible outlets to Bishoftu. In front of the stage was a lake, on the road to Bishoftu was military who began firing; so the confused crowd run to the ditch and many met their untimely death so tragically. There is no question that Ethiopian security forces caused that stampede, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of precious Oromo lives. In the course of this unspeakably horrific event, Oromia has lost her children’s lives – perhaps the lives of her best, most conscious, most valiant children ever.  

In this horrific event, the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress estimates nearly 700 people died while running to save their lives. The government of Ethiopia declined to accept the actual death toll and confirmed only 54 victims. Security forces admitted only 52 of the victims to Bishoftu hospital for medical examination with other casualties who need emergency care. Those admitted to Bishoftu hospital were properly registered and made public to the media. No single individual killed or wounded with bullets was sent to the hospital. The victims who were killed by bullets were sent directly to Police hospital. The bodies of those victims were sent to their families for burial with two medical proofs – one real and another fake. A closer look at the fate of Tolera Tarafa Gudata illustrates this point.

Tolera Tarafa Gudata, a native of Western Oromia, Gidda Ayana district in Wallaga zone, was killed by bullets while running to save his life. The security forces then took his body to police hospital in Addis Ababa. The hospital prepared two medical proofs, one which shows he was shot with three bullets at a close range and the other which purports to show he died during a stampede. Two days later, his body was sent to his birthplace for burial. When Tolera’s body reached home, the local youth requested the security agent to show them the body before burial. Disgusted and unprepared, the agent opened the letter and revealed the truth that Tolera was killed by three bullets. Tolera’s case was a typical example of hundreds of victims who were massacred that day and denied justice by the Ethiopian government. This led me to conclude that hundreds lost their lives that day – not from stampede but from live ammunitions. The stampede conspiracy is the highest deception from which history will never absolve Ethiopia’s current rulers.

Non-denial denial?

On April 18, 2017, the Ethiopian government tried to wash its bloody hands by releasing an ostentatious report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The commission’s chair Addisu Gebre Egziabher publicly blamed OPDO officials for the death at Irreecha, accusing them of failing to suspend the festival from taking place on October 2, 2016. He went on to tell the people of Ethiopia and the international community that during the year-long uprising, “protesters used guns and other firearms and the security forces had no other options except using force to stop the violence.”

That’s an utter nonsense. I was at the Irreecha festival that day. And festival attendees did not attempt to take guns from security forces as alleged. The protesters didn’t possess any weapon. If they did, my colleagues and I would have seen it.  In that context, I am living eyewitness to Addisu’s lies and fabrications.  Hiding the truth and denying the public proper information is not a new practice for the Ethiopian government. They are accustomed to lying.  They have lied to us for the last 25 years. I grew up hearing their fabrications most of my life. But Addisu tried to hide what the world had already accepted as unjust, immoral mass killings of Oromo at the hands of security forces. He tried to hold OPDO officials responsible for the atrocities rather than federal officials and the security forces they control. This tactic exonerates and excuses federal officials who were directly responsible for bringing the worst misery to the Oromo people.

The government of Ethiopia and its security officials must be held accountable for Irreecha Massacre for the following reasons:

  1. Government officials knowingly created confusion by denying the legitimate Abba Gadaa his proper role in leading the congregants in rituals. According to revered procedure, the current Abba Gadaa is considered Abba Malkaa. No one goes to the lakeshore before him. Holding back Abba Gadaa Bayana Sanbato was a sabotage carried out to override Oromo cultural practice and politicize the sacred Irreecha festival.
  2. The government allowed helicopters to occupy the air space, first to intimidate, terrify and destabilize the crowd and then to drop toxic tear gas, which caused panic and desperation leading to the tragic end of so many innocent lives that day.
  3. The security forces fired live ammunition at civilian congregants forcing the millions to run toward a ditch which caused panic and stampede.
  4. The camouflaged commandos in Oromo cultural dress shot at crowd and threw several bodies to the ground in the midst of the frantic escape attempts. This point is what the international community did not yet understand: It was these commandos that controlled access to the exits and thus forced people to run toward the ditch.
  5. The massacre was not a stampede, but it was an orchestrated, well-planned and coordinated act of revenge for the #OromoProtests uprising that had handicapped the state machinery.

In his October 8, 2016 report, Horne emphasized 1) the lack of credibility of government investigations into the brutal crackdown and 2) the scale of the crimes committed provide a compelling argument for the need for an independent, international investigation into those events and the events of October 2.

There are many witnesses who, like me, were present that day and can provide firsthand accounts from different vantage points.  Ethiopia’s international allies should be push for a thorough investigation into the Irreecha massacre.  

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About the author

Lammi Begna

Lammi Begna studied Chemical Engineering at Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, and is a human rights activist who spent several years in Ethiopian prisons for fighting against injustice to Oromo people. He authored a book called “Under a Gun Barrel.” After five years of incarceration he was released in 2013. He supported the Oromo uprising of 2016 and played an underground leading role. He has authored several articles about his experience with nonviolent popular uprisings. He fled to Norway in March 2017 and continues to live there in exile.

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