(OPride) ― ON Thursday, Oct. 26, Ethiopian security forces shot and killed at least 11 protesters and wounded 23 others in Ambo town, 120 kilometers west of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Ambo is no stranger to violence or expressions of dissent. The popular Oromo protests, by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, which culminated in the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency last October, started in this town in May 2014. Security forces killed dozens of protesters on its streets in 2014 and 2016 as the federal army took over the restive town to stamp out the protests.
Since the state of emergency was lifted in August, an eerie calm had prevailed in Ambo ― and in much of the restive Oromia region, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine-linguistic based federal states. But that semblance of calm ended abruptly on Thursday when the federal army returned.
Ambo is currently under siege. The U.S. embassy has expressed concerns and called on security forces to exercise restraint. However, outside of Ethiopia, the unfolding crisis has received scant media coverage.
On Oct. 27, BBC Afaan Oromo released a 30-second video from Thursday’s massacre in Ambo. The chilling video, which appears to be a collage of short clips from around Ambo, offers a raw evidence of the federal army’s indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of civilians.
Ten seconds into the video, soldiers are seen marching down an empty street. Suddenly, someone tells a soldier in clearly audible Amharic “Betisew (በጥሰው)!” which in this context means “fire” or “let it rip.” The order was immediately followed by a gunfire blast. The firing soldier appears to be given orders by a superior or colleague and follows as commanded.
The horrific monologue is as follows:
Speaker (presumably a commanding officer): Fire!
(Soldier fires a round.)
Speaker: Belew! (The Amharic word በለው loosely means “hit it!”, a clear order to fire again.)
(Soldier fires another round).
(Soldier fires multiple rounds).
Wails of an injured person can be heard at a distance. We hear more rounds being fired. The speaker resumes commands: Digemew! (ድገመው), which means, “shoot (do it) again!” More blasts go off.
The commander, the only person speaking intelligibly in the video, yells the final order: “Finish him off!” (ጨርሰው!). BBC bleeped out the next statement by the officer. However, OPride has confirmed that the speaker used profanity to insult the mother of the victim. Another round was fired and this one appears to have killed the victim, who can no longer be heard.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle’s Amharic service, the spokesperson for Ambo city administration, Gadissa Dasalegn, said the killers were “members of the Agazi (special) forces.” He maybe right. OPride consulted with several gun experts to determine the type of weapons heard in the aforementioned audio.
Experts believe it is the AK-103 assault rifle, which can hit a target up to half a kilometer away. A favorite of special forces, including the Indian Naval Commando forces and special force units in Iran and Russia, the rifle is not used by regular army units. Ethiopia apparently produces the weapon, which means that the lethal weapon used to kill protesters in Ambo may have been manufactured at the Gafat weapons plant, in Bishoftu, also in Oromia.
Clearly a trigger happy soldier with no qualms about firing into what appears to be an Ambo neighbourhood teeming with civilians. Horrific.
— Zecharias Zelalem (@ZekuZelalem) October 28, 2017
The video―verified by BBC Afaan Oromo―is the clearest evidence yet of the security forces use of live ammunition for crowd control. The audio is clear: The protesters were marked to die by the soldiers, who were given merciless orders to “finish off” even wounded civilians.
Tokkuma Kifle, director of the town’s main hospital, told the BBC that many of the dead were shot in the head and that two of the victims were women. A 13-year-old boy was also among those killed on the spot.
It is tragic that Ethiopian authorities deployed sharpshooting marksmen to take out civilians using lethal force in an effort to take back the streets of Ambo. The federal army has now taken control of the town―in a move reminiscent of the martial law-era command post―but tensions remain high although funeral processions were conducted on Friday without incident.
Ethiopia’s security forces operate with complete impunity. No one has been held accountable for the death of more than 1000 protesters from 2015-2016. The latest bout of violence in Ambo is even more revolting when one considers the reasons given for the military operation.
Soldiers were deployed after the youth blocked roads in and out of the town. Images of roads covered in boulders and branches were shared on social media on Monday while protesters chanted anti-government slogans.
According to the Addis-based Ethiopian Reporter, Ambo residents blocked the roads to protest sugar scarcity, its skyrocketing prices and stop alleged illegal transfer of hoarded sugar from a nearby factory to other areas.
A standoff with security forces seemed inevitable days before the military arrived in Ambo. But local elders and Oromia police held discussions with the youth as late as Monday to defuse tensions. Unfortunately, their progress was disrupted by the arrival of federal forces. As soon as they entered Ambo, some on foot because the roads were blocked, soldiers unleashed a hail of bullets on unarmed protesters. This happened despite ongoing discussions with youth protesters to address grievances and prevent further bloodshed for a town that has already seen so much of it. The escalation by the security forces was, by all accounts, reckless and unnecessary.
A beloved army?
Oromia state officials have denounced the violence and warned against further destabilization by rent-seekers trying to hijack their reform agenda. The federal government and the military are yet to comment on the incident.
The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation attempted to sugar-coat the army’s role, in a less than inconspicuous manner, a few days later. On Friday, the Army Chief of Staff, General Samora Yunis, appeared on the network singing praise for his foot soldiers, claiming that the army “is trusted and beloved by the people due to its work.”
However, the BBC video tells another story. Military officials are yet to release a statement of any kind explaining the conduct of their forces in Ambo last Thursday. Contrary to what General Samora told members of the Ethiopian Defense Forces at the gathering, it is clear that soldiers deployed in Ambo did not work in tandem with the people to prevent the tragic loss of life. They were there to kill. The question now is: Would the audio evidence of the heinous killings finally lead to accountability?