tories of violence rippling through Ethiopia’s Wollega in Oromia Regional State read like scenes from a horror film, as told by those who narrowly escaped with their lives.
Rukia Ahmed, 26, now sheltering in a crowded internally displaced people (IDP) camp, in Debrebirhan town, Amhara Regional State, recounted a harrowing account.
“A family I knew well – when the killings began, the mother was home with her two small children, one an infant. The husband rushed home to retrieve them and ensure their safety. But when he arrived, all three, including the infant, had already been slaughtered. He was next in line – they killed him right there too,” Rukia said.
The camp is crowded with people evicted from Wollega and elsewhere. Everything she describes sounds like a horror film plot with complicated twists.
“After some time, a relative of the deceased became a hostage of the same perpetrators and had to pay 250,000 birr to be released,” she added.
Tales like this have become all too common for the displaced winding up in Debrebirhan town.
Wudie Fantaye, 52, left her village of Gida Kiramu in East Wollega Zone, Oromia Region after her life was torn apart – its havoc lingering. Her husband, a farmer who nurtured the rich land, and her first child were also killed in the violence that displaced them.
Crowded on a precarious street corner around Addis Ababa’s Arada Gyorgis, Wudie and her two children find themselves adrift amid the clouds of uncertainty. Wudie’s account is not an isolated tragedy but rather a shared narrative etched upon the faces of countless women and children forcibly displaced from their due to unrelenting violence.
“If one were to take a stroll through the city where IDPs have sought refuge, you can find countless similar stories,” Wudie remarked with a heavy heart.
Meanwhile, On the country’s northern frontier, when the Tigray Interim Administration declared a national day of mourning two months ago, Genet Bizuayeneh, a mother of three who had been displaced from Humera due to the northern war in 2020 and now resides in Tenbien, received the devastating news that her loved ones had perished in the conflict.
Genet was informed that her 15-year-old daughter had tragically lost her life in the war. “They informed me that she was among the countless casualties. I am utterly devastated. She was the older sister who used to help me after my husband passed away,” Genet explained, her voice filled with sorrow.
Hundreds of thousands of individuals, much like Genet, are now grappling with the profound grief of losing family members. The impact has reverberated throughout the entire region of Tigray, with hardly a family left untouched by the tragedy. As one observer noted, “it was distressingly common to hear of families losing two or even three children.”
Caught in collective agony, communities struggle to support each other. Genet says no one looks out for the other “because we are all mourning at the same time.”
Rukia, too, carries a poignant understanding that the cycle of violence shows no signs of abating. Inquisitive about the future that awaits people like her, she searches for glimmers of hope amidst the darkness.
This grim tapestry of ethnic conflicts, intricately interwoven with the struggles of scarce resources, complex land disputes, political marginalization, and a web of interconnected challenges, paints a harrowing portrait, casting a dark shadow over the nation.
Born and raised in the rich ancestral lands of Wollega, Rukia cherishes her heritage and deep-rooted connection to the region. However, the struggle for acceptance and belonging has plagued Rukia and others sharing her background within their own neighborhoods. Their mother tongue, Afan Oromo, did not help either. Tragically, the intolerance escalated beyond forcible eviction, but also resulting in the loss of precious lives.
“It had been a while since they started showing changes in their attitudes. They don’t usually interact with us and only reveal their true sentiments when under the influence of alcohol. They would drunkenly warn that our (those of Amhara descent) end is near,” Rukia said.
She says they initially dismissed it as the ramblings of inebriated individuals, but then, the unthinkable happened. “They began massacring countless people, from infants to the elderly,” Rukia recollects.
Even during their departure from their village, Rukia says they were subjected to a dehumanizing ordeal. “We were treatedhorribly. They were mocking us on how we would be received in Addis,” Rukia reveals, her voice tinged with pain.
The situation awaiting them in the capital was equally disheartening.
“We didn’t know where to go. We sought shelter in mosques, while Christian families sought refuge in churches. The streets near these places of worship became our temporary abode, as we endured three grueling months before the city administration forcefully displaced us once again.”
Forced to seek refuge in Debrebirhan, a town within the Amhara Regional State, Rukia and countless others found themselves amidst a sea of IDPs. Eviction from their rightful homes was just the beginning of their tribulations, as many were trapped in an environment that had transformed into a harrowing death camp for those of Amhara descent.
For the past two years, Rukia and her family have sought solace in a camp in Debrebirhan, their future shrouded in uncertainty. Haunting memories of massacred loved ones and the horrors endured cast a long shadow over their daily lives.
Their narrative embodies a tale of resilience in the face of sorrow, carried forth by an unwavering belief in the indomitable spirit of humanity. However, true justice demands more than mere survival; it necessitates the restoration of shattered dreams and the revival of the societal values that once bound a diverse community together.
Individuals like Genet, who have suffered the irreplaceable loss of family members or those like Rukia and Wudie, who have witnessed the brutal massacre of their fellow community members solely based on their ethnicity, continue to grapple with the intricate complexities and uncertainties of life.
Tragically, such heinous acts persist in various parts of Oromia, as evidenced by the recent tragedy in Aresi, where 36 innocent lives were senselessly taken.
As distressing stories continue to emerge, the government proposed a Transitional Justice Initiative last year becoming a focal point of discussion. However, opinions on this proposal vary widely.
While some view it as a mere buzzword intended to pacify the international community, others hold onto hope that transitional justice will genuinely address the sufferings endured by individuals like Genet, Wudie, and Rukia.
Born out of the need to rectify historical wrongs and forge a more peaceful future, the government introduced a green paper on transitional justice, in the wake of a peace agreement in Pretoria, South Africa that ended a two year war.
This comprehensive document explores a range of policy options, including judicial processes, prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking mechanisms, reconciliation efforts, amnesty considerations, and institutional reforms. Its aim is to promote accountability, justice, sustainable peace, and reconciliation in Ethiopian society, particularly in regions transitioning from conflict.
Led by the Ministry of Justice, a dedicated working group comprising 14 experts has conducted extensive nationwide public consultations since March 2023. The Ministry has committed to making the green paper available for public review, with post-policy public engagements planned for November 2023. However, it is important to note that these engagements will not involve any substantive debate.
Concerns have been raised by UN experts regarding Ethiopia’s approach to accountability. Critics claim Ethiopia is attempting to evade international scrutiny by establishing internal procedures purportedly aimed at combating impunity.
It is argued that this approach casts doubt on the effectiveness and integrity of the transitional justice process.
The government’s steadfast opposition to independent international inquiries into the crimes committed in Ethiopia has led many international actors to question whether the proposed policy alternatives document truly prioritizes accountability or if it leans more towards reconciliation and restorative justice.
The pursuit of transitional justice in Ethiopia has sparked both hope and skepticism as the nation confronts a history of violence and ethnic tensions.
Recent remarks by Beth Van Schaack, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, shed light on the prevailing doubts among Ethiopians regarding the government’s capacity to carry out an effective transitional justice process amidst ongoing cycles of violence and unrest.
Persistent cycles of violence, resource constraints, deepening ethnic divisions, a lack of institutional trust, and wavering political commitment all cast shadows of uncertainty over the feasibility of the transitional justice policy.
Adding to the complexity, the rejection of the federal government’s national transitional justice plan by representatives of the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA) further underscores the need for a tailored approach.
In their critique, the Interim Admin highlighted shortcomings in the plan’s mechanisms and its failure to account for the unique nature of the conflict in northern Ethiopia. In a letter, they demanded the rebuilding of the national transitional justice system before any implementation could commence.
Experts caution that implementing a genuine justice policy amid an ongoing crisis requires careful navigation. Drawing lessons from practical experiences in other countries, such as South Africa, Argentina, and Rwanda, provides valuable insights.
In South Africa, truth-seeking, forgiveness, limited amnesty in exchange for confessions, went through a judicial processes, playinga pivotal role in uncovering human rights abuses during apartheid. Similarly, Argentina utilized criminal prosecutions, vetting, and public awareness campaigns to hold perpetrators accountable through judicial means while removing human rights abusers from positions of power and educating the public about past injustices.
Rwanda’s comprehensive approach to addressing the devastating genocide provides another model for consideration.
The Rwanda Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), coupled with community-based restorative justice and the use of Gacaca community courts, worked in tandem to address the multifaceted aspects of the genocide, promoting healing and accountability at various levels.
The Khmer Rouge regime’s brutal reign in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 resulted in the loss of an estimated 1.7 million lives, nearly 25 percent of the population. In response, Cambodia established extraordinary chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) to hold both high-ranking leaders and lower-level perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
Drawing from diverse experiences across nations, it becomes apparent that each country has adopted distinctive models of transitional justice, tailored to their specific circumstances.
Ethiopia, too, stands at a critical juncture, grappling with the daunting task of addressing prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, reconciliation, amnesty, and institutional reforms. The complexity of these issues makes Ethiopia’s case uniquely challenging.
Yared Hailemariam, the executive director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defender Center, a seasoned human rights defender, expresses concerns about the current trajectory of reconciliation-oriented approaches.
While acknowledging the need for addressing other pressing issues, Yared believes that prioritizing reconciliation may not be the most effective course of action for a country like Ethiopia, which requires comprehensive transitional justice.
In contrast to the past focus on holding those responsible for the “red terror” during the Derg regime accountable, the current administration appears to be shifting towards a narrative of dialogue and reconciliation, raising questions about ensuring accountability.
Yared emphasizes that all parties involved in the conflicts, including the federal government, regional security forces, and entities such as the Tigray region and neighboring Eritrean government, require transitional justice in Ethiopia. Despite Ethiopian law not governing the actions of Eritrean forces, Yared asserts that accountability should extend to all relevant actors.
In the aftermath of the conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, international criminal tribunal systems were established alongside local-level tribunals to address the complexities of transitional justice. Rwanda, for instance, implemented community courts to handle low-level offenders, ensuring that justice was served at all levels.
Similarly, Ethiopia needs to establish robust, independent, and impartial institutions comprising community experts and scholars to form a transitional justice commission. This commission would systematically investigate human rights violations, facilitate dialogue, and promote reconciliation in a methodical and professional manner.
Regarding the ongoing conflicts in the country, Yared acknowledges the impracticality of carrying out transitional justice procedures while hostilities persist. However, he also notes that despite differing opinions among experts in the policy working group, on-the-ground investigations remain crucial for accountability and truth-seeking.
While the Ethiopian government may not be inclined towards an international tribunal, Yared says, the nation requires a comprehensive justice mechanisms to determine accountability, truth-seeking, prosecutions, reparations, and reconciliation.
Abadir Ibrahim (PhD), associate director of the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard University School of Law, stresses the necessity of an honest discussion about transitional justice and reconciliation in Ethiopia. He highlights the importance of acknowledging the harsh realities of the situation and recognizing that the country has been heading in the wrong direction.
“It should be noted that things have been getting worse overtime, some times quickly and other times slow,” he said. According to him, transitional justice cannot start when there is a conflict.
He believes transitional justice requires a context of transition or movement towards one. Without a transition from authoritarianism to democracy or from war to peace, it becomes challenging to initiate meaningful transitional justice processes, according to Abadir.
“In Ethiopia’s case, this goes beyond mere sequencing,” he said. With ongoing conflicts lacking a clear resolution, coupled with a deteriorating economy and security situation, Abadir believes that any discussion of transitional justice may be premature given the circumstances.
Abadir highlights that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has consistently rejected or disregarded the transitional justice proposal, suggesting that neither the parties to the Pretoria agreement nor other combatants in Ethiopia appear to be genuinely interested in transitional justice.
He says that the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) of the United Nations has definitively concluded that the government’s use of “transitional justice” is a ploy for “quasi-compliance” and that its efforts in this area are flawed.
According to him, this implies that the government is not holding itself accountable for its crimes or seeking justice but is rather using the process to appease critics and bypass demands for accountability.
He laments that, currently, both “the TPLF and the federal government show a lack of interest in transitional justice. Notably, even important political actors such as armed combatants and nonviolent opposition groups do not seem enthusiastic about pursuing transitional justice.”
Abadir argues that transitional justice cannot be achieved without lasting peace, as ongoing conflicts will perpetuate the cycle of violence. While establishing transitional justice will be extremely challenging, there may be a chance if a lasting peace is achieved, he says.
Ameha Mekonnen, the founding director of Lawyers for Human Rights, recognizes the inherent challenges in implementing transitional policies efficiently due to the complex nature of transitional justice.
He draws parallels with other countries, such as Rwanda and Myanmar, where transitional justice efforts continue years after conflicts have ended. Ameha emphasizes that transitional justice should not be seen as a one-time fix but as an ongoing and evolving process.
“Although a protracted conflict complicates the transitional justice process, we cannot discourage attempts to pursue it,” Ameha said.
As Ethiopia embarks on its journey towards transitional justice, important considerations remain. The timeline and specifics of the policy’s implementation are yet to be made public, raising concerns about its efficacy in addressing ongoing disputes, such as the Amhara-Oromia conflict.
Ameha suggests that incorporating political discourse as a means of resolving tensions could enhance the effectiveness of the policy.
The policy’s focus might primarily be on addressing accusations of unfairness raised by various parties, including historical administrations such as Emperor Menelik, Emperor Haileselassie I, the Derg, the EPRDF, and others.
Ameha, however, holds a different perspective on the role of international tribunals and procedures in holding human rights abusers accountable.
He argues that these external players often have their own agendas and may not necessarily provide the ideal solution for Ethiopia. Instead, he suggests the establishment of a separate, domestically-based organization that is more receptive and prepared to strive towards achieving justice collectively.
Amidst these discussions, the government is expected to release a draft of its transitional justice strategy soon. The successful implementation of this strategy will determine its ultimate goals, which include promoting accountability, upholding the rule of law, and fostering unity among Ethiopians.
Meanwhile, individual victims find themselves living in miserable conditions, facing hardships. “The last time we were supplied with 12 kilos of flour was on October 22,” Rukia said.
Rukia expressed her fear and distress as Amhara regional officials plan to relocate them back to Wollega, where they had previously experienced displacement and witnessed the massacre of their relatives.
“They told us we needed to return because the situation had improved and would only help us if we return,” she said, her voice filed with fear.
She questions how the situation would be any different this time around. She expressed her concern about the idea of returning to a place where they faced horrific experiences, stating: “When we return, we will still be of Amhara descent. How can we expect anything different,”?
Genet, living as a migrant in Tenbien, shares similar uncertainties about the future and fears for coexistence. She recalls the loss of her 15-year-old daughter and other young people in her neighborhood during the war, as well as hearing various horrifying stories of women being raped, underscoring the challenges faced by those seeking justice and reconciliation.
The constant fear of encountering armed individuals further terrifies Genet. “A man in a rangers clothing easily terrorizes me,” she said.
The atmosphere at a mourning ceremony in an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the US offers a glimpse into the dynamics surrounding coexistence. Instead of the expected tranquility found in a church, the scene witnessed at St. Kidanemihret Church in Denver, USA was quite different. People were singing songs with lyrics that seemingly encouraged further armed struggle and a sense of enmity, revealing the lingering unresolved issues within the community.
Within this intricate and somber context, the discussion surrounding transitional justice raises legitimate concerns about its practicality and effectiveness. The challenges faced on the ground highlight the need for a comprehensive approach that considers the unique dynamics of Ethiopia’s situation. As the nation navigates this complex path, it must strike a delicate balance between justice, reconciliation, and the realities of its challenging context.
Daniel Nigussie contributed to this article.