Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Atoma Boruu
It took me several minutes to begin this first sentence as my mind kept on running short of words to jot down what my eyes witnessed on Irreecha 2016, the annual Oromo Thanksgiving festival.
My colleagues and I went to Bishoftu, 45km south east of Addis Abeba, on Saturday, October 1st. We arrived there at noon; we went to record the festival for TV shows. It was a fascinating eve as there were several cultural shows on the street. Delegates from different zones of Oromia were displaying the cultural shows of their respective areas, carrying artifacts that reveal the Oromo.
The presence of the Abbaa Gadaas /elected elders/, Hadholii Siqqee/ Women/ and the youth accompanied by horsemen and the Oromia Marsh band made the eve of the biggest festival so colorful. The songs made by the youth were loud with lyrics containing resistance messages beautifully fitted into the traditional melody. The gestures they bring forth with the songs also speak louder. The eve brought lots of joy as we welcome five Oromo youths who travelled about 160 km from Ambo, west of Addis Abeba, all the way to Bishoftu on foot to attend the festival.
But as the sun began to set, the beautiful eve suddenly darkened when Oromia police started clearing the main road by dispersing the youth using gun shots in the air. The sound of gun shots echoed loud from different parts of the city throughout the night.
Sunday October 2 was the actual day of Irreecha. It took us minutes to adjust our equipment and go out to the main road from our hotel (Yelibe
Hotel) to start recording the special day. By the time we went out, the main road has already been filled with people in cultural costumes singing cultural songs mixed with strong anti-government messages. Their messages uniformly ended with words such as “Dinnee Dinnee Dinnee” meaning we refused; their hands were crossed above their heads making the famous X symbol of #OromoProtests. In my estimation the number of people present on this year’s Irreecha festival could reach close to five million and almost everyone was showing the X symbol all the way to Hora Arsadi, the lake where the main festival takes place.
Members of the Oromia police were everywhere; they were deployed all the way to the lake, but unlike other times they were very tolerant. They even kept quiet when the youth chanted strong anti-government slogans in front of their temporary camp around a place known as “circle”.
“Those who ran to save their lives from the teargas bombs and the gun shots pulled themselves and one another to the nearby 6 meters long ditch in front of the podium. The teargas bomb thrown at the mass increased the number of people running to the ditch not seeing what is in front of them; besides they were blinded by the heavy smoke from teargas.”
We started interviewing participants while waiting for the group of Abbaa Gadaas, who are in charge of leading the festival, to arrive. Here it is important to note that there were a group of fake or unelected Abbaa Gadaas organized by the government and led by ex-Abbaa Gadaa of Tulama, Nagasa Nagawo. Supported by the government this group has made it earlier to the Irreechaa podium. The real groups of Abbaa Gadaas, led by Abba Gadaa Beyene Sembetu, have warned against the presence of government officials to make statements on the festival. As I came to learn later on, the Abbaa Gadaas led by Nagasa Nagawo who travelled to the lake earlier that morning to bless and open the floor for government officials have faced strong opposition. It was what prompted the youth to take over the stage in protest. An iconic video released later on shows a young man chanting “Down Down Woyane” “Down Down TPLF”. The youth showed a fierce resistance which forced the unelected Abbaa Gadaas to quickly leave the
Despite growing protest however, everything was going peaceful as the Oromia Police showed unprecedented tolerance. Shortly afterwards the group of Abbaa Gadaas led by Beyene Sembetu, with whom we were travelling, has arrived on the podium. But the youth continued shouting and chanting protest slogans again for reasons I still don’t understand. My assumption is that the youth may have mistakenly thought government officials were back at the podium. They continued shouting and protesting and have tried to take over the stage again. The Oromia police have continued preventing them not to come to the stage.
After strong confrontations between the police and the youth all of a sudden few among the youth have started throwing stones and plastic bottles towards the stage, which forced the police on the stage to flee. But other members of the Oromia Police started firing teargas bombs and live ammunition into the air to disperse the protesting crowed. When they started firing, we on the stage shouted at them in order to stop them from firing at the people, but they targeted us and fired at us. The police who saw me shout turned his gun towards me. At that time I immediately jumped from the stage and ran into the nearby bush on the right side of the tribune. They threw a teargas bomb at the Abbaa Gadaas on the podium too, which caused most of them including Abbaa Gadaa Beyene Sembetu to faint.
Those who ran to save their lives from the teargas bombs and the gun shots pulled themselves and one another to the nearby 6 meters long ditch in front of the podium. The teargas bomb thrown at the mass increased the number of people running to the ditch not seeing what is in front of them; besides they were blinded by the heavy smoke from the teargas. Abbaa Gadaa Beyene, who ran to the bush where I and others were hiding, fainted immediately and we helped him regain his consciousness. I heard him speak he was forced to come to the scene, despite his initial refusal fearing the likelihood of this incident.
We started shouting and crying but a commander of the Oromia Police came and warned Abbaa Gadaa Beyene to shut up. When the yelling and the calls for help started coming out from inside the ditches, it attracted the attention of the police. They put down their fire arms and ran towards the ditch to help. I was following all the happenings from where I hid myself. By the time I reached at the ditches, hundreds have already lost their lives and many more were still trapped in the ditches, covered up by the soil. Many people, including members of the Oromia police, got into the ditch to help those trapped inside. We tied our scarves together and pulled many victims out. I myself pulled four people out but I could not confirm whether they were dead or alive.
The scene was horrific and unbearable. Many who lost their relatives and many others who saw belongings of their loved ones scattered on the field were crying and running towards the ditch. Having said this, I would like to make a few points clear from my personal account of events. First, although the police have fired live ammunitions I didn’t see anyone shot dead either by a bullet or a bomb thrown from a helicopter. All the deaths I witnessed were caused by the stampede, which was originally triggered by the firing gun shots and teargas that blindfolded the people and forced them to jump into the ditches.
Second, the fierce opposition by the youth against the unelected Abbaa Gadaas was absolutely peaceful and the reaction from the police was nonviolent. But the fact that the protest continued when the elected Abbaa Gadaas took to the stage indicates a dirty political game that the government played to discredit the elected Abbaa Gadaas. Logically, it has to be the stage of the unelected Abbaa Gadaas that should have faced resistance, and it did. My suspicion is that the stones thrown from the few individuals onto the stage when the elected Abbaa Gadaas took the stage were orchestrated by government supporters to help the government accuse the elected council of Abbaa Gadaas led by Beyene Sembetu and use the opportunity to outlaw the council. It is important to note that the elected council of Abbaa Gadaas has issued a statement prior to the event in which the council has strongly advised against the possible presence of government and party official to make political statements on the festival.
Third, the government in the first place should not have organized the unelected Abbaa Gadaas and should have heeded the call by the elected council of Abbaa Gadaas. If government representatives had refrained from turning the stage into a political capital, there would have been no violence at all. As such in one way or another, the government must be held accountable for all the deaths. Besides, even if stones and bottles were thrown by few protesters, the police should have abstained from firing live ammunition and teargas in the presence of a crowed of millions.
Lastly, both the government and opposition groups must stop trying to make political gains out of this horrific incident that resulted in the
massacre of our people. The opposition must stop creating fake stories and doing politics at the cost of the lives of innocent victims. The fact on the ground is more than enough to demand justice for those killed. The government must also stop blaming anti-peace elements for causing the destruction. Millions were clearly and peacefully protesting against the government; either all of them are anti-peace elements or there were no anti-peace elements at all. The government must therefore publicly take responsibility as all those killed jumping in to the ditches were blinded by a teargas bomb thrown at them by its security forces. Let’s not forget that attendants were rigorously searched by the thousands of security forces deployed at the event. It is not the first time that millions of Oromo come together to celebrate Irreechaa but such tragedy never happened before.
Death toll from Ireecha Massacre at Bishoftu reaches 678; likely to rise further