THE Voice of America (VOA) Amharic Service, on its October 21 special program, reports the killing of over 540 people, mostly from the Amhara ethnic group, in a conflict with the Mezenger people in the Gambella region of Western Ethiopia.
The gruesome massacre that started in the town of Meti, Godere zone on September 10th was a direct consequence of the ill-fated land grab policy of the Ethiopian government.
According to the VOA, the under reported massacre specifically started when government started to forcefully evict Mezenger people from their ancestral land in order to give it away to a recently retired TPLF Generals for “investment” purposes and the illegal campaign of selling lands that ensued following the arrival of hundreds of ‘Tirgrayans‘ as ‘workers‘ to the TPLF ‘investors‘.
The VOA report and the below ESAT interview with one representative of the Mezenger people and former member of the Cabinet of the Gambella Regional Government will help you understand how the land grab policy in that part of the region and the selective favoritism by the government towards ethnic Tigrayans resulted to the death of more than 500 hundred ethnic Amhara and Mezengers.
As expected, the main stream media and right groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch turned a deaf ear to the extraordinary massacre of Ethiopians by the regime.
ESAT Exclusive Interview on the Gambella, Mezenger Zone Killing
ESAT: Esteemed listeners and readers, we present an interview with Ato Benyam Bekele, who was a member of the Federation Council representing the Mezenger people and a member of the Cabinet of the Gambella Regional Government to discuss the conflict in the area and the killings that started on September 10, 2014 in the Gambella Region, Mezenger Zone Godere Woreda, in the town of Meti. Ato Benyam Bekele please start by introducing yourself and explaining to our listeners the origin of the conflict.
Benyam Bekele: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. As you mentioned, my name is Benyam Bekele Baldi. When I was in Ethiopia, I served for two terms as a member of the Federation Council, representing the Mezenger People. I have served in the Gambella Regional Government Bureau of Education, Bureau of Trade, and Bureau of Labor and Social Affairs as well as in various Zones and Woreda offices of the region for eight years. Reports we have received from people in the area indicates that the problem created in Godere, Mezenger Zone is related to land. The problem is acute especially in a place called Yere, where former TPLF( Woyane) cadres and Generals as well as people from the Northern regions (Highlanders) have conducted a campaign to illegally purchase land and invest in the area. Incidentally, two months ago, there was a clash between the Mezenger and the Highlanders (workers brought in by investors) resulting in two Mezegners being hacked to death by machete. The Mezenger retaliated and some Highlanders died as a result. This is the genesis of the conflict that eventually lead to the problem in Meti from what I have heard and that is my assessment.
ESAT: Ato Benyam, why were the two Mezengers killed two months ago?
Benyam Bekele: From what I have heard these people did not acquire the land legally. Some people told me that the Mezenger told them either “let us share the land or leave the land.” I have also heard from people on the ground that the two people were working somewhere and were owed money. When they asked for their money, the person said how dare you ask me for money. It was in the ensuing exchange that the two people were hacked to death with a machete
ESAT: Who were the killers? Have they been apprehended and brought to justice?
Benyam Bekele: After the two people were killed, there was retaliation against people on the other side. What I have heard is that the regional government asked the federal police and the defense forces to help mediate. These authorities deliberately avoided conducting any investigation. In the mean time, the conflict erupted at Meti. The flash
point was the lack of any action by the police to investigate what happened and bring the killers from both sides to justice. The failure of the police to do their job contributed to the problem that occurred later on in Meti.
ESAT: What was the incident that sparked the clash on September 10, after a two months cessation of hostilities?
Benyam Bekele: From what my sources are telling me there was no particular reason. But the lack of investigation and the failure of the police and defense forces to bring the killers to justice gave rise to public anger. The police were bribed by the highlanders into silence not to conduct the investigation and consequently the police sided with the highlanders and participated in the ensuing killings. In the old days, it was the duty of the police to prevent crimes, or to mediate when such problem occurred. The government should have taken corrective measures to avoid further trouble, but it deliberately failed to do so.
ESAT: How many Mezengers and how many Highlanders and other people were killed based on your sources?
Benyam Bekele: I don’t have information on the number of Highlanders killed. Initially I heard that 16 Mezengers and 2 Anuaks were killed. However since there were many wounded people and some of them have died the death toll has reached 36. Among these, the majority were women and children. Tsegaye Getahun, a native Mezenger and High Court judge, was murdered with his wife and two children, ages2 and 5. Most of those who were killed on that day were women and children. Their property was looted and their house burnt to the ground. Everything was destroyed by the federal police and the defense forces, together with the vigilantes.
ESAT: Ato Benyam, did you say the Judge of the Zone’s High court, was killed?
Beynam Bekele: Yes, he and his family were some of the victims of that night.
ESAT: Was the killing of the Judge by mistake, or was it intentional? Which side was he from?
Benyam Bekele: No, it was not by mistake, it was intentional. The man was from the Mezenger side, they knew that. If I were in one of the houses myself, they would have killed me because I am on the Mezenger side. Therefore, it was intentional, because he was a Mezenger. They shot him and his family, and hacked them with machete. It was a deliberate killing, it was intentional targeting because he was a Mezenger,
ESAT: Did you say he was killed with his two children?
Benyam Bekele: Yes, he was killed with his wife and their two children.
ESAT: So that means 4 people from one family were killed?
Benyam Bekele: Yes.
ESAT: Are there other households like Ato Tsegaye’s whose family was targeted?
Benyam Bekele: Yes, there was for instance, a man named Desalegn, a native Mezenger who was killed along with his wife and two brothers. I can send you a list of names in a document in the future. It is really difficult because it includes children.
ESAT: Has any effort been made to expose these crimes in the Gambella region where in a single family- two to three people including children and women are being killed to international human rights organizations to investigate these cases?
Benyam Bekele: Some young people who sent me pictures that they took with their cell phone cameras, are being sought by the police even for that. But I am getting some better pictures. I will put them on a file to send to Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and other organizations outside the country. In Ethiopia, if you speak up, they will throw you in jail. You cannot speak up inside Ethiopia. So, I am putting together the files to present them to organizations outside the country.
ESAT: Ato Benyam, there is something confusing here. Ato Tsegaye Getahun was working with the government. He was appointed to be President of the Court, which means to some extent, he was close to the government. How is it then that this person could be a victim of government forces? Is there something different?
Benyam Bekele: My brother, in Gambella, it doesn’t matter if you are a government officer, president, etc. When such kind of disturbances occur they just need numbers. It is just numbers. Whether you are president, government official, child, or woman, those people just need numbers. Therefore, don’t say this man is a government official, how can government forces kill him. There is no such distinction not only in Gambella, but in all of Ethiopia. So the idea that this man is a government man, he is part of the government so he should not be killed, does not work in the place. All they need is numbers- since he is a Mezenger, he must be killed. At that time, if they found Haile Mariam, the Prime Minister, they will kill him. They will not say he is part of the government, etc. So this is what is happening in Ethiopia. Something that was not there in the old days, it is very confusing, not only for you, but for all of us.
ESAT: Are you saying government security forces; federal police and defense forces, are attacking peaceful civilians that are Mezengers? On the other hand, according to some information we received, the incident started when the Mezengers attacked the Highlanders to force them to leave the area.
Benyam Bekele: I told you what happened earlier two months ago.
ESAT: What you are saying is two months ago, two Mezengers were killed. The Mezengers retaliated, and after a two month hiatus, the conflict erupted again. But, what we are hearing from other sources is that the Mezenger asked the people from the Highland to move out of Gambella and the Mezenger region.
Benyam Bekele: I don’t have that information. It might surprise you to know that, among the people of Ethiopia, the Mezengers are the least politicized. They are very well meaning people. In fact the most peaceful people in Ethiopia are the Mezengers. Outside of Ethiopia, I have checked in Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda and this ethnic group is not present in any other country- it is present only in Ethiopia. So from earlier times, they don’t fight with people, it is only after EPRDF came to power, the killings started to happen. These things saying “leave, leave” came from the jungle. To exploit the situation politically, they say the Mezenger have said “get out”- where are these people supposed to go? The Mezenger know these people have nowhere to go. If someone said it, then let’s find out who said it and bring them to justice. As you know, the constitution, their (TPLF) constitution says a person has the right to live anywhere in Ethiopia. Therefore, if someone said those words (leave, leave), bring that person to justice. It is because this was done for political reasons that they are saying the Mezengers said this and that. That day, I have asked the Mezengers what they did. They said we did not do anything. What we know is the problem is in the forest. That day, on September 10, nothing was said because federal police was at the place. While the police are present, they don’t say anything, that’s my thought.
ESAT: Are you saying there is no problem between the Highlanders and the Mezengers?
Benyam Bekele: There is no problem between the Highlanders and the Mezenger. The only problem is with the land in Geri. Other than that, there is no problem with the Highlanders.
ESAT: Regarding the land, as you have mentioned earlier, those on the land are TPLF military generals who left the army through retirement and other ways. But other Highlanders, who live with the Mezengers, and Anuak, facing the same problems, why are they included in this? If the problem is with TPLF generals, why wasn’t the problem confined to them?
Benyam Bekele: Local residents do not have any problem with each other. There are people who are imprisoned in Addis Ababa, highland farmers who were imprisoned because they said investors should not be allowed to take land illegally. So there is no problem with local residents there. If there was a problem a committee would have been formed to resolve the problem. They know this is not the first time. A similar problem has occurred previously around Bedesi. Since this is similar to that, they can settle it through the elders committee. They will be able to identify whoever is at fault as long as he does not move away, they will find him and the elders working carefully will find out who was at fault and resolve the conflict. So, the Mezenger people do not have problems with other highlanders. The problem is with the defense forces, the federal police, TPLF ( woyane) generals, the cadres and people who came from the central regions to grab land claiming they bought it and have invested in it.. Even with those who came from the central regions, if they need land the Mezenger can share and live with them that is not a problem. There is no law preventing people from coming. If you ask the residents they know this. A long time ago, people came from the North to our area ( Amharas and Oromos). Once they came here, they settled down, built houses, accumulated property, bought cars, cultivated coffee and formed integrated families. The people have intermingled; you cannot distinguish the Oromos from the Amharas. The wife is Oromo, the husband is Amhara, one spouse maybe a Southerner while another is Mezenger. The people are intermarried they are just Ethiopians who live in peace and unity. Together they have built such a pleasant culture. It is the TPLF that came between them creating chaos, conflict and killings.
ESAT: Ato Benyam, did people from the central regions live in Gambella during the previous Imperial as well as Military regimes or did they start coming under TPLF rule?
Benyam Bekele: No, No. During the Militray/Dergue era and during the Emperor’s time, people used to come here, for hunting for trade etc. For instance, in our area there is a mountain named Gurra Farda. An Oromo went hunting with a Mezenger. During their trip they came to see this mountain that resembled two horns and named it Gurra Farda. It means “donkey’s ears” in Oromo language and the name Gurra Farda is still in use today. People who came for hunting or trading settled here and they have been living in the area for a long time. During the Military/ Dergu era a resettlement program was instituted. The people who came to Gambella in 1984 (1977 Ethiopian Calendar), other than some initial problems around Gambella and Abobo, even now those people in Abobo still live there. In Meti, those who came during the Dergue era are still there, and have established themselves as longtime residents. The trouble makers are the new comers under this regime. They brought politics that is new to the area and created conflict among the people. Those who came to work and earn a living are busy with their work. The problem started when the TPLF cadres came looking for land. Otherwise the people, during Haileselassie’s and Dergue’s time have lived together peacefully. For those who were born and raised here, it is their birth place They even speak the language; they speak Anuak in Gambella and Mezenger in our area. There are Highlander teachers who speak Mezenger since it’s required by the law that they teach school in our language. So if they have assimilated to the point of learning the language and teaching us in our language what is the problem?
ESAT: Ato Benyam, so you are saying since the time of the Emperor, through the Dergue era, people from the central regions has lived in Gambella. During the previous regimes, there was no such conflict, people lived peacefully. Even now, you stated the problem started only with the coming of the cadres and military people from the central regions.
Benyam Bekele: Yes.
ESAT: Ato Benyam, thank you very much. As you have told us more than 36 people have died, and the information we have indicates the Mezengers are fleeing and are taking shelter in Churches. The highlanders are also fleeing to the Southern Regional State and Oromia State. At this time how many people have taken shelter in Churches?
Benyam Bekele: Estimates are between 300-400 people. But most have run into the bushes. Entire Kebele residents- Kimi and Gosh- have fled into the forest. It’s the rainy season as you know and those who have fled to the lower areas have fared better, because there are other Kebeles around where they can get food and shelter. But those who fled to the city; they have no food, there is nothing. Recently they were given the dry biscuits of the defense forces, I do not know where it came from, but that is what they are eating. Those who went South have become a burden, since a large number of people have made their way to Tepi and are crowded in one place. I have heard that there is an old Air strip and people have camped there in the rain. The big issue is that most of these people are farmers and right now it is coffee picking season, as well as harvest time for corn and maize. Therefore, it is a very precarious situation. It is true that officials from the Regional Government have gone there, we will find out in the future what they have failed to do to. If possible the Regional Government should facilitate the return of all those who fled from both sides. To initiate peace, they need to urgently form a committee composed of elders from both sides. The people who fled did not come back, The Mezengers did not come back and they are fleeing in one direction while the Highlanders are also fleeing in the other direction. Those who are left behind are the elements creating the conflict. The TPLF police is there, the defense forces are increasing in number with troops being added from Mekelle. The Mezash army is coming. If the Mezash army comes and massacres the people there will be no solution. The solution is not more killing, the solution is to include the farmers; there are Highlander farmers who have lived 10, 30, 40 years and some who were born there. A committee that includes both sides need to be formed immediately to find ways to facilitate peace and both sides need to return to their homes. Everyone wants peace and the main task of the committee should be to reconcile the two sides. But, TPLF does not want peace. What they want is to massacre and commit genocide against all Mezenger in order to take their land. That is their aim and this aim has to be abandoned. I know they are listening to this interview and I urge them to abandon this position. The forest does not belong to Mezenger’s or Highlanders only. It belongs to both. I believe that if a committee is formed from both sides, peace can prevail quickly.
ESAT: On behalf of our viewers and listeners I want to thank Ato Benyam Bekele, a native of the area for the extensive interview you gave us today. I understand you have worked closely with the regime in power, you have agreed to give us a follow up interview, including on ESAT TV in the future on the general situation in Gambella region based on your knowledge and experience.