Worsening violence in western Ethiopia forcing civilians to flee

Tibebu Girma cannot risk it any longer. A farmer in the Qellem Wollega zone of Ethiopia’s Oromia region, the 30-year-old makes a living by cultivating maize and selling it in the markets of nearby villages. But a recent spate of deadly attacks targeting civilians of ethnic Amhara origin has convinced him it is time to pack up and leave with his wife and their infant son for somewhere safer.

“They don’t even spare the women and children,” Tibebu told Al Jazeera over the phone. “We aren’t safe here.”

At least 12 people, including a seven-year-old child, were hacked to death in two particularly brutal attacks on February 25 in the villages of Boka and Nechlu, in the eastern part of Oromia, multiple sources told Al Jazeera. Among the slain civilians were two of Tibebu’s uncles, Teshome Beyene and Tadesse Muluneh, who were farmers in the area.

“They won’t even let us heal,” said Tibebu. “There have been more killings in the same area this week.”

According to Ethiopian state media, 42 people were killed in two separate attacks on March 6 and March 9 that targeted Amhara civilians in Oromia’s Horo Guduru Welega zone.

Located about 200 kilometres (124 miles) west of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the Horo Guduru Welega zone is in an area populated by people who come from Ethiopia’s Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who, combined, form about two-thirds of the country’s population of 110 million.

Sayd Hassen lost his wife, Mulu Mekonnen, as well as three children and a niece, the latter four aged between 10 and 15. They were shot dead with at least 20 others when their village of Dachin Gefersa was attacked on March 9.

“My family experienced the worst of barbarities in an age where even animal rights are respected,” said Sayd, 56. “What crime did my children commit? Being Amhara cost them their lives.”

Sayd said the murderers ransacked the family home and made off with clothing, money and cattle. He is currently taking shelter at a school compound with hundreds of others who were also displaced by the attack.

“Living as a beggar somewhere safe would be better than staying here,” Sayd said. “My family’s murderers are still out there.”

‘Nobody stops them’

Victims blame the massacres on fighters belonging to the separatist Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

The OLA is the breakaway armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was founded in the 1970s to fight for the self-determination of ethnic Oromos. In 2018, promises of political reform by then-newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed saw the OLF decriminalised and permitted to join party politics. But negotiations with the armed wing eventually soured, and the OLA splintered from the political organisation and resumed fighting.

Ethiopian authorities blame them for kidnappings, assassinations of officials and other crimes across Oromia. The OLA deny that they are behind the killings of civilians and instead blame former rank and file who have defected from their group.

Images of the group’s fighters uploaded to social media typically show camouflage-clad youths with hair worn in dreadlocks. “They kill, steal, do as they please and nobody stops them,” the resident said.

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