Are Oromos Singled Out and Disproportionately Tortured in Ethiopia?
|Image: Courtesy of TASSC International|
You may ask people in Oromia, what is the language most widely spoken in Ethiopia’s prisons? Who are the ethnic groups singled out and subjected to extreme torture in Ethiopia’s notorious torture facilities? The answers to both questions are Afan Oromo (the Oromo language), and the Oromo people respectively. People have pointed to this time and again to the point that torture and political imprisonments are almost becoming synonymous with one ethnicity in Ethiopia, the Oromo people.
Human Rights Watch just released a riveting account of torture in Maekelawi (comparable to Auschwitz of the Nazi era and Gitmo of the post-9/11 period). The conditions Oromo political prisoners, including school children, who have barely come of age, face in Maekelawi and Kaliti and other facilities of torture is similar to those faced by the Jewish community during the Holocaust. The comparison to Gitmo might be a little far-fetched since Oromo detainees are innocent and unarmed civilians who get thrown into torture prisons in most cases for no other valid reasons than their default belonging in a nationality group that is different, politicized and competing with the nationality group that controls the levers of power through totalitarian parties known as the Tigire Peoples Liberation Front/ The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front.
I often get asked by Faranjii sympathizers with the Oromo conditions questions such as: did anybody try to sneak cameras into prisons and expose the tortures? Did anyone interview survivors of torture and human rights abuses and archive the information? When it comes to the Oromos doing the work by themselves, the answer is a resounding NO, but luckily, one could point to the work of Oromia Support Group and The Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa for their specialty in putting specific ethno-national face to oft effaced torture in Oromia, Ethiopia.
You can add Human Rights Watch’s, “They Want a Confession”:Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station,” to the list of important reports. This is a response to the 76-pages report on the use of torture by the Ethiopian “government” to extract information from political detainees, the largest of whom happen to be from Oromo people. HRW obtained interview data from over 35 former Maekelawi detainees and their family members of which the most poignant ones are acts of torture perpetrated on two Oromo students:
1) B.G., an Oromo student who was detained for eight days in cell number 8 in mid-2011, described the cell:This cell is partitioned into four others. I was in 8.2 [numbered as such], so they can identify the prisoners. There were four rooms with four people.They were very dark and narrow. The cell was made up of stones with a door and window of metal, there are no holes, and it is totally dark. These cells were only for the people they want to hurt more. There is no space for two people in these cells. I could only sit down and I could not stretch out. There is no toilet—you use the cell as a toilet (HRW, 2013: 29).
Put yourself in B.G.’s shoes and imagine how hard it might be to be targeted with such extreme torture methods in a dark room, possibly for years. Add to that a complication that no one, not even Human Rights Watch bothers to ask or understand: who are these people who are being disproportionately tortured in Ethiopia’s prison? Who are those who are not and so forth?These are commonsense questions, but answers to them can be very revealing as the ethnicity of those being tortured in Ethiopia are effaced under general and dubious labels such as the one by Human Rights Watch above, which makes it appear as if all ethno-national groups are equally targeted with torture and mass atrocity. They are not–the historic and current ruling ethno-national groups are more or less spared the extreme tribulations the Oromo have to go through based on tramped-up charges.
Also, below is another interesting text relating to the patterns of torture against Oromo students:
 L.V., an Oromo student held in Maekelawi in 2012, said his hand was broken when he was beaten on his hand while being held in this position and that over a year later his hand continues to hurt: In the interrogation room there was small piece of metal on the wall. They put me on it and locked my left hand to the wall and then my legs didn’t touch the ground. They beat me on my left hand. I think I was there one
hour, but I don’t know as I lost my memory (HRW, 2013: 34)
These texts are just the tip of the iceberg about what happens in Maekalwi and other torture prisons since many Oromos who end up in Ethiopia’s torture prisons barely survive to tell the stories, as in the case of Tesfahun Chemeda and thousands of others who died from barbaric acts of torture inflicted up on them for purposes of extracting information and for many other reasons, including for terrorizing the victims and making them spectacles of violence to discourage other actually or potentially dissenting Oromos.
It’s not new or surprising that Ethiopia is party to many treaties and conventions on torture and human rights violations. What is surprising is the lack of will among the so-called international community to disinvest from Ethiopia or to enforce regional and international laws to end the kind of torture that singles out members of a single ethnic group.
Many more activists like Tesfahun Chemeda will be killed in prisons, many more school children like B.G. and L.V. are going to endure torture at Maekelawi or elsewhere, while foreign aid keeps flowing into the EPRDF regime’s coffer unabated, emboldening the torture nation of Africa, Ethiopia, to even torture more without accountability.
Reports can expose injustice and making headlines can make us happy temporarily, but as long as they are not followed-up by international or regional actions, they just raise our hopes and disappoint us more, but we still need them so the stories of those people who have paid heavy prices are not lost in vain. We wait hopefully for actions to follow words while also reinvigorating our will and ability to come forward and tell these crucial stories.