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Ethiopians flee to Kenya after military attacks

Sella Oneko | Andrew Wasike
March 15, 2018

Over 8,000 Ethiopians have crossed into neighboring Kenya to seek asylum after government troops killed at least nine civilians in the border town of Moyale, says the International Red Cross.

Ethiopian residents of Moyale, a town on the country's border with Kenya, gathering on the Kenyan side after deadly attacks
Ethiopian residents of Moyale, a town on the country's border with Kenya, gathering on the Kenyan side after deadly attacksImage: privat

The Kenyan part of Moyale town is staring at a possible humanitarian crisis. The town straddles the porous Ethiopian-Kenyan border, and the number of refugees fleeing a military operation in Ethiopia is rising by the hour. Education has been crippled in the Kenyan town as schools closed down to host the asylum seekers. Some people are nursing gunshot wounds and humanitarian agencies are calling for urgent assistance. 

Read also: Ethnic violence in Ethiopia leaves deep wounds

At Kenya's Moyale Hospital, doctors have been overwhelmed by the number of people seeking treatment for gunshot wounds. Public health officer Sacha Tacho describes the situation: "We have another very sick patient in the ward, with a bullet in the neck, the bullet is still in the neck and we cannot remove it here in Moyale." 

Solomon Gubo, the Deputy Governor of Moyale County, says that they are helping the refugees to settle in, but it is proving to be a challenge especially due to the heavy rains and insufficient humanitarian assistance. "There is no housing, there is no food; that is the challenge we are facing as of now," says Gubo.

Read also: Crisis in Ethiopia, land of the economic miracle

Addis ordered military operation 

Ethiopia frees prisoners

A military operation that started almost one week ago triggered the sudden influx of people from Ethiopia. The government in Addis Ababa had announced the deployment of soldiers to the Moyale area, saying that they were pursuing fighters of the Oromo Liberation Front, which the government has banned as a terrorist group.

According to the government-run Ethiopian News Agency, some soldiers then launched an attack based on a faulty intelligence report. The forces reportedly killed at least nine people and injured 12. The government has said it has now disarmed five of the officers involved and declared that they would face an investigation and military court.  

Government explanation 'not acceptable'

Speaking to DW earlier this week, Taye Dendea, spokesperson of the state-run Oromia Justice Bureau, condemned the government's actions. "After killing unarmed people in broad daylight, trying to argue that it happened due to wrong information is not acceptable," Dendea told DW.

"This is a premeditated crime and it is also a war crime against the people. Firing a machine gun at people in their house, daily laborers on the street, people trading in their shops and people eating at restaurant is totally unacceptable. This did not happen based on wrong information. Saying this itself is an insult to the people. Even some of them were told to kneel and were shot on the spot."

DW has confirmed that on Thursday Dendea was detained for questioning. 

People held vigils for people who died in the protests in 2016
Following the Oromo protests in 2016, people held vigils to remember protesters who had diedImage: Reuters/T. Negeri

Residents flee unexplained crackdown

Since the event, residents of the Ethiopian part of the town have been pouring into Kenya. On Thursday at least 100 people held protests against the Ethiopian government in the Kenyan part of the town.

Sam Gurale, who crossed over from Ethiopia, told the Red Cross what he experienced. "I was in my house when I heard loud gunshots, we ran towards the main road. We found dead bodies all over the road and they were not killed by bandits. It is the Ethiopian government that is killing us. So we ran for our lives."

Read also: US top diplomat says Ethiopia needs 'greater freedom'

"Our great problem is the military,” said Mache Gubo, another one of the refugees. "Because of the state of emergency, the government is becoming more authoritarian. How do we feel? No democracy, no rights, some of those killed are children, a 12-year-old boy, old people, and farmers, teachers, even a headmaster has been killed," he said.

Although there it are no clear details about what actually happened and who the the attack was aimed at, most of those who fled claim that they were innocent. "Those who were attacked by the military were ordinary business people. Some were selling khat (a plant-based stimulant drug native to the Horn of Africa that is legal in Ethiopia). Others were in their shops going about their businesses," said Mohammed Buru, who had also crossed the border.

Oromo crisis continues

The crisis in Ethiopia's largest region, Oromiya, has been going on for the past few years. Anti-government protests have rocked the region and a ten-month state of emergency was only lifted in August 2017. In February 2018 Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned and the state of emergency was reinstated.

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The main point of concern for the Oromo protesters is the issue of land, as the government has attempted to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, into the surrounding areas in accordance with its so-called Masterplan. "The 'Masterplan' was the trigger. But public grievances go back more than two decades," explains Merga Bula of DW's Amharic service. "The grievances include respect for human rights, equal employment opportunities at private institutions and government agencies, and democratic rights — the right to freedom of speech, the right to assembly. And the political space has been tightened since this government came to power."

At the start of the year, the government released thousands of detained protesters and political prisoners . Since the state of emergency was reinstated, hundreds of people have been detained once again.  

The area around Moyale has always had a strong military presence, but, as Bula explains, Moyale has not seen as many protests as other towns in Oromiya. The government crackdown and resulting humanitarian crisis could, however, make the town a new political hotspot.

"This problem is not only limited to Moyale town, but also other villages surrounding the town," admits Aschalew Yohanis, mayor of the Ethiopian part of Moyale town.

DW's Merga Bula also contributed to this report.