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In Ethiopia, when the shooting got closer

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

In the Amhara region, the eye of the storm, an Israeli witnesses deadly clashes that threaten to plunge the nation into chaos

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BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia: What does it feel like at ground zero of a popular uprising? For the past two decades, Ethiopia has been considered one of Africa’s success stories. Its rate of economic growth has been the measure of all things, even as a once-promising democracy has hardened into authoritarian party rule.

In recent days, Ethiopia has seen a stampede kill scores of protesterswhose deaths are blamed on security forces, spurring further clashes. On Monday, Israel issued an advisory to its citizens traveling to Ethiopia, the second of its kind in several weeks. The earlier warning came shortly after I returned from Ethiopia, where I found myself in the eye of the storm in the Amhara region in the country’s center. Towns there have been in open revolt against the federal government, which has sent in thousands of troops in an effort to regain control.

These eruptions — the latest in Oromia, southeast of Addis Ababa, and the unrest I encountered in Amharia in August — are fueling the east African nation’s worst conflagration since 1991, when rebels from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) took control in Addis Ababa, ending the rule of communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

During my visit in August, I found myself an incidental witness to the alchemy of transformation, the moment when political protests morph into violent insurrection. What happens in Ethiopia will reverberate across Africa — and with its deep cultural, political and economic ties to Israel, these worrying developments will resonate here as well.

The first sign that something was amiss was that the WiFi in my hotel in Addis Ababa wasn’t working. The demure young woman behind the counter gave me a meaningful look when I asked her whether there was somewhere else in the area I could find an internet connection. “Nowhere,” she said, with a bitter edge in her voice. I knew that the government strictly controlled internet access, sometimes turning it off when a protest was planned so as to neutralize the organizing power of Facebook and WhatsApp. “Is it the government?” I asked. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and lowered her voice. “They managed to stop the Oromo,” she said, referring to the most populous Ethiopian ethnicity, centered to the south and east of Addis Ababa where demonstrations had been quelled. “But the Amhara? Maybe not.”

I was due to fly the next day, together with a friend, Yehoshua Engelman, to Bahir Dar, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful cities and the capital of the Amhara region. I had first traveled to Ethiopia in the summer of 1990 when 25,000 Ethiopian Jews were waiting to move to Israel. It was love at first sight for me, and I had returned many times since then. For Yehoshua, who, like me, is an Israeli and a rabbi, it was the first time.

We’d come to Bahir Dar for sightseeing. But when we arrived, a crowd had already begun to gather, internet blackout or not. It all seemed spontaneous: A small group of young men could be seen walking nonchalantly towards the town’s central square from the south, a few more wandered in from the west; human droplets coalescing into a stream. By the time we caught up with the crowd, there were hundreds, and then thousands, and finally tens of thousands, walking towards a bridge on the northern outskirts of the town. Alongside the bridge was a large army camp, and rumor had it that trapped on the other side were activists from Gondar, an Amhara stronghold where five protestors had been killed several weeks before. The plan was for the Bahir Darians to meet the Gondar delegation and bring them back safely across the bridge.

A young man with a tuft of hair growing from his chin appointed himself our guide. His name was Mesfin, and he had graduated with a BA in Natural Resource Management from Bahir Dar University, but had been unable to find a job for more than a year “This protest is about three things,” he said, choosing his words with precision. “Identity, democracy and unfair distribution of resources. If you are not a member of the ruling party,” he lamented, “or at least part of their ethnic group —the Tigrayans — you can’t get any of the good jobs. That’s the identity part. And democracy? There is no democracy! The entire parliament is from one party! The army is controlled by the party! So are the big businesses. And now the government is taking land that was traditionally Amhara and making it part of Tigray.”

The pop, pop of gunfire could be heard from far away, muffled by the distance. As a river of us walked towards the bridge, a mighty stream was moving quickly in the opposite direction. “No good,” said a middle-aged man wearing a battered fedora who was walking fast, away from the bridge. He paused for moment. One finger pointing outwards, he hit his right hand cross-wise against his left wrist in a mime of a rifle aiming and shooting. We kept walking. The sound of gunfire subsided.

A quarter of an hour later, we saw a mass of people in the distance. Smoke rose from a building we could just make out on the right. And then, without warning, there were more gunshots, no longer remote, and hundreds of people stampeded past us, away from the shooting. We didn’t know it then, but dozens of demonstrators had been mortally wounded in that second flurry of gunfire.

Soldiers in combat fatigues rushed past us and disappeared, as demonstrators scattered and hid in the farmland on the side of the road. With the soldiers gone, the crowd reassembled, walking now towards town, chanting and singing ecstatically. A group of young men held a large rectangular flag above the crowd — three stripes, green, yellow, and red. “You see the flag,” Mesfin said. “It’s the old flag of Ethiopia, without the star in the middle, and the diagonal lines.” He explained that the ruling Tigrayan led coalition — the EPRDF — had altered the flag. “It’s supposed to symbolize Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity, but for us it represents Ethiopia disintegrating into chaos.”

The EPRDF had federalized the country by creating ethnic states. Ostensibly, this was in order to give more autonomy to the different tribes and languages that form Ethiopia’s rich ethnic mosaic. Unlike the Amhara, who had imposed their culture, language and rule on Ethiopia’s tribes, the Tigrayans would recognize and affirm the myriad ethnic identities within the country. But the EPRDF had installed their loyalists in the local government of each state. The widespread perception was that the government favored Tigrayans in terms of jobs, development projects, and business opportunities. Federalization, combined with lack of democracy, had inflamed ethnic tensions. “The flag means we want the old Ethiopia back again,” Mesfin added, “before the government divided and conquered us.”

The crowd thickened and swirled — an eddy in the human river — in front of a government building guarded by soldiers. “Laiba, laiba,” — thieves, thieves — the crowd taunted the soldiers. Teenagers in the crowd began to throw stones at a billboard with a message from the government, tearing craters in the board, and suddenly there was shooting, and the smell of teargas in the air. The crowd dispersed, and we ran too, into a maze of dirt-paved alleyways and finally into another large street. A cloud of smoke rose from a tear-gas grenade; we tried to avoid it, but our eyes burned and our lungs felt scorched. It’s Mesfin’s first experience with tear gas. “Will this do permanent damage to my lungs?” he asks, his voice quivering with apprehension.

People were huddling behind locked doors and shuttered windows, but we found a café whose door is a crack open; when we approach, the owner pulled us in. Seven or eight men and women were sitting around the large room, trapped by the soldiers and the shooting.

“How many demonstrators were killed?” we asked. For the rest of our time in Bahir Dar, this is the question everyone asks each other; nobody really knows the answer. Everyone ventures a number — 28, or 40, or 60 — but qualifies what they say with “This is what I heard,” or “A friend saw 20 bodies in just one hospital.”

“Where are you from?” we are queried. We are Israeli”, we answered. And the classic response in the Ethiopian highlands: “Israel, oh, we love Israel. You are our zemat, our family.” Bahir Dar is close to some of the villages from which thousands of Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity by missionaries 100 years ago, emigrated to Israel. Thousands more are still in Gondar, hoping their turn for aliyah will come. That’s why we are not surprised when one of the women says to us: “Do you know Hadera? My cousin is in Hadera.”

A man of about forty, wearing dress pants and a pink shirt, completes the inevitable pattern of Ethiopian conversation with an Israeli: “You are Christian, right?”

“No, we are Yahudi, Jews.”

“But you believe in Jesus Christ?” comes next, said in a hopeful tone.

Yehoshua, the kinder of us two, says “We believe he was a very great sage and prophet.” I don’t like his answer. This is no time for sugar-coating. “Our prophets tell us that when the messiah comes, there will be no more war. No more this.” I gesture outside, to the empty streets where the soldiers are hunting for the young men throwing stones and burning tires as roadblocks. “You don’t believe he is the Son of God?”

“The Bible says we are all the children of God,” I answer. The man nods, he likes the sentiment, but still looks at us with pity, which I interpret to mean, “Poor fools, without Jesus how can they know salvation?”

And yet, in Ethiopia to be an Israeli is to partake in mythic history. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians see themselves as descendants of Solomon and Sheba, and believe that their church possesses the Ark of the Covenant. For the Amhara, Israel connects back to the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie and the other Solomonic Kings, the Greater Ethiopia they long for. Sometimes their memory fails them. “There has been no democracy here for the past 25 years!” a young man of about 23 tells me, as if before that there was democracy. “Are you joking? I ask him? Do you know what it was like under Mengistu Haile Mariam?” I say, referring to the last Amharic President (for Life) whose reign of terror makes the EPRDF look gentle in comparison. The young man stares at me, blank-faced. Mengistu is ancient history, already forgiven and sentimentalized.

Yehoshua and I venture back onto the streets. A team of soldiers is patrolling. Young men are throwing stones. The soldiers run after them; the boys disappear into the alleyways. I want to film the soldiers, but I am scared; our whiteness protects us as long as we stay out of the soldiers’ way, but “aiming” the camera, “shooting” film in order to show the world — these are military metaphors for a reason. Filming is a hostile act. It’s impossible to get a clear, steady shot with my Samsung J5 without exposing myself to the possibility of a soldier’s gaze. It’s impossible to know how the soldiers will react. Their fingers already at the triggers, they could shoot reflexively, without thinking — a mistake they might regret, but I would already be dead. I hide behind a tree, but a soldier sees me, and gesticulates wildly — he’s coming to grab the camera. A split second before he reaches me, a boy bursts out of an alleyway, with a soldier in hot pursuit; my soldier joins the chase, my camera is saved. The boy is caught: they are beating him on his head with a wooden baton, he tries to break away, but he lurches and stumbles as if drunk, the soldiers catch him and beat him again.

Yehoshua, tall and bearded, has been calmer than me throughout. I am unsure whether this is because he is more spiritually advanced or more foolhardy. Yehoshua walks over to the soldiers and chides them in his upper class British accent: “Why are you doing this?” he says as they beat the boy over the head. “You must stop doing this.” They continue as if he was not there. “Yehoshua,” I say. “Let’s get out of here!”

We walk past a church; it’s packed with mourners who are wailing and dancing in the ecstatic manner of Ethiopian funereal customs; a father holds up photographs of his son, slain that day in the demonstrations. A woman tugs at my shirtsleeve: “This will not end,” she tells me. “They have gone too far.” A man chimes in: “Please, tell the world what is happening. We are being slaughtered.”

I can’t help but think about my homeland. In Israeli politics, I’m center-left. I’m against the occupation, but I don’t believe the situation is Israel’s fault, at least not exclusively. And Israeli soldiers have never fired wholesale into crowds of demonstrators, killing dozens at a time, as Ethiopian troops have. But seeing the soldiers patrolling the shuttered, burning streets, an alien presence hunting stone-throwing boys, their body language as tense as a cocked rifle, I can’t help but think of our own soldiers and the Palestinians. History matters, but it also doesn’t; I know that the Amhara were as bad as or worse than the Tigrayans are now when they controlled Ethiopia. I know the Palestinians have rejected peace on numerous occasions, that the withdrawal from Gaza empowered Hamas. But I also understand: soldiers in neighborhoods where people oppose their presence is a recipe for disaster; the power of the present eclipses historical truth.

And I also think: this is Africa, and nobody cares how many protesters the dictatorial government kills. Not the UN, not the State Department, not Black Lives Matter, and not CNN. At least 50 people were killed in Bahir Dar during the day of protest I describe. Amnesty International estimates that, so far this year 700 people have died in such protests across Ethiopia. Yet until Olympic marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo, crossed the finish line with arms raised in a gesture of protest against his government, the violence in Ethiopia stayed below the radar of nearly all news organizations with the notable exception of Al Jazeera.

“If the general strike continues another day or two, there will be a big explosion,” a dreadlocked young man tells me in the evening. He had gone to the demonstrations with a friend; the friend had been shot to death. “There are a lot of people in this town who are day laborers. They only have money for food if they worked that day. If the protests continue, they’ll start to be desperately hungry; most of them would rather die in a protest than be consumed by hunger. The majority of Ethiopians have not enjoyed the fruits of the country’s economic growth, and anger at the EPRDF government is fueled by the undeniable linkage between economic opportunity and loyalty to the regime. The blend of capitalism and autocratic favoritism is a rich stew nourishing poverty and fury.

It appears that the woman at the funeral was at least partly right: the regime went too –far. The shootings have produced a critical mass of anger and desperation. Since that day in Bahir Dar, in cities and towns across the Amhara region, the population has chased the local administration out of town and installed their own mayors and councils. The homes of officials associated with the government have been set on fire. Flower farms run by foreigners from Holland, Israel, Belgium, Italy and India have been overrun by mobs, their greenhouses ransacked. Thousands of soldiers have been deployed to the Amhara region, but it’s unclear which side the local police will take. The Amhara and the Oromo, where hundreds have also been killed in demonstrations, comprise 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population; the Tigrayans are only six percent. Film of the latest demonstrations, broadcast by opposition groups, show men with rifles shooting into the air — this is a sea-change from Bahir Dar, where the demonstrators were unarmed. Now, six weeks or so later, with dozens more dead and reports of soldiers killed and captured, protestors and the regime seem to be at an eerie stalemate, with the next outbreak of violence sure to come soon. Meanwhile, in Israel last week hundreds of Ethiopian-Israelis demonstrated in front of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, asking for US intervention against the Ethiopian regime’s killing of protestors in the Amhara and Oromo region. Similar demonstrations in front of Ethiopian embassies took place in Washington and Ottowa.

There was an ecstatic element in the protests I witnessed in Bahir Dar, and an ecstasy as well in the anguish of mourning, and a feeling of purpose that at a certain moment becomes contagious. Only two weeks before we arrived in Bahir Dar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had returned from a triumphant visit to four African countries, including Ethiopia, where he had been lionized with the pomp usually reserved for leaders of superpowers. Israeli businessmen are bullish on Africa: Netanyahu spoke of investments in agriculture as well as cooperation on security. Ethiopia has been a partner in containing the spread of Islamic militants in East Africa, But “security” means training and sometimes arming police and soldiers whose primary function is keeping autocratic regimes in power.

In May 1991 I was in Addis Ababa after the Tigrayan rebels had surrounded the city but before they had entered. The soldiers of the Mengistu regime had raided the army storehouses and were selling everything from rifles to army boots on the street. I had just finished my basic training as an immigrant with the Israeli army, and saw some ex-soldiers selling army boots that looked strikingly similar to the boots we were issued in the IDF. For two dollars, I had a new pair of boots. Only much later did I turn the boots around and see the Hebrew insignia stamped in rubber on the sole: “Israel Defense Forces” — evidence of at least the most basic level of military aid that Israel had provided the reviled Mengistu regime.

If Israel wishes to have boots on the ground in Africa, the protests in Ethiopia should give pause. Security cooperation with dictatorial regimes must be considered carefully, even from a real-politic, if not an ethical, perspective. Without democratization, without policies that put the poorest people first, Africa will continue to slowly, inexorably, explode.


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