Opinion: Remembering Irrechaa Massacre
By Worku Gadissa
September 30, 2020
On October, 2, 2016 the TPLF regime opened fire indiscriminately on crowds celebrating Irrecha and killing at least 700 people. After watching in horror the Bishoftu tragedy, countless things have been said and written about the barbaric massacre of innocent people. From the Government’s perspective, this wanton killing is full of lies and deceptions. Many do not know the full story that the ruthless mass killing was pre-planned and the ultimate goal was to crush the New Oromo Revolution. I want to briefly try to describe the way things were at the time of the incident and also raise some basic questions.
Why did it happen? Who is to blame? Is Irrecha really a primitive pagan worship? Is the massacre the result of sinfulness and an act of God’s punishment?
To better understand Irrecha and illustrate the atrocities committed by the TPLF terror regime, let us take a brief look at the following four points:
- What is Irrecha?
- The Open Trench [“gedel”]
- The Misunderstanding of Irrecha
- The New Direction
What is Irrecha?
First of all I want to give a valid explanation that Irrecha is not a primitive pagan worship as some misguided and self- righteous church guys used to say. Every nation has a set of cultural belief and the Oromo people for centuries have built up wisdom, tradition, habits and religious beliefs related to the ‘Gadaa system’. Irrecha is a cultural heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation and usually takes place sometime at the end of September. Looking back in history, one of the biggest Irrecha celebration was once held at Akaki Beseka in Sheger. While the Akaki festival shrined, the Bishoftu Horra began to expand and became the key venue for Irrecha festival. Irrecha has no elaborate rituals and sacrificial ceremonies other than holding green grasses and flowers in hands and bow or kneel down in prayer expressing love and devotion to Wakaa/ God. Irrecha is not just a religious nor cultural event. It is a combination of both. But, in the last two decades, Irrecha has changed a lot taking a form of political manifestation angering and troubling the Tigrean regime.
The popular Oromo rebellion and uprising began in Nov. 2015 against continued social, political and economic marginalization by the Tigrean led fascist government. What makes last year’s different from previous years was that people were out in massive numbers to show their grievances against the TPLF yoke of oppression.
Every year, towards the end of the month of September, when the landscape is covered with golden yellow flowers “abaabo” people meet along the banks of rivers for Irrecha festival. The three months rainy and gloomy season turns to spring and the smell of flowers in the air changes the mood of everybody that brings happiness.
Among all the wonderful things is the colorful traditional Oromo customs, songs and the hymns “yaa maaree’oo” that gives feelings of joy and beauty of Irrecha.
The Open Trench
There is confusion about the trench where the stampede took place. The Woyane media and Haile Mariam Desalegne used the Amharic word “gedel” synonymous with a cliff or gorge. The dictionary meanings for a cliff or gorge has a high steep face of a rock or a deep narrow valley between hills or mountains. Lake Horaa is surrounded by hills and full of many cliffs and deep gorges. However, the main event took place at the wide main entry road and the dusty plain behind the lake and there is no gorge “gedel”. Imagine the horror of the people trying desperately to get out of the ditch. I want you to think for a moment of the agonizing TV pictures of those who fell into the trench. There was no cliff or gorge “gedel” at the scene!
I completed four years of high school in Bishoftu and I am familiar with Lake Horaa which is less than a mile from my school. I want to explain briefly about the open trench where crowds were stampeded and killed. A stampede is an uncontrolled running as an act of mass impulse among herd animals or a crowd of people.
At the main entry to Lake Horaa, there is a man-made trench in the center of the dusty road. The trench is believed to have been originally excavated during Italian occupation for irrigating the vast fertile fields that lie behind Lake Horaa.
As I recall, the trench’s dimension is approximately 250 meters long, three meters wide, four meters deep and ends about 50 meters before reaching the lake. Tall bushes and close-clipped evergreen hedges grow inside the trench which are hardly distinguishable as a trench unless one takes a closer look at it. There are wide gravel paved road on both sides the trench. Shepherds leading cattle to drink water ‘horraa’ often take extra ordinary care for their cattle not to fall into this trench.
Gedel/Cliff is used as a political propaganda ploy designed to mislead people. In fact one can ask many questions regarding the trench. A trench that is dangerous for public safety, should have been fenced off. On the day of Irrecha, eye witnesses said that the exit or escape route on one side of the trench was tactically blocked using armored vehicles.
There was heavy security presence (in thousands) trying to create a climate of fear and intimidation. Military helicopter flew above the crowd at low altitude, which was seen as an aggressive show of force.
Previous understanding was that the ceremony would be led by Aba Gada chosen by the people. But when a Woyanne political appointee overtook the stage, the entire crowd ruptured by shouting, Down! Down! Down Woyane!
A stampede survivor interviewed by VOA, said that many people died of sand and dust as they were unable to draw breath, suffocated by the sand and dust when the twigs over the trench collapsed underneath.
A VOA reporter later said that a moment before shooting began, all reporters were ordered to leave the scene so that they may not see what was actually going to happen next. All this and other acts by Woyane demonstrate that Agazi killers had a hidden preconceived plan for the massacre.
As soon as they sent away the reporters, Federal Police began spraying tear gas and Agazi Special Forces started shooting live bullets at the crowd. There was tear gas and gunfire in all direction. In a sudden panic as people tried to get away, they stampeded into the trench. It was a genocide and slaughter beyond imagination, purposely and systematically pre-planned and executed by a terrorist tribal Tigrean regime
Those who survived death and came out of the trench tell their story and the hidden drama behind the stampede.
Lies and Conspiracy Theories
To hide their barbaric criminal act, the TPLF government embarked on a mass propaganda campaign fabricating lies about the Irrecha massacre. Ethiopian prime minister, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegne who is usually a phony and fraud character, presented three kinds of lies: – lies, damned lies and statistics.
First he denied that live bullets were used during the incident. Haile Mariam tried to hide the truth by saying that “no one died from bullet wounds” The truth of the matter is many died from gunfire with live ammunition as well as by falling into the trench.
Secondly, the PM. tried to divert attention to Egypt and Eritrea looking for scapegoats and accusing them of being behind the Oromo Revolution. The uprising in Oromia was not supported by Egypt but from the long suffering under the yoke of slavery by TPLF. The Biblical view tells “their minds are corrupt and they never tell the truth…….”
Thirdly, he lied putting the number of those killed to 55 only while the true figure is close 700 people dead.
Haile Mariam declared a three days of national mourning for the victims of the horrendous atrocities committed by his administration. He declared mourning for the victims but responded with far greater killing and detention during the three days. It was mourning one way and killing the other way or shedding crocodile tears.
Misunderstanding of Irrecha
Many explanations have been raised to define Irrecha as being a primitive superstitious worship. Many religious groups believe the October Irrecha massacre to be the result of sinfulness and punishment from God. It is true that throughout human history, people including the Oromo’s worshiped pagan gods and other inanimate objects by bringing offerings to trees. However, such practices are very rare and mostly a thing of the distant past.
The misunderstanding of Irrecha exists due to the misinformation efforts of various groups in society. It is primarily led by mainstream religious guys many of whom are expert at telling others what to do, but fail to understand the central concept of God.
Secondly, there are those who have very limited knowledge or mostly out of ignorance of the Irrecha celebration, willfully disrespect and make derogatory remarks toward all things related to Oromo culture and traditional beliefs.
I want the world to know that Irrecha celebration is not outdated or primitive superstitious pagan worship. People go to Irrecha festival for the adoration, supplication, and thanksgiving to the One Almighty God or ‘Wakaa’. However, in recent years, Irrecha’s emphasis has also embraced a symbol of political defiance. People went out in millions with courage and without fear, defying the Woyane ban on peaceful demonstration. It was a scene where more than two million, perhaps one of the biggest gathering in the world celebrating thanksgiving and at the same time showing grievances against the terror regime.
It is common that many people including the religious groups often condemning and making offensive remarks calling the slaughter of 700 innocent people as God`s wrath and punishment for non-believers.
Just three days after the Bishoftu Horra tragic event, I went to a small Ethiopian Protestant church meeting in Alexandria Virginia. A preacher began his sermon denouncing the Irrecha celebration. Just like Haile Mariam Desalegne, he mentioned foreign actors behind the unrest in Oromia.
Here is what he said “Ye gebeya giregir le leba yimechal”. He blamed the protest on external actors and foreign elements using the festival to destabilize Ethiopian unity. Furthermore, he continued, “It is saddening to watch more than two million people gathered to practice primitive paganism.” It was a matter of deep importance to him as a pastor to condemn and curse Irrecha celebration and by doing so, he tried to present himself as a great spiritual preacher. By portraying all two million present as sinners, he not only deluded himself but also tried to deliberately link politics with religion. He did not grieve at all regarding the death and suffering of 700 lives lost. He is one of those government surrogate priests calling politics as sin. The Bible calls these righteous preachers, “Woe to you……for you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence”.
Some church leaders claim that as true believers they should not take part in politics. Even peaceful protests against the tyrant regime in Ethiopia is considered politics, and politics is sin. I tell you there is no life or society free of politics. Religion is about social justice. Some are quick to quote the Bible verse, of Jesus saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. But the Bible is a work for justice and care for poor and the oppressed. The churches have a moral and spiritual responsibility, as well as obligation to stand against and disobey unjust laws. If you are neutral as some priests call themselves, in situation of injustices against humanity, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
When Fascist Italy under Mussolini waged a war against innocent people of Ethiopia, Pope Pius XII supported the war of intervention.
When Hitler become a global demonic monster, the Catholic Church never ever slightly criticized him. In another story, During the October Revolution in Russia, while blood was flowing on the streets of Moscow, the Orthodox Church were arguing what color their dress should be.
Speaking of church leaders, one thing that came to my mind was the refusal of Kidist Mariam Church authorities in Arat- Kilo, Sheger, closing the gate on Addis Ababa university students who were marching in peaceful protest against the brutal regime of Meles Zenawi. When the federal Police came in pursuit to arrest them, they tried to flee to the church for refuge but the church would not let them in. Those already inside were forced to leave the church compound. The remarkable thing was that the church played politics and took the side of dictators and the oppressive regime.
In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites to designate a “City of Refuge” so that anyone who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee to find protection from those who seek revenge against them. The role of the church in society is not merely to teach the Bible but also to speak for justice and stand with the poor and oppressed. Church leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Allen Boesak were involved in the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The civil rights movement by African-Americans to end racial segregation and discrimination was mainly led by churches.
It astonishing to hear some people judging the Bishoftu Massacre as being a punishment by God for sins of idol worshipping. Others would like to argue that they got what they deserved for not believing in God and that it was God’s punishment that led them to fall into the ditch.
Those who lack basic the understanding of Irrecha use derogatory and insulting remarks partly out of their ignorance and partly from racial bias. When a church is guided by racial attitude, many things will go wrong. Many religious leaders who pride themselves of their spiritual greatness by condemning others are hypocrite and live in spiritual blindness.
The most significant denunciation came from a personal friend several years back in Ethiopia during our discussions. When I told him that I am going to Irrecha celebration in Bishoftu, he was filled with anger and made offensive remarks about Irrecha and Oromo’s culture. He said “first, when are Oromo’s going to stop this primitive pagan worship”? “Second, do not say Bishoftu but call it Debrezeit”!
The old Neftegna nationalist had changed the names of many Oromo cities, towns, and places as part of their strategy of assimilation and hate of Oromuma. Calling Bishoftu by its original name is viewed as “gosegnet” or anti- Ethiopian unity. Of course, there is the common racist component using profane language and avoiding calling Bishoftu by its legitimate original name.
There are many ignorant individuals and self-righteous priests and pastors wrapping themselves in the mantel of Ethiopiawenet and Christian morality to make offensive remarks toward the belief of others. As a matter of fact, those gathered to Irrecha celebration are not only Oromos but people from all walks of life and beliefs including Christians, Muslims and people of other ethnicities. Stop, hypocritical talks and pointing fingers about others!
Of-course, how you believe and what you believe are two different things. Two people can believe the same God, but worship in very different places and different ways.
For the Oromos, a tree or a lake is not the dwelling place of God but a place of worship. When somebody stands in front of a tree, he is not talking or confessing his sin to the tree but praying directly to God only. He understands the tree has no power to forgive sin and make him righteous. It is just like people attend worship service at different places. For the Jews and Christians the synagogue and church are the place of gathering for worship. Muslims go to mosques and Hindus gather in temples for worship.
From the Oromo prospective, the tree symbolizes a church. They assemble under trees, river banks and mountains to pay tribute to almighty One God (Waqa Tokoo).
Oromos believe in Wakaa Hunda or Supreme Being:
They swear in God`s name
They curse in God`s name
They bless in God`s name
They rely on God for rain
Furthermore, it has to be noted that, as in the past, even today in certain areas of Oromia, it is common that people assemble or meet under a large tree shade to discuss any administrative or important social matters (Serra tumaa).
At the physical level, it is just a tree or a lake. However, in the mind of the devotee, the tree does not truly represent God but only symbolizes the presence of God. He knows that the tree will not speak to him but his prayers will be heard by Waqqa or God almighty.
There is an irony on the other side of the story. A church priest who is a little smarter than the Oromo lubaa / priest, cuts a tree and makes a tablet. He covers it with colored clothes and call it a symbol of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’. The Cross is made of wood and a symbol of salvation. Bowing before cross will connect him with Jesus.
While the first group are true believers of God who will be saved, the second are considered as an act of primitive pagan worship that is evil and cursed. There is social stigma against Irrecha and is often distorted, disrespected, and regarded as idol worship. It is like the saying “The pot calling the kettle black”
Every year, thousands make pilgrimage journey to Kulubi with all sorts of gifts pledging to St. Gabriel. There are those who believe God`s is present in Kulubi but absent from Bishoftu or Kulubi is heaven and Bishoftu is hell. It is one thing to judge when you actually demonstrate moral superiority, but entirely another when you are guilty of the same things you condemn in others.
Let me ask you this: Every year, tens of millions celebrate “Timket” by going to “timkete- bahir”. The priests perform rituals of sprinkling holy water onto the crowd to cleanse them so that they get blessed and their sins are forgiven. When it comes to the style of worship, there are many similarities between Timket and Irrecha. However, some would like to argue that Timket is holiness while Irrecha is unholy. It is accepted that going to Janmeda to Timket will save you but going to Irrecha will lead you to ‘Sheol’ which perpetuates a demeaning racial stereotype. Holiness doesn’t depend on location of where you worship or but based on your actions for God. God is not obsessed with religion. After all, it is not religion that saves you, it is your faith in God.
Here in the U.S., we gather every year to celebrate Irrecha at a lake in Maryland. There is no sign of superstitious practices, actions of rituals or words showing worship of a tree. People make the journey to the place holding green grasses and flowers in their hands, stand, and bow down their heads or kneel down and pray to the ‘One Almighty God’. He or she understands that the lake or the tree has no power to forgive sins or make him/her a righteous being.
To get rid of one’s ignorance and to see things as they are, go to an Irrecha celebration. Stop religious racism! Do not wrap yourself with the mantel of Christian morality, falsify and despise the cultural faith of others. Do not be over zealous and righteous or look down on everybody else. I have great respect for pastors often participating in civil demonstration and civil right movement against the TPLF Regime.
Let me say to the preacher who prides himself of his spiritual greatness by saying that the 700 innocent killed is a punishment from God for their sins of worshiping primitive pagan god. You are morally wrong and spiritually blind.
But most important advice I give you is to go to any Irrecha celebration. You will benefit from knowing that you are putting an end to the old stereotype and long-held prejudices that have contributed to an inaccurate picture of Irrecha.
A New Direction.
Oromos have endured and survived against all odds for more than a century. Oromos are probably facing the worst kind of persecution, dehumanization, land and property looting, man-made famine, daily arbitrary arrests and killings under the occupying fascist regime of the TPLF.
The Oromo Revolution started by Qerroo incited a new direction in the march of Oromo history. The wind of change is blowing strongly and there would be a new chapter of history from the massacre of Horra Bishoftu.
The TPLF slaughter of nearly 700 innocent people and tens of thousands taken into prison, led to storms of protest in all of Oromia. It made our people more united, determined and intensified the struggle for freedom. The Oromo Revolution particularly after Irrecha Massacre changed our social, political directions and we have reached a point of no return. Qerroo is a star to guide on our journey to freedom and there is a light at the end of the darkness.
The Horra Arsadi valley of death, weeping and grief, will be a sacred ground and is going to be remembered more than ever. Go and tell to Horra Bishoftu, you will not be forgotten. You will live in our hearts forever. There will be monuments for those killed with all names set up at the site similar to the Chellenqo and Anoole, honoring and remembering them.
The genocide and slaughter only inflamed our anger and growing determination to fight on. We accept any risk as part of refining process that make us fearless, determined and prepare us for bitter struggle. Having survived thus far, we will continue into the future whether our enemy likes it or not.
As John F. Kennedy puts it “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship…”
It is through the resistance to fear that a person develops courage. That is exactly what Qerroos are doing by standing empty-handed against armed Agazi killers.
To our heroic Qerro, we salute your courage, your honor, and most of all your sacrifice.
Oromia will not be the same!
No going back to slavery!
“DOWN! DOWN! DOWN! WOYANE DOWN”!
The Bishoftu ‘Korit’ (a footnote about the mythical legend)
I hope many may recall the story of Bishoftu “Korit”, a blood thirsty spirit that dwells in Lake Horra. It was said that a mythical devil-like ghost lived in Lake Horra and drank human blood. Emperor Haile Selassie and Etege Menen used to go to Bishoftu on weekends and stayed at the palace close to the lake. There was a wide-spread rumor that Aba Hanna Jima, the Emperor`s confessor (Nefse Abat) used to make blood sacrifices to Korit. Blood sacrifices have been practiced in various cultures throughout human history as part of religious rituals.
In a different take with a similar striking parallel, would the satanic rituals of human sacrifices tied to the Irrecha massacre?
Following the Oromo uprising, the TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda, seems communicating with evil demonic power implanted in him when he called the peaceful Oromo protest as a demonic act which has to be crushed “Enezehen aganentochn lik inagebachewalen.” Getachew is surely calling blood thirsty Korit to slaughter 700 innocent people.
Perhaps the Irrecha massacre was implied as a sacrificial offering to Korit?