‘They Set Everything On Fire’: The Paramilitary Forces Killing People They’re Meant to Protect
Zecharias Zelalem, May 12, 2021
(Vice) — Ethiopia’s state-backed Amhara region security forces are attacking people in their own region. The resulting violence has displaced thousands.
Rehima Bushra, a 28-year-old single mother, is just grateful to be alive. In mid-March, ethnic tensions in her hometown in northern Ethiopia boiled over and led to days of armed clashes. Hundreds died and more were rendered homeless after fighters set houses and businesses ablaze.
“During Ramadan, we are to thank Allah for our blessings,” Rehima told VICE World News from her sister’s home in Ethiopia’s South Wollo district in the country’s Amhara region. Her own home, she said, was among those burnt down by uniformed assailants. “But at least we have roofs over our heads. So many others do not.”
Tens of thousands of people like Rehima and her children have been displaced from their homes by fighting between ethnic factions that erupted in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The Ethiopian army deployed soldiers to calm tensions, but VICE World News spoke to 11 residents in the area who say that it was in fact uniformed members of the government-backed Amhara regional security forces who were behind much of the carnage and destruction over the past six weeks. Several residents said that as a result, they have been forced to shelter at makeshift camps after members of the paramilitary set their homes alight. In response, retaliatory attacks over the course of the following weeks led to more bloodshed, fomenting divisions among the ethnic Amhara and Oromo communities in the area.
With Ethiopia set to hold general elections next month, there are concerns that the region’s increasingly unpredictable security forces could play a destabilizing role in a region where over five million people are eligible to vote.
“We can’t even send our children to school or farm in peace,” said Mohammed Djama, who fled the carnage and is sheltering with family in the town of Kemise. “Our lives are suddenly disrupted. No one is thinking about their elections.”
Over the last few months, Ethiopia has seen no shortage of bloodshed as an ongoing civil war waged in the country’s northern Tigray region has left thousands dead, supported by foreign troops from neighboring Eritrea. In the country’s east, territorial disputes have deteriorated into all out fighting between Afar and Somali regional government forces; at least 100 people died in fierce fighting between the two forces earlier this month. Meanwhile, brutal attacks by militants targeting unarmed civilians continue unabated in Western Ethiopia.
It’s a far cry from where most observers expected Ethiopia would be some three years into the tenure of Nobel Peace prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In 2018, Abiy came to power on the back of anti-government uprisings across the country which forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Promising to address demands of protesters and put an end to decades of authoritarianism, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and promised reform.
Three years later, the country has backpedaled on its commitment to human rights, with local press outlets shuttered and much of the country’s political opposition in prison once again. Ethiopia is now synonymous with instability and bloodshed.