May 29, 2008 (ROCHESTER, MN) -- An Ethiopian government official named as a primary architect of a genocide in western Ethiopia will visit Minneapolis this Saturday, to directly confront members of the African tribe his government has targeted for destruction.
The official’s impending visit has thrown the Minnesota community of Anuak into a state of alarm and intense internal argument.
Ato Omod Obang Olom
The Anuak, an African tribe based in western Ethiopia and southern Sudan, have been immigrating to Minnesota and elsewhere outside of Africa since the Ethiopian Army began ethnically cleansing them in the mid-1990s.
Some Minnesota Anuak believe the official’s visit on Saturday should be boycotted while others want the chance to meet him face-to-face. Still others, saying the official has perpetrated genocide, are working through the U.S. State Department to block the official’s entry into the country.
The official, Omot Obang Olom, is the governor of the western Ethiopian state of Gambella, which embraces much of the Anuak homeland. Olom was the chief of security in Gambella in December 2003, when over a three-day period some 425 Anuak men were killed by the Ethiopian Army.
"Lots of Smoke"
A Human Rights Watch report in 2005, "Targeting the Anuak," and earlier reports by human rights groups including Genocide Watch, have detailed Mr. Olom’s role in the massacre of December 13, 2003, and in a subsequent bloody crackdown lasting months against Anuak insurgents and civilians. The Human Rights Watch report called these events a "crime against humanity."
“This man is a killer,” said one Anuak Minnesotan, who asked not to be named because relatives in would be endangered if he were. The Anuak plans to meet the official on Saturday “so that I can ask him: ‘The victims of the genocide are gone but what about the people who are still alive in and and Minnesota ? Will you tell the truth about what happened?’”
A U.S. State Department official said that Minnesota Anuak community members had called him about the official’s visit. “I’ve looked into this and he sounds like a really bad guy,” the official said. "There is a lot of smoke but we don't have the evidence to deny him a visa.”
The State Department has walked a tightrope on the Anuak case since it exploded with the massacre of December 13, 2003.
Privately, officials in Washington and Addis Ababa concede that the Ethiopian government is culpable in the killings, and a 2005 U.S. Embassy press release said as much. But official policy is that is an ally in the “war on terror,” which limits the ability of U.S. officials to criticize the Ethiopian government, much less to deny diplomatic visas.
Mr. Olom “has taken an exceptionally hard-line approach to stamping out the threat to regional security posed by Anuak shifta,” the Human Rights Watch report stated. "Shifta" is an Ethiopian word for “bandits” but in reality it very often includes ordinary Anuak civilians killed by soldiers, the report said.
“Unarmed young men have been frequently shot at and in many cases killed while traveling between villages, and many [Army] patrols seem to view any Anuak civilian who runs away from them a legitimate target,” the Human Rights Watch report said.
Arrest for Crimes
The purpose of Mr. Olom’s visit to Minneapolis is among the points vigorously debated by Minnesota Anuak, who form the largest Anuak diaspora community outside of .
The Anuak Community Association of North America (ACANA), based in Minneapolis, says that it invited Mr. Olom to visit Minnesota so that Anuak community members could directly ask him to give his account of December 13, 2003 and the aftermath.
“We wanted the Gambella leadership to come so that people could ask questions,” said Akway Cham, the president of ACANA. “A lot of Anuak are going through life as refugees. People are still suffering and they want to ask ‘What are you guys up to and how will you prevent a future incident like 2003?'”
But many Anuak angrily reject ACANA's rationale, saying that attempting to arrest Olom for crimes against humanity -- not giving him a platform for reconciliation -- is the more appropriate course.
Olom's visit, they say, is part of a deliberate Ethiopian propaganda campaign to divide the Anuak diaspora and to convince the world that far from committing genocide in Gambella, Ethiopia warmly welcomes the Anuak.
Indeed, last April 26, two high-ranking Ethiopian officials met in Minneapolis with Anuak community members to spread just that message. They told an audience of about one hundred Minnesota Anuak that the Ethiopian government is prepared to invest substantially in economic development in Gambella, and they wanted members of the Anuak diaspora to return.
But for much of the meeting the officials spoke in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, and not in Anuak, so many in the audience didn’t fully understand what was said. Even more frustrating, people who attended the meeting said, the officials stonewalled during the question-and-answer period when Anuak audience members demanded to know if the Ethiopian government planned to offer reparations for the 2003 massacre.
No Answer on Graves
More specifically, many Anuak asked the officials where the 425 people who were killed in the December 13 massacre are buried, so that they may be exhumed and given a proper burial. But the Ethiopian government insists the massacre never occurred, and no answer was given.
“It was just propaganda,” said Apee Jobi, an Anuak who lives in Brooklyn Park and is editor of Gambella Today, an Anuak web site. “The real purpose was to divide the Minnesota Anuak community so that we fight among ourselves and don’t fight the Ethiopian government. Some side with them and some don’t; some say forget December 13, and some say we can’t forget. They are very good at playing that.”
“They are trying to say that nothing ever happened, it is okay now to come back," said Okuch Kwot, an Anuak living in Columbia Heights . Kwot's older brother has lived in a refugee camp since the 2003 massacre, while his older brother’s wife and children are living in a camp in . "But if you try to invest and you are an Anuak you cannot get a bank loan, you cannot buy a truck. They will label you as a rebel and everything will be taken away.”
Obang Metho, an Anuak activist from Canada who travels frequently to Minnesota, says that the April meeting marked the first time that the Ethiopian government began plying Anuak immigrants with “gifts and favors,” as it has been doing with other Ethiopian diaspora populations for several years.
“The government-sponsored delegates thought they could buy, flatter and persuade the Anuak in the diaspora into forgetting about the Anuak massacre of 2003,” Metho recently wrote. “These ‘ambassadors bearing gifts’ from the regime have been trying to silence their critics for the last year by offering invitations, opportunities and investments in the country.”
Omot’s visit to Minneapolis marks a new chapter in a tragic journey for the Anuak of Minnesota, whose ancestral territory in Africa lies directly between civil-war ravaged southern and famine-stricken .
Oil and Gold
The Anuak territory in Gambella is fed by several rivers and has both oil and gold deposits, which makes their land coveted by the Ethiopian government.
Racial tensions between the dark-skinned Anuak and lighter-skinned “highlander” Ethiopians, as well as rights claim battles over Gambella’s oil deposits, are at the root of conflicts dating back several decades.
In the 2003 massacre, Ethiopian soldiers rampaged through the Anuak town of Gambella, burning down over a thousand homes, gang-raping women and girls and slaughtering all but a handful of the Anuak men who comprised the educated leadership of the small tribe of only 100,000 members.
Around 12,000 Anuak refugees fled the massacre on foot through the African bush to seek safety in refugee camps in southern , and in vast refugee slum cities near Nairobi, .
Four years later, most of those refugees are still struggling to survive in the desert or in those slums, their educations and careers permanently disrupted. Many refugees say they fear returning to Gambella because Mr. Olom, a widely feared figure before and during the 2003 massacre, now serves as the governor of the state.
Cell Phone "Earwitnesses"
This reporter interviewed dozens of Anuak Minnesotans in the days following December 13, 2003. Many of them had heard the sounds of gunshots, screaming and crying over cell phones with friends and family members who were caught in the midst of the slaughter.
In April 2004, I also traveled to the Pochalla refugee camp in southern where some 10,000 Anuak had fled following the killings, and to the refugee slum of Ruiru, , where more than a thousand Anuak had fled.
In those interviews, and in several human rights reports published in 2004 and 2005, Omot Obang Olom was frequently named as a government official who prior to the 2003 massacre had ordered arbitrary arrests of Anuak.
A second report on the massacre published by Genocide Watch, based on interviews with eyewitnesses, reports accusations that Mr. Olom provided the Ethiopian army with a list of Anuak leaders to be targeted for killing.
An Execution List
The Anuak governor of Gambella at the time of the massacre, Okello Akway, fled for his life to after the December 2003 massacre.
In a telephone conversation this week, Akway confirmed that he had seen Mr. Olom pass a list of educated Anuak men to the Ethiopian army.
Akway says he met with Omot Obang Olom and Tsegaye Beyene, ’s military commander in Gambella, on the morning of December 13, 2003.
“Omot had a paper in his hand,” Akway said. “That paper was for selecting the people to be killed.” After the killing began, Akway said that he begged Omot and Beyene to stop the massacre, and was threatened by Omot.
“Omot said ‘If you are talking like this, you will be killed like Agwa.” Agwa Alemo was an Anuak leader and resistance fighter who was assassinated in 1992 and is considered a hero by many Anuak.
Typical and Intentional
Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi, a clinician with the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, says that the arguments now dividing the Minnesota Anuak are typical of what happens to diaspora populations when the political figures responsible for their exile suddenly reappear in their midst in Minnesota.
“It’s typical and it’s intentional,” she said. “Governments that engage in ethnic cleansing do this deliberately. They want to create dissension and conflict and distrust between people. It’s divide and conquer.”
“These conflicts more and more are quite global,” she added. “The exile communities become very important because they have economic power. They send money back home and people also travel back. Even after they leave their countries for the U.S., it isn't a complete cut-off.”
Olom will meet with Minnesota Anuak on Saturday at noon at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Minneapolis at 1330 Industrial Boulevard.
Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report