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Behind Ethiopia’s Prosperity: Systematic Genocide Of An Ancient Tribe

While Ethiopia celebrates the naming of Abiy Ahmed, from the protest-hit areas of Oromo, as the new prime minister, Anuaks, a Nilotic tribe, 900 km away from the country capital, see no ray of hope. The declaration of emergency and consequent unrest pushed them into a state of great uncertainty.

Just days after the United States made a statement on human rights abuses in the country, PM Desalegn had to quit to “smoothen path for political reforms”. Clearly, the US, largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia, did not want to dirty its fingers anymore with widespread protests rocking the only stable country in the Horn of Africa. The US intervention also comes in the wake European Union taking cognisance of the human rights abuses in the country and urging the PM to release all political prisoners including prominent Oromia leaders and journalists.

After the loss of 600 lives, 70,000 arrests, 1,50,000 forceful displacements of traditional farmers, innumerable exiles of the country’s intellectual resources and an unprecedented 10 months of emergency in a democratic country, the European Union and the United States finally sat up and “urged” Ethiopian Prime Minister to clean up the mess.

Abiy Ahmed named to be Desalegn’s replacement will help stability return to the region that is key in the world’s fight against terrorism in Somalia and South Sudan. This will also stabilise the Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia, where Oromos will be able to usher industrial development at their own pace and terms. It will not just be a victory for the Oromia and Amharas and also a path to salvation for the US and EU.

However, for the endangered Anuak tribe, holding the fort against the insurgents from South Sudan with five broken guns against AK-47s and hand grenades, there is hardly any respite. They have and will continue to pay the price for the $4.17 billion foreign direct investment that the country gained during the period of emergency.

The November 2015 resistance movement by the Oromo and the Amhara, the two major ethnic groups in Ethiopia that together represent approximately 61.4 percent of the country’s population, rebelled against the government, dominated by ethnic Tigray, that represents just 6.1 percent.

Ethiopian students demonstrated outside Addis Ababa Tegbareed Industrial College in the capital’s Mexico area on June 7, 2005. It was the second day running they had defied a government ban on public demonstrations to protest the results of Ethiopia’s disputed legislative elections. Armed riot police beat protesters with batons and arrested scores of students after the protests. Photo:Andrew Heavens/Flickr

This was possible because being the largest county within which the country capital Addis Ababa rests is Oromia land. Even in a country where Nilotic tribes have absolutely no rights, Oromos were empowered with their own political representation and council.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is a political coalition consisting four political parties ~ Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Though Desalegn was not a Tigrian, he is known as an ‘instrument’ of the TPLF.

The Anuaks had no political representation in EPDRF or the SEPDM. So, they had to become the anvil for being one of the most tribes, already dwindling with the onslaught of low sex ration and climate change and possessing such land resources, which also happens to be the most fertile in entire Ethiopia, without anybody to speak up for them.

Travelling from Addis Ababa to Gambella and further west till the last village belonging to Anuaks, Abol along Gilo, shows how about a 100 children are kidnapped and sold as child militia in South Sudan, women are raped and over 50 people killed every year with nobody batting an eyelid. The indigenous Anuaks who have rejected forced modernisation, still stick to the natural law
and are traditionally sedentary whose very name means ‘I shared’ or ‘to share’ are stuck between violence from all sides.

The Lost Anuak Children

When the village elders speak, three-year-old Obang runs to take his position on their lap. He helps the reporter by chasing away the dogs who come to sniff the stranger in their small hamlet. When the reporters aims her camera at Obang, squealing and laughing, he runs away to hides behind a haystack.

It was the same haystack under which Obang was hidden by his mother before she was raped and butchered to death by the Murle militants on March 10, 2017.

A group of heavily armed combatants of Murle tribe crossed the South Sudan border into Gambella, southwestern Ethiopia and carried out a slew of attacks on the villages along the Gilo river on March 10. They started their raid from the village Abol along Gilo, the last Anuak village from where South Sudan border is 12-hour walk through the uninhabited jungles.

The militants took away 15 boys and four girls from Obang’s village and killed seven people including his parents. The graves of people killed during such attacks are interspersed with the huts in Abol. Other than Obang, only six children are left in the village who survived because they managed to run away when their parents were being killed.

Over the next two days, the Murles attacked the village of Ang’ela, Obuwa and Otuyo killing over 20 people and kidnapping 60 children. During their raids between February 3-5, 2017, the militants attacked villages of Othowol and Pingudo leaving 13 dead and 20 children abducted.

Local residents claim that in the series of attacks downstream Gilo river, over a hundred children were kidnapped but Chol Chany, a regional government spokesman, informed media that 28 people were killed and 43 children were kidnapped from Gambella’s Gog and Jor areas.

Is it hardly surprising that in a country where there has been only three national population census since 1984, there is no official or credible data for Anuak children missing every now and then and most of these children remain unaccounted for.

“The number of kidnappings have increased so much that even the government is shirking away from having the exact account. Firstly, it will put the onus on them to get these kids back and secondly, it is simply too much to account for and thirdly, nobody wants Anuaks, let alone their kids,” says a school teacher in Puchalha, where official refugee camps are set up by various aid agencies.

In April 2016, according to local residents, 200 children were kidnapped and another 200 people were killed in armed raids by Murle militia in Gambella’s border region. However, different sources cite different numbers. There is no official figure at all.

“I called the regional government representative to know the number of children kidnapped and I was told 260. The next day, another reporter was told the figure was 210 and another reporter was told 150 children were kidnapped. When Ethiopian army was sent in to rescue the children, we were told 136 children were kidnapped,” said a local reporter based in Addis Ababa.

Anuaks have always suffered raids from nomadic tribes such as Murles and Nuers for children, women and cattle. An Anuak child is sold for 70 cows while a Nuer child is sold for 40 cows. Women are married to the tribesmen who have kidnapped them. Often these girls are as young as six-year-old where obviously consent does not matter. The Anuak children are more expensive because they are considered physically stronger and more productive than children of other tribes.

“They took away my elder daughter in 2016. I had managed to save the youngest one. In 2017, they took her away too,” says Ap**** U***, a woman in her 50s. When the reporter asked what do the Murles do with such young kids, she said, “they are taken as slaves, they are made to fight other peoples’ wars, they are killed.”

It is Abol along river Gilo from where the attacks begin every year. The pattern of attack is same, the route taken by the militia is same, the month they swoop upon these villages is also known to the villagers and yet, there is nobody who can stop these attacks.

“Our kids had always been stolen. But the attacks have become more aggressive in the last couple of years. We know because the attacks always start from our village,” explains U***la U****a, one of the village heads in his seventies in Abol village. People are being killed and women are being raped and left behind, he explains.

After the April 2016 attack, the government officials came along with people from aid agencies to Abol and gave seven guns and some cartridges to the villagers to protect themselves from the attacks. “Look at these guns,” U***** A****n, a man in his 60’s shows his gun whose pipes are wrapped in with tourniquets, and says, “Do you think these guns can stop Murles that come with AK-47s and hand grenades? Where do we get the cartridges?”

April 2016 was also the year when Ethiopian military to crossed the border and rescued some of the children with the permission of the South Sudan government. In June 2016, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) claimed that 88 Ethiopian children abducted in April by South Sudanese gunmen were released and returned home while 58 children remained in captivity.

The reporter asked the villagers if they knew of any children who were rescued by the Ethiopian army. The village elders looked at the reporter incredulously and said, “None of the Anuak children was brought back! Go and ask around! All the children brought back were Nuer. Not a single Anuak child has come back home.” The villagers along river Gilo say more than 65 Anuak children were kidnapped during the 2016 raids and none of them has been rescued by the army.

“If you go see the child militia in South Sudan, you will find several Anuak children there. But the children have forgotten they are Anuaks,” says the school teacher in Puchalha from were one has to take a boat which takes about two hours along river Gilo which teems with crocodiles.

The teacher, an Anuak, lost five of his family members in the 2003 massacre in which over 400 men of his tribe were killed in ethnic violence alleged to be perpetrated by the Ethiopian government. “This has been going on for 20 years now,” he adds.

If such claims are to be believed, over 50-100 children are being kidnapped every year from the villages along the river Gilo since 1998. A back-of-the-hand calculation shows ancestry of anything between 5000-10,000 child soldiers in Sudan and South Sudan could be traced back to Anuaks.

According to Rory Mungoven, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Sudan has one of the worst child soldier problems in the world. There are more than 17,000 child soldiers fighting for the governments’ side or for rebel forces in South Sudan. They carry AK-47s and M-16s and are on the front lines being used as human mine detectors, suicide bombers and spies.

“In absence of a well-organised political system and rapid response forces, Anuaks and their territories are wide open to armed groups. This is done under the watch of the government army and militias who provide little protection to continued attacks,” says Nyikaw Ochalla, founder of non-profit Anywaa Survival Organisation and an Anuak living in exile in the United Kingdom.

When the reporter asked the officers at the federal police headquarters about the claim that Anuaks children kidnapped during the 2016 attacks were not brought back, the officer said: “We do not have any information about this. Contact the press bureau in the ministry of external affairs.”

The reporter called the ministry of external affairs’ press department, the official heard the question and disconnected the call saying they are busy at the moment. True, since it is well known that the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned recently and state of emergency was declared in the country. But what is not known is that since the day the Desalegn resigned, Murles infiltrated the borders again and killed 10 more people in Pingudo.

When the reporter called the Gambella police station to ask whether the villagers claim that Anuak children were not rescued during the army operations in 2016 was true, the officer laughed and said: “Is it? Is this what they say? Well, good riddance. Lesser the Anuaks the better. They are a tribe of criminals.”

“They took away our land. They rape our women. They help steal our children. They want to ensure we are not left with any future,” says Ug***a U***la, the village elder in Abol.

Memories Of 2003 Massacre

Back in 2003, under the pretext of retaliating for an attack on a UN vehicle, the Ethiopian army, along with militias mainly consisting Nuers, went on a rampage and killed over 400 male Anuaks. Over the course of three days, they sought out, tortured and killed 424 men, burned houses, and scattered families. The violence continued, albeit sporadic, raising the death toll between 1,500 and 2,500, and causing more than 50,000 Anuak to flee. A large number of Anuak fled their lands and are living as refugees in other countries.

Also Read:  Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region

The memories have come back to haunt the Anuaks again with the increased attacks on them from the Murles, who the Anuaks feel are being helped by the Nuers. “Murles always come through Nuers,” the village elders say.

This may seem absurd considering the rivalry between the Lou Nuer and the Murle that remained one of the most violent communal conflicts in the world despite numerous resolution attempts by the government, the international community, various Christian churches and national authorities.

But it was in 2015 when Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, denied David Yauyau, leader of the Cobra militia of Murle fighters, cabinet and power over his state Pibor. Instead, Kiir merged the state with Boma and appointed Baba Medan, who has no influence over the Murles, the new governor.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, the first president of Africa’s newest country South Sudan belongs to the Dinka tribe. The country is in the war for about 30 years now because of the conflict between the President and the leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Riek Machar who is a Nuer. Riek Machar also lead the dreaded Nuer White Army which is known to kill not for money but for revenge against atrocities committed against their tribesmen.

But the Anuaks villagers now fear that the Murles and Nuers have now united against Salva Kiir in South Sudan and Anuaks in Gambella.

“Though there is no evidence that support claims that David Yau Yau joined Machar rebellion but the Murle tactics are similar with Nuer land occupation strategies that made them occupy vast Anuak lands such as Nassir in South Sudan, Akobo and adjacent territories in Ethiopia,” says Ochalla.

Thirteen Anuak villages are already deserted along the Baro (Openo) river in Itang and Jikaw districts which are now populated with a non-Anuak population.

In the remaining villages, the oldest inhabitants of the land in Gambella are waiting for death. They have given up. The elders know there is no use fighting to save their clan. The Gambella Nilotes United Movement (GNUM) has been held responsible for a number of attacks on the Highlanders increasing the ethnic tension on the area have hardly five members with no arms. The Anuaks living in and around Gambella have lost their voice because of the continued army raids in the Anuak villages.

The road from Addis Ababa to Gambella is chequered. It is smooth for one kilometre and gravelled for the next. They become smoother for the longest time near the expanding army barricade near outskirts of Jimma.

At any given time, anyone can be reported to the federal police and the army that have limitless power to do what they want. The officers can just take a bundle of Chat and let a person go or even shoot him.

An Anuak child on the banks of River Gilo. In February 2018, 4 people from his village were killed by the Murles. (Photo: Soma Basu)

The air in Gambella is heavy with this fear all the time. There is a limitless supply of gun from South Sudan in the area. A little political influence is enough to carry arms. At any time, anyone can be killed on the streets in broad daylight or even beaten up and left for dead and be at the mercy of the Federal police to list them as somebody who matters.

The Anuak man who accompanied this reporter throughout the journey from Gambella could be dead at any moment.

The Nuer Agenda

Since 1898, the Anuak have been politically and economically marginalised. During the military regime-1974-1991, the political system targeted Anuak cultural and political institutions. The Anuak, a society that has strong political identity vested in kings and chief, was left to depend on Ethiopian government. This has exposed them to land conflict with the newcomers, the Nuer and Ethiopian highlanders.

Also Read: “Today is the Day of Killing Anuaks” (Crimes Against Humanity, Acts of Genocide and Ongoing Atrocities Against the Anuak People of Southwestern Ethiopia: A Genocide Watch and Survivors’ Rights International Field Report)

“Due to the presence of some Ethiopian Nuer and lack of any control on management of refugees, South Sudanese Nuers seem to infiltrate the political system in the region. Riek Machar enjoys massive support among Nuer refugees and those who acquired Ethiopian citizenship,” says Ochalla.

This is evident from the April 2014 controversy that forced the regional leadership to dismiss an official of Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) from his position because he had been issuing Ethiopian ID cards to the refugees.

The Gambella Nilotes United Movement (GNUM) press release dated March 9, 2017, blames the infiltration of South Sudanese militias and the escalating attacks in the Gambella region to chiefly the precedent of the joint agreements signed behind doors between the TPLF/EPRDF government and Thwath Pal (Nuer by ethnicity). Pal was one of the Ethiopian opposition’s leaders but was repatriated to Ethiopia in late 2016 to promote a Nuer agenda in Ethiopia.

Thwat spent months in luxurious Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa until December 2016 and left Ethiopia again to fulfil his pledge to bring back his militants. Thwath Pal was the First Secretary of Ethiopian Workers Party (EWP) and Chief Administrator in Gambella during the communist regime that was overthrown in May 1991, the GNUM press release further claims.

The Nuers want Gambella to be a part of South Sudan, says Charles, a contractual worker in the fields owned by Saudi Star in Gambella. “I have seen people burn Ethiopian flag in Nuer dominated locality in Gambella town and raising the flag of South Sudan,” he says adding that he keeps away from all this because he is here to earn his bread.

On the way to Pinyudo. Photo: Soma Basu

In the previous years, it was said that the government had secret deals with Sudan including present South Sudan on some parts of Ethiopia to both countries. The map ceded to the two countries, include some parts of Gambella, but we do not have detail information about that, says Ochalla.

“The ruling political party anticipate its demise and the last card would be to negotiate with the Nuer whom they could expel anytime on the ground of being not Ethiopian citizens after they have done away with Anuak, the landowners,” he says.

Anuak Vs Business In Gambella

It all began with the first outline of developing the region prepared by the United States and submitted to the European Economic Commission, which signed an agreement in 1978. The EEC was forced to transfer funds from one scheme to another after a formal protest by the Anti-Slavery Society.

The project entailed clearing forest land and construction of dams and fences but the most important of all, resettling the displacement of the Anuak people from their lands and the resettlement of the area by the Ethiopian government.

The Anuak land originally was the most fertile stretch of territory extending along the Sobat River with its tributaries of Baro (draining western Ethiopia) and Akobo-Pibor. This land extends into Gambella region and further to Ilemi Triangle in the south.

However, with the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, refugees keep coming to Gambella where according to UNHCR, there are a total of 4,04,799 refugees and asylum seekers (till January 18, 2018). The Ethiopian government has been resettling these refugees on the land that traditionally belonged to the Anuaks. Gambella now constitutes two tribes, 40 percent of the Nuer population against 20 percent of Anuaks, who have a history of not getting along peacefully and have no cultural similarities.

Not just this, between 2008 till January 2011, Ethiopian government leased out at least 3.6 million hectares of land while an additional 2.1 million hectares was earmarked into land bank made available for agriculture investment. According to government figures, 42 percent of the total land area in Gambella has either been kept open for investment or already been given to investors. After the debated villagisation programme by the government flopped, the land was earmarked for commercial agricultural investment. During the villagisation programme, government resettled more than 60,000 Ethiopian highlanders on Anuak land and constructed the irrigation dam on Alowero River that displaced several Anuaks from their land.

According to data released by Ethiopia Investment Commission (EIC), Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow showed a five-fold increase in a decade. The FDI inflow in the Ethiopian Fiscal Year (EFY) 2007/2008 was 814.6 million U.S. dollars but that figure has increased to 4.17 billion dollars in EFY 2016/17, that ended July 8. Agriculture, manufacturing, construction, hospitality and horticulture sectors took the majority of the FDI shares.

In 2016, Ethiopia received $4.1 billion becoming world’s second largest recipient of development aid. The United States, the largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia, granted $865.65 million to the country in 2016, the highest since 2010. The $4 billion is about 50-60% of the country’s budget.

In Phuchalha. (Photo: Soma Basu)

While, on one hand, 18 million people in the country required food assistance in 2016, the same year, Ethiopia was being praised as the fastest growing economy in Africa and the desired investment destination, feels Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.

“Missing from this narrative is that the Ethiopian government’s ‘development’ strategy is based on widespread human rights violations and criminalization of dissent through the misuse of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation,” she says.

Bystanders To Genocide?

The 2003 attacks attracted global attention with organisations like Human Rights Watch and Genocide Watch carrying out fact-finding missions and collecting testimonies and case studies from the affected population. The Ethiopian government that was clearly blamed for the attacks on the Anuak population denied all the charges and the discussion somehow got buried under the rubble.

Also Read: Testimonies by Three Eye Witnesses of the December 2003 Anywaa (Anuak) Massacre in Gambella Region, Ethiopia. Interviewed and compiled by Eisei Kurimoto, Professor of Anthropology, Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, Japan, December 31, 2004

Considering Ethiopia’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Anuaks are the easiest target for being too few to matter. Especially when global decision makers have already been silenced with the huge potential for the economic market. The United Nation’s silence in stopping attacks on the Anuaks is indeed eery.

In a 2014 report ~ The spillover effect of South Sudan in Gambella ~ the Life and Peace Institute clearly said stated that what appears a humanitarian act of the Ethiopian government is thus represented as a conspiratorial scheme, fuelling the already existing tension not only between the Anuak and the Nuer but also between the Anuak political organizations and the Ethiopian government.

The government has been carrying out systematic genocide for decades. For years, it has been implementing various destructive policies with great impacts on Anuak communities. The government uses divide and rule policy to undermine Anuak land rights, says Ochalla.

What Ochalla says is substantiated by Pagak Nyier, a Nuer blogger based in Gambella Town. The 2016 conflict began with a land dispute between an Anuak and a Nuer man. Both the men were given legal title on the same piece of land by the government, says Nyier.

Time and again local activists have blamed the numerous international aid agencies working for the refugee crisis in Gambella as one of the forces that are significantly worsening the ethnic tension in the area, says Obang Metho, the executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, who lives in Washington DC.

In the refugee camps in and around Gambella, most of aid agencies staff are Ethiopian highlanders who favour Nuer and have a biased attitude towards Anuaks.

“They (the Anuaks) are lazy and good for nothing. They are uneducated and wild. They know nothing. They are sub-human. Gambella’s problems can be solved only if we get rid of them,” says a Nuer contractor working for Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The local Nuer population often use their positions to influence aid agencies policies towards ethnic tension in the region.

For instance, though the Anuaks in Gambella has not suffered any bias during food aid distributions, Anuak refugees in South Sudan do not have access to any food aid, says an Anuak man in Puchalha whose relatives had migrated to the other side of the border.

Near Alwero Dam. (Photo: Soma Basu)

While coming back from the village Obol along Gilo, this journalist was stopped by a group of locals in Pinyudo who demanded to see her media permit. The driver who took the journalist from Gambella to Puchalha was a Nuer and seeing her talk to the Anuaks during her journey, made him suspicious and he alerted the group of people in Pinyudo. The group of men were all employed in various aid organisations that have set up refugee camps in the town and were Nuer by ethnicity. They let the journalist go since they mistook her tourist e-visa for an official media permit.

Since her visit in November 2017, there were several new attacks on Anuak villages. In Got village, two children were kidnapped while two were wounded. In Pinyudo, a man was killed during a cattle raid. In Puchalha, three people were killed and five children abducted. Another man was killed in Dima district. All victims were Anuaks.

After a rap from the EU, the government was forced to release political prisoners including Anuaks. In the last few months, 32 Anuak people imprisoned in federal prisons were released including 26 who were released on February 14, 2018.

It’s the classic ‘African’ case.

The world leaders, superior simply for the fact that they are ruling, are acting as bystanders to a systematic killing of an indigenous tribal group by its government in Africa because they want to do business on their land in the garb of “responsible agricultural investment”.

It is a couple of broken guns against about 80 percent of the population of the Gambella and the Ethiopian army. It is a poor, backward ethnic tribe of Africa against the world’s superpowers.

A regime change or not, the case of the Anuaks is a lost one.

***names of people hidden to protect their identity and life

(Soma Basu travelled to Gambella and further in November 2017. She visited the villages of Puchalha, Pinyudo and to Abol, undercover without a media visa/permit and without any organisational backup. The travel was made possible with the award money of Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Award 2017 and Global Investigative Journalist Network/ Norwegian foundation for investigative journalism (SKUP) who financed her air tickets.)

Soma Basu


  1. peter omot peter omot March 29, 2018

    well researched and hope the Anywaa elites might think deeper and see the future that lay ahead of them rather sitting idly. To me, the future is going to be worse than presently we face today. We are surrounded by a hostile nation whose culture is violence and if we don’t adapt and position our selves for the unknown we will eventually die a slow death.

    • Soma Basu Soma Basu Post author | March 29, 2018

      Yes, I agree completely.

  2. […] (reporteratlarge)——-While Ethiopia celebrates the naming of Abiy Ahmed, from the protest-hit areas of Oromo, as the new prime minister, Anuaks, a Nilotic tribe, 900 km away from the country capital, see no ray of hope. The declaration of emergency and consequent unrest pushed them into a state of great uncertainty. […]

  3. Okok O. Okok Okok O. Okok March 31, 2018

    I want to thank you Soma Basu, the researcher, for your well organized document on the most compelling situation facing the Anuaks in Ethiopia. Thank you for risking your life in defense to humanity, and for your contribution which will serve as substantial resource to the upcoming action. Keep the good work. Hope we join hands togther to address these issues collectively. May I invite you to contact me for further engagement.
    Okok O. Okok

    • Soma Basu Soma Basu Post author | March 31, 2018

      Thank you so much, Okok. My email id is [email protected]. Please feel free to reach out to me.

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