Previously in Refuge#31 Ethiopian Borderlands: Otholi describes how his homeland was divided into two by the British during colonial times. As a consequence of this demarcation between Sudan (now South Sudan) and Ethiopia, the idea arose among highlanders that the Anuak people, who lived on the plains of Gambella, do not belong to Ethiopia.
‘If you try to sell a whole stalk of bananas – with ten combs on it – maybe you can sell them for two Ethiopian Birr, equivalent to ten Australian cents,’ laughs Otholi. ‘So, you decide just to eat all those bananas at home.’
The Anuak had no established system of trade; they ate what they grew, and stored maize and sorghum in sheds to last till the next harvest. The government was the main source of employment and wages.
Only educated folk, however, could procure government jobs. Uneducated folk left their families to pick coffee or to try their luck in the gold fields of Dima, southern Gambella. It was too hot in the deserts of Dima to work during the day so they wielding picks and shovels at night, by torchlight.
In that lawless place, they pitted their wits against other fortune hunters and relied on luck to get them through another week, another month. If they struck gold and if they were strong and smart enough to dig it out without the earth collapsing on them, and if they were able to hide their wealth from bandits, they could travel to Addis Ababa in a year or two and return home dressed in the finest suits. If they were unlucky, they died. Many were unlucky.
‘Money is the source of all these problems because if I don’t have money to buy clothing and feed my family, it makes it harder for me to go and study. With no money, I couldn’t buy clothing for school, and if I only had a uniform, what would I wear at home? What shoes? What will I wear during the weekends? At night? In the evening?’ asks Otholi.
His questions startle me. In the 1900s, when a teacher in Malaya had asked my grandmother why her children had stopped attending school, she replied, ‘Without enough money to buy one good set of clothes, how can I send them to school?’ I had imagined my aunt and uncles wearing threadbare clothes, but had never considered a level of poverty where people might not have any clothes at all. If such people managed to save enough to buy school uniforms, I had never thought about what they would wear when school was not in session.
The need to support his family had already caused Otholi to drop out of school for two or three years. By 2003, however, he resumed his studies in Ponyudo, a small town in the state of Gambella. Already a husband and a father, he was trying to complete Year 12, believing that education was the key to securing a job and providing for his family.
During the rainy season, he would set out from his house in Ponyudo on Fridays to walk to his family farm in the village of Atathe. He packed food for the journey and books for the weekend. After planting maize seeds, he’d read his books or try to complete his assignments. On the journey back to Ponyudo on Sundays, he sometimes stopped at his family orchard by the Gilo River to harvest mangoes and bananas for sale.
The Ponyudo market near his house was a busy place surrounded by bars and nightclubs. Although there were many customers, the price of fruit was despairingly low; everybody knew that you could pick fruit for free from trees growing by the river, a forty-five minute walk away.
Several of Otholi’s friends, however, were making good money working as labourers on a new road project stretching from the capital city, Gambella, to the oil exploration site in the north of the region. (Gambella city is the capital of the region of Gambella). Some opposed the road project, believing it would take jobs away.
After the discovery of oil in 2001, the Ethiopian federal government planned to pipe the oil from Gambella, in the southwest, to Tigray, in the north. The people of Gambella opposed this, saying, ‘No. How can you refine the oil in another region? Job opportunities are supposed to benefit the people here.’ And so the argument started.
‘We have the EPRDF but the system they use to rule Ethiopia is very, very dangerous.’
Otholi pronounces the acronym as ‘E-Pir-Dip’, which stands for the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. This party comprises members mainly from the Tigray province. The EPRDF holds power in the federal government.
Ethiopia is zoned into nine regional states. Although each region has its own president, the president doesn’t represent the region at the federal level. That privilege is accorded to an EPRDF member. In this way, the ruling EPRDF concentrates the national decision-making powers upon a single ethnic group: the Tigrayans.
In December 2003, a truck carrying highlanders on a deserted road was ambushed. The driver and all the passengers were murdered. There were no known eyewitnesses.
The government laid the victim’s bodies on Gambella’s main street and declared that the murderers must have been Anuak, because only the Anuak opposed the road construction.
‘Actually, no one knows for sure that this group of people are Anuak because this happened on the border where you can see Sudanese military crossing the border, coming into Ethiopia,’ says Otholi.
He is referring to the civil war in Sudan that had been raging for decades, the ongoing violence claiming thousand upon thousand of lives. With guns readily available across the unregulated border with Sudan, anyone could have committed the murders in the van, but displaying the victim’s bodies stoked tribal suspicions, fears and animosity.
As a result, civilians, armed with machetes, knives, and all sorts of weapons, went from house to house, hunting down and killing Anuak men, raping their women, burning their homes.
Now Otholi brings his hands together at his wrists, fingers fanning outward, as if he is pushing something forward and continues, ‘The government was behind the civilians. If you come to me with your hand or with machete or with any weapon, I will just try and fight you back. But if you come to me with a gun’– he extends an arm, his eyes trained on two extended fingers –‘there is no way that I can defend myself because with a gun, you can shoot someone at a distance.
‘When soldiers saw Anuak running fast to escape, they shot them and then cut out the bullets with knives or machetes,’ says Otholi, his forefinger cutting an imaginary bullet from his chest, ‘so that investigations into the deaths would indicate that they died by the crude weapons of the civilians, rather than by the gun of soldiers.
‘So on that day alone, 13 December 2003, four hundred and twenty five people were killed. President Okello, one of our tribe, had no authority to stop the killing, to stop the soldiers, the police and the military.’
Otholi told me that President Okello, head of the regional government of Gambella, had been driven around town that day, accompanied by two soldiers. From his car, he pleaded for people to stop the shootings and killings, but his pleas went unheeded.
Two days after the massacre, a German radio station interviewed President Okello. High-ranking military officials surrounded him. Instead of repeating the official line, he said in Amharic, ‘The military killed my people, shooting them in front of me.’
Then President Okello had to flee to Sudan where he addressed the crowd of displaced Anuak, ‘You have seen what was done to you. I have no time to stay with you.’ He flew to the Norwegian embassy in Nairobi and within one and a half months was given asylum in Norway where he became a citizen.
Afterward, through my own research, I discover that Gambella Petroleum, a subsidiary of a Canadian company, discovered oil in 2001. That company pulled out of Ethiopia a year later. In June 2003, the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines and Energy signed an exclusive twenty-five year development and exploration deal with another oil and gas company, Petronas.
Instantly, I recognize the name Petronas. It is a Malaysian company that funds countless scholarships, produces feel-good commercials during national holidays and built the Petronas Twin Towers, which was, for a time, the tallest towers in the world and the pride of many Malaysians. As I read on, I realize that the massacre occurred six months after the signing of the deal between Petronas and the Ethiopian government. This discovery brings the story hurtling towards me, threatening to knock me off my objective perch. Am I a curious interviewer by the sidelines, or am I in some ways complicit?
Petronas collected seismic data and sunk exploratory wells like a surgeon performing biopsies. The wells turned out to be dry and Petronas eventually pulled out of Ethiopia. The grievous futility of it all plunges me into introspection.
Mercifully, Otholi does not recognise the name Petronas when I ask him about it, reiterating that it was a fight between the regional and federal governments. Like everyone else I know, I try to fill up my car when petrol prices are at their lowest, but now, I consider, for the first time, the true cost of oil.
To be continued next Friday in Refuge#33 Armed with a Torch. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge. It is a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia, a collection inspired by my students. Subscribe to receive links to new instalments in your inbox every Friday.