‘The land was really good,’ says Otholi.
He smiles as he says this, enunciating the words slowly, drawing them out, lingering on his memory of the land, the fertile Gambella basin between Ethiopia and South Sudan. On this land Otholi and his people – the indigenous Anuak – cultivated bananas, mangoes, paw paw, maize, and sorghum. If they felt like eating wild meat, they went out to the bush to hunt. The land abounded with antelope, gazelle, buffalo, and giraffe.
When light-skinned highlanders from central Ethiopia saw that this land in the south-west was good, they settled there, and said, ‘Ah, this is Ethiopia land, but the people do not belong to Ethiopia.’ Nonetheless, the Anuak welcomed the highlanders as brothers and lived peacefully with them for many years.
The story of Otholi’s displacement from Gambella starts with the discovery of oil in 2001. Gambella’s regional leaders opposed the national government’s decision to refine the oil in another state. With the benefit of hindsight, Otholi’s people have coined a saying: Finding oil in your land is like finding a cancerous tumour – there will be a lot of problems.
On the 13th of December 2003, a few road workers were found dead. Due to their opposition to aspects of the oil development plan, the Anuak were blamed for the crime even though there were no eye witnesses. In retaliation, Anuak men were hunted down and shot. 425 people were killed that day. Around 4,000 Anuak men, women and children, fled into the bush, where they walked for five days before settling in South Sudan. That was the beginning of Otholi’s journey and search for safety.
At the end of our conversation, I told Otholi that I would like him to describe these places to me so that I can imagine them and he said, ‘I have the memory of my land. I just call it my homeland. I still have the memory of what happened to us and that’s why every year, we sit down on December the 13th to let other people know that it is a very sad and unforgettable day for us. We forgive but we don’t forget. We forgive those that have done it, but we don’t forget.’
His speech slows down and for the first time during our conversation, his eyes redden. Silence. Then in a barely audible voice, he says, ‘It was horrible. We lost very, very important people to our community. So…yeap…thank you.’
And I wonder if it is a thank you for listening, or for asking, or for remembering with him and his people, the Anuak.