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Unrest in Ethiopia worries local Oromo

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White board
Birhanemeskel Abebe's white board is covered with information about Ethiopia.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Birhanemeskel Abebe sits alone at a table with his laptop. Behind him, towers a massive whiteboard crammed with writings in black marker.  

Every square inch seems to have another fact -- the percentages of the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, words like 'cell phone' -- to remind him to mention the government's restrictions on text messaging.

Birhanemeskel Abebe
Birhanemeskel Abebe is a former Ethiopian diplomat. Abebe has advocated for a strong relationship between Ethiopia and the United States. Now that the two countries are allies in the War on Terror, he hopes that relationship will continue to be strong. But, he says, it has to be based on principles and values human rights, rule of law, and representative governance.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

The board is like a map of Abebe's mind. It's overflowing with vital information about the Oromo and their sometimes violent troubles with the Ethiopian government.

"The regime is following a kind of ethnic apartheid policy, which is very difficult probably to understand in the United States, because the politics here is more along racial lines, black and white," says Abebe. "But in Ethiopia, we don't have racial line divisions, we have ethnic divisions."

The Oromo make up 40 percent of Ethiopia's estimated 77 million people. The ruling party of Ethiopia, on the other hand, is made up of people of a different ethnicity, the Tigre. They make up about 7 percent of the country's population. 

The conflict between the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia can be fairly complicated, but what is well-documented are the significant human rights violations, patterns of killings, torture, and arbitrary detention of Ethiopians who oppose the government. 

Human rights reports gathered by the U.S. State Department document such government-sponsored actions, as do a variety of reports by international human rights organizations. The UN recently called for an independent investigation of human rights abuses in Ethiopia's Ogaden region.

Abebe is currently a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School's Human Rights Center. He's also a former Ethiopian diplomat. For years, he worked at the UN advocating for closer ties between Ethiopia and the United States. But now that the two countries are allies in the war on terror, he fears that the Ethiopian government will not be held accountable for its human rights abuses.  

"They charge people with high crimes like genocide, treason, and sometimes terrorism," Abebe says. "Because that word sounds good and feels good for the Western listeners." 

Michele Garnet Mackenzie
Michele Garnett Mackenzie directs Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights' Refugee and Immigrant program.
MPR phot0/Roseanne Pereira

From his work at the United Nations and with the Ethiopian government, Abebe believes that the strategy in the Ethiopian government employs is partly a result of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. 

"The TPLF regime, which is a minority regime similar to the Tutsis in Rwanda, learned that if there is a threat of genocide in the country, the international community can tolerate keeping minorities in power," says Abebe.  

He says that when questioned by Western diplomats, the government uses the threat of genocide to excuse its harsh treatment of the Oromo and other ethnic groups in the region.

Michele Garnett Mackenzie directs Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights Refugee and Immigrant program. She has worked with many Ethiopians including the Oromo since the early '90s. She says, though ethnic conflict has been going on for over a hundred years in Ethiopia, she too is noticing a new trend from the Ethiopian government.

"{They're} moving beyond political repression into a much more subtle way to disenfranchise the entire community," says Garnet Mackenzie. "{They're} limiting people's ability to go to school, not allowing Oromo people to go into secondary school -- to cut the knees off the intellectual class of Oromo living in Ethiopia." 

Birhanemeskel Abebe says there are two separate education systems in Ethiopia. People of ethnicities favored by the government go to better schools and onto college, leading to good jobs and leadership positions. If you're Oromo, he says, it's difficult to get beyond the 10th grade and the government regularly expels Oromo students from universities.

Robsan Itana
Robsan Itana directs the Oromo-American Citizens' Council. This year the organization hosted an Oromo Human Rights Conference.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"In this way, they are trying to build the exact replica of the apartheid system of South Africa or the separate but equal system once used in the U.S. vis a vis the African-Americans," says Abebe.

University of Minnesota student, Dame Orma, got kicked out of school in Ethiopia. Now he's studying political science. Imagine, he says, what it's like to get kicked out of school. 

"Somebody like me, who traveled two hours, three hours to go to school, who did not have basic necessities when I went to school, only to go to college and get dismissed!"

Orma says nowadays, his mind is split between two countries. 

"My day will not be right if I don't wake up and check what happened, if I don't check my e-mail. I have to check the news, I have to see what's happening -- maybe my family might be killed."

Orma says there are few options for Oromo students who remain in Ethiopia after being dismissed from the university. Some return to the farms they were trying to escape through education. Others, he says, are now homeless.

Robsan Itana is the executive director of the Oromo-American Citizens' Council. His office in St. Paul is spare, except for a painting hanging on the wall. It's a watercolor with pinks and purples. Thin grass in the foreground stands before a mountain rising behind. Itana says, it reminds him of the Ethiopian landscape. It is calm and relaxing. 

In contrast, he says, the reality for the Oromo in Minnesota is often riddled with insecurity. 

"They're depressed. They feel guilty because most of their family is there, but there is nothing they can do about it. They cannot really live there; they fear for their life, too," says Itana.

Robsan Itana is one of many Oromo trying to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Ethiopia, but it's not easy. The Oromo live in fear that if they speak out against the Ethiopian regime, family members will be hurt back in Ethiopia. 

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the Twin Cities Somali and Oromo refugee populations. It found that 69 percent of Oromo males studied had experienced torture. The psychological and physical pain endured by some of these refugees hinders their ability to raise awareness in a public way.

Many Oromo-Americans are tracking a piece of legislation now going through the U.S. Congress. The bill would encourage respect for human rights and democracy in Ethiopia.