The Untold Story of “Raggaatuu”- The Famous OLA Commander Published on October 23, 2013.

Originally written by: Afendi Muteki

Translated by : Hambisaa Soolee

 

Female OLA 2In the history of OLA (Oromo Liberation Army), Juukii Barentoo is the most revered female martyr. Her martyrdom was so different in that she gave her life to save many Oromo fighters while she was one of the leaders of the organization. This was happened in 1984 when the special force of the Dergue army ambushed the OLF central command post at Daro-Billiqa in sounthern Daro-Labu district, Hararge province (Near Hararge-Bale border). Juukii, the first female to be elected to the Central Committee of OLF, fought bravely with the Dergue forces for three consecutive days and saved the life of many leaders and fighters of the organization including Obbo Galaasaa Dilboo, the then chairperson of OLF. When she knew that the OLF leaders and others safely crossed to Bale province, because she was wounded, she took her own life, instead of surrender.

The Dergue junta thought that the martyrdom of Juukii would cause a big morale disaster on OLF fighters and many would leave the struggle and come back to home. But the matter was so different. The death of the famous Oromo heroine created a high spirit of fighting for the independence of Oromia among the youth. As a result, there was an exodus of Oromos who sought to join OLA in the mid 1980s. Especially it was a time where many young Oromo females joined OLA en mass. Asli Oromo, Caaltuu, Waarituu, Ibsitu, Kulani, Dursitu, Obsitu and many more female fighters went to the jungles of Oromia and started to show their bravery in their own rites. Among all Oromo heroines who joined OLA at that time, the one that became the foremost topic of discussion for many people was “Raggaatuu”, an OLA commander for whom a popular saying “Raggaatuu! Dheysitee jalaa hinbaatuu!” ( meaning “Raggaatuu, the one whom you can’t escape”) was created.

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 Raggaatuu was a daughter of an Oromo peasant. She was born in Daro-Labu district of Hararge province. Her name at birth is still unclear to the writer of this article. In OLA and among the Oromos in eastern Oromia, she is known by her nom-de-guerre “Raggaatuu”; it is an Oromo word meaning “the one that is loyal to what she believed in” or “the one that stayed on what she said”.

As it is described at the beginning, Raggaatuu was among the female fighters that joined OLA immediately after the death of Juukii Bareentoo in 1984. It was said that Raggaatuu was younger  than 20 years when she went out for the struggle. She had got a military training at OLA base in southern Hararge. She attended also a para-commando training in Somalia.

Raggaatuu fought the Dergue army in different fronts in Hararge and Bale in late 1980s. When OLF joined the transitional government established by EPRDF in 1991, she worked as a trainer and a political cadre. She already assumed the “Abbaa Buttaa” (commander of a battalion) rank at that time.  However, she was doing her work silently at the period. Her glorious days were yet to come.

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In June 1992, OLF left the EPRDF led transitional government. OLA, its armed wing, assumed the military action against EPRDF forces. The two forces fought bloody battles in Hararge, Bale and Wallaga. But after some period, leadership crises happened in different regional commands of OLA. Analysts say that the main cause of the crisis was EPRDF’s targeting of highly combatant and efficient commanders of OLA. After some period, however, some astonishing commanders rose in OLA and started to fill the leadership gaps. And indeed that was the time when Raggatuu started to show her bravery in action.

The rise of Raggaatuu in Hararge attracted the attention of thousands at once. Her military might became a spirit of OLA existence in the struggle. Her true appearance was known only by few people, but the effect of her operations was felt by the mass. Some believed that Raggaatuu was indeed the same woman as the legendary Juukii Barentoo whom they thought she had restarted the struggle after long years of disappearance in the forests of Oromia. Some even went on arguing that that it was “Ayalensh” of EPRP who came to Hararge under different name and opened a war on EPRDF (“Ayalnesh” was a famous commander of EPRP in Gondar and Gojjam who was captured by EPRDF forces in 1991; she is now living in Europe). All of these assumptions were happened out of the people’s astonishment at extra-ordinary skills and military art of Raggaatuu.

Raggaatuu was a military artist indeed. She won in all of the battles she fought in five years. She was able to open fire in ten different places in a month and disturb her enemy. She was a queen of the vast Carcar plateau in those years.  When she attacked the town of Hardim in one day, she would travel for 100 kms in the eastern direction and open fire at Kurfaa Roqaa on another day before the enemy recovered from the former damage. While the enemies were searching for her around Machara town, she would go further to the north and attack Ciroo town. An interesting thing was that the administrators of the towns and villages of West Harerghe Zone who were assigned by the EPRDF government also recognized Raggaatuu as their leader secretly. They work for the EPRDF government during the daylight, but they work with Raggaatuu in the night.

The vehicles that were traveling permanently in Raggaatuu’s area of influence should fulfill her demand. They should transport the food items and medicines that would be used by the OLA fighters under the command of Raggaatuu. Any owner of a vehicle’s that doesn’t obey her order should leave her realm. And if such owner of a vehicle was found of transporting military personnel, he would get a severe punishment. This may include destroying of the vehicle.

 

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Raggaatuu is vividly remembered for two famous operations. One was her kidnapping of Mick Wood, and the other was her saving of three top leaders of OLF. This writer still has fresh memory of the two operations. And here he describes them in short.

It was in 1994. OLA was in its full strength then. But Meles Zenawi, the President of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, was repeatedly saying “There is no war of any kind now. OLF cease to exist in the country. Its armed wing has already perished”. The leaders of OLF wanted to disprove the claim of President Meles Zenawi and show the existence of their army to the world. To this ends, they wanted to undertake some kind of operation and attract the attention of the world media outlet. They thought over all possible situations and concluded that Raggaatuu would accomplish the task. And finally, they told her what they planned. Raggaatuu gladly respond to the leaders of OLF and told them that she would fulfill their demand very easily.

Few days later, a British man called Mick Wood, who was working for an American relief agency called “CARE International” was kidnapped from Galamso town. The staff members of his organization searched him for the whole day in the villages around the town and returned back with no result. After a day, Britain announced the kidnapping of one of her citizens in Hararge. Britain and USA started a joint search for the disappearing man in East Oromia. And after a week, BBC and VOA disclosed that Mick Wood was taken hostage by the armed wing of OLF.

The British Embassy in Addis Ababa negotiated with the kidnappers and Mick Wood was released around the city of Harar. After his release, he told BBC “I was kidnapped by a female OLF commander called Raggaatuu”.

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Raggaatuu’s other operation was accomplished in late 1993. As I said earlier, three top leaders of OLF were trapped in certain village and went out of the chain of command. The organization faced a difficulty to untrap the three leaders and take them to a safer area (some sources say that Obboo Galaasaa Dilboo was among the three people. But this doesn’t seem true). The thing caused a high tension among OLF leadership when it was learned that two of the three people were affected by malaria. Unless they got necessary treatment on time, their life would be at risk. However, nobody would come up with a good solution.

Raggaatuu heard about the situation and took a full responsibility to solve the crisis. She contemplated deeply and tried to see the matter from different angles. She learned that tacking a military action was the least efficient and a very risky scenario. Through some investigations on the socio- cultural conditions of the residents, she came to know that the people of the area had a strong tradition of celebrating “Mawlid” (the birth day of prophet Muhammad). Learning that, she concluded an arrangement of a Mawlid celebration could be the easiest way to take away the three leaders of OLF from the area.  That means, it was possible to transfer three leaders easily when the crowd was gathered to celebrate the feast in that area.

The celebration of “Mawlid” started on the planned day. Oxen and goats were slaughtered.. A huge crowd of people was assembled in the area for the feast. Accordingly, Raggaatuu took away the three OLF leaders and transferred them to a very safe area.

Only few people knew about the plan at the time. But when the government security forces got the information after two years, they took a savage action on the people of the area.

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Raggaatuu, the famous OLA commander, became sick in 1998. Accordingly, she lost all powers of leading her army unit. Further, a very high strife occurred in the central body of the organization and caused the army to divide. This trouble caused some of the fighters under her leadership to surrender to the EPRDF government; some crossed the boundary and went to Kenya and Somalia. Raggaatuu felt lonely. She was so confused about what happened.

Meanwhile, some of her family members heard about her sickness and rushed out to save her life. They asked her to surrender and get a medical treatment. At first, she fiercely opposed their plan. But when her relatives learned that she was about die, they hurriedly took her to Machara town and admitted her to a hospital. The doctors saved her life after some treatment and they told her to take a long time rest. This became a reason for her relatives to convince her to surrender and stay with them. Accordingly, she accepted their proposal and remained in Machara town.

Since her surrender in 1998, Raggaatuu has been a resident of Machara. She was married about ten years ago and became a mother of children. However, her courage and pride is still with her. She doesn’t welcome any kind of attack on her life and others. Especially she doesn’t tolerate the mistreatment of the weak people and women.

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Wikileaks on Tadesse Birru and early days of the OLF

TaddesseMandela(OPride) — The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has just published 1,707,500 U.S. diplomatic and intelligence documents from 1973 to 1976. While most of the latest documents have already been declassified and were available through the National Archives, WikiLeaks has created a searchable online database for quick access.

Several of the 1.7 million cables sent from U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia offer interesting insights into the gathering of rebellion against the Ethiopian rulers of the time, the Derg. The telegrams cover a wide range of topics including the formation of Oromo and Tigrean Liberation Fronts, and the execution of Tadesse Birru (pictured above with Nelson Mandela).

We have identified a few that deal with Oromo insurgency and earlier clandestine efforts to organize the Oromo Liberation Front in the center of the country. More than the details contained in the cables though, aside from an intriguing fact that American diplomats were keenly aware of the buildup of the rebellion, the files reveal how little has changed in Ethiopia, especially for the Oromo.

For instance, the documents show that the only one-hour Afan Oromo radio broadcast in the country, starting then for the first time, was heavily censored and controlled. Amhara observers apparently told the Americans that the broadcast would increase Oromo self-awareness, tribal consciousness as they called it, and ultimately “divide the country rather than to unite it.” While the coverage had expanded now, with a separate Oromia Radio and Television station, there is still no independent media in Afan Oromo. The Voice of America radio was beginning to feel the wrath of authorities who began pulling its broadcasts and alternating for more of  “Ethiopia Tikdem” programs, the official philosophy of Ethiopian socialism.

What’s more, in mid-70s too, Oromo students actively protested against government repression and mobilized the Oromo peasantry during Zemecha — a national mass education campaign with a focus on establishing farmers unions.  While other ethnic groups were not immune then, according to these cables, many Oromo students were dismissed and imprisoned, a practice that has become all too familiar in the last two decades. Oromo leaders were arrested and executed under trumped up charges, another practice that continues to date (minus the executions).

While there was a widespread and multi-ethnic resistance against the status quo, which was then mantained by ethnic Amharas, the Americans remarked, an outbreak of any serious Oromo rebellion had a destabilizing impact for whole of Ethiopia. In one cable from 1970, the embassy official noted, “Any effective coalition of traditionally disparate Oromo groups (estimated 40 percent of population) would have significant impact on stability and future directions country.”  The Oromo struggle, which was then only a clandestine effort to forge a unified and pan-Oromo resistance, has since achieved remarkable heights. Today there are a plethora of organizations, in and outside of the country, even if weak and divided, that are fighting for Oromo rights. But the Oromo remain largely marginalized with no real political power in Ethiopia.

We have extracted relevant excerpts from the cables as follows. Please note that, in all instances, we have updated the derogatory terms used to refer to Oromo. These includes Galla, Arusi, and Gallinga among others. The text below in ITALICS and Blockquotes (separated by … for readability) is copied from the Wikileaks documents verbartim, unless otherwise noted .

List of Acronyms:

EPMG – Ethiopian Provisional Military Government

IEG – Imperial Ethiopian Government

GSDR – Government of the Somali Democratic Republic

TFAI – French Territory of the Afars and Issas

Emb Off – Embassy Official/s

USG – United States Government

A detailed cable from January 1, 1970, one of the earliest from Addis Ababa in this series of Wikileaks trove, contained some interesting insights.

Recent events have spurred re-emergence of ethnic, religious and regional demands for administrative reform and for more proportional sharing of country’s economic and political benefits. Any effective coalition of traditionally disparate Oromo groups (estimated 40 percent of population) would have significant impact on stability and future directions country. There indications Oromo middle class, mainly from Shoa and Wollega, attempting to organize and to link up in varying degrees with Muslim organization, military and police dissidents, and local “people’s committees”. This group supports demands of provincial elite and parliamentarians for removal “irresponsible” local government officials, labor issues such as minimum wage and the widespread desire for land reform (particularly redistribution issue).

Northerners tend view Lij Endalkachew as Amhara chauvinist and hardliner on political concessions for Eritrea as well as other non-Amhara areas. “He is no unifier”. We would expect Zawde Begre-Salassie of Tigre (Yohannes IV) royal line is more acceptable, particularly to Eritreans and Tigreans.

Oromo elite, for example businessmen, parliamentarians and provincial town leaders, critical their current under-representation in cabinet and slow pace redressing balance exhibited in Endalkachew’s appointments so far. (Addis 4374; a-85 & 80). 4. Fairly reliable sources report existence Oromo coordinating committee in Addis. Oromo society said be headed by member parliamentary staff and composed of Oromo civil servants, businessmen and landowners primarily from Shoa, Wollega and Kaffa, i.e., those in “buffer group” which shares in political, economic benefits.

 …

Reportedly Oromo society not in particularly close or formal communication with military committee(s). Extent Oromo participation and co-ordination with Muslim organization not clear at this time, see Addis 4424. Society does not have direct links with Oromo self-help organizations and perhaps with remnants Gen. Taddesse Biru’s earlier coalition (see ref d). (We understand that after his recent escape from house arrest, Taddesse Biru was forgiven by emperor for role in 1966 revolt and is currently moving under loose control between Addis and his farm.)

Oromo society linked with people’s committee in Jimma and similar “underground movements” in Shoa, Wollega, Bale, Sidamo etc. While these committees are said to be composed of various ethnic elements banded together for purpose forcing removal corrupt officials and larger, exploitive Shoan landlords like Ras Mesfin, Oromo members also tend view committees as vehicles for greater autonomy and complete removal Amhara lords from Oromo lands. Oromo leadership on committees drawn from middle class, such as U.S. educated Chamber of Commerce representative, Yegezu Oda in Jimma and progressive lawyer in Ambo, Ato Argew.

According some Oromo politicians, Oromo landlords and “balabets”, e.g., in Shoa, are willing redistribute lands to their brethren and are aligning in context land reform issues on ethnic rather than class basis. (Reportedly Ras Mesfin has been attempting instill fear of peasant revolt in Oromo land- lords and unite them with Amharas in opposing land redistribution. He and certain government officials in Shoa said be preaching line of chaos, bloody civil war and Somali invasion should IEG implement land reform “too quickly”.)

Oromo leaders predict land reform in Christian Oromo highlands will not entail the bloodshed that they foresee in “newly conquered” territories, e.g., Sidamo, Bali, Arsi and Kaffa where landlords are mainly Amharas. (Also see Addis 4104, 3724, a-85 and 6127 (’73). Oromo leaders imply IEMF will support land distribution efforts and point out that large number officers and men are Christian Oromos and sympathetic minorities, e.g., gurage. They concerned about Territorial Army and emergency police (viewed as Amhara dominated) as well as expected opposition from Amhara landlords but claim they can muster forces of their own.

Oromo leaders tend be wary of USG and feel it has long demonstrated support for Amhara rule. When pressed they point to alleged us help in suppressing 1960 coup attempt. (They also tend view us economic aid as prop for Amhara regime.) Some Oromo town leaders, balabets, parliamentarians and businessmen have asked reporting officer what USG response would be if emperor/Endalkachew requested urgent military assistance or show for force to help preserve Shoan Amhara/aristocratic pre- eminence in face of “Oromo threat.” (Emb Off responded to sceptical questioners that USG has no intentions take sides in internal Ethiopian events or crises.)

Another cable entitled the South Heats Up, dated Wednesday December 24, 1975, show the diplomat’s confusion regarding some troubles in “Ethiopia’s deep south” at a time when the Derg was scoring some diplomatic success at the OAU and UN over Somalia.

Ambushes, mining incidents and reported infiltrations from Somalia into Bale, Arsi, Hararghe and Sidamo, are confusing. Elements are variously described as Somali soldiers, disciplined well-armed “military” wearing uniforms without insignia; Bale and/or Oromo Liberation Front fighters; Oromo and/or Somali speakers using vernaculars not normally found in Ethiopia; Ethiopian irregulars or (officially by the Ethiopians) — as bandits. Further developments will no doubt help us achieve a clearer understanding.”

Outbreak any serious Oromo dissidence, finally, could have destabilizing impact elsewhere in Ethiopia. It could strain Amhara/Oromo cooperation, which has been central to the Derg’s ability to date to contain Tigre dissidence in northern Ethiopia.

We note that Bale and Sidamo were theater of anti-Amhara insurgency in 1968, which was put down ruthlessly by then IEG. If current incidents spread, we would speculate that Derg might now look sufficiently embattled to tempt GSDR to launch further escalation. Risks to GSDR in helping rebels rekindle racial tensions conceivably appears acceptable in Mogadishu at present even if new insurrection fails catch on or peters out […] In current circumstances calculation may be that opening yet another front — Ogaden or wider — would stretch already badly overtaxed EPMG military capabilities even further, with attendant advantages should GSDR opt to pursue its ambitions in TFAI.

A detailed cable from April 3, 1974 contained information about a growing call for reform in more than half of Ethiopia’s then 18 provinces.  It also had a passing reference to General Tadesse Birru’s escape from house arrest. Birru, a celebrated military general, was one of the founders of the OLF.

Residents in provincial centers of at least eight of Ethiopia’s 14 provinces continue to press for removal/punishment of corrupt and inefficient government officials. In some cases, e.g. Arba Minch and Awassa, clashes with police resulted in deaths and injuries for demonstrators. We hear reports that local administration in number areas breaking down as officials remain absent their posts or are placed under house arrest by town residents. In Jima a people’s committee is managing town with police cooperation.

In three sessions this week parliamentarians from Kaffa, Arsi, Gamo Gofa and Illubabor in particular were outspoken in expressing criticism of local officials described as “arrogant mini-dictators.” New minister of Interior, Dej. Zewde, promised to consult cabinet on these problems and to address them in cabinet’s policy white paper, which is still under preparation. Deputies’ complaints include embezzlement of public funds raised for self-help projects; granting of land which was taken by force from peasants (deputy from Gamo Gofa listed over 20,000 hectares in his province granted imperial favorites last year); police brutality in handling public demonstrations; IEG’s indifference to drought-related suffering(see US info 01/1458); IEG retaliation to Oromo attacks in lake region.

While nature of local government varies in different areas, common theme running complaints now being voiced seems to be one of long-standing government irresponsibility and exploitation by local officials or urban and rural Inhabitants, particularly if they non-Shoan Amhara. (Report on local government structure and politics prepared in February ’74 by John Cohen for aid/w is most comprehensive analysis available.) Demands for removal government officials primarily generated by and confined to town dwellers. As far as we aware, movement has not yet catalyzed traditionally submissive rural peasantry.

Recent “Oromo uprising” over land ownership issues has remained centered on rift valley lake area (Addis 3037). There are indications, however, that Oromo sub-groups attempting organize autonomy movements. We note that gen. Tadesse Biru, leader of 1966 “Oromo revolt”, escaped house arrest last month. Oromo politicians also hinting to us that some type plans under preparation.

Six days later, a memo signed as Kissinger, originating from the State Department noted the difficulty of gathering information in Ethiopia but advised the local embassy to forward new information when it is available. The cable contained a series of questions including the following one that references Tadesse Birru:

We would appreciate additional reporting on ethnic, regional and religious cleavages within the military, particularly regarding the Oromos and the Tigrean- Eritrean majority within the air force. How close is the relationship of air force and student Tigreans and Eritreans? Is Endalkatchew viewed as anti-Eritrean? Would Zawde be more acceptable to Eritreans and Tigreans? What is the attitude of Tigrean-Eritrean military elements toward elf? What more is known about Tadesse Biru’s escape?

In response, a cable sent around March 1975, dealt with the Arrest of Oromo Insurgent Leaders, mainly General Tadesse Biru and Col. Hailu Regassa. In the analysis that followed the report, the official commented, Tadesse’s capture was a major setback for Oromo struggle “as other potential Oromo leaders of his stature [were] few and far between.”

Ethiopian media march 13 and 14 prominently feature arrest of BG Tadesse Biru and Lt. Col. Hailu Regassa with clutch of their “accomplices.” men, taken by security forces “in cooperation with the public”, are accused of opposing “Ethiopian popular movement” and attempting to incite rebellion. According media, they are to be charged before special general court martial today (March 14). Prisoners (pictures displayed on TV and in press.)

Media report that rebels were taken in village of Curo Mako in Meta Robi district, Menegesha, Shoa province, “where they have been hiding for some time.” According government spokesman, BG Tadesse and Lt. Col. Hailu attempted to incite rebellion on “tribal basis” to cover their true motives, which said be opposition to land reform. Deputy administrator of Meta Robi district reportedly was killed during shootout preceding arrest these men.

Department will recall that Tadesse Biru is storied Oromo leader long kept by ex-emperor in custody/house arrest for his rebellious past. Lt. Col. Hailu is highly educated soldier who had been assigned as vice-president of special General Court Martial now trying former officials. Press explains his dissidence by saying he was large landowner. Press also charges Hailu with theft of Eth $80,000 raised for drought relief, together with Maj. Abebe Gebre Mariam, who remains at large. Capture of Gen. Tadesse is sharp setback to Oromo dissidents, as other potential Oromo leaders of his stature few and far between. Conversely, it is quite a feather in EPMG’s camp. We note that EPMG confident enough in appeal its land reform among Oromos to attempt use BG Tadesse Biru’s putative opposition to it against him.

The same month, diplomats reported on the PMAC Trial and Execution of Oromo and other dissidents including General Tadesse and Meles Tekle, a Tigrean activist on whose tribute the late Ethiopian ruler, Legesse Zenawi, took his nom-de guerre, Meles.

Media march 18-19 reported the execution of Hailu Regassa, Tadesse Biru, Alula Bekelle, Rezene Kidane, Meless Tekle and Giday Gebre-Wahid late march 18 in addis ababa.

According press, these men had been tried by a special military court. Latter condemned hailu regassa to the capital penalty and the rest to life imprisonment. This verdict was reviewed by PMAC, which directed, on the basis of the evidence and the crimes with which these men were charged, that all be executed.

Hailu Regassa and Tadesse Biru were found guilty of “attempting to disrupt the ethiopian popular movement” and to oppose the nationalization of rural land. Department will recall (ref a) that these Oromo leaders were recently captured near Ambo.

Alula bekelle, described as a hard-core supporter of the old order who had abused his office to his own benefit, was charged with plotting “to disrupt the popular movement.” he resisted arrest last December 2 and “open fired on security forces during which innocent blood was shed before he was captured” (ref b).

The other three individuals were found responsible for the bomb explosions at city hall and Wabe Shebelle hotel last December 2 (cf ref c) “in which three innocent persons were killed and ten others seriously injured.” they and their accomplices, who are still at large, were also held accountable for the December 2 bomb explosion at bole airport’s fuel depot (ref d), “acts of terrorism which were meant to disrupt the Ethiopian popular movement and to create confusion among the people of Addis Ababa.”

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Another cable, from August 1975, entitled Disturbances in the Countrysidesummarized the brewing of early resistance against the Derg in Eritrea, Tigray, Begemedir, Gojjam, Wollo, Wollega and Shoa. The diplomat concluded, while there were at least two concurrent efforts to organize the Tigrean Liberation Front, the disruptions coming from Eritrea posed the most lethal threat to the Derg.

Wollega — according to two reports believed reliable, Dej. Dereje Makonnen is leading a dissident group near Fincha, which forced the evacuation of Zemetcha students from that area. Zemetcha students have reportedly been forced (for the second time) to evacuate Shambu Awraja because of local resistance to them. Unconfirmed reports place another dissident group in Ghimbi Awraja of western Wollega.

Shoa — the Biru brothers continue to operate in the Manz area of northern Shoa. EPMG forces may have suffered as many as 100 casualties in their efforts to dislodge the Birus and have apparently decided to ignore them for the time being. The dissident group in the Tegulet-Bulga area of eastern Shoa reportedly continues to operate in spite of the capture and execution of several of its leaders. A recent issue of Addis Zemen indicated that Asrat Getaneh, apparently the leader of the group, remains at large. Embassy has reports of fighting in Gurage country near Butajira, southeastern Shoa.

While we are unaware of the nature of the fighting, Ethiopian media in recent weeks continue to report that large number of insurgents, now totaling over 1,000 have rallied to the government side. Government controlled media have also indicated that there had been fighting in the Wolisso (Chion) area of western Shoa, two hours west of Addis Ababa by road. (This is an Oromo-inhabited area where General Tadesse Biru operated prior to his capture and execution.)

Hararghe — embassy has unconfirmed reports of a Somali Liberation Front and an Ogaden Liberation Front operating in Hararghe, and one report of an “Oromo army” (see Addis 9732). Hararghe is one of the only provinces where outlaw/dissident groups have specifically targeted foreigners, including a recent attack on the US navy team operating there. A UNDP team which was confronted by Somali nomads carrying enfield rifles lends credence to reports we have been hearing for five or six months now that Somalia received a large shipment of lee enfields (from Italy, the story goes) which it has been distributing among ethnic Somali nomads in the Ogaden encouraging them to take action against Ethiopian authorities there.

Bale — a Bale Liberation Front has been reported in existence for some ten years and although we have heard reports of scattered lawlessness (including the killing of a police officer in northern Bale recently), we are uncertain to whom to attribute these acts. The Zemetcha students have been very active in Bale, including organizing peasants against the Derg.

Arsi — Zemetcha students have been hyperactive in parts of Arsi, especially in the capital, Assela, where they organized three 150-member “red guard” units and in southern Arsi near Koffele. A student campaigner from Koffele indicated that some 80 Zemetcha students remain in jail in Koffele for killing a soldier. Embassy officers have witnessed Zemetcha-led peasants stopping traffic along the main road there.

After analyzing similar early resistance in other provinces, the cable summarized these “disturbances” as follows:

Although there are problems of one sort or another in all 14 provinces of Ethiopia, only the Eritrean insurgents and the Afar appear to pose any serious threat to the Derg. Gov. resources have consequently been concentrated in these areas, leaving many of the other areas to revert to local control. Since the other dissident groups are generally localized and lack adequate resources and coordination, they pose almost no threat to the Derg except insofar as it attempts to implement land reform in those areas. The leaders of these dissident groups are generally old order figures whose ox is being gored by land reform and the Derg’s other socialist policies.

The tribal warfare in Ethiopia is traditional and frequently ignored by the central govt. except when it affects outsiders. The tribal clashes have been exacerbated in some areas by Zematchoch (particularly Oromo students) and by the fact that the tribes themselves probably perceive the central govt. as exerting less control in their areas.

A follow up cable from May 1975 reported general calm and improvement of security in Illubabor, Wollega, and Kaffa provinces:

Kaffa province, especially around the Jimma region, had previously experienced rather severe disorders (see reftels) but these were resolved in early May. Apparently the chief administrator had given the Zematchoch Carte blanche to implement Ethiopian socialism, which they then used to expropriate animals and equipment from the balabats. This resulted in conflict between the Zemetcha and the peasants on one side and the police and landlords (mostly Amhara) on the other.

After several clashes, which involved loss of (30 peasants killed) and property the government finally restored order by sending the Zemetcha troublemakers (about 85) to Addis and returning other students to their posts in the countryside. The chief administrator, whom most observers blame for instigating the strife, has not been allowed to return to the province for the past two months. It is also widely rumored that the chief administrator was attempting to organize the Oromos into some form of Oromo liberation front. Two weeks prior to arrival of reporting officers Oromo and Amhara secondary students in Jimma clashed with some students being severely beaten.

A missionary source that knows the ex-awraja governor personally stated that he and 400 men are situated on a mountaintop near Shewa Gemira and are in opposition to the government. The airfield has reportedly been plowed up and SIM missionaries have been withdrawn from the area. Radio broadcasts in Afaan Oromo are very popular in all three provinces. Some observers (Amhara) fear that these broadcasts could result in increased tribal consciousness, which will tend to divide the country rather than to unite it.

Chaltu as Helen: an everyday story of Oromos traumatic identity change

Chaltu midhaksaby Tigist Geme

(OPride) – Author and novelist Tesfaye Gebreab released his eighth book “Ye Sidetengaw Mastawesha”  an immigrant’s memoir ­– online, as a free PDF, after an alleged fallout with his publisher,Netsanet Publishing Agency (NPA).

The dramatic decision to distribute the book for free – at an estimated loss of $30,000 – came, according to Tesfaye’s people, after NPA leaked a doctored copy of the book following the author’s refusal to omit two controversial chapters, one of which is about Oromo.

Tesfaye is not new to controversy, especially one involving the divergent Oromo and Ethiopian narratives. His well-received book, YeBurqa Zimita – the silence of Burqa – is the first major work of contemporary Amharic fiction with main Oromo characters based on a true story.

Tesfaye, who is of an Eritrean descent, grew up in Bishoftu in Oromia, central Ethiopia. He identifies himself as “Ijjoollee Bushooftu” meaning a proud Bishoftu native. His third major novel “Ye Bishoftu Qorxoch” and two subsequent memoirs, although less controversial, dealt with the plight of Oromo people under successive Ethiopian regimes.

Suffice to say, over the years, Tesfaye had distinguished himself as a controversial, introspective, and critical novelist by going against the tide of mainstream Ethiopianist narrative. For this, he’s been accused of many things, like being a paid Eritrean spy.

In the latest disputed book, one of the chapters that the publishers allegedly sought to censor was “Chaltu as Helen”, which is based on a novelized story of Chaltu Midhaksa, a young Oromo girl from Ada’aa Barga district, also in central Oromia.

Born to a farming family in Koftu, a small village south of Addis Ababa near Akaki, Chaltu led an exuberant childhood. Raised by her grandmother’s sister Gode, a traditional storyteller who lived over 100 years, the impressionable Chaltu mastered the history and tradition of Tulama Oromos at a very young age.

Chaltu’s captivating and fairytale like story, as retold by Tesfaye, begins when she was awarded a horse named Gurraacha as a prize for winning a Tulama history contest. Though she maybe the first and only female contestant, Chaltu won the competition by resoundingly answering eleven of the twelve questions she was asked.

Guraacha, her pride and constant companion, became Chaltu’s best friend and she took a good care of him. Gurraacha was a strong horse; his jumps were high, and Chaltu understood his pace and style.

A masterful rider and an envy to even her male contemporaries, Chaltu soon distinguished herself as bold, confident, outspoken, assertive, and courageous. For this, she quickly became a household name among the Oromo from Wajitu to Walmara, Sera to Dawara, Bacho to Cuqala, and Dire to Gimbichu, according to Tesfaye.

Chaltu traces her lineage to the Galan, one of the six clans of Tulama Oromo tribe. At the height of her fame, admirers – young and old – addressed her out of respect as “Caaltuu Warra Galaan!” – Chaltu of the Galan, and “Caaltuu Haadha Gurraacha!” – Chaltu the mother of Gurraacha.

Chaltu’s disarming beauty, elegance, charisma, and intelligence coupled with her witty personality added to her popularity. Chaltu’s tattoos from her chin to her chest, easily noticeable from her light skin, made her look like of a “Red Indian descent” (Tesfaye’s words).

As per Tesfaye’s account, there wasn’t a parent among the well-to-do Oromos of the area who did not wish Chaltu betrothed to their son. At 14, Chaltu escaped a bride-kidnapping attempt by outracing her abductors.

Chaltu’s grandfather Banti Daamo, a well-known warrior and respected elder, had a big family. Growing up in Koftu, Chaltu enjoyed being surrounded by a large network of extended family, although she was the only child for her parents.

Recognizing Chaltu’s potential, her relatives suggested that she goes to school, which was not available in the area at the time. However, fearing that she would be abducted, Chaltu’s father arranged her marriage to a man of Ada’aa family from Dire when she turned 15.

Locals likened Chaltu’s mannerism to her grandfather Banti Daamo, earning her yet another nickname as “Caaltuu warra Bantii Daamo” – Chaltu of Banti Daamo. She embraced the namesake because many saw her as an heir to Banti Daamo’s legacy, a role usually preserved for the oldest male in the family. Well-wishers blessed her: prosper like your grandparents. She embraced and proudly boasted about continuing her grandfather’s heritage calling herself Chaltu Banti Daamo.

Others began to call her Akkoo [sic] Xinnoo, drawing a comparison between Chaltu and a legendary Karrayu Oromo woman leader after whom Ankobar was named.

Chaltu’s eccentric life took on a different trajectory soon after her marriage. She could not be a good wife as the local tradition and custom demanded; she could not get along with an alcoholic husband who came home drunk and abused her.

When Chaltu threatened to dissolve the marriage, as per Oromo culture, elders intervened and advised her to tolerate and reconcile with her husband. Rebellious and nonconformist by nature, Chaltu, who’s known for challenging old biases and practices, protested “an alcoholic cannot be a husband for Banti Daamo’s daughter!”

Soon she left her husband and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to attend formal education and start a new chapter in life.

Trouble ensues.

In Addis Ababa, her aunt Mulumebet’s family welcomed Chaltu. Like Chaltu, Mulumebet grew up in Koftu but later moved to Addis Ababa, and changed her given name from Gadise in order to ‘fit’ into the city life.

Subsequently, Mulumebet sat down with Chaltu to provide guidance and advice on urban [Amhara] ways.

“Learning the Amharic language is mandatory for your future life,” Mulumebet told Chaltu. “If you want to go to school, first you have to speak the language; in order to learn Amharic, you must stop speaking Afaan Oromo immediately; besides, your name Chaltu Midhaksa doesn’t match your beauty and elegance.”

“I wish they did not mess you up with these tattoos,” Mulumebet continued, “but there is nothing I could do about that…however, we have to give you a new name.”

Just like that, on her second day in Addis, Caaltuu warra Galaan became Helen Getachew.

Chaltu understood little of the dramatic twists in her life. She wished the conversation with her aunt were a dream. First, her name Chaltu means the better one, her tattoos beauty marks.

She quietly wondered, “what is wrong with my name and my tattoos? How can I be better off with a new name that I don’t even know what it means?”

Of course she had no answers for these perennial questions. Most of all, her new last name Getachew discomforted her. But she was given no option.

The indomitable Chaltu had a lot to learn.

A new name, new language, new family, and a whole new way of life, the way of civilized Amhara people. Chaltu mastered Amharic in a matter of weeks. Learning math was no problem either, because Chaltu grew up solving math problems through oral Oromo folktale and children’s games like Takkeen Takkitumaa.

Chaltu’s quick mastery amazed Dr. Getachew, Mulumebet’s husband. This also made her aunt proud and she decided to enroll Chaltu in an evening school. The school matched Chaltu, who’s never set foot in school, for fourth grade. In a year, she skipped a grade and was placed in sixth grade. That year Chaltu passed the national exit exam, given to all sixth graders in the country, with distinction.

But her achievements in school were clouded by a life filled with disappointments, questions, and loss of identity. Much of her troubles came from Mulumebet packaged as life advice.

“Helen darling, all our neighbors love and admire you a lot,” Mulumebet told Chaltu one Sunday morning as they made their way into the local Orthodox Church. “There is not a single person on this block who is not mesmerized by your beauty…you have a bright future ahead of you as long as you work on your Amharic and get rid of your Oromo accent…once you do that, we will find you a rich and educated husband.”

Chaltu knew Mulumebet had her best interest at heart. And as a result never questioned her counsel. But her unsolicited advises centered mostly on erasing Chaltu’s fond childhood memories and making her lose touch with Oromummaa – and essentially become an Amhara.

Chaltu spent most of her free time babysitting Mulumebet’s children, aged 6 and 8. She took care of them and the kids loved her. One day, while the parents were away, lost in her own thoughts, Chaltu repeatedly sang her favorite Atetee – Oromo women’s song of fertility – in front of the kids.

That night, to Chaltu’s wild surprise, the boys performed the song for their parents at the dinner table. Stunned by the revelation, Mulumebet went ballistic and shouted, “Are you teaching my children witchcraft?”

Mulumebet continued, “Don’t you ever dare do such a thing in this house again. I told you to forget everything you do not need. Helen, let me tell you for the last time, everything you knew from Koftu is now erased…forget it all! No Irreechaa, no Waaree, no Okolee, no Ibsaa, No Atetee, and no Wadaajaa.”

Amused by his wife’s dramatic reaction, Getachew inquired, “what does the song mean, Helen?” Chaltu told him she could not explain it in Amharic. He added, “If it is indeed about witchcraft, we do not need a devil in this house…Helen, praise Jesus and his mother, Mary, from now on.”

“Wait,” Getachew continued, “did you ever go to church when you were in Koftu? What do they teach you there?”

Chaltu acknowledged that she’s been to a church but never understood the sermons, conducted in Amharic, a language foreign to her until now. “Getachew couldn’t believe his ears,” writes Tesfaye. But Getachew maintained his cool and assured Chaltu that her mistake would be forgiven.

Chaltu knew Atetee was not a witchcraft but a women’s spiritual song of fertility and safety. All Oromo women had their own Atetee.

Now in her third year since moving to Addis, Chaltu spoke fluent Amharic. But at school, in the market, and around the neighborhood, children bullied her daily. It was as if they were all given the same course on how to disgrace, intimidate, and humiliate her.

“You would have been beautiful if your name was not Chaltu,” strangers and classmates, even those who knew her only as Helen, would tell her. Others would say to Chaltu, as if in compliment, “if you were not Geja (an Amharic for uncivilized), you would actually win a beauty pageant…they messed you up with these tattoos, damn Gallas!”

Her adopted name and mastery of Amharic did not save Chaltu from discrimination, blatant racism, hate speech, and ethnic slurs. As if the loss of self was not enough, seventh grade was painfully challenging for Chaltu. One day when the students returned from recess to their assigned classes, to her classmate’s collective amusement, there was a drawing of a girl with long tattooed neck on the blackboard with a caption: Helen Nikise Gala – Helen, the tattooed Gala. Gala is a disparaging term akin to a Nigger used in reference to Oromos. As Chaltu sobbed quietly, their English teacher Tsige walked in and the students’ laughter came to a sudden halt. Tsige asked the classroom monitor to identity the insulting graffiti’s artist. No one answered. He turned to Chaltu and asked, “Helen, tell me who drew this picture?”

She replied, “I don’t know teacher, but Samson always called me Nikise Gala.”

Tsige was furious. Samson initially denied but eventually admitted fearing corporal punishment. Tsige gave Samson a lesson of a lifetime: “Helen speaks two language: her native Afaan Oromo and your language Amharic, and of course she is learning the third one. She is one of the top three students in the class. You speak one language and you ranked 41 out of 53 students. I have to speak to your parents tomorrow.”

Athletic and well-mannered, Chaltu was one of the best students in the entire school. But she could not fathom why people gossiped about her and hurled insults at her.

Banned from speaking Afaan Oromo, Chaltu could not fully express feelings like sorrow, regrets, fear and happiness in Amharic. To the extent that Mulumebet wished Chaltu would stop thinking in Oromo, in one instance, she asked Chaltu to go into her bedroom to lament the death of a relative by singing honorific praise as per Oromo custom. Chaltu’s break came one afternoon when the sport teacher began speaking to her in Afaan Oromo, for the first time in three years. She sobbed from a deep sense of loss as she uttered the words: “I am from Koftu, the daughter of Banti Daamo.” Saying those words alone, which were once a source of her pride, filled Chaltu with joy, even if for that moment.

Chaltu anxiously looked forward to her summer vacation and a much-needed visit to Koftu. But before she left, Mulumebet warned Chaltu not to speak Afaan Oromo during her stay in Koftu. Mulumebet told Chaltu, “Tell them that you forgot how to speak Afaan Oromo. If they talk to you in Oromo, respond only in Amharic. Also, tell them that you are no longer Chaltu. Your name is Helen.”

Getachew disagreed with his wife. But Chaltu knew she has to oblige. On her way to Koftu, Chaltu thought about her once golden life; the time she won Gurracha in what was only a boys’ competition, and how the entire village of Koftu sang her praises.

Her short stay in Koftu was dismal. Gurraacha was sold for 700 birr and she did not get to see him again. Chaltu’s parents were dismayed that her name was changed and that she no longer spoke their language.

A disgruntled and traumatized Chaltu returns to Addis Ababa and enrolls in 9th grade. She then marries a government official and move away from her aunt’s protective shield. The marriage ends shortly thereafter when Chaltu’s husband got caught up in a political crosshair following Derg’s downfall in 1991. Chaltu was in financial crisis. She refused an advice from acquintances to work as a prostitute.

At 24, the once vibrant Chaltu looked frail and exhausted. The regime change brought some welcome news. Chaltu was fascinated and surprised to watch TV programs in Afaan Oromo or hear concepts like “Oromo people’s liberation, the right to speak one’s own language, and that Amharas were feudalists.”

Chaltu did not fully grasp the systematic violence for which was very much a victim. She detested how she lost her values and ways. She despised Helen and what it was meant to represent. But it was also too late to get back to being Chaltu. She felt empty. She was neither Helen nor Chaltu.

She eventually left Addis for Koftu and asked her parents for forgiveness. She lived a few months hiding in her parent’s home. She avoided going to the market and public squares.

In a rare sign of recovery from her trauma, Chaltu briefly dated a college student who was in Koftu for a winter vacation. When he left, Chaltu lapsed back into her self-imposed loneliness and state of depression. She barely ate and refused interacting with or talking to anyone except her mother.

One afternoon, the once celebrated Chaltu warra Galaan took a nap after a coffee break and never woke up. She was 25.

The bottom line: Fictionalized or not, Chaltu’s is a truly Oromo story. Chaltu is a single character in Tesfaye’s book but lest we forget, in imperial Ethiopia, generations of Chaltu’s had to change their names and identity in order to fit in and be “genuine Ethiopians.” Until recently, one has to wear an Amhara mask in order to be beautiful, or gain access to educational and employment opportunities.

Likewise, in the Ethiopia of today’s “freedom of expression advocates” – who allegedly sought to censor Tesfaye – it appears that a story, even a work of fiction, is fit to print only when it conforms to the much-romanticized Ethiopianist storyline.

So much has changed since Chaltu’s tragic death a little over a decade ago, yet, clearly, much remains the same in Ethiopia. Honor and glory to Oromo martyrs, whose selfless sacrifices had allowed for me to transcribe this story, the Oromo today – a whole generation of Caaltuus – are ready to own, reclaim, and tell their stories.

Try, as they might, the ever-vibrant Qubee generation will never be silenced, again.


*The writer, Tigist Geme, is a DC-based citizen journalist and an Oromo rights activist. Editor’s note: the above cover photo by William Palank is not in any way related to Chaltu or Geme’s story. It is used here only as a place holder.

Ethiopia: Political Detainees Tortured

Police Abuse Journalists, Opponents to Extract Confessions

hrwOctober 18, 2013, Nairobi (Human Rights Watch) – Ethiopian authorities have subjected political detainees to torture and other ill-treatment at the main detention center in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government should take urgent steps to curb illegal practices in the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, known as Maekelawi, impartially investigate allegations of abuse, and hold those responsible to account.
The 70-page report, “‘They Want a Confession’: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station,” documents serious human rights abuses, unlawful interrogation tactics, and poor detention conditions in Maekelawi since 2010. Those detained in Maekelawi include scores of opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, and alleged supporters of ethnic insurgencies. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 35 former Maekelawi detainees and their relatives who described how officials had denied their basic needs, tortured, and otherwise mistreated them to extract information and confessions, and refused them access to legal counsel and their relatives.
“Ethiopian authorities right in the heart of the capital regularly use abuse to gather information,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. “Beatings, torture, and coerced confessions are no way to deal with journalists or the political opposition.”
Since the disputed elections of 2005, Ethiopia has intensified its clampdown on peaceful dissent. Arbitrary arrest and political prosecutions, including under the country’s restrictive anti-terrorism law, have frequently been used against perceived opponents of the government who have been detained and interrogated at Maekelawi.

Aerial view of “Maekelawi” compound, the main federal police investigation center, in Central Addis Ababa, on February 18, 2013. © DigitalGlobe 2013; Source Google Earth

Maekelawi officials, primarily police investigators, have used various methods of torture and ill-treatment against those in their custody. Former detainees described to Human Rights Watch being slapped, kicked, and beaten with various objects, including sticks and gun butts, primarily during interrogations. Detainees also described being held in painful stress positions for hours upon end, hung from the wall by their wrists, often while being beaten.
A student from Oromiya described being shackled for several months in solitary confinement: “When I wanted to stand up it was hard: I had to use my head, legs, and the walls to stand up. I was still chained when I was eating. They would chain my hands in front of me while I ate and then chain them behind me again afterward.”
Detention conditions in Maekelawi’s four primary detention blocks are poor but vary considerably. In the worst block, known as “Chalama Bet” (dark house in Amharic), former detainees said their access to daylight and to a toilet were severely restricted, and some were held in solitary confinement. Those in “Tawla Bet” (wooden house) complained of limited access to the courtyard outside their cells and flea infestations. Investigators use access to basic needs and facilities to punish or reward detainees for their compliance with their demands, including by transferring them between blocks. Short of release, many yearn to be transferred to the block known as “Sheraton,” named for the international hotel, where movement is freer.
Detainees held in Chalama Bet and Tawla Bet were routinely denied access to their lawyers and relatives, particularly in the initial phase of detention. Several family members told Human Rights Watch that they had visited Maekelawi daily but that officials denied them access to their detained relative until the lengthy investigation phase was over. The absence of a lawyer during interrogations increases the likelihood of abuse, and limits the chances for documenting abuse and obtaining redress.
“Cutting detainees off from their lawyers and relatives not only heightens the risk of abuse but creates enormous pressure to comply with the investigators’ demands,” Lefkow said. “Those in custody in Maekelawi need lawyers at their interrogations and access to their relatives, and should be promptly charged before a judge.”
Human Rights Watch found that investigators used coercive methods, including beatings and threats of violence, to compel detainees to sign statements and confessions. These statements have sometimes been used to exert pressure on people to work with the authorities after they are released, or used as evidence in court.
Martin Schibbye, a Swedish journalist held in Maekelawi in 2011, described the pressure used to extract confessions: “For most people in Maekelawi, they keep them until they give up and confess, you can spend three weeks with no interviews, it’s just waiting for a confession, it’s all built around confession. Police say it will be sorted in court, but nothing will be sorted out in court.”
Detainees have limited channels for redress for ill-treatment.  Ethiopia’s courts lack independence, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Despite numerous allegations of abuse by defendants, including people held under the anti-terrorism law, the courts have taken inadequate steps to investigate these allegations or to protect defendants complaining of mistreatment from reprisals.
The courts should be more proactive in responding to complaints of mistreatment, but that can happen only if the government allows the courts to act independently and respects their decisions, Human Rights Watch said.
Ethiopia has severely restricted independent human rights investigation and reporting in recent years, hampering monitoring of detention conditions in Maekelawi. The governmental Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has visited Maekelawi three times since 2010 and publicly raised concerns about incommunicado detention. However, former detainees told Human Rights Watch that Maekelawi officials were present during those visits, preventing them from talking with commission members privately, and questioned their impact.
Improved human rights monitoring in Maekelawi and other detention facilities requires revision of two repressive laws, the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. These laws have significantly reduced independent human rights monitoring and removed basic legal safeguards against torture and ill-treatment in detention.
Ethiopia’s constitution and international legal commitments require officials to protect all detainees from mistreatment, and the Ethiopian authorities at all levels have a responsibility both to end abusive practices and to prosecute those responsible. While the Ethiopian government has developed a three-year human rights action plan that acknowledges the need to improve the treatment of detainees, the plan does not address physical abuse and torture; it focuses on capacity building rather than on the concrete political action needed to end the routine abuse.
“More funds and capacity building alone will not end the widespread mistreatment in Maekelawi and other Ethiopian detention centers,” Lefkow said. “Real change demands action from the highest levels of government against all those responsible to root out the underlying culture of impunity.”