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Rights groups call for urgent investigation of Ethiopian Anwak massacre claims

13 January 2004

The reported massacre of ethnic Anwak civilians in the Gambela region of Western Ethiopia in mid December 2003, has caused grave concern amongst NGO commentators. Reports from the region have claimed a death toll of over 400 following an incident in which a vehicle carrying UN and government refugee officials was ambushed by unknown assailants, killing eight. The Ethiopian government has stated that only 57 were killed and that the violence was ethnic in nature, stemming from ‘ancient hatreds’ between rival Anwak and Nuer ethnic groups1, and that government troops were deployed to restore order to the region. However, conflicting reports have implicated elements of the military in the massacre, leading to calls for a full and urgent investigation by human rights groups who fear further incidents.

On 29 December the massacre was confirmed to US anti-genocide group, Genocide Watch, by US State Department officials, who said that the US Embassy in Addis Ababa had protested at the highest level to the Ethiopian government. Following the violence, three to five thousand Anwak whose homes had been burned are reported to have gathered in a Church compound in Gambela in fear for their lives. Conflicting claims over the causes and protagonists of the violence have led to urgent calls by rights groups, including Minority Rights Group International (MRG), for an investigation and immediate measures by the Ethiopian government to guarantee the security of all ethnic groups in the region. Local sources have spoken of heightened tensions between ethnic groups and stock-piling of armaments, with one source describing Gambela as ‘like a warfield’. Others have laid the blame with government soldiers who, they claim, attacked the Anwak and encouraged other tribal groups to do so. Fear of a secessionist movement and attempts to remove the Anwak from lands where oil reserves have been located were stated as possible motives for the attacks on the Anwak.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts of the Gambela massacre have described circumstances including the dehumanising treatment of victim’s bodies and the existence of mass graves, patterns of rape of women, control of information and restricted access to the region, and the targeting of the educated and community leaders who could lead resistance efforts. These factors are consistent with those identified by groups including the International Campaign to End Genocide (ICEG) as indicators of potential ‘genocidal intent’ based on situations such as the Rwandan massacres in 1994. Reports of an earlier massacre of Anwak in July 2002 failed to reach the international media until January 2003, highlighting the difficulties in accessing and validating information from the region. These reports have fueled concern among international observers over possible further attacks targeted at particular ethnic groups. The UNHCR pulled non-essential staff out the region following the December incidents and relief agency, World Relief, state that 16,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

Minority Rights Group International, a member of the ICEG coalition, supports calls for close monitoring of the situation in the region by bodies including the African Union and the UN Security Council, with the assistance of NGOs and International Agencies, to ensure the security of all ethnic groups. An assessment of the humanitarian situation in the region is urgently required to ensure that relief can be provided to the victims of the violence whose immediate needs may include food, water, shelter and medical care. The situation and needs of women who may have been the victims of rape must also be a priority. A full and independent investigation into the violence should be carried out with those found to be guilty of crimes brought to justice in order to ensure an end to the violence.

Notes for editors

  1. The Anwak are predominantly agriculturalists who also practice subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering. According to a Minority Rights Group International report, Anwak society underwent radical social and cultural changes during the Mengistu regime, when the area was targeted for agricultural development policies. Various projects, including the forced resettlement of 50,000 – 60,000 people from elsewhere in Ethiopia, irrigation and mechanized agriculture, have had a drastic impact upon their livelihood and led to tension between ethnic groups and between the Anwak and the Ethiopian government.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].