Over the past eleven months the Oromo people, an ethnic group comprising about 40% of the population of Ethiopia, have been holding demonstrations throughout Ethiopia. The protests originally began over land disputes, but have since taken on a wider format calling for social and political reform. External rights groups have said that the death toll, inflicted by the government, has reached 500+ people.
On October 2nd, I joined a few journalists and photographers based in Ethiopia to cover the biggest cultural festival of the year for the Oromo people called Irreecha, in Bishoftu, a small town an hour or so outside of Addis Ababa. Initially our trip was to document the festival, but it ultimately saw us face to face with a demonstration aligned with the “Oromo Protest” movement.
We were invited by the Ethiopian Government Communication Affairs Office to report on the festival. The trip from Addis to Bishoftu is short, about 30km. A fellow journalist and I traveled separately from the main government sponsored group, and paid all of our own expenses.
We spent the night and the following morning the festival began. We walked to the venue, a moderately sized stage, off the main thoroughfare of town, where thousands of people had already gathered, chanting protest slogans and holding their hands in an “X”, the symbol of the protest.
It was not yet 8 A.M.
I was surprised that so many demonstrators had already gathered, and that both the officials and Oromo police forces had allowed it to reach this size. My work over past few months had brought me close to the situation, and certainly everyone living in the greater Addis area and much of the Ethiopian Diaspora are aware of the heightening tension.
Until I physically entered a space so close to the demonstrators I had remained somewhat removed; I had anticipated the protest, but it still felt unexpected and rather imposing. When I began photographing the crowd, they started to become more active and responsive to the camera. Photographing them seemed to validate the legitimacy and power of their gathering.
The ceremonial aspect of the festival took place at Lake Hora, a few minutes walk from the main stage. People filed down to the water to participate in the ritual washing ceremony. They dipped flowers and long thin pieces of grass into the water to cleanse themselves.
As people walked to the lake, many assumed similar protest behavior, marching, chanting, and holding their hands in the "X" symbol. I observed children imitating the adults as they held their arms up with the same gesture, certainly not aware of what the it symbolizes. Their protest anthem echoed the chants emerging from the stage. As the washing rituals commenced, the chanting continued, most people seemed to accept both could occur simultaneously.
While participants seemed to accept both expressions, it was rather confusing to see a cultural celebration marked with peaceful rituals and smiles occur alongside an anti-government protest.
In a way it was the perfect venue. The amount of backlash the government would receive from canceling the biggest cultural event of the Oromo calendar would be much greater (they hoped) than allowing, and closely monitoring, a festival they organized.
As the morning progressed, the crowd became increasingly dense, the venue got smaller, the din became louder. While some sources predicted over one million people had gathered, the venue could not have accommodated that crowd, it felt closer to tens of thousands.
The program included speeches, but with so many people gathered and chanting, no address could take place over the noise. Eventually a man emerged on stage and used the platform to advance incendiary comments against the government. He yelled to the support crowd, “down down Woyane”, “down down TPLF”. I was surprised he successfully assumed the stage, as he was clearly not part of the group of elders; however, everyone listened and watched, no one stopped him.
The man’s comments further angered the crowd and they continued to push closer to the stage.
It was difficult to determine if people were surprised that a protest had manifested and continued to grow, or if they had hopefully anticipated this event.
Throughout the event, and even as the crowd came closer to the stage, the Oromia Regional police maintained a line in front of it, some had batons, some were unarmed.
We were waiting for the moment just beyond the point when the protestors would be no longer permitted to act out, the morning had built to this moment and I felt continuously aware that it would occur - and that it would occur soon. None of us could really predict what would happen, but most agreed it would probably end in an ugly way.
Members of the crowd began scrambling onto the stage, which was undoubtedly the moment that I felt was coming; the act that would cause the police to step in and definitively end the protest.
Those men who were pushed off of the stage retaliated by picking up rocks, dirt, water bottles and whatever else they could find to throw at the police. The police responded with baton strikes, teargas, and AK fire into the air; likely a combination of real and rubber bullets.
The crowd dispersed instantly, and within minutes the field in front of the stage was clear.
I inhaled teargas and was hit on the back by a police officer with a baton. I decided it was best to move away from the front, the most risky area with the police being both the source of the violence and also the target.
After moving away from the front and reconnecting with the other journalists with whom I had come, we began to hear wailing and crying from the far side of the field. The people who had been at the back of the crowd had been pushed into the tree line by the mass of people in the front. The rear of the venue was bordered by a deep ravine which sloped down for a few meters before it steeply dropped off into a two meter ditch.
People were trampled and pushed into the gully, many had fallen on top of each other. Many were badly injured while others were killed. The people who weren’t injured formed human chains to pull out the others. The Ethiopian Red Cross responded by carrying off those who were injured or dead, using vehicles to move them out of the area and toward more adequate care.
The death, injuries, and violence could have been avoided. The authorities were not prepared to safely control the crowd. Easily accessible and clear exit strategies did not exist. There were too many people allowed into the small space. No one organized where people could gather or pass through safely. The way the crowd was continuously allowed to grow felt increasingly dangerous and was a primary factor in the tragedy.
Protests are normally broken up before they become dangerous. Protests usually occur under the watchful control of the authorities that permit the protest to manifest only to extent that they can respond as soon as the gathering becomes out of hand. This felt different, it seemed like the police waited for the protest to move past dangerous to justify their violence back.
Conflicting reports about the death toll have surfaced, the aftermath remains unsettling and feels increasingly unresolved. The government claims a limited number of causalities while the opposition points to as many as 600, both accounts are erroneous. This misreporting is not the path to a resolution and instead further fuels the conflict and moves the two sides further apart. This is not fair to the public, especially those grieving the loss of loved ones.
It remains difficult to foresee the next phase of the dispute. A week after the incident the Ethiopian government issued a State of Emergency. Factories, lodges, and shipping trucks have been looted, and burned. Many Ethiopians and one foreigner have been killed. There have been numerous reports of indiscriminate aggression against vehicles on the road .
In the scope of the unrest thus far, the incident in Bishoftu was a major tipping point in a cascading conflict. It is definitely not the end. There remains great uncertainty among rest of the country and world as they attempt to understand the events, and seek to explain what has happened, in the midst of tragedy.