A Diary of Uncertainty - 2

OLF flagThe welcoming back to Ethiopia of opposition groups previously labelled “terrorist” by the government extended to more than just Professor Berhanu’s “Patriotic Ginbot 7” – it also included the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and its leader, Dawud Ibsa, who had been in exile for 20 years and would arrive back in Addis on Saturday 15th September. The rioting and violence we experienced on the Thursday and Friday before his arrival was a conflict over flags – Oromo people, especially bands of youths, wanted to raise the OLF flag in Addis Ababa in place of the Ethiopian flags that had sprung up everywhere to welcome Prof Berhanu the previous week. Violence ensued, and it was about to worsen significantly.

Saturday 15th September
After the excitement of the last two days we lie low at Bingham. We have enough food and supplies to last a while, and going out shopping today would be unwise – there’s a huge gathering in the city to welcome the OLF and their leader Dawud Ibsa.A full Meskel Square The security WhatsApp groups start buzzing before we get up – with news of the gathering crowds and details of the violence and flag protests from yesterday. Meskel Square fills up with Oromo people welcoming the OLF leadership, while we begin hearing that there has been a serious outbreak of violence in a suburb of Addis Ababa a few kilometres to the west of us, with rumours of numerous deaths. All is quiet around Bingham. We need to go to church tomorrow.

Haile's daughter and a random friend using the ink stamps we gave themOur journey to church is uneventful, save for an old discarded metal telegraph pole that had been used as a barricade on the ring road yesterday, and nearby some damaged tarmac that looks very much like a tyre was burned there. After church we travel over to Haile’s place with no problems, and have a lovely lunch with his family, returning to Bingham in time to take in the Singapore Formula 1 grand prix on the old TV in the teachers’ lounge.

Hoping for a normal day, at 7:30am Haile and I have an uneventful journey to the HQ clinic. By 8:30am the WhatsApp groups are singing – blocked roads, reports of riots around the university, and some deaths in the north of the city. By 9:50am I’m told that 200 riot police have shown up at the ring road junction near Bingham. Soon after that from our windows on the second floor of the HQ office building we can both see and hear a huge crowd of protesters heading down the main road towards Meskel Square. Our compound, which sits on a corner facing a major junction, is soon surrounded by chanting, flag-bearing youth, also heading for Meskel Square. Here’s 1½ minutes of what it was like (this was shot on my phone, and some of it through a closed window):

Loud demonstrations are now occurring in Kolfe within earshot of Bingham, and for the second time in a few days the school goes into lock-down, as tear-gas is again employed to disperse the crowds. By lunchtime the demonstrations around HQ have dispersed peacefully, and I begin considering how to return to Bingham. HQ staff are sent home and told not to come back on Tuesday. Bingham decides to close tomorrow as well, so assuming I can travel back home we will have another day waiting for things to return to normal. To add to the fun, the single government-controlled telecommunications provider switches off mobile Internet across the city. Despite reports of large crowds in Kolfe I phone Haile and he comes to collect me. I advise him we mustn’t use the ring road and should go a back-street route as the junction we would need to use is closed. Heading towards the school we are confronted with flag-bearing crowds heading away from Kolfe, suggesting the protest is over. Despite this, we avoid the normal route, navigating our way north of the school and dropping down to the front gate through cobblestoned lanes without further incident.

With time on my hands and only one phone call asking for medical advice, I set to, sorting out the satellite phones. The SIM cards are working now, apparently just in time for all the unrest to settle. News reports are now filtering through that in the suburb near Bingham 58 people have died in rioting and looting. Some of our Ethiopian staff at Bingham who live in the affected areas have had property damage, but no injuries. Some were not able to return home and have stayed in the relative safety of the school compound. Thousands of people have been displaced by the problems and many are coming to the area around the school, with 150 or so being put up in the Kolfe Youth Centre a short way to the south. Today though, all is quiet. We are beginning to understand that the attempts by Oromo youth to raise OLF flags in Addis Ababa last Thursday had precipitated the problems, as Addis residents objected. Rioting, looting and attacks on other minority people groups resulted in the deaths over the weekend. The protests yesterday were the residents of Addis Ababa trying spontaneously to organise a protest in Meskel Square, but were prevented from doing so by the federal police. The demonstrations around HQ were ultimately peaceful, with local people calling for an end to the violence[1].

Today we wake to chaos. While I’m trying very hard not to be awake at 6:18am, Chris’s phone rings. Late yesterday evening the US Embassy in Addis tweeted that a large protest was planned for today and as a result they were closing the embassy and sending all their staff home. A large international school decided to follow suit, and soon after so did Bingham. Teachers had therefore been up for some time phoning parents to tell them that the school would be closed yet again. Chris (a morning person and as bright as a button) tells me (an evening person and still groaning and barely able to see, let alone walk) that there’s more trouble predicted so I better get up and find out what the WhatsApp groups are saying. Once fully conscious, I start feeling a little suspicious - there is no corroborating evidence about the threat of more protests, and the closures are predicated on just one tweet from the US embassy. I should be doing a clinic here at Bingham this morning, but no Ethiopian staff will be coming and suddenly, as I’m thinking I should be heading to HQ, city-wide mobile Internet is switched back on. Slowly reports of complete normality around the city begin creeping in. I decide to head off to HQ (I drive myself on Wednesdays), and apart from a significant increase in the number of donkeys wandering the streets near the “teff” market, all is well. By 10:30am the Federal Police Commission has issued a statement that no demonstrations are going to happen today, and has dismissed the warning that there might be as “false information issued by some Addis Ababa-based international agencies…” – for which read the US embassy. Oops. To make use of a student-free day Chris joins a group of teachers heading off to the Kolfe Youth Centre to entertain some of the displaced children still staying there. Everything will be back to normal tomorrow, but I still haven’t quite finalised exactly what to do with these satellite phones…

[1] It’s important to understand that Addis Ababa is the capital of federal Ethiopia, and is surrounded by but is not part of Oromia, the territory of one of the largest people groups – the Oromo. For a long time they have wanted Addis Ababa to be part of Oromia but the government has protected, sometimes violently, the legal separation of the city from the land around.

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