“I am worried,” says Eyasped Tesfaye, a member of the opposition Blue Party, saying it is taboo to talk about the reported 150 people allegedly killed by Ethiopian security forces in the capital. “The people in the Oromia region are under martial law,” he adds.
Tesfaye is referring to the ongoing protests that have been attributed to Qeerroo, the national youth movement for freedom and democracy, which is protesting against the alleged land-grabbing underway around Addis Ababa.
Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia with some 27 million people, includes the capital.
Although the government has imposed a near total media blackout in the capital, including confiscating satellite dishes, those protesting have been able to send videos, photos and messages to the diaspora about the alleged brutality. Many of the photos show Ethiopians with their hands raised, their wrists crossed, a sign which has become a symbol of the protests.
“They are indicating that they are very peaceful protesters. They don’t have anything at hand, while the government is labelling them as terrorists, violating peace,” says Shigut Galeta, a Munich-based member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), deemed a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian government.
The photos shared on social media depict gruesome scenes of demonstrators hung from trees or people killed and thrown in ditches. Many of these seem to have been taken at university campuses, workplaces, schools or hospitals. RFI could not independently verify any of the photos.
“Their protest is totally peaceful, but the way the government is responding is with brutal methods. Now the death toll has reached 150 today,” says Tesfaye. US-based rights group Human Rights Watch earlier in December reported at least 75 people dead.
“This means that five to six people are being killed per day, and it’s very bloody the way the regime is responding to the peaceful protesters,” he adds.
Protests allegedly remain peaceful, Galeta says, although security services have tried to infiltrate the demonstrations to spark violence. However, even government workers are sympathetic to the protesters, adds the OLF representative.
Last month, Reuters news agency reported that Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had told parliament that “terrorist groups” had joined protesters, but that the government would take “unflinching measures” against them.
RFI made repeated calls to the Ethiopian government for comment, but they were not available by press time.
Reports have emerged that a woman who was seven months pregnant was killed last week, along with an eight-year-old boy. Oromo musicians are also reportedly being targeted.
Some international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called attention to the matter, but the international community has remained silent, says Galeta.
“Ethiopia is not a stable land. But they always prefer to see in terms of the conflicts in Sudan and the conflict in Somalia and the government portraying itself as the good partner for the anti-terrorism. All such, we must unmask the real nature of the Ethiopian government,” he says.
It is only a matter of time before the protests extend beyond Oromia state and to other regions such as Gambela, or the Ogaden territory where human rights abuses and land-grabbing have already occurred, says Galeta.
For now, the protests continue, but the crackdown hits close to home, says Tesfaye.
“Our former Blue Party spokesperson, Jonathan Tesfaye, he’s in prison. He’s my best friend. He opposed the so-called Master Plan. Many of my friends are in prison, for that matter.”