Ethiopia Battles Suspected Islamic Extremists
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
For the last eight months, Ethiopia has waged war against suspected Islamic extremists in Somalia, a neighboring country, and also within its own borders. At the same time, Ethiopia has secretly cracked down on other groups that it deems terrorist including a group in the western part of Ethiopia, well away from Somalia.
Reporter Nick Wadhams traveled to the tiny western city of Guyi to see how the situation is raising serious human rights concerns, and tough questions for Ethiopia's most important ally, the United States.
NICK WADHAMS: This is the road to the village of Guyi. The dusty track is so riddled with potholes that a 250-mile trip from the capital Addis Ababa takes more than 12 hours.
Earlier this year, reports filtered out of Guyi that police had fired on students and killed two teenage cousins. The government accused them of being members of the Oromo Liberation Front. The boys who were killed were 16-year-old Gemechu Benesa and 17-year-old Lelsa Wagari. Their relatives live on a hilltop farm outside Guyi. It's surrounded by fields of coffee, mangos, and avocados.
The fathers of the two boys gathered with dozens of other family members to describe what happened that night in January when police interrupted the boys, who were studying for school exams.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) It was 7:30 PM. They were studying with their friends when eight men with guns came from the ruling party and knocked on the door. When they came out of the house, the men shot at them on the road without any warning.
WADHAMS: The family explained that as Gemechu lay in the road his cousin knelt over him and was shot, too. After the boys were killed there was no formal investigation, only one arrest, and no trial. The incident faded away.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says that Oromo Liberation Front is a terrorist group, but the OLF says it's a political organization seeking self-determination for the Oromo people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. In fact, the OLF has offices in the United States, and Washington does not label it a terrorist group. Opposition politicians and rights activist say Meles is waging a brutal campaign against the Oromo in retaliation for their opposition to him in the 2005 general elections.
Mr. BULCHA DEMEKSA (Founder, Oromo Federal Democratic Movement): We are not talking about people who die in prison, or who starve, or who go to jail. These are just people who are killed in the most tragic manner.
WADHAMS: Bulcha Demeksa is a federal lawmaker from this region, and the founder of a political party called the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement.
Mr. DEMEKSA: They tell me that OLF has infiltrated our party, which is not true at all. And they say that there are being all this harassment of the people in the rural areas in order to find out where OLF stays, who feeds them, who helps them. And, of course, this is only a excuse.
WADHAMS: the State Department's 2006 human rights report lists more than 30 pages of abuses by the Ethiopian government. Nonetheless, the United States has not publicly protested a crackdown that has occurred in Ethiopia since the opposition made major gains in the 2005 election. The U.S. considers Ethiopia an important ally in the war on terror and contributes millions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid each year. U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto.
Ambassador DONALD YAMAMOTO (U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia): Can you move the country towards what they are on (unintelligible), I think, is political and economic reform. But by taking action, are you going stop those reforms? Or, by raising these issues, can you improve the situation?
WADHAMS: A few weeks after police killed the two cousins, Human Rights Watch complained to the government. Bereket Simon, a top advisor to Ethiopia's prime minister, rejected those concerns.
Mr. BEREKET SIMON (Adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi): You know these human right groups, most live by creating such stories and propagating them. That's what they do, we believe. This doesn't mean they don't report correctly at all time, but regarding us, they have become simply politically motivated. That's what we can say.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
WADHAMS: The walk back to Guyi from the boys' farm takes a half hour. One man listens to the radio, his only connection to the outside world. Coming the other way along the path is the brother of Gemechu Benesa. Asfayu(ph) Benesa says he had tried to collect the two boys' bodies after they were killed.
Mr. ASFAYU BENESA: (Through translator) Their dead bodies stayed on that road for around four or five hours. When a friend of ours tried to take the bodies, the police took him to prison, hit him with a stick, and said he would not be allowed to take the bodies to the hospital.
WADHAMS: For NPR News, I'm Nick Wadhams in Addis Ababa.
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