June 2, 2005

Anuak Women Sweeten the Bitter Life

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -- “We thank our husbands for staying home today to change our children’s diapers,” a Minnesota woman belonging to the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia said the other day. “We could have put the children in daycare for the day, but then we wouldn’t have any money left over.”  

At a crowded Minneapolis meeting hall last weekend, some 50 Anuak women gathered to anxiously discuss, to sometimes weep, and above all to intently compare notes with each other on the best ways to raise their children born in America, so far from their African homeland.  

The call for diaper duty gratitude to husbands earned polite applause.  

But when Akuthi Okoth, an Anuak woman who’d flown in from Indianapolis for the day, rose to speak she struck a deeper chord that stirred a thoughtful silence followed by appreciative cheers. 

“Sisters, listen!” she thundered. “You put your husbands through school here in the U.S., while taking care of your children all by yourself. Yet when your husbands finish school, they don't help you go to school yourself. Sisters, you must insist! It is your right to get an education!”  

Bloodiest Day

“If the men are going to sit around that’s fine,” Okoth pleaded, “but we aren’t going to wait for them. We’ll get up and get things going and see what we can do.” 

It was a typical women’s rally in some ways, with a familiar bill of complaints voiced by frustrated women against wayward men. 

Yet Mommy Track issues were the least of the problems discussed, and the  Minnesota Anuak women’s dilemma is greater even than the culture shock, loneliness, and exhaustion that all immigrant mothers face.
They are trying to keep themselves and their children healthy and sane while their very culture – parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, and the entire African society that first gave them grounding in the world -- is being driven towards extinction by genocide. 

The 1,500 Anuak immigrants in Minnesota – more than anywhere in the world outside of western Ethiopia -- are here because the Ethiopian government has been ethnically cleansing their tribe for more than a decade.  

On December 13, 2003, the bloodiest day in Anuak history horrifically unfolded when uniformed Ethiopian soldiers flooded the Anuak capital town of Gambella and went door to door, dragging Anuak men and boys from their homes and shooting them dead in the streets.  

Refugee Camps

More than 420 Anuak men died that day in Gambella, and several hundred others were killed as Ethiopian troops fanned throughout Anuak territory where they burned entire villages to the ground, raped women, and looted and burned field crops and stored grains. The marauding continues today.  

Virtually every Anuak woman at the Minneapolis meeting had therefore lost fathers, brothers, and close friends in the massacre.  

“It makes you very sad and bitter,” said Akuthi Okoth. “Anuak women still in Ethiopia live without their husbands or sons, and they are still being raped, and their children destroyed. Those Anuak women have no voice, but we Anuak women in the United States can be their voice.”   

Because more than 10,000 Anuak were driven to flee their homes after the December 13 massacre, all of the Anuak women at the Minneapolis meeting had relatives and friends now living in refugee camps, one of them located in the parched Sudan desert, and the other in a putrid Nairobi slum.   

Hundreds of Anuak men and boys are also being held without charge in federal prisons in Gambella and in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where stories of torture and extrajudicial killings are rampant.  

Relief Strategies

The December 13, 2003 massacre was first reported in The McGill Report on December 22, 2003, after dozens of Anuak living in Minnesota received frantic cell phone calls from their relatives in Ethiopia while the massacre was still underway.  

This March, Human Rights Watch, the world’s largest human rights organization, released a report stating that the Ethiopian army “has committed widespread murder, rape, and torture” against the Anuak tribe.

“The widespread attacks directed against the Anuak civilian population,” the report said, “bear the hallmark of crimes against humanity under international law. In many areas, abuses are ongoing and frequent.”

The Anuak community of Minnesota has worked closely over the past two years with local churches and student groups to hold educational meetings and fundraisers to buy food and clothing for Anuak refugees, and to pay for trips by Anuak leaders to the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. 

More than $50,000 in relief funds has been raised, and the Human Rights Watch report is testimony to the Anuak’s success at raising world awareness of the Anuak genocide. 
Yet all has not gone smoothly with the Minnesota Anuak’s efforts to absorb the tragedy in their homeland, and to help their endangered culture. 

Tiny Tribe

The problem, the Anuak women stressed over and over, is the discord and fragmentation the Ethiopian violence has sown right here in Minnesota, at both a political and family level.  
At the political level, instead of promoting unity among the Minnesota Anuak, the December 13 massacre has had the opposite effect.  

Faced with the possible genocide of their tiny tribe, which numbers only 100,000 remaining members, some Anuak in Minnesota have said that raising money to buy guns to fight the Ethiopian army is the best response. 

Others have dismissed that option as suicidal, and focused on raising relief money instead. Yet another group has argued that lobbying elected officials in the U.S., which is by far the largest source of aid funds to Ethiopia, is the Anuak’s best hope for ending Ethiopia’s ethnic cleansing of their tribe.   

Since December 13, four Anuak men in Minnesota have emerged as leaders of four separate relief groups. Each has his own constituency, works with his own group of American friends and sponsors, and favors one or another relief strategy. Two of these leaders don’t speak with each other; a third is  exceptionally fluent in English but is considered aloof by most Anuak; and a fourth is widely respected but for personal reasons keeps a low profile.  

Tribal Enemies

“Anuak tend to be from specific regions, such as villages by one river or another in Ethiopia,” explained Okony Cham, an Ethiopian Anuak who graduated this spring from Mankato State University. He had been invited to the women’s meeting as the videographer. “Even in the U.S., Anuak who come from one region in Ethiopia don’t follow the leaders from other regions.”  

In Anuak history, threats from tribal enemies either in Sudan or Ethiopia have mobilized Anuak in different villages to unite. This is happening now under the Ethiopian army’s assault.  

But this time, a unified Anuak response in Ethiopia is especially hard to muster because so many of the tribe's leaders fled the country in the 1990s, especially to Minnesota, which is home to the world’s largest Anuak refugee population. 

The rapings and killings of Anuak that began on December 13 and continue to this day, has also deeply divided many Anuak families in Minnesota and elsewhere throughout the U.S., the Anuak women said last weekend.  

They swapped tearful stories of coping with divorce, debts, alcoholism, and children in trouble at school and with police – all of which increased sharply after December 13, 2003.  

Kicking the Dog

One woman said her husband took to gambling at a Shakopee casino and wrecked their family. Another woman described making endless three-hour car rides to and from a courthouse in another county, to act as a translator for a troubled Anuak boy who was constantly in trouble with the law.  

Rising from their folding chairs to address the group, the Anuak women spoke in long emotional gulps, again and again tracing their families’ problems to feelings of rage at the Ethiopian government and army.  

Yet having no means to directly express their rage at the actual perpetrators in Ethiopia, the rage is aimed instead at those nearest them, their families.  

“It’s like kicking the dog when in reality you are mad at your boss,” said Ariet Oman, who had flown to the Minneapolis meeting from Spokane. 

“We need to support each other as a sisterhood,” she said. “Not just donating money, but doing whatever we can. Just go knock on your sister’s door. We can be there emotionally. Give your shoulder to cry on.”  

Akuthi Okoth stressed the importance of remembering that the name Anuak means “sharing” and that hospitality was a cornerstone of Anuak culture.  

"All Sisters"

“Let’s not just have an Anuak sisterhood, but let’s have American sisters, African sisters, all sisters. And let’s remember there are a lot of people suffering, not just the Anuak people. So let’s try to help them too. Let’s expand our kindness to them too. Let’s try to support them too.” 

Several Anuak men had been invited to the meeting and made speeches.  

Lero Odala, who recently moved to Mankato with his family from Boston, said that Anuak men in the U.S. are looking to Anuak women for a good example.  

“Women can make men more attentive to their responsibilities,” he said. “We men, who are afraid and incapable of uniting, are asking you to lead us to victory.” 

Akway Cham, another male guest, advised Anuak women “to be independent of men because you have your own gifts from God. Women know love better than men.”  

Warajo Ojulu, a tall Anuak man wearing a gold robe with an embroidered map of Ethiopia on the front, read a poem of appreciation to the women. 

“Mom is the one who carries us for nine months, and then cares for us for many years,” his poem read. “Mom is not someone we can compare to anyone else, because she is the root of everything. Mothers have to unite for the future of their children, and for their children’s lives after they pass away. Children can see a bright future from what their mothers started.” 

Ariet Oman’s eyes were glistening when she heard these words, and Akuthi Okoth stood up and said: “To hear a poem written by a man that endorses the mother’s love, that means so much to us. Let’s take that from here.”

Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report 

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