September 30, 2004

A Minnesota Anuak Finds Inspiration in
Ghandi, Martin Luther King

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Obang Okello has been watching videotapes of the civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama; and of lunch counter sit-ins in Jackson, Mississippi; and especially of the Freedom Riders, the men and women who challenged Jim Crow segregation by demanding fair service no matter the color of their skin – and then impassively absorbing verbal abuse and beatings without fighting back, following the strategy of non-violent resistance.    

Not that Okello, an immigrant from Ethiopia and a recent graduate of Bethel College in St. Paul, is feeling frustrated as a black man living in the United States. Just the opposite. “We have a chance in the United States to speak out freely,” he says. “My people in Ethiopia don’t have that right.” 

Still, he’s immersed himself in civil rights-era videos for a reason. Last December 13, more than 425 members of his tribe, the Anuak, were killed by uniformed Ethiopian troops carrying out summary executions in the town of Gambella, according to dozens of eyewitnesses. Since that day, some 900 more Anuak have been killed in similar fashion in small villages throughout the western Ethiopian state also called Gambella.  

King, Mandela, Ghandi

Many of Okello’s friends and relatives were lost in the killings, and his parents are still living “under the trees,” he says, because the Ethiopian army has commandeered all Anuak homes in his village as troop quarters.   

His older sister, Ariet, went missing as 10,000 Anuak fled the massacre to a refugee camp in the southern Sudan desert. She has still not been found.  
Okello spoke yesterday at a monthly public affairs program sponsored by the Rochester Post-Bulletin, called Post-Bulletin Dialogues, held at the Rochester Public Library. Later, he spoke with me.  

“ Sometimes it drives me crazy,” he says. In retaliation for all the killings, he says, he wants to hit back. And some Anuak living in the U.S. are trying to do that by raising money to form an armed Anuak resistance to the Ethiopian army. But Okello is struggling within himself to follow another way.  

“ How can I train myself to be so disciplined, and so obedient, to fight back only with words and never to hit anybody?” he says. “Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Ghandi did not use violence and they changed the world. I think that’s the right way and it’s the most effective way.”  

Lobbying Effort

“I want the Anuak to fight with their brains, not with guns,” he said.  
He may get his chance. Last weekend, Okello was selected as chairperson of the Anuak Justice Council, a representative group of the Anuak diaspora. More Anuak exiles live in southern Minnesota than anywhere in the world. In a tribe that numbers only 100,000, more than 1,500 Anuak now live in St. Paul, Mankato, Austin, Rochester, and other southern Minnesota cities.   

Since last December, Minnesota Anuak have worked with roughly a dozen churches in the state to raise thousands of dollars in aid money for Anuak refugees, including the Christ Lutheran Church in Eagan; the Vineyard in Austin; and the Christian Reformed Church in Worthington.  
The offices of both Senator Mark Dayton and Senator Norm Coleman have sent letters encouraging the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia to pressure the government for a full investigation of the December massacre, and to end human rights abuses against the Anuak.  

Okello is now setting his sights higher. Working with fluent English-speaking Anuak immigrants in the U.S. and Canada, he has traveled to Washington, D.C. and lobbied the U.S. Committee on Appropriations, which holds the purse-strings on military aid to Ethiopia. New language in a committee report proposes making all further U.S. military aid to Ethiopia contingent on an immediate end to violence against the Anuak. 

Genocide Trial

The Anuak Justice Committee is also now working with human rights lawyers to lodge an official genocide case against Ethiopia at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  

“ Our first goal is to stop the killing,” Okello said. “But we also want to open Gambella to human rights groups who can investigate to let the world know what happened, and to bring those involved to justice.” 

Okello knows the price he’d pay for this work if he still lived in Ethiopia. Sometimes he worries, even living here. But then he remembers the videotapes of the Freedom Riders and of Martin Luther King.  

“ I begin to think it’s a dangerous job, but it’s very worth it,” he says. “Good leaders sacrifice their lives for others. If I died today and a few years later the Anuak were free, there’s nothing else I could do with my life that would be more worthwhile.”

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report