Ethiopian women agonized about massacre back home
By Rebecca Nappi
The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washiongton)
In the past, due to the miracle of modern phone technology, the two
women had easily called Ethiopia from their homes in Spokane. But on
a cold night in December, Ariet Oman and Alock Nyigow called and called
Gambella, their hometown in Ethiopia. They got busy signals every time.
The two women, members of
the Anuak ethnic group, had heard that as many as 100 of their people
were murdered on the second Saturday in
December. The media carried not a word of it, not a word. So Oman and
Nyigow kept calling Ethiopia in search of the truth. They finally contacted
Nyigow's cousin who said: "I can't talk. The militia are here.
People are being killed with knives and guns."
They begged the cousin to stay on the line. He did for as long as
he could. When he hung up, Oman and Nyigow gathered with two other
Anuaks living in Spokane, Agwa Taka and Akway Omot. Together they monitored
the news, desperate for information about the killings.
The national media ignored
the story. The Anuaks are accustomed to Africa being slighted in
the news, but Oman, Nyigow, Omot and Taka
felt great sorrow at the invisibility. They were living writer Zora
Neale Hurston's words: "There is no agony like bearing an untold
story inside of you."
So Oman called their friends
at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane. The church sponsored the
Ethiopians 14 years ago through a refugee
resettlement program. "We need people to come," Oman said. "We
Church member Mary Beth
Baker invited the Africans and some First Prez folks over for soup,
salad and cookies. When Oman and Nyigow arrived,
they realized they had been so upset they hadn't eaten in two days. "We
just listened," said John Frankhauser, one of the church members
who gathered in support.
Ethiopia, located in northeastern Africa, is one of the poorest countries
in the world and home to 65 million people from more than 80 ethnic
groups, according to Human Rights Watch. Violence is common due to
government corruption and ongoing disputes over land and scarce resources.
The killings in Gambella began when a car carrying refugee workers
and government officials was ambushed. What happened next is not so
Though the mainstream media ignored the story, online sources, such
as allAfrica.com, reported that some witnesses say government soldiers
killed Gambella men and boys in retaliation for the ambush. But the
government claims the deaths occurred during a clash between the Anuak
and the Nuer, another ethnic group. Some sources say only 36 Anuaks
were killed; other estimates go as high as 350.
Whatever happened in Gambella,
it's devastating to the Anuaks living here. And the silence in the
world media adds to their despair. "I
want the world to hear our story," Nyigow said.
Omot's uncle, a pastor who
visited Spokane last year, died in the massacre. "If we don't get the news out to the world, they will
go back and kill all of them," Omot said. "There are a lot
of widows now and children with no parents."
Taka showed me a list provided
by an association of Anuaks living in North America. Eighty-eight
names appear on this list, all confirmed
dead. Many more are missing. Taka said: "A lot of lives were shattered
for no reason."
The Anuaks here realize there is little that people in the Inland
Northwest can do to stop the insanity a world away. They appreciate
that so many people have listened to their story and then told others.
Inland Northwest folks, including Mary Lou McDonough of World Relief
Spokane, have written letters to national legislators, urging more
United Nations attention in Ethiopia.
Those here who listen to the Gambella story try to imagine the sorrow
they would feel if dozens of their family and friends in the United
States were killed one day and not a mention made of it in the media.
It would be an unthinkable omission, an unbearable agony.
Only about 100,000 Anuaks are left in the world; in 1984 the Cultural
Survival organization declared the Anuak an endangered indigenous people.
The 1,000 Anuaks who live in the United States feel a responsibility
to be the voice of voiceless Anuaks under siege in Africa.
"People back home don't have freedom. I do," Oman said. "I
will do whatever I can do for them."
• Rebecca Nappi can be reached at email@example.com or (509) 459-5496.