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 are lost."

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 clear.

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 rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.