An Oromo journalist in exile

A member of the diaspora speaks out about the current unrest and why he left Ethiopia.

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. 2010. Photo: Alexia Underwood

By Alexia Underwood

The first time I met Q.B. was in 2010, on a dirt road in northwest Kenya. Immaculately dressed in a crisp collared shirt and linen pants, and carrying a V.S. Naipaul novel, he could have stepped off of the manicured green lawn of a university campus, rather than the backwater brush of a decades-old refugee camp.

At 24, Q.B. was a journalist and a political refugee. He had been living in Kakuma refugee camp for close to five years, and he was full of anger about the horrific conditions that camp residents were facing: food rations (and calories) being cut, sexual assault, and arbitrary punishment rendered outside of any court of law. For speaking out about human rights abuses within the camp, he told me, his camera was smashed, and his temporary home was set on fire.

Q.B. (who asked that I use his initials out of fear of being targeted by the Kenyan government) also spoke about how refugees weren’t allowed to work, and how many of the systemic issues they faced came from being warehoused in this dusty corner of Kenya for decades.

Before coming to the camp, Q.B. was a journalism student at Addis Ababa University, writing articles and working with a local radio station.

He had participated in a student strike calling for more democracy in the country and was arrested along with several other students. Authorities took them to a military camp and interrogated them.

“We were beaten, put into isolation, not given food,” he said.

After two weeks, he was released.

During a subsequent strike, Q.B., afraid that he would be arrested again, fled “into the bush.” For several days, he and a few other students escaped to the forest under the cover of darkness. “It was a terrible experience,” he said. After two days of hiding in the forest, they traveled by night to the Kenyan border.

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. 2010. Photo: Alexia Underwood

That was back in 2005. Q.B. ended up in Kakuma refugee camp, where he founded a refugee-run blog and newsletter called Kanere — the first publication of its kind.

In 2013, he left the refugee camp and moved to Nairobi to pursue a degree in communications at a local university. Q.B. has not returned to Ethiopia since he left over a decade ago, though his family still lives there.

He’s afraid for his life.

Meanwhile, in his country of origin, a new chapter has begun.

In November 2015, anti-government protests led by Oromos (the largest ethnic group in the country) and later joined by Amharas (the second largest group) spread across Ethiopia. The government responded by cracking down on the protests. At least 500 people have been killed so far.

Recently, Q.B. spoke with me by phone about what it’s like to be watching all of the unrest from the outside.

“It’s heartbreaking, seeing all of the violence, seeing people arrested just because they’re from the Oromo community,” he said. In early October, at least 50 protesters died in a stampede sparked by police firing tear gas and warning shots near a crowd of protesters in Bishoftu. A week later, the Ethiopian government imposed a six-month state of emergency.

Protesters in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Oct. 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri.

The current protests arose in response to the government’s proposed urban development plan to integrate parts of the surrounding countryside into the capital city, Addis Ababa. Protesters say it would amount to a land grab and displace Oromo farmers.

But the origins of the Oromo community’s discontent go back much further, Q.B. explained.

For decades, the Oromos have felt discriminated against by the Tigray ethnic group, who make up six percent of the country and the majority of the current government and security forces. Oromo people are calling for equal political and economic rights.

“Innocent people, just because they are Oromo, are being arrested,” Q.B. said. “People perish in prison centers like Maekelawi where political prisoners are kept. Amid all this political marginalization, economic problems, and oppression, people feel they’re left out, and this turns people against the government because the government is not democratic … that’s the root cause of the Oromo protests. They’ve emerged as the result of all these atrocities and injustices.”

Women attending a prayer session in Addis Ababa after more than 50 protesters died in a stampede. Oct. 9, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri.

As the protests continue to be violently put down and people see their neighbors or family members killed, this strengthens their resolve and determination to protest, he said.

During the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, a marathon runner from Ethiopia raised his arms in the Oromo protest gesture as he crossed the finish line. The world took notice, but Feyisa Lilesa says that he can’t return to his country because his life would be in danger.

Q.B. thinks the recent attention is not enough. “I wish that the world’s leaders — the U.S., UK, EU — would see this situation, acknowledge the will of the people, and come out and say something, instead of just watching the suffering from afar,” he said.

“People have, within them, in their heart, this oppression, this suffering from the dictatorship for many, many years. So I believe this was an awakening point. It started and it never stopped.”