People sit in a white truck with their arms folded across it.
Members of the Amhara special forces look out from the back of a parked truck. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

‘They Set Everything On Fire’: The Paramilitary Forces Killing People They’re Meant to Protect

Ethiopia’s state-backed Amhara region security forces are attacking people in their own region. The resulting violence has displaced thousands.
May 12, 2021, 1:41pm

Rehima Bushra, a 28-year-old single mother, is just grateful to be alive. In mid-March, ethnic tensions in her hometown in northern Ethiopia boiled over and led to days of armed clashes. Hundreds died and more were rendered homeless after fighters set houses and businesses ablaze. 

“During Ramadan, we are to thank Allah for our blessings,” Rehima told VICE World News from her sister’s home in Ethiopia’s South Wollo district in the country’s Amhara region. Her own home, she said, was among those burnt down by uniformed assailants. “But at least we have roofs over our heads. So many others do not.”

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Tens of thousands of people like Rehima and her children have been displaced from their homes by fighting between ethnic factions that erupted in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The Ethiopian army deployed soldiers to calm tensions, but VICE World News spoke to 11 residents in the area who say that it was in fact uniformed members of the government-backed Amhara regional security forces who were behind much of the carnage and destruction over the past six weeks. Several residents said that as a result, they have been forced to shelter at makeshift camps after members of the paramilitary set their homes alight. In response, retaliatory attacks over the course of the following weeks led to more bloodshed, fomenting divisions among the ethnic Amhara and Oromo communities in the area. 

With Ethiopia set to hold general elections next month, there are concerns that the region’s increasingly unpredictable security forces could play a destabilizing role in a region where over five million people are eligible to vote.

"We can't even send our children to school or farm in peace," said Mohammed Djama, who fled the carnage and is sheltering with family in the town of Kemise. "Our lives are suddenly disrupted. No one is thinking about their elections."  

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Over the last few months, Ethiopia has seen no shortage of bloodshed as an ongoing civil war waged in the country’s northern Tigray region has left thousands dead, supported by foreign troops from neighboring Eritrea. In the country’s east, territorial disputes have deteriorated into all out fighting between Afar and Somali regional government forces; at least 100 people died in fierce fighting between the two forces earlier this month. Meanwhile, brutal attacks by militants targeting unarmed civilians continue unabated in Western Ethiopia. 

It’s a far cry from where most observers expected Ethiopia would be some three years into the tenure of Nobel Peace prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In 2018, Abiy came to power on the back of anti-government uprisings across the country which forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Promising to address demands of protesters and put an end to decades of authoritarianism, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and promised reform. 

Three years later, the country has backpedaled on its commitment to human rights, with local press outlets shuttered and much of the country’s political opposition in prison once again. Ethiopia is now synonymous with instability and bloodshed.

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In the country’s newest hotbed of violence, residents hailing from the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, Ethiopia’s two largest groups, have been impacted as tensions emanating from the alleged murder of an imam in March led to clashes involving militias from both sides, as well as those from the Amhara state security forces who are mandated with governing the region. 

“The special forces are supposed to be neutral and prevent violence,” Rehima, who is ethnically Oromo, said. “But they only attack our men.” Rehima is from an area in the Amhara region with a significant ethnic Oromo population. In 1994, in recognition of the cultural and linguistic diversity there, the Oromia special zone was formed in southwest Amhara; it is currently one of ten governing districts across the Amhara region and is also known as Wollo. 

“The special forces are supposed to be neutral and prevent violence.”

Like most of Ethiopia’s regional states, the Amhara regional administration has its own security force tasked with policing its region. But residents of the Amhara region’s Oromia Special Zone have told VICE World News that Amhara regional forces sent in by the Amhara regional government to break up fighting between ethnic Oromo and Amhara farmers have openly sided with the Amhara farmers. Residents also said the forces committed atrocities against civilians. 

“The regional forces set our schools, homes and mosques on fire,” said Hussein Hadiya, who is ethnically Oromo, about attacks that took place in March and April. Hussein makes a living as a merchant in the Oromia special zone and is now part of a committee established by residents that raises funds to assist the internally displaced. “The regional forces are part of the problem here.”

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During the attacks, farming communities and villages, especially those in the Jile Timuga district, were ravaged. Scores were killed and homes were set ablaze. “A total of 193 people lost their lives in these attacks, 383 were injured,” the Oromia Special Zone’s administrator Ahmed Hassan told VICE World News. “I can tell you that the situation is severe and that we’ve so far been able to count 1,905 destroyed buildings.”

People gather outside

Makeshift internally displaced person camps have sprung up in the Oromia Special Zone following violence in the region. (Courtesy of Ahmed Hassan)

However, Ahmed refrained from blaming Amhara’s regional forces for the destruction. For its part, the Amhara regional government has refuted claims that its forces caused the destruction or were involved in inner ethnic fighting. In a statement broadcast on the Amhara-run Amhara Media Corporation, Sisay Damte, a regional official, stated that regional forces were engaged in fighting with Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels in the area. He did not provide evidence for these claims. 

But OLA rebels, largely based in western Ethiopia, aren’t known to have a presence of any kind in the Amhara region, and have denied involvement in the recent clashes. The OLA, an Oromo militant group, is believed to control strongholds as far as 350 miles away from the recent carnage in the Jile Timuga district. “We are not involved in the fighting that occurred in Wollo,” the OLA’s spokesman Odaa Tarbii told VICE World News. “By claiming that the OLA is involved in the fighting, they (Amhara administration officials) seek the justification necessary to launch a large scale ethnic cleansing campaign of the Oromo in Wollo.”

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District administrators also blamed local farmers: A district administrator recently told Reuters that the recent bout of violence was instigated by farmers rushing to grab their rifles after regional forces killed a shopkeeper, as farmers in the affected area are known to be armed, as is often the custom in parts of rural northern Ethiopia. While flare ups in the region in recent years have involved farmers aligning themselves along ethnic kinship, these recent massacres point to a larger issue. 

At a March parliament session, Mohammed Hassan, an MP who hails from the areas destroyed in the March attacks, pleaded with Abiy to deploy the army to the region, stating that the region’s security forces were no longer considered neutral.

“This isn’t a battle between two ethnic groups, but between Oromo farmers and the Amhara regional forces,” he said. “The special forces have destroyed homes, killed farmers, youth and the elderly. Even injured civilians at a hospital have been targeted solely for being Oromo,” Mohammed  added, referring to a March 20 incident where 10 Oromo men who were being transported by an ambulance to a hospital in the town of Shewa Robit were attacked and murdered by a mob which dragged them out from an ambulance, stabbed and savagely bludgeoned them.

“The special forces have destroyed homes, killed farmers, youth and the elderly. Even injured civilians at a hospital have been targeted solely for being Oromo.”

Horrific mobile footage of the incident has been widely shared on social media. The victims were accused of being members of a militia responsible for attacks against residents in the town of Ataye days earlier, but relatives of some of the victims deny this, and it was later revealed that six of the victims came from the same family. According to the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which verified the footage, at least one individual wearing what appears to be the uniform of the regional special forces could be seen in one of the clips. “This is what they did to us!” an off-camera voice is heard saying. 

“My cousin Hassan Mohammed was a bystander who was caught in the crossfire,” Ali Hassan told VICE World News. “He was 20 years old and in the prime of his youth. He was in one of the ambulances, taken to Shewa Robit after being referred there.” Ali’s family is still struggling to cope with the loss of Hassan and his five family members who accompanied him to the hospital for safety. “Even people in an ambulance aren’t spared, they killed the driver too,” Ali added.

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The incident, residents said, likely helped fuel the upscale in violence that followed. Fierce fighting continued and supporters of the feuding factions circulated footage on Telegram channels showing their fighters in action as well as gruesome images displaying dead militants. Images of dead bodies of men dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by the region’s special police have also made the rounds.

Residents say in response to previous attacks, a posse of Oromo farmers and vengeance-seeking vigilantes, launched a mid-April assault on the town of Ataye. “[Militants] ran into the town and set fire to everything. They gunned down anyone in their reach,” said Bekele, a resident of the town who requested to be identified with only his first name. “I don’t think anyone can count the homes and businesses destroyed. They even attacked a church.” Data accumulated from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) appeared to correspond with accounts given by the town’s residents, as sensors detected 13 potential fires on April 16 in Ataye.

Footage of the aftermath of that attack shows extensive property damage in what appears to have been a systematic attempt at destroying whole neighborhoods; the country’s chief ombudsman revealed that the death toll for last month’s violence in the region might have surpassed 200. Anti-government protests subsequently broke out in towns and cities across the Amhara region, as irate and bereaved demonstrators chastised Abiy and other officials for their inability to quell bloodshed.

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Eventually, the federal government deployed federal army troops to the affected areas and put them under a state of emergency. Since then, there has been a considerable lull in violence, though the devastation left in the wake of nearly six weeks of violence has yet to be adequately addressed. “We’re now trying to assist a total of 77,218 displaced people,” Ahmed, the Oromia Special Zone’s administrator, told VICE World News. “We’ve received enough wheat from the government for about half of those people and are waiting for more food relief.” 

In late April, an Ethiopian army spokesman stated that a number of government officials were behind the recent violence in the Amhara region, without specifying how many or who. Phone calls and text messages by VICE World News to the Amhara regional President Agegnehu Teshager requesting clarification on the matter went unanswered, as did an email to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s press secretary Billene Seyoum. Despite the mounting accounts and evidence pointing to the involvement of uniformed taxpayer-funded forces in atrocities in the Amhara region, the Ethiopian government has yet to publicly acknowledge any wrongdoing by its paramilitaries. 

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These aren’t new concerns for Ethiopia: Ethiopian state backed paramilitary forces typically have poor human rights track records. The country’s Somali regional “Liyu Police” were linked to the executions and torture of scores of civilians for much of the 2010s. Members of the Oromia region’s special police force are also accused of conducting executions of dissidents and residents they suspect of having links to OLA rebels.

Meanwhile, since November 2020, ethnic Amhara militias have been deployed alongside Ethiopian troops in their war in Tigray, where they’re accused of egregious human rights violations, including rape and ethnic cleansing. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused them of contributing to the growing humanitarian crisis in Tigray, and called for their withdrawal. 

The Ethiopian government took offense to Blinken’s statement: “An attempt by the US to make pronouncements on Ethiopia’s internal affairs and specifically, the reference to the Amhara regional forces deployment…is regrettable,” reads an excerpt from an Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement. With the Ethiopian government unlikely to reel in members of its paramilitary forces linked to violence in volatile regions, the country’s residents, specifically those that are internally displaced, are the ones who lose. Last year, the United Nations-led International Organization for Migration (IOM) tallied 1.8 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia last year, a figure that reached over 2 million by January due to the crisis in Tigray.

Despite the myriad of conflicts and instability plaguing much of the country, Ethiopia remains intent on pushing on with its planned elections.

Fatima Abdullahi, an Ethiopian women recently displaced due to violence,  has other things on her mind. For the past month, she has been sheltering with her infant daughter and eight year old son at a makeshift camp of tukul homes, tents and mud huts in the Jile Timuga’s Lugo area, where about a thousand other women and children are also huddled. Everyone there, she says, fled their homes in the midst of the state backed paramilitary forces’ onslaught in their villages.

“They set everything on fire. They didn’t ask questions, they just shot at everyone who they thought was Oromo or Muslim,” she told VICE World News. “We are afraid of returning home. May Allah defend us.”