Most of the world’s refugees flee strife, based in part on interethnic conflict. The Oromo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, are no exception. Living primarily in Ethiopia, they account for 60 percent of the country’s population. The other major ethnic groups in the Ethiopian Empire are Tigrians, Somalis, and Eritreans who are fighting the Ethiopian junta for their independence. Ethiopia’s ruling ethnic minority, the Amhara, however, do not recognize the Oromo (whom they call Galla) because to do so would focus international attention on ethnic conflict within the Empire. The ruling Amhara, who constitute less than 15 percent of the nation’s population but have ruled since the 19th century, have been systematically driving the Oromo for their fertile lands and subjecting them to torture, imprisonment, forced conscription, and execution. At least half of the more than 2.5 million refugees fleeing Ethiopia are Oromo. Contrary to the received impression, many Ethiopian refugees are not direct victims of the border dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia, but rather of internal ethnic conflict.
Oromo refugees are beginning to arrive in the United States. From August 14 to 21, the 7th Congress of the Union of Oromo Students in North America met in Washington, D.C. About 50 Oromo attended the meeting, some ten percent of all Oromo in the United States. Through interviews with recently arrived refugees, about a third of the Congress’ participants, information was gathered about why they left, the particular problems with host governments and international relief agencies given their unrecognized status as an ethnic majority fleeing political persecution.
The roots of the present Oromo-Amhara conflict lie in the late 1800s when the independent Oromo nation was conquered by Abyssinians who were creating an empire. The Oromo have always viewed the Amhara Emperor Menelik and his successors, backed by European powers, as colonizers. His retainers acquired rights over the most productive Oromo lands and were allowed to exact tribute from even greater areas. Written Oromo texts were destroyed and education of Oromos was conducted in Amharic.
With assistance from the United States. Haile Selassie I relocated increasing numbers of Amhara in Oromo regions. They served as the administrators of the government, court, schools, and church. Although in 1974 the Haile Selassie government was replaced by the Dergue, a military junta, the new regime was more dominated by Amharas than the previous one. Today under the Dergue it is illegal to speak Oromo for public purposes, Torture, harassment, and military campaigns against the Oromo force many to join the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and others to flee the country. Apparently, the ruling minority cannot afford to allow the majority population to unite.
The Oromo refugees in Washington left Ethiopia for various reasons. Some were wanted by the police for teaching the Oromo language in village schools. Others had been jailed and tortured on suspicion of belonging to Oromo political organizations. Without exception the refugees decided to leave Ethiopia only after being subjected to torture or imprisonment or after a close friend or family member had been killed or jailed “indefinitely”. Recently stepped up military action by the Amhara-dominated junta has caused still more refugees to flee. In April and May of this year Reuters and Vart Land independently reported that the military sprayed flammable chemicals over an Oromo populated valley in southern Ethiopia. The spraying was followed by jet fighters launching rockers and incendiary devices to ignite the chemicals. Animals, buildings, and crops were destroyed. More than 2,000 Oromo were killed and more than twenty thousand fled the area. Clearly, the recent wave of refugees are not all victims of drought of border wars.
Once the decision to flee is made, for whatever reason, another set of difficulties begins. The refugees in Washington doubt that half of the would-be refugees arrive safely at the camps. Whether traveling to neighboring Djibouti or Somalia, the refugees must spend from 2 to 4 weeks crossing deserts. They normally pay $200 per person to Somali merchants who include the refugees in their camel caravans which transport black market goods between these countries. In addition the Oromo must pay the merchants for food and water as well as for the Somali clothes the Oromo wear in order to disguise themselves from possible encounters with Ethiopian authorities. Halfway through the journey, the merchants demand additional payment under the threat of leaving the refugees in the desert. Nomadic Somali tribesmen, who view the Oromo as trespassers at best and Amhara spies at worst, also demand tribute from the refugee caravans. Refugees arrive at the borders without food, water, or money.
The Somali Republic accepts Oromo refugees but thus far has recognized them as ethnic Somalis. In the past the Republic of Somalia has claimed part of the Oromo lands. This land claim was given credence by arguing that the land was occupied by ethnic Somalis. Today it is easier for the Republic of Somalia to obtain international assistance for all refugees by allowing them to be identified as ethnic Somalis migrating to a country governed by Somalis.
In Djibouti, the refugees are routinely jailed and then transferred to camps that differ little from prisons. There, for example, camp residents receive only food, water, and clothing: they cannot obtain the necessary papers to leave the country. In Djibouti City where the necessary papers can be obtained, food and water are not given to refugees. The camps are designed exclusively to retain people. There is an assumption that these “war” victims are economic rather than political refugees. The refugees, however, do not want to return to Ethiopia under the present conditions in the Empire.
In countries of asylum, the Oromo are faced with similar prejudices and discrimination. By 1977, after the Dergue had consolidated power, members of the opposition party, the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), were forced to flee the country with other refugees. The Amhara EPRP members, because of their opposition to the Dergue and their elite social status, were able to secure positions which enabled them to help other Amhara EPRP members find opportunities to leave Djibouti. The two best options for leaving are scholarships or resettlement. Within Djibouti’s UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) counseling section, for example, and EPRP member controls access to language exams and scholarship and immigration visa interviews. EPRP volunteers keep other party members informed of examination dates that routinely are not posted publicly until the day of the exam. Oromo refugee files at the UNHCR office are reputed to be lost at a higher rate than those for other ethnic groups.
In an interview in Washington, I learned that Beekaa Ittorfa had to threaten the EPRP member working at the UNHCR in order to have his file forwarded to the US Embassy for an interview to which he was entitled. But even an interview does not insure success. Jabeessa Lolaa, an Oromo students who spoke little English, requested an interpreter for his interview at the US Embassy. The UNHCR office provided an Amhara interpreter. When Lolaa was asked why he wanted to go to the US, the Amhara translator said he was on vacation and wanted to go to the US as a tourist. Lolaa, who had been in a Somalian camp for nearly three years, spoke enough English to understand what had happened and he was able to correct the situation. When confronted by the US Consular Official, the Amhara simply said that he spoke a different dialect and that was what accounted for the mistranslating. No one knows how many Oromo have not been granted visas because of mistranslations.
None of the Oromo refugees in Washington had immigrated to the US in the prescribed manner, although all were legal immigrants. In all cases, the circumvented obstacles construed because they were Oromo. Influential friends and employers assisted them. Even so, these individuals, who speak an average of five languages, needed nearly two years to get visas to leave Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan. In fact, in Djibouti, it is common knowledge that one can tell what ethnic group a refugee belongs to by how long it takes the person to leave the country.
There were three women refugees in Washington. In order to leave Djibouti, one had married an Amhara; the other two had been chosen directly by their sponsor in the US, the Phelps-Stokes Fund, who circumvented the normal UNHCR interview procedure by interviewing refugees directly. The Oromo are less well-educated than the Amhara, because the Amhara controlled the schools in the Ethiopian Empire. Traditionally, Oromo women have received little education. Furthermore, none of the refugees in Washington came to the US with children. What will happen to the uneducated Oromo, the people without any influential friends or employers, or the women and children who are estimated to be 90 percent of all refugees in Somalia and more than half in Djibouti?
The EPRP now appears to have moved most of its members through the immigration process. Whereas in the past when 200 scholarships were awarded and only 7 or 8 went to Oromo, now the situation is improved. The early Oromo arrivals had to be tenacious to immigrate to the US. Now a few more are beginning to come. While the US policy of admitting only 3,500 refugees from all of Africa this year (as opposed to hundreds of thousands from Southeast Asia and Cuba) will pose problems for Oromo. it is clear that hundreds of thousands of people are determined to escape the conditions imposed on them Ethiopia and are willing to endure hardships in the countries of asylum.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.