BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Thursday, 12 July, 2001, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Thousands 'languish' in Ethiopian camp
Mums wait outside Robit camp
Mothers anxiously await the release of their sons

By Nita Bhalla in Ethiopia

Amidst the breathtaking scenery of mountains and forests surrounding the town of Robit, 200 km north-east of Addis Ababa, there is something much more sinister.

Hidden from the main road, behind the dense bush and scrub land, lies Shoa Robit Detention Camp, where for more than three months, thousands have been imprisoned without charges.

The conditions are like a Nazi concentration camp. There are hundreds of people cramped in small rooms and its difficult to breathe

Tefera Selassie,Ex-detainee
All are young boys and men who were rounded up from the streets of the capital, following police crackdown on those responsible for the Addis Ababa riots in April, which left over 30 dead and caused millions of dollars of damage.

Heavily guarded

The camp is heavily guarded by hundreds police and army officers, who patrol the huge brick wall which surrounds the expansive compound.

Ethiopian detainees
A van taking detainees back to Robit camp
Those who have been fortunate enough to be released from the camp, recount stories of little food, poor sanitation and inhuman conditions.

Tefera Selassie is a snack bar owner in Addis Ababa. He spent 72 days in Shoa Robit, before he was released last week.

He said: "The conditions are like a Nazi concentration camp. We have very poor sanitation. Many are sick with water-borne diseases like typhoid and dysentery."

Difficult to breathe

Tefera said: "There are hundreds of people cramped in small rooms and it's difficult to breathe."

Robit camp
The detention camp is in dense bush
An official at the camp, who wished to remain anonymous, denied this. "All prisoners are in good health and we have doctors and medical assistants who are on hand to help those who are sick.

"Food is adequate and we slaughter seven or eight oxen every week for the prisoners. No one has died," he said.

Other ex-prisoners I met in Robit claim most in the camp are innocent of the crimes they have been accused of.

Mangoes and bananas

They say those involved in the riots and looting were mobs of youths and unemployed people, but those in the detention camp are students, opposition party members and hardworking employed people.

He is just a child. But they still took him away. He was playing football with his friends outside our house

Aster Assefa, mother of a detainee

Robit town itself is typical of most in Ethiopia. It is a busy bustling town settled in the picturesque mountainous region.

Music blares from cafes and bars, farmers come from the surrounding areas to trade and sell their crops and cattle, women sit on roadsides selling mangoes and bananas.

The detention of thousands from Addis Ababa, has seen a mass influx of hundreds of relatives into the town searching for sons, brothers and fathers, detained at the camp less than a kilometre away.

Weak and thin

Aster Assefa is 32 years old. She came to the town two weeks ago looking for her 17-year-old son, Yonas, a schoolboy. She managed to see him last week for two minutes from across the fence of the camp.

She said: "My son looks weak and thin and he has typhoid. He had nothing to do with the riots. He is just a child but they still took him away as he played football with his friends just outside our home."

Aster is not alone. On hearing that I was a journalist, many crowded around me in the main centre of the town to tell me the names of their sons who were inside the camp.

Hotels are fully booked and many relatives are sleeping on the streets. Others are being sheltered by local people.

Fabricate evidence

Abebech Haile Mariam is 48 years old. Three of her teenage sons are in the camp.

Ethiopian detention camps
The Shoa Region is home to breathtaking mountains
"I have been here for two months and I have spent all my money on transport and accommodation."

Although many of the detainees are being brought to court on a daily basis, the relatives say the judiciary is not independent and is always granting investigators more time in an attempt to fabricate evidence

There were emotional scenes outside the Shoa Robit court on Tuesday, as mothers wept when they saw their sons' cases postponed for yet another week.

Many screamed to their sons as they were boarded onto the bus taking them back to the camp.

There is a widespread feeling that the government's crackdown is a sign of its insecurity.

Officials however deny this. They claim the innocent will, in time, be released. But this will be of little consolation to the thousands languishing in the camp.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

27 May 01 | Africa
Ethiopia 10 years after Mengistu
10 Jul 01 | Africa
Timeline: Ethiopia
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories