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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 08:41 GMT
Western Ethiopia tense after clashes
By Mohammed Adow
BBC, Ethiopia

The town of Gambella, in the west of Ethiopia, has been tense for several months.

volunteers rebuilding burnt huts
Burnt villages are being rebuilt
It is a cosmopolitan town, but also home to some of the poorest people in Ethiopia.

Gambella, just 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Ethiopian-Sudan border, is inhabited by the Nuer, Anyuak, Majenger, Opou and Komo tribesmen.

Other Ethiopian tribes like the Amhara, Oromo and Tigre who are locally known as the Highlanders also live in this region.

And last month tensions between Highlanders and other groups over land spilled over into violent clashes.

The violence was sparked off by an attack on a United Nations vehicle which killed eight people, including three government workers.

Hundreds of homes were burnt down and the killings continued for several days.


The Anyuak group was blamed for the attack. Eyewitnesses contacted by the BBC then said Ethiopian Highlanders, supported by the military, had attacked the Anyuaks.

I survived only because the raiders were after the men and not the women
Akinyi Owuor
But army spokeswoman Major Harnet Yohannes said the soldiers were there only to keep the peace.

When I visited the villages belonging of the Anyuaks in Gambella, volunteer government workers were helping rebuild some of the burnt houses.

Akinyi Owuor, stood with her six children, in her compound where three huts housed them before the violence.

Desperation was evident all over her face.

"Five of my relatives were killed. When the raiders came to attack our village we ran away. Then they set our houses on fire. I survived only because the raiders were after the men and not the women," said Akinyi.

The Anyuak men were not present when I got to the village, only women and children could be seen among the government volunteers rebuilding the torched houses.

Ethiopian troops

Moments later, I was led into a hut in a corner of the village where the men had gathered - perhaps for security reasons.

They were drinking a local brew and playing chess when we finally located them.

It is here that I met Ojullu Ochalla, an Anyuak tribesman.

Mr Ojullu says that many Anyuaks have fled the violence.

He says that about 15,000 of them have fled to Puchalla in southern Sudan.

Many others, Mr Ojullu said, are still missing and their whereabouts are not known.

One of the village elders, Akim Obara, says the problem is far from settled.

" While we appreciate the government's efforts in deploying troops here to keep peace, we still fear for our lives." said Mr Obara

He said their attackers were still intimidating and abusing them.

'Distorted figures'

"We have even advised our children not to reply to people who abuse them," Mr Obara told me through a translator.

Akinyi and family
Akinyi lost relatives during the December clashes
But the acting regional president, Keat Tuach Bithow, says details concerning the Anyuaks who fled their homes have been distorted.

Mr Bithow says the government is aware of only 4,000 Anyuaks who fled to the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

He said that they had already dispatched two teams of government officials to convince the fleeing people to return to their homes.

Mr Bithow said that there was need to speak to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) on the other side of the border to facilitate the return of Ethiopians who had crossed the border.

Although up to 5,000 Ethiopian troops have helped restore calm, tension remains high.

Their military presence cannot be a long-term solution to the problems in Gambella, aid agencies operating in the area have said.

Ethiopia police seek governor
12 Jan 04  |  Africa
Violent land clashes in Ethiopia
16 Dec 03  |  Africa

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