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Ethiopian Reprisal Attacks Serve as Cautionary Tale for Global Land Investors

September 7, 2012
Center for Investigative Reporting


In February, we featured a story for PBS NewsHour about a controversial resettlement plan of the Anuak people in southwestern Ethiopia, who were part of the government's national "villagization" program. A few months later, we blogged about shootings on the Saudi Star rice plantation that had been the focus of our story. Since then, details of the shootings have come into focus: On April 28, unidentified armed men attacked the Saudi Star compound in the Gambella region. The gunmen killed at least one Pakistani and four Ethiopian employees.  

Now, Human Rights Watch has released a report detailing reprisal attacks by the Ethiopian military. The report states that the day after the Saudi Star attack, Ethiopian soldiers shot and killed four of Saudi Star's Anuak guards. Gambella residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that in the weeks that followed, "Ethiopian soldiers went house to house looking for gunmen in villages near the Saudi Star camp, arbitrarily arresting and beating young men and raping female relatives of suspects."

The report says the soldiers rounded up scores of young men and detained them in military barracks. Many allege they were tortured.

Here is an excerpt of eyewitness accounts from the report:

One former detainee told Human Rights Watch: “They said we were to go into the bush and show them where the rebels are – with whom they claimed we had a relationship. They beat me after I said I didn’t know where the rebels are. After they beat me they took me to the barracks. I was in custody for three days. At night they took me out and asked me to show them where the rebels are. I said I don’t know. So they beat me and took off their sock and put it in my mouth to stop the screams.” ...

A local police officer described being arrested by soldiers and accused of supporting the rebels. Soldiers detained him in Gambella’s military barracks where they tied him up and beat him repeatedly, often at the urging of a federal government security official who told them, “Beat him, he has something to say.” After his release the soldiers came to his home and beat him unconscious in front of his wife. His wife said the soldiers beat their four year old son in front of them. The family fled to South Sudan.

Human Rights Watch conducted its interviews at a refugee camp in South Sudan with more than 80 people who had fled the attacks and villagization program in Gambella. Relying on "credible sources in Gambella,” the report links the April attack to the Ethiopian government's villagization program and large-scale land leases. Leslie Lefkow, the deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledges that the April attack at Saudi Star was a criminal act but says it doesn't justify reprisals against Gambella residents.

"The abuses we found in the government's relocation program in Gambella a year ago are still happening today," Lefkow said. "Whatever the government's rationale for villagization, it doesn't justify beatings and torture."

Human Rights Watch and groups like the Oakland Institute and GRAIN point to the situation in Gambella as a cautionary tale of what might lie ahead for other communities across Africa. Sparked by the global food crisis and rising value of farmland, governments and private investors from around the world have leased millions of hectares of land in Africa to grow food and biofuels for export. Many experts say the underlying motive is access to the water beneath the land, as aquifers around the world are drying up and African governments have been offering investors contracts that put little or no stipulation on water use.

You can find the full version of the latest Human Rights Watch report here.