Belete Teshome was born and raised in Metekel Zone, Dibate Woreda (district), Albasa Kebele (locality). The attacks which happened in her neighborhood in November 2020 have dismantled her life as well as that of her family.
Witnesses say the attacks are being carried out using a shocking variety of weapons including guns, spears and knives. Civilians, including children and elders, have been victims of the onslaughts. Many have lost their lives in Dibate Woreda – Albasa, Simboseri, Korka, Gefere, and Muzen neighborhoods – following a series of attacks undertaken on October 06, 2020 and between November 12-13 of the same year.
When the armed group stormed their village, Belete, her husband and her mother fled to neighboring villages. What made their flight more arduous was the fact that she was nine months pregnant.
“They engulfed us just like a wave,” says Belete, recalling the fateful day where she lost her brother and stepfather. “They finished us,” she adds, at a loss of words to describe what happened to them. But she does remember the two trucks full of bodies that were buried in the village after the carnage ended.
Belete attributes her life being spared to God’s mercy, declaring: “It wasn’t my day to die.”
She relates what happened almost two years ago as if it happened yesterday. “In our rush to escape, we were knocking into one another,” says Belete, remembering the chaos. She was exhausted trekking the distance to the neighboring area, Galisa, in her vulnerable condition. Her escape was incredibly difficult. “It is far away from our village. The road has too many steepy slopes and hills. Allah helped us reach Galisa.”
Belete delivered her baby boy at a relative’s house. However, the assailants followed them to Galisa. And Belete couldn’t rest for long and had to take off again with her baby boy without resting and recovering from giving birth.
Abush, her son, is now one year and a half years old. The only place Abush knows as home is the camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP), in Dibate district, Dibate town, where he has lived since he was an infant. When we interviewed his mother, Abush was a little sick and he was waiting for doctors to assess his health. We met them when Belete was carrying Abush on her back, on her way to fetch water.
Belete, Abush, her husband, and her mother have been calling the camp home for more than seven months. And they are not the only ones. This has been the fate of hundreds of thousands of people from Metekel, according to the data obtained from the zone’s administration.
Belete and her family, along with 300,000 more from the Benishangul Gumuz region, Metekel Zone, have fled home and are living in camps because of fears for their own safety.
Benishangul Gumuz has three zones and Metekel is one of them. Metekel is located 547 km away from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Situated in the western part of Ethiopia, Metekel has seven woredas (districts) within it – Gilgel Beles being the capital of the zone. Of the five identified ethnic groups living in the region, two of them – Gumuz and Shinasha – are found in Metekel. Apart from them, Amhara, Agew, Oromo, Hadya, Wolayta and other 13 ethnic groups make up the 450,000 population of the zone.
The administrator of the zone, Gashu Dugaz, calls Metekel “little Ethiopia” because of its ethnic diversity. It’s also home to many religions – with multiple faiths represented by temples and churches.
The zone is bordered by the Amhara region in the north and northeast, Sudan’s Blue Nile region lies to the west, and the Kamashi zone in the south. The community mainly depends upon farming – growing sesame seed, soybean, cotton, coffee, and other crops. Metekel is a zone rich with fertile land, numerous rivers, and minerals like gold, opal, and marble. Many say Metekel is an ‘earthly heaven’ gifted with abundant treasured resources.
This being the reality, when did these communities who live together in harmony, irrespective of ethnic differences, become the chased and the chaser? And why?
Aba Nemera Getuwe is a resident of Metekel who is in his seventies. He was born and grew up in Dibate woreda (district). He is a respected senior citizen who has served as a civil servant in different organizations in the area. We asked him what life used to be like in Metekel before it started to become a center of conflict since 2019. He just said: “I can’t even begin to tell you how great it used to be.
“We lived as a community. We didn’t even think about who came from which ethnic group. We are inter-married. We have children born from different ethnicities. We helped one another on farms. We attended weddings, christenings together…” says Aba Nemera.
In the place where he was born and raised, where he made a family, where he had children and grandchildren, Aba Nemera cannot even tend to his own garden now. “We miss the smell of the earth (soil),” he says.
Mebratu Alemu (PhD), a local of Bulen woreda (district) and also a chairperson of the new Ethiopian political parties coalition, says Metekel is a unique area. “The towns and rural areas are places where people from all over Ethiopia live together,” says Dr. Mebratu pointing out the fact that the diversity isn’t only limited to the towns. Though he is a Shinasha, he speaks three other languages used in the area. The residents of Metekel have lived together, with no ethnic barriers, he says.
“We learned about ethnicity in the university. We used to think we were all one before that. We didn’t think we had differences. We didn’t understand the tensions. Then we learned about it all in the university. We didn’t know any of it when we grew up in Metekel,” said Dr. Mebratu.
Those who grew up in Metekel share his thoughts. The question is how did this land of diversity, land of abundance become a battlefield?
In Metekel, people were killed because of the color of their skin, labeled as “keyo” – meaning light-skinned, they had their human rights violated, displaced, massacred, and buried in mass graves. These are the things very opposed to the norms and values of Ethiopians. However, this has been happening in Metekel in the past few years.
Conflict is something that happens from time to time within communities. We may agree that it is something that cannot be avoided altogether. It has also happened in Metekel even during peaceful times. However, it didn’t have any political motive behind it. Individuals used to get into quarrels occasionally just like anywhere else. However, these past three years that has totally changed and Metekel has become “hell” for its residents.
It all started on Friday, April 19, 2019 in what should have been a non-descript incident. A passenger who was in a bus traveling from Mankush to Gilgel Beles (both places in Metekel) got into a fight with the driver because of a disagreement on the fare. That incident set off all the bloodshed that happened in the zone in the consecutive years that followed. With the exception of Pawe, all the other districts in the Metekel zone have experienced violence.
Melkitu Worqu is originally from Wonbera Woreda, Dura Jela kebele (locality). She now lives in Dibate district – the epicenter of all attacks – with her three children. Before these unceasing attacks began, she had made a living by rearing animals. “Our area is rich. If we dig the ground, we can excavate gold,” Melkitu says, expressing how wealthy Metekel is with resources.
Melkitu was forced to live in an IDP camp in Chagni (a town in the Agew Awi zone) for a month after the November 2020 attacks. Before she found a way out of Dibate during the attacks, she stayed at home with her children without getting anything to eat for three days. Remembering how she and her children left Dibate on foot, Melkitu says: “We didn’t even close our door when we left. We just ran for our lives. We had to leave our cattle behind. Many people were with us: children, elderly and pregnant women.”
“We survived. But our relatives in Bulen district and Galisa locality were killed,” says Melkitu.
Melkitu and her family went back home after a month’s stay in Chagni camp, returning after the security forces took control of the situation. They found that 11 of their animals had been taken.
Abeze Ahmed is one of the people who were relocated to Metekel from the Gondar area in the 1970s because of the drought at the time. She is once again displaced from her home in Kesasmanden, together with her six children. All her belongings have been destroyed and she doesn’t have any means to rebuild a fresh home again. “Our house is burnt down. We don’t have anywhere to go back to. It wasn’t only my house that was burnt. Three other houses belonging to my children were also set on fire. We want to go back – but where?” says Abeze, showing bleak hope. She’s thankful, though – for the lives of her children and hers were spared.
Jemanesh Tolosa is among the thousands of displaced people. She says, “Everything we owned is gone. All we could do was escape with our lives. We didn’t harvest what we had been cultivating. It’s all gone now.”
Putting numbers to the loss in Metekel is difficult. The frequency and brutality of the violence have become increasingly hard to keep track off. In January 2021, a concerned team was formed with the motto, “Let’s be a voice to Metekel”. This team estimated that about 1,000 people would be killed between September 2020 until 2021.
The team interviewed individuals to relate their stories, showing the actual situation in Metekel. A man called Alemu said that he had sent his whole family in a bus to Chagni to escape the attacks but later found that all had been killed on the way.
His three children and six-month-pregnant wife were murdered along with a bus full of passengers. He was crying when he said: “My two sons and daughter were in the bus with my wife who was pregnant. They slaughtered them all.” He related the inhuman way his family was killed saying, “I’m telling my story hoping someone would listen.”
Why is the ordeal in Metekel so complicated?
Actors in and out of the country
Government officials, including the Prime Minister and his deputy, have traveled to Metekel to find a solution to the chaos. However, the attacks restarted as soon as the authorities left. Decisions were made ranging from allowing citizens to arm themselves to putting the zone under a command post’s rule for the past two years. In all the zone’s districts including its seat, Gilgel Beles, special forces from almost all regions – as well as the national defense force – have been stationed.
Mebratu Alemu (Ph.D.), a local politician, attributes the reasons behind the situation in the zone to the political interests in the area.
“The major actors in the conflicts are found in the administration itself. It’s like the thief himself has joined the search for the thief. This is why the problem cannot find any solution. Plus, there are organizations and people making a profit from the volatile situation, such as contraband traders selling bullets, and gold. The reforms that were said to have been kickstarted following Prime Minister Abiy’s ascent to power didn’t get anywhere. The problems are complicated and any route out of the situation just seems to be blocked.”
Many agree that politicians from the Gumuz ethnic group have armed Gumuz rebels with weapons and radicalism, preaching that they are underprivileged. And the actors in the chaos are found both in Ethiopia as well as in the neighboring countries, making the situation even more complicated.
The government blames the armed group of Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), saying it is being backed by different forces. There are many paramilitary bodies that are claimed to be playing their part in the situation. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Force), OLA (Oromo Liberation Army), Sudan, and Egypt are supposed to be among these actors.
Abiyot Alboro is the head of the office for Benishangul Gumuz’s Peace and Security. He says though many are interested in keeping Metekel as unsettled as it is, he says the major actor behind the situation is the TPLF. He claims the Front is organizing the youth and other individuals to execute attacks that are ethnically based.
He further cites three major reasons which are an impediment to peace-making efforts.
According to him, the Grand Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building in Metekel has made the zone a center of attention. He says this has opened the door for Sudan and Egypt to join hands with any enemy they can find to disturb the peace.
Abiyot asserts that there is evidence, both verbal and documented, that local forces such as the Oromo Liberation Army – locally called Shene – are participating in the conflict. “They make consistent contacts with foreign enemies. They also back one another with logistics. They share weapons as well,” Abiyot says, pointing out OLA is at large in the neighboring zone, Wollega.
Gashu Dugaz, Metekel’s administrator, also accuses Sudan, saying it’s the bridge for the weapons-supply chain that originates from Egypt. “Sudan receives money and weapons from Egypt. And the bandits are taking the weapons at the border with Sudan and using them for the ongoing attacks,” he says, mentioning they have confiscated Egyptian-made munitions.
The region’s Peace and Security head believes the second major reason is the administration itself, staffed with individuals with evil motives.
“There were individuals in the administration, starting from localities up to the regional offices who directly and indirectly played parts in the conflicts. It was difficult for the security network to pinpoint the problems that were going on because of the inside agents. What we discussed and decided in our security meetings leaked out and reached the ears of our enemies. It has been a very difficult situation to handle,” said the security head.
Those who were suspected to be part of the problem and those who didn’t carry out their responsibilities properly were arrested. In mid-December of 2020, the former Labor and Social Affairs state minister and the former deputy president of the region, including 10 other officials, were arrested. Some other 50 individuals within the district administrations were also laid off.
The administration’s “family-like relations” with the armed groups has created a favorable environment for classified information to be out or for security forces to be ambushed. The insiders also helped the attackers to find openings to escape, according to Abiyot.
The third major obstacle to the peace effort is the current advance of “radicals” in Metekel, says Abiyot, the security head. “Metekel is our land,” is the mantra of some people in the region, who back up the armed group in every way possible.
Gumuz People’s Democratic Front’s (GPDF) armed group
Who are the Gumuz People’s Democratic Front (GPRF) and how are they able to withstand the government’s counterattacks for this long?
GPDF was a legal political body recognized by the government until January 2021. However, the National Electoral Board revised the procedures for the registration of political parties and its election process and finally canceled the licenses of 30 parties. GPDF was one of the parties that lost their legality. The reason for the cancellation was the fact that the party didn’t respond in time to the requests made by the board.
The head of the Movement, Giragn Gudeta, was arrested in June 2022 for “attempting to entice [a] clash” in the Kamashi zone. After his release in July, we talked to him over the phone and he dismissed the allegations. “GPDM doesn’t have an armed group. However, there’s an armed group that is using our name. The government thinks it’s us,” he said, admitting the armed group’s members are also from Gumuz.
“We denounce the act of killing civilians. We are sorry too. Citizens shouldn’t live in fear. The problem in Metekel should be investigated by a neutral body. That is how the truth will be out in the open. We are pushing for this,” said Gragn.
He says he established the Movement in 2014 to be the voice of the Gumuz people in a peaceful way. However, he says, there are Gumuz people – civil servants, teachers as well as health and agriculture professionals – who have taken other routes to get their voice heard. He describes the situation as a “people’s protest”. The armed group members are those who were underprivileged for years, deprived of education, health, and other basic rights. They are now trying to get what they deserve with the help of arms.
Explaining the claim that the Movement works with TPLF, he says, “We have formed a coalition with more than 20 federalist forces. It’s nothing to exaggerate.”
The information we got from Metekel zone administration indicates that the armed group was led by a man called “Tahir Tigre” until he recently passed away due to illness. We have asked Giragn if he knows the person. He says he knows about him and that he was Sudanese, not Gumuz.
The government has continued to accuse this armed group of recruiting the youth and doing everything it can to harm the Gumuz community itself. The hand-to-hand combat it uses as a strategy and the support it gets from undetermined sources has made it difficult for the government to control the situation.
Giragn Gudeta believes the government needs to seek a solution by opting for negotiation. He remembers there’s a document that was prepared for this end, however it didn’t materialize, as both sides chose military alternatives. He also says his party members are still under arrest.
The ordeals of the victims
“Which one is worse; starvation or war?”
The government claims there is relative peace in Metekel at the moment. When we were compiling this report, there was an ongoing operation by the government to apprehend the armed group. The residents of the zone are familiar with the situation and they do their day-to-day activities, accepting it as the new norm.
There are 280,000 internally displaced people in four camps found in the zone. This means more than half of the population has been forced to leave home.
Jemanesh Tolosa lives in Dibate town with her seven children, renting a room. She says the IDP camp is a place where women are exposed to different kinds of harassment. That’s why she chose to live out of the camp. She pays rent with the income she gets by fetching water and collecting firewood for people.
With the “relative peace” in the area, the government is urging the people to go back home. They are given seeds in order to encourage them to continue farming. However, Jemanesh and others like her are still living in fear. She went home a while ago, sowed corn on her farm, and came back to Dibate. “I know I will not harvest it,” Jemanesh says.
“The government is saying we will not get any aid unless we go back home,” says Jemanesh, admitting she has no intention of going back. Emama Abeze also shares Jemanesh’s fear saying, “Let’s say we are not afraid and we go back, where will we live?” she wonders, thinking of her demolished home.
For the past two years, there was no agricultural activity. This has caused an increase in food demand. Worqitu Woldu is one victim of the conflict who’s having a difficult time just to get by. She says, “Buying food items is becoming impossible now.”
“What will we eat? What will I feed my children? Which is worse; war or starvation?” she asks.
Many are not satisfied with the aid that comes from the government and other non-governmental organizations. The zone’s administrator, Gashu Dugaz, says he understands the situation. “These people used to own 10 to 15 hectares of land, farming not only for consumption but supplying grains for the market. Now they are dependent on the government and that is not enough for them,” he says.
The major victims of this situation are the Gumuz community. The community is torn between two forces, says Abiyot Alboru, the security head. This community is being forced by the armed group to join the struggle. And on the other hand, the government calls for them to keep them distanced from the rebels.
Liberating Metekel within 90 days
“How long will we lament for Metekel?”
To “free Metekel from the armed forces”, the government has started a campaign that aims to take three months, starting from the first week of June 2022. With a joint military and political operation, Metekel will be “free”, the government announced. “Those who defy the call to peacefully surrender will be eliminated, according to the plan,” says Abiyot.
“37-40 kebeles (localities) are still under the rebel group’s hold,” Abiyot elaborates, pledging that “Our people have had enough disturbance. We vowed to turn this around. We can’t lament for Metekel forever”.
During our stay in Metekel to compile this report, we have to come to realize that the community believes the campaign will be a success. They are also certainly fearful of retaliation if it fails. The fact that the rebels seem to have an upper hand in the warfare, knowing the landscape well, has created doubt however for the success of the mission.
The security head, Abiyot, says the mission is taking time because of the rebel groups’ choice of hand-to-hand combat.
“Snatching the people from the hands of the enemy” is the priority, according to the zone’s administrator. The Gumuz community lives mostly in the rural areas and this has given an upper hand to the armed group to use the people as a shield. And the government needs to give this situation due attention and try to come between the people and the rebels. He also mentioned that there are freed localities where the administration is trying to rebuild and create a new security network.
Is the duration of the campaign adequate enough compared to the vast problem and its numerous actors?
Abiyot says: “It’s not going to be easy. We have cleared our networks of infiltrators. It doesn’t mean they are fully out of the political administration system. But, we are doing better now.” He also shared his hope that the community’s determination to rebuild peace has created a better circumstance to minimize clashes and build a new militia.
Metekel, the place that turned from earthly heaven into hell, is now hoping to see better, peaceful days. Security unease and economic issues are the current major issues of the zone. Still, Belete Teshome and fellow displaced citizens hope for a better future.