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Report from Ethiopia’s State Media Claiming Targeted Killing of Civilians in Western Oromia Unproven 

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Ethiopia State Media Claim: A total of 168 civilians were killed, and of these claimed victims, a mass grave of 87 individuals were found in Gidami District in Western Oromia Regional State”

MFC’s Verdict: Unproven

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By: MFC Staff

On February 07, 2022, the state-owned Ethiopian Press Agency (EPA) published a story on its website and shared it on its Facebook page quoting Ibsa Besha, head of Kellem Wollega Zone Administration Office, who claimed, “a total of 168 people were killed by the rebel force Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and a mass grave of 87 individuals were found in Gidami District of Oromia Regional State”.

Screenshot 1: EPA’s story published on the website and later posted on the Agency’s Facebook page: “Terrorist Shene (referring to the rebel group also known as OLA) killed 168 civilians in Gidami District of Kellem Wollega”.

The OLA controlled the District for more than two months from late 2021. The government claimed to have regained control of the area since early 2022, which was confirmed by OLA Commander as well. Gidami is a district located in Kellem Wollega Zone in Western Oromia, bordering South Sudan on the west.

Initially, the Agency shared on its verified Facebook page the original story which was published on its website.  However, in a difference of about four hours, the story was edited with a fully different story headline. The edited story was then liked by over 1,000 and shared by 336 people.

Screenshot 2: EPA’s story posted on the Agency’s Facebook page with an edited story headline: “Gidami District of Kellem Wollega Zone is liberated from the Terrorist Shene.” “A mass grave of 87 civilians found”.

The EPA’s story, based on Ibsa’s claim, however, was disputed by other officials from the Regional government. Speaking to BBC Afaan Oromo, a program of BBC’s Horn Service, a security head of Kellem Wollega Zone Tesema Wario dismissed the alleged killing. He also referred to the claim of the discovery of the mass grave of 87 individuals as “false.” Similarly, on February 8, Oromia Regional Police Commissioner Ararsa Merdasa stated the same in an interview (watch from the link from 38 minutes onwards) with the US and Ethiopia-based Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT).

Oromia Police Commissioner Ararsa Merdasa. Source: Fana Broadcasting Corporation (FBC).

The accused, that is OLA, also denied the allegation calling the report by the State media a ‘fabrication’, according to the rebel’s Spokesperson Odaa Tarbii.

However, the claims of en masse massacre and the discovery of a mass grave sparked public outrage on social media with a spin that the deceased were ethnically targeted. For instance, an Ethiopian Journalist Elias Meseret, a fact-checker at EthiopiaCheck, shared a screenshot of EPA’s story with a caption: “What has Amhara done to be persecuted everywhere on such a scale?”, indicating those killed were ethnic Amharas. His post has been liked by 3.8k and shared by 566 viewers.

Screenshot 3:  Elias Meseret’s caption with his point of view that includes ethnicity factor to EPA’s story: “Why is Amhara persecuted everywhere”

Two popular opposition political parties, the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), also issued a statement on the matter claiming the alleged victims were ethnically targeted. The National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) said in the statement “the killing of 168 people is confirmed,” but presented no supporting evidence so far. Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) accused the government for failing to protect civilians in the region. 

Dozens of people including local administration officials, civil servants, members of the local militia and police, civilians, and others from the area reportedly remain missing. It is also claimed that those missing might have been killed or held captive by the rebel group. Speaking to German media Deutsche Welle, a spokesman for Kellem Wollega Zone, Kenbon Kenna said, citing a survivor, that the missing persons were ‘killed.’ However, he acknowledged that there is an ongoing effort by the government to investigate the matter, an indication that the matter so far remains an allegation.  

For the past three years, many rural towns and villages in Western Oromia have been considered a conflict zone where active military hostility continues to take place between rebeles combatant force and government military. Forced disappearances, violence against civilians, and egregious violations of rights have been generally recorded. Local government officials and rebel forces in the region continue to target each other. 

So far, MFC found no independent source verifying the claims that “168 civilians were killed, and of these, the mass grave of 87 people was found in Gidami District of Western Oromia”, including whether “the deceased were from ethnic Amharas.” Therefore, because of the contradictory statements of the two officials as well as the conflicting claims that followed, MFC rules the claims as unproven.

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