December 13, 2003, is a day that the long-suffering Anuak people from the fertile Gambella forest region of south-western Ethiopia would never forget.
A shocking massacre, led by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) soldiers, had claimed the lives of about 424 people, including children, largely being Anuak. Some victims were burned alive while women were raped and homes were burned to the ground.
What sparked this brutal attack against the Anuak people in Gambella, a region with abundant natural resources, including gold and oil?
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Accounts say that the Ethiopian government had then offered a concession for oil exploration in Gambella to a Malaysian company, Petronas. Armed Anuak militias who were against this move launched a series of attacks against “highlander civilians” (migrants from other parts of Ethiopia and their descendants) in the region.
In response, uniformed soldiers, alongside traders, civil servants, and labourers unleashed brutality on the Anuak people who are indigenous to Gambella, killing hundreds and displacing thousands.
The December 2003 massacre was not the first time ENDF soldiers had committed human rights abuses against civilians in Gambella, but it was a turning point in Gambella’s long history of conflict and insecurity, writes Human Rights Watch.
Gambella, a low-lying region that sits along the Sudanese border in the southwest of the country, has an ethnically diverse population estimated to reach 220,000 people.
There are five ethnic groups that consider themselves to be indigenous to the Gambella area – the Anuak (or Anywaa), Nuer, Majangir, Opo and Komo. The Nuer and the Anuak are the two largest groups in the region. The third-largest population group consists of people the indigenous groups refer to as “highlanders,” said Human Rights Watch.
The homelands of the Anuak Nilotic society stretches across South Sudan-Akobo, Pochala, and Nassir, along the Sobat basin. The Anuak ethnic group speaks a Nilotic language known as Anuak. Unlike other Nilotic people in the region whose economy is based on raising cattle, the Anuak are mainly farmers.
Divided into clans, every Anuak settlement has a headman who is in charge of village ceremonies and possesses the village drums and ancient Anuak relics, a report by joshuaproject.net said.
“He [headman] is given allegiance and respect by the villagers who farm his land and bring him gifts of meat and fish. If the headman loses the villagers’ support by being a weak leader, he will be expelled from the village, taking nothing with him but his wives,” the report adds.
Almost all of the Anuak are animists who believe in an all-powerful spirit named Juok who is regarded as the creator of all things. Members of the Anuak ethnic group sacrifice animals to Juok for help in times of illness or when one seeks revenge. The Anuak also practice divination and magic.
Years before the 2003 massacre, members of the Anuak ethnic group had suffered government persecution and abuse since the Gambella enclave became part of the modern Ethiopian nation-state in 1898, an article on Ethiopia Insight said.
The genesis of the brutal attack against the Anuak people began in the 1970s when the government of Ethiopia began seizing their lands. In 1974, the military junta with its socialist ideology declared state ownership of land, and this destroyed the traditional political system, cultural values and economic independence of the Anuak population.
“In 1980s, the junta settled large numbers of Tigray, Amhara, Kambata, and Hadiya among the Anuak and cleared vast tracts of fertile land they used for hunting, fishing, grazing and growing crops. They also constructed a dam on the Alwero River, a lifeline for large Anuak population of Abobo district, and settled more than half a million refugees among them, intensifying a cycle of violent conflicts,” the report by the Ethiopia Insight said.
There were also attempts to draft members of the Anuak ethnic group into the army and into forced labour on collective farms. Many Anuak fled into the bush in an attempt to reach Sudan and were shot and imprisoned, said Minority Rights Group International.
After the 2003 massacre, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has committed numerous human rights violations against Anuak communities in the Gambella region that Human Rights Watch say might amount to crimes against humanity.
In fact, Anuak has been in conflict with the government over large-scale development projects. State-led developments have often been undertaken without consultation with Anuak and other indigenous communities. Many have since lost their large areas of ancestral lands to foreign corporations who use them for sugar cane plantations and other investments.
Some members of the Anuak population have even been forced to resettle in makeshift villages. Their homes and crops are then burnt to prevent them from returning. Those who refuse are either killed or beaten.
In recent times, Ethiopia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has been working assiduously to bring back home the Anuak people.
Last December, the Anuak people, for the first time, were able to openly commemorate the anniversary of the 2003 massacre. Though analysts say that this marks a new era for the Anuak people, some members of the ethnic group are pessimistic, especially as pockets of inter-ethnic violence are still reported in Ethiopia.
After fleeing 14 years ago, Akwata Umot Okok, who used to be a farmer, has found refuge at the Gorom refugee settlement, some 25 kilometres north of South Sudan’s capital Juba.
She tells DW that she is not sure about returning home. “If Ethiopia is now free, I will go back. But if it is not, I will not go,” the mother of four said.