Ethiopia’s murderous new era

The writer's brother died in the political violence that has become part of how political power is being contested in Ethiopia.

Image credit Solen Feyissa.

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, Effaa’s older son came home running, his face ashier than usual and his eyes wide open. He looked worried, afraid, and confused all at the same time. One of their oxen was bleeding from the mouth, he told her, unable to eat and lying in the dirt. The two ran down the hill to the ox. Effaa could see its wet and bloodied mouth but could not locate visible cuts. No wounds to speak of. Then, mother and son agreed to look inside the ox’s mouth. To their dismay, they saw that their ox was missing the front half of its tongue. This fact had a dire consequence for all three. The ox was about to lose its life, and they, their livelihood.

This was clearly the work of someone looking to harm the family. Oxen are not known to shed their tongues while they are still alive. Crucially, this could not have been the work of one individual. Effaa and her son barely had the strength to open the ox’s mouth to peer inside. Cutting a portion of its tongue must have required at least three people. It was a cruel and well-orchestrated attack, intended, she later told me, to drive the family out of the village in the hopes of commandeering their small plot of farmland.

Effaa poses for the camera in her backyard. Credit Solen Feyissa.

In better circumstances, Effaa would have a vet examine the ox, but this is rural Ethiopia; veterinary clinics are nonexistent. If vets show up, it is to deliver vaccines sponsored by government or nongovernmental organizations. For Effaa, there was only one practical choice: the ox had to be slaughtered and its meat sold in hopes of recouping enough money to buy a new one—even if, as she intimated to me later, she would end up collecting only a fraction of the money needed.

When I finally spoke to Effaa at my parents’ house eight months after she lost her ox, she wept as she narrated the challenges she faced in the months after the ox incident. “This would have never happened if Tesfu was alive,” she told me. Tesfu, my brother, was murdered a little over a year ago. His death changed her and her children’s lives in ways they never could have predicted.

As a widow with young children, Effaa’s material belongings were there for the taking. Although her oldest son was in his mid-teens, he wasn’t old enough to defend their property from hostile takeovers—not without risking his life, anyway.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, his rule has been marked by political upheaval and ethnic strife that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians. The prime minister’s perceived political miscalculations and poor tactics have been well-covered by the local and international press. But what is lost in the discussions of Ethiopia’s bloodshed is the suffering of the children, parents, wives, husbands, and communities left behind to deal with their loss.

Tesfu, short for Tesfaye, which roughly translates to “my hope” in Amharic, was one of the thousands of people who have been murdered in Ethiopia over the past three years. In what appears to me to be an act of random violence, a group of men he had never met before murdered him near Akaki, a small town on the edge of Addis Ababa, in cold blood. Tesfu was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and a beloved member of his community. He left behind his wife, Effaa, and their four children, three sons and a daughter.

Image credit Solen Feyissa.

Like millions of his fellow Ethiopian farmers, Tesfu couldn’t generate enough money from the small plot of land he inherited to support a family of six. To supplement his income, he also worked for villagers who lacked the means to till their plots of farmland, and during the holidays he sold chibo—bundles of sticks tied together to form torches burned on the eve of Ethiopian holidays. Tesfu never talked to me about what he did in any meaningful detail. I guess it’s the Ethiopian way. You just do your job, not talk about it.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 26, Tesfu had no inkling that less than two hours after leaving his home, criminals would rob him, beat him, and shoot him twice, killing him.

When our sister told me he was murdered, I felt pain in places I could not pinpoint. For a brief moment, I wanted to kneel down and pray. I don’t know why or to what end. Childhood habit, I guess. I felt helpless. I sat motionless on the bed. Overwhelmed. There was nothing to do but listen to my sister narrate the circumstances of his death, all the while asking myself, “How could this be?” I hadn’t seen him in six years. He wasn’t supposed to die.

Over the next few months, I could not stop thinking about the circumstances surrounding his death. What exactly happened that morning? I had more questions than answers. Untangling the stories about his death has proven more challenging as time passes. All the people I’ve spoken to, from my mother to our uncles and aunts, tell stories that do not align. Even the medical examiner’s report was barely readable because one of our cousins poorly stored it. The report, they told me, simply stated that he suffered two gunshot wounds, which, as I understand it now, led to hemorrhagic shock. Absent any explanations of how he died or who exactly killed him, I wondered what it must have been like to die alone in the dark. I imagined his agony and terror. What is it like to have all your blood drained out of your body?

Image credit Solen Feyissa.

According to medical experts, as soon as Tesfu was shot and started to bleed, his body tried to form a clot in an attempt to stop the bleeding. As the loss of blood increased and the total blood volume in his body decreased, his heart kicked up another gear and started to beat faster to pump more blood to the body. But that only made the problem worse, triggering thirst as a mitigating step—a thirst he likely did not quench. As blood loss continued, his brain received less of it, resulting in a feeling of anxiety and probably fear. Soon, his breath came in quick succession and grew shallow. Then the anxiety gave way to confusion and it to lethargy. His body was now ready to begin shutting down noncritical bodily functions. One by one, his organs started to go offline until finally, everything was turned off and he was no longer alive. At sunrise, villagers found his lifeless body soaked in blood. He was no longer a man. He was dead at 38.

Now that he’s gone, I often think about the last time I saw him. I try to remember what we talked about and come up with very little. He had come to visit me at our parents’ house in Addis Ababa. It was the first time I’d been home since moving to the US five years earlier. Tesfu wasn’t feeling well, but he still came to see me. I remember my mom talking to him sternly, because she suspected he was going to a local healer instead of a medical clinic. She worried about him. I remember him laughing and telling our mother he was indeed seeing a medical professional and that she shouldn’t worry about him. More than our conversation, though, what is most salient in my memory is my bickering with our sister, who I thought was pointing the camera at the wrong angle. “Are you taking a picture of our shoes?” I grumbled, half-jokingly. I complained about what I perceived to be too many out-of-focus or blurry photos. “How can you get this wrong? Get the little square thing right on one of our faces and push down the button. And don’t shake the camera,” I kept saying. Looking back, all of that sounds pathetic and stupid.

What is left in the wake of Tesfu’s murder is a family in distress. In his absence, the family was exposed to attacks from villagers, most of whom, unfortunately, are blood relatives, and who wanted to run them out of their only home. His two older sons dropped out of school to help their mother and work on the farm; his daughter went off to live with her aunts in Addis Ababa in the hopes of protecting her from rural life, which, in Ethiopia, can be cruel to women. His youngest son, Bashada, moved to Addis Ababa to live with his grandparents.

Image credit Solen Feyissa.

Although Bashada started attending a nearby school right away, it didn’t go well. He had a hard time adjusting to the school and making new friends, partly because he enrolled halfway through the semester and didn’t speak Amharic. At school registration, his grandparents changed his Oromo name to Dawit, after King David of the Old Testament, in the hopes of making him blend in more easily and avoid the bullying that often greeted those with Oromo names. It was flawed logic, and, I believe, made things worse for him. A child who, not long ago, had lost his father was being stripped of his identity as well.

Without professional counseling and guidance for children in his situation, Bashada began to withdraw and disengage. He was eating less, talking less, and moving less as time went by. He sat in the house all day and refused to go outside. One afternoon, his grandmother found him sitting with his shirt smeared in what she thought was key wot, a kind of red curry sauce. She was far off in her analysis. The “key wot” was actually his excrement, and it did not end up on his shirt accidentally or by mistake. It was a sign of regression no one had anticipated or prepared for. The family convened and decided it was in his best interest to rejoin his brothers in Yerer. And so he did.

During my visit to their home in Yerer in March 2020, all three boys had dropped out of school and were helping their mother full-time. Effaa told me she wanted to send the kids back to school, but all three refused to go because they wanted to be with her at all times. In their heart of hearts, the boys understand that the only way they can survive is if they stick together. I believe this is why Bashada wanted to return home. He was worried about the fate of his mother and brothers.

Image credit Solen Feyissa.

Ethiopians in all corners of the country continue to lose their lives as a result of the political order in the country. Tesfu’s murder, one of hundreds of deaths to have occurred very soon after Abiy’s ascent to power, appears to have marked a murderous new era in Ethiopian modern history. While the Ethiopian state has remained the primary force behind the killing of Ethiopians in the past few decades, the current wave of violence against Ethiopians is being perpetrated by other Ethiopian citizens. What’s worrying and, in most instances, exacerbating the problem is the apparent government inaction or, as some suspect, complicity. This, no doubt, must change.

Tesfu is just one of thousands of Ethiopians who have been murdered in a country riven by political and ethnic strife. These Ethiopians may just be a statistic to those who aren’t impacted by their untimely deaths, but their deaths represent an incalculable loss to those who loved and depended on them. Their families, like mine, will never be the same. They suffer pain, poverty, harassment, lost hope, and thwarted dreams. And, perhaps, the loss of their livelihood, in the form of an innocent ox.

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