When our Observer Assif travelled to the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, to take part in the Ireecha festival held yearly by the Oromo ethnic group, he didn’t expect gunfire and blind panic. However, when Ethiopian security forces opened fire on the celebrating crowds, he found himself swept up in a deadly stampede that resulted in approximately 50 people losing their lives. This latest tragedy has inflamed tensions in the Oromo region, where a rebellion against the government has been ongoing for the past year.
It’s hard to know how many people actually died on Sunday, October 2 in Bishoftu, a town located in the Oromia region south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The government reported that 52 people died, while the opposition say the number is closer to 100.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered on the shores of Lake Harsadi to attend the Ireecha ceremony, which is a traditional Oromo festival marking the end to the rainy season. The Oromos represent the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
But the festivities were overshadowed by tensions between the Oromo people and the central government. Since November 2015, the region has seen frequent protests and subsequent government crackdowns. There have been large numbers of arbitrary arrests. At the root of the crisis is the government’s decision to implement an urban development plan that would encroach upon land belonging to the Oromo community.
Our Observer attended the festival. He told FRANCE 24 that the situation descended into violence when several participants crossed their arms in an X over their heads, a sign of Oromo solidarity. The gesture gained international recognition after Ethiopian athlete Feyisa Lilesa made the sign in protest as he crossed the finish line of the marathon at this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“The army blocked all the exits and started shooting at the crowd”
Assif is our Observer’s pseudonym. France 24 has decided not to use his real name for his protection.
This incident was immediately labeled as a massacre by Oromo activists who blame the government for the tragic loss of life. Our Observer says it has provoked a new wave of tensions in the region.
The government has declared three days of national mourning. However, it denies responsibility for the stampede. In a report published by the BBC, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn claimed that rioters had caused “pre-planned mayhem”. Desalegn also denied that security forces had opened fire.
However, if the authorities did open fire, it wouldn’t be the first time. Human Rights Watch estimates that Ethiopian authorities have killed about 400 hundred people and arrested tens of thousands while repressing the Oromo movement.