‘Flashpoint’ Festival Looms in Ethiopia

By Nizar Manek
September 18, 2017,

Scores of people died in stampede at cultural event last year
Human Rights Watch says security forces’ actions caused panic

Ethiopian authorities should exercise restraint at a festival held by the country’s largest ethnic group in October, after security forces at last year’s event triggered a fatal stampede by using teargas and discharging firearms on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

Medics help stampede victims during the Irreecha festival in Bishoftu in Oct. 2016. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP via Getty Images
Medics help stampede victims during the Irreecha festival in Bishoftu in Oct. 2016. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP via Getty Images

Scores of people — possibly hundreds — died at the Irreecha festival on Oct. 2, 2016, from falling into a deep trench, being trampled or shot after the government responded to unrest with force, the New York-based advocacy group said Tuesday in a report, citing witnesses and video footage. Ethiopian authorities at the time said that at least 55 died, either crushed or drowned in ditches and shallow waters, and that no one was shot. Irreecha, a major event for the Horn of African country’s about 40 million Oromo people, is held in Bishoftu city, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.

“The security forces’ disastrous and disproportionate use of force should not be repeated this year,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha could be fraught with tensions. The government and the security forces should take all steps necessary before and during the festival to protect human life and de-escalate tensions.”

Ethiopia is ranked Africa’s fastest-growing economy by the International Monetary Fund, but unrest has threatened to derail the boom. Last year’s stampede followed months of anti-government protests by the Oromo people over alleged land grabs and political neglect that presented a major challenge for the ruling coalition. A week after the events, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a state of emergency that was finally lifted in August.

Security forces initially sought to control the crowds using teargas, then fired into the crowd using live ammunition, Human Rights Watch cited witnesses as saying. The group said that while “many gunshots” were heard, as corroborated by videos, it has photographs of rubber bullets retrieved at the scene and couldn’t prove live ammunition was used.

Ethiopia’s Information Ministry referred requests for comment to staff member Mohammed Said, who didn’t respond to two text messages and five phone calls.

Eight people described seeing people with gunshot wounds, while “numerous witnesses” said security forces were blocking exits by pointing weapons at the fleeing crowd, Human Rights Watch said. Four witnesses recounted seeing people they believed were security officials dressed in traditional Oromo clothing who pulled out pistols, while a student reported seeing “several plainclothes men” shoot and kill at close range, according to the group.

Other witnesses described military vehicles arriving at the site and loading bodies, while one video shows one such vehicle arrive several minutes after the stampede, Human Rights Watch said. The group described this year’s festival, set for Oct. 1, as a “potential flashpoint.”

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