(OPride) — At least 250 feared dead in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, after police used tear gas and opened fire on people gathered to mark Irreechaa, the Oromo thanksgiving festival. The Irreechaa holiday at Hora Arsadi, the crater lake near the site of Sunday’s massacre, is considered the biggest cultural and spiritual celebration in Africa.
On this day, October 2, which will be entered into history books as the Irreechaa Massacre, the sacred grounds of Arsadi was littered with dead bodies, according to eyewitness reports. The mass arrests began a day early. Tensions run high all day as military helicopters flew above the crowd at lower altitude, in what was seen as an effort to intimidate the growing crowd. At the city entrances, security checkpoints stretched for hours as festival goers arrived from across Oromia. But despite the heavy security presence, Irreechaa goers still expected to partake in a peaceful celebration of Birraa, as the holiday marks the transition from the dark season of winter into Spring.
But chaos, confusion and stampede broke out in the early afternoon when the youth booed the newly elected chairman of the ruling Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, OPDO, off the stage. It is an incident like no other. A turning point for the 11-month old Oromo protests, a popular uprising against the Oromo people’s continued social, economic and political marginalization by the central government in Ethiopia.
Irreechaa has emerged at the most important event among the Oromo. It is officially a celebration of the bountiful harvest of Birra but a celebration of Oromummaa itself. It is the most unifying event for the Oromo, who constitute at least half of Ethiopia’s 100 million people.
The protests began as soon as the crowd filed into the malka, the river bank, close to the stage where politicians often make statements – statements that are often unheard and unheeded even on a “normal” year. This wasn’t an ordinary year for Oromo and for Ethiopians as a whole. More than 1,000 people have been killed, mostly in Oromia, but also in the Amhara state in the last 11 months. It’s clear that the youth were ready to make a statement of their own to the local officialdom – in an unusual in your face type of way. But their protests were peaceful. They crossed arms, forming an X, popularized by Oromo marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, to say no to the killings, beatings and arrests.
- But security forces responded as they always do: By firing at a crowd of millions.
Additional reporting from Zecharias Zelalem
The colorful, cultural annual Ireechaa festivities, which attracts millions of people from across Ethiopia and around the world to the city of Bishoftu, some 40 kilometers south of the capital Addis Ababa, was the scene of a horrific massacre that has left hundreds of people dead and more wounded, according to witnesses and activists.
Since the start of this year’s celebrations, openly public displays of support for the ongoing Oromo national movement have seen protests and marches leave their mark on the gathering. People chanted and sang resistance tunes as the fiercely anti regime sentiment that has gripped Oromo society throughout their nearly yearlong protest movement, could be felt throughout the city.
Yesterday, a heightened police presence was reported amid fears that the gathering could be used by festival attendees to exercise public expressions of outrage for the Ethiopian government’s heavy handed methods of handling the protests that a Human Rights Watch report released in June said resulted in the deaths of over four hundred unarmed demonstrators.
Today’s bloodshed appears to show that federal security forces haven’t reformed their approach in the wake of the report’s findings. At around noon, the Ireechaa procession was attacked by security forces, who reportedly fired lethal ammunition indiscriminately at thousands of festival goers.
Activists also speak of an aerial bombardment, which included the firing of live ammunition and tear gas by hovering aircraft at panicked groups of people. Countless were killed by the bullets while the carnage triggered a stampede which locals say resulted in more deaths and injuries.
Hours before the massacre occurred, internet and telephone services in Bishoftu and the surrounding areas were cut and remain so now. This has made the task of getting credible information increasingly risky and challenging. But the now swamped Bishoftu hospital, handling casualties beyond its capacity is reported 120 dead bodies so far. Activists say as many as 300 had died. The death toll will most probably rise as people are still being rushed from the scene of the massacre at the time of writing. Graphic images circulating social media show dozens of dead bodies laid out in a tent. Many of the dead were clad in celebratory Oromo attire, including Gadaa flag scarves.
Despite the government in Ethiopia’s widespread condemnation by international rights groups for what they have consistently described as brutal tactics employed by state security forces to crackdown on public demonstrations, a statement from the Federal Government Communications office puts the blame for the massacre on “destabilizing agents,” further vowing to bring them to justice. The statement fails to give an estimate for the total number of people killed, nor did it address the fact that nearly all the deaths were from gunshot wounds. Nobody other than state security forces were known to be armed with any sort of weapon on the premises. Instead it highlighted the fact that a stampede was cause for numerous deaths, in what critics call an attempt by the government to sugar-coat the nature of the tragedy.