By Ashley Etchells-Butler
About six years ago I was working as an English teacher in the southern Ethiopian town of Soddo. After a few months in the town I was due to travel to Addis Ababa – along with a couple of other westerners who taught at The Abba Pascal School for Girls. It would prove an eventful journey.
We set off early in an ancient, snarling Land Rover. Two Italians, two Ethiopians and myself. On route, we took a small detour to Shashamane, staying the night with a young Rastafari man and his children before heading on. We took the new highway back up to the capital, intending to spend a few days at a seminary.
Somewhere between Shashamane and Addis we began to notice that a line of men was forming along the side of the road. Initially the numbers were small, the formation loose. Groups of between two and five men, wandering along at sporadic intervals. Hardly a line at all, really.
But as we progressed the numbers grew, disproportionately so, and the smaller groups began to merge into larger, more purposeful –looking groups of men. “Where are they going?” somebody asks. The answer is vague, unsure. This is a new road, built while we were in the south, and our Ethiopian companions do not know the area. “Maybe they head to market.” But those that head to market carry their goods in hand. If these were men of trade they travelled light.
We continued north in our beaten up 4×4, watching with mild intrigue as the numbers increased and the ragged groups became a single, tramping column. One of our party pointed out that many were carrying thin spears, and others machetes. Further on, I noticed that handguns, Kalashnikovs, and other small arms were becoming more common.
There were, we realised, no other roads to Addis. Whatever was happening up ahead, we would have no choice but to meet it head on.
Soon the column began to disseminate into the trees to our right. In the distance to our left, we heard the sound of gunfire. “Be careful,” said our driver, “Stay in the car.” There were more people in the road now, and we had to weave between them as our vehicle approached a crowded settlement.
Several of the armed men eyed us suspiciously as we crawled along the road, and a few fell in step with the car. One man met my eye for an uncomfortable length of time. Still staring, he raised his machete to his temple.
Without warning we jerked to a halt. A dozen or so men were busily piling up stones and wood, blocking the road. Why this was necessary was anyone’s guess; we hadn’t passed another vehicle for over an hour. Our driver wound down his window a few inches and shouted to the men. They carried on regardless. He bibbed the horn. Still nothing.
A man ran in front of the car and struck the bonnet with his spear as he passed. Figures were emerging from the trees to our right, pumped with adrenaline. Several more people struck the car with whatever they were carrying; the flat of a blade, the butt of a rifle. They were heading into the distance to our left. A small group of men were standing nearby, just watching us. Our driver shouted something urgently in Amharic. They didn’t respond. He wound the window back up and turned to face us. “Hold on,” he said, and revved the engine.
Horn blaring he accelerated forward. The men scattered from in front of the road block and we drove over, and partially through it, as it parted under the weight of the car. A group of about thirty people watched us speed away. The rest continued to run.
What we witnessed on the road to Addis in 2008 remains unclear. We must have seen armed men in their hundreds, travelling to battle. But what battle, and why?
Extensive Amnesty International reports cover the violence ongoing in Ogaden at that point. The Somali-orientated region in the east of the country had been struck by drought, and famine, and an armed conflict between government forces and the Oromo National Liberation Front (ONLF) had been ongoing for years.
But we were in central Ethiopia, hundreds of miles away; possibly in or near the Oromia region.
I pressured our driver for his opinion. He told me it was “Just regional conflict.” When I asked if such battles were common, he said “Sometimes” – which is not an answer.
What happened, out there, in the Ethiopian countryside? Why has it never been reported?
For now I can only speculate, but I will find out.