Ethiopia: Unreported fighting on the Road to Addis

By Ashley Etchells-Butler

Ethiopian Road

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.

13 Responses

  1. lol

    I am from the region. These are common. Skirmishes over resources. They happen once in a while. Not a major political or stablity problem. OLF, ONLF are hit and run type attackers. The gov goes after them more seriously.

  2. The Observer

    Ah..! u see you missed the class when the President talks about where the real fighting is , not on the roads to Addis… (, Friday 31 January 2014, In 2013, the US lost 30 people a day to gun violence. Obama shouldn’t let us forget)

    Over 12,000 people, adults and children, died from gun violence(fighting) in 2013 – about 30 a day.

    Shame and sad that 215 were children,

    I bet, not even 100 people died from gun violence in Ethiopia the same that year….

  3. Ermias

    People fight along clan lines over resources in most Africa. This is a very common thing. It is not surprising if you have seen such a thong on the road between Awassa and Addis Ababa, on which you travelled. And many people die before Government gets involved and/or the clan chiefs come to their sense and agree a peace settlement. It is common. You are just in a shock.

    1. A

      That is rather worrying… though it does explain some things. There is a great deal of coverage of violence on the African continent – that a great deal also goes unheard is a sad thing. Thanks for the info.


  4. iu

    Why this news now? It happened 2008 and Ashley Etchells-Butler reports now … did you see it in your dream again or what?

    Any motive behind? 🙁

  5. Ehh

    Judging by the region you were describing it sounded like the ONLF. A separatist rebel group with some racist tendencies. Don’t worry, the government beats them down heavily….those cowards are so weak they try to pick on unarmed tourists from time to time.

    Since it was years ago, they’re probably dead or in prison by now if that helps. The government is pretty efficient in dealing with them.

    1. DiinDiig

      There is no ONLF between Shashamane and Addis Ababa. This is central Oromia, hundred of miles away from the Somali region. These were most probable Oromo farmers protesting land grab.

  6. Abebe

    I see the regime sympathizers have hijacked the conversation here. Really unfortunate.

    Ashley, what you experienced wasn’t likely tribal warfare – it’s a fight between oppressed people looking to take out their frustration and anger at anyone associated with the ruling regime (TPLF).

    Oromos are the largest ethnic group in not only Ethiopia but in East Africa. Despite their large numerical superiority, they are marginalized people who are taught to feel ashamed of their language, identity and heritage by successive rulers in Addis Ababa.

    The Ambo violence in Ethiopia which killed nearly 50 people is a testomony how peaceful Oromos are being gunned down for execizing their rights for political, economic, linguistic and cultural equality.

    Ethiopia suffers from racisim towards non “Semitic-speaking” people. Basically, if you are not of the Amhara or Tigray ethnic group, you are second class citizen. Tigrays only joined this exclusive club in Ethiopia through violence. This is why more Oromos are now taking up arms.

  7. dorch

    Really, I can’t get the point of reporting this after 6 years as some commentators suggested. When I started reading the first few paragraphs of the flocking people in groups, I thought the writer would come to the conclusion that it was the Kembata and Hadiya area young people/youth who voluntarily flee their area seeking better life. However, to my surprise, the writer was intending of some thing totally different. I do not think this can be related to Ogaden in any way, neither can this be related to OLF unless there was a clear evidence of so at that time. In any case, this article is irrelevant to the current Ethiopian situation and it doesnot hold the slightest drop of water to readers mind. Does the writer believe the situation still as she/he encountered a few years ago?

  8. ALB

    Well, one thing this report does have in common with current reports about the situation in Ethiopia is that sympathizers with the Ethiopian Government come out of the woodwork and publish all sorts of comments questioning the writer’s motives and defending the government. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Ashley. I’m glad you’re safe.

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