On Sunday morning at 7 a.m., I, along with nine other friends, arrived in Bishoftu, a town 25 miles southeast of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, for the annual Irreechaa festival. We were searched by police before entering the town.
Once in the town, a traffic police told our driver that cars cannot pass an area called Chuqala or Zuqala. So we left the car behind and started walking toward Lake Hora, where the Irreechaa ceremony takes place. We reached the sacred lake, known in Afaan Oromo as Hora Arsadi, after about an hour. Everyone heading to the lake was in white Oromo cultural clothes. Many walk in small groups, singing cultural songs — mostly “Hoo! Yaa maree hoo” — a song usually performed on the day of Irreechaa. Others sang cultural songs from different regions of Oromia.
We walked alongside others carrying pieces of grass and flowers, singing “Hoo! Yaa maree hoo” and other celebratory songs. We arrived at the shore of Arsadi around 8:00 a.m. The open area near the lake, where people usually gather to receive blessings and listen to speeches, was already crowded with festival goers.
Heavy military presence
From Chuqala all the way to the lake shore, both sides of the roads were overcrowded by police wearing Oromia anti-riot uniform. There was also an unusually heavy security presence at the main square known as the Circle, and near the stage in front of the lake where the traditional Abba Gadaa leaders normally perform public blessings and thanksgivings. The stage is about 100 meters from the lake.
In addition, the hills behind the stage and those surrounding the lake were all occupied by heavily armed police forces. The square where the crowd gathered to follow the proceedings from the stage was also fortified by police. I also saw several armored vehicles pointing their warheads at the crowd from the left side of the square. On the right side of this square is a deep cliff and number of holes, the existence of which many in the crowd may not have known. There is only one narrow public entry and exit on the side of this gorge.
Besides the heavy police presence at the lake, since early morning, a war helicopter hovered overhead —presumably patrolling the city particularly the roads leading to the lake and the shore where festival goers were assembled. At one point, shortly after we arrived, one of the helicopters dropped Irreechaa leaflets and continued its patrol until it was replaced by a white aircraft around 11 a.m. I have been attending Irreechaa since 2006, missing only 2013 and 2015. So I found the heavy military presence in the city in general and the patrol by Air Force helicopters very strange and unsettling.
How the Oromo Thanksgiving Day turned into a day of terror
Once at the shore of Arsadi, my group said prayers and extended our thanks to the almighty Waaqaa (God) as did many of the millions gathered there on Sunday. We took group photos and then joined another group singing and celebrating as I have done in the past. After about an hour, we went closer to the stage to follow the blessings of, and prayers by, Oromo Abba Gadaas. When we arrived at the square in front of the stage, the crowd was shouting and showing resistance symbols by crossing their wrists overhead.
I wanted to understand why the crowd was shouting at those seated on the stage and those speaking to the public. So I looked closely at those on the stage and found that they were not the legitimate council of Abba Gadaas of Oromia, but government officials and a retired Abba Gadaa, who was widely known for his loyalty to and involvement in the ruling party. He was begging the public, which by then was angered by the absence of the current Abba Gadaa leaders, to listen to him.
However, the crowd kept on shouting, demanding the legitimate council be brought to officiate the event and displaying the “X” resistance symbol. As a result, no speech was successfully delivered. It’s unusual and unprecedented for the retired Abba Gadaa and government officials to open the Irreechaa proceedings without the legitimate Abba Gadaas and the Abba Malkaa. By then the crowd was already suspicious. Some were whispering that the current Abba Gadaas, who reportedly advised against heavy government intervention in a cultural event, were detained by the army. And the youth appeared determined to make sure that the government’s attempt to alter the established Irreechaa tradition and hold its own ceremony did not succeed.
The crowd continued shouting and showing their resistance symbol. Suddenly, one young man climbed onto the stage and took a microphone from the emcee and started chanting, “down down Wayane” turning his face to the crowd. Wayane is a term for the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). When this young man was thrown off the stage, a group of youngsters, including to a young woman, went on to the stage, kneeled down between the sea of police forces and defiantly displayed the popular resistance symbol by crossing their wrists overhead. The crowd cheered them on. When one of the young ladies left the stage, a young man put her to over his shoulder and she was given the black-red-white Abba Gadaa’s flag.
At this point, those seated on the stage, including government officials, elders including the retired Abba Gadaa, international media reporters and police forces all left the stage and went to the left side of the square.
As noted above, this was where heavily armed security forces were stationed. A government official briefly returned to the stage and tore down and took Ethiopian and Oromia flags that were tied to the front of the stage. Many presumed that the man could be from an opposition who wanted to replace the party flags with the red-green-red Oromo resistance flag. But we later learned that the man was a government agent who was irritated by the defiant youth who took over the stage in protest. By then the stage was more or less empty.
Within seconds, the legitimate council of Abba Gadaas came in from the same direction (left side) and took seats on the back of the stage. The crowd received them with cheers and thunderous applause and whistling. It was clear that they were forcibly kept somewhere until then. Following the arrival of the current Abba Gadaas, the mood turned festive and the crowd’s protests seemed to calm down.
However, police forces returned with the Abba Gadaas, which invited more protests and some youth climbed on the stage once more and began to flash the resistance symbol by crossing their wrists. At this point, the police started to forcefully push and shove the young people who jumped on the stage. This led to physical confrontations near the front of the stage. Then, the security forces moved to the left side of the stage and started firing bullets and throwing tear gas canisters at the crowd. The left side of the square with the wider exit road was already occupied by heavily armed military vehicles and personnel.
When the gunfire started, also from this direction, and tear gases rained on us — everyone was shocked — but the wave of crowd had little options to access the exit road. Even the narrow exit itself was near the gorge. To make an already bad situation worse, the deep gorge was covered by bushes, and since the gunfire came from the opposite direction, the festival goers had no choice but to run toward the cliff. This suggests that the military strategically devised the scheme knowing full well that those who run away to escape bullets being fired from behind would be finished in the gorge and ditches. This is why many in the country and those of us who were there believe the Irreechaa massacre was deliberately executed.
Here is why I believe the bloodbath in Bishoftu was a pre-planned massacre. First, the Oromia and Bishoftu city police knew exactly where the deadly cliff is. Two years ago, police officers were assigned to guard the gorge and protect the crowd from approaching the area. In the past, police even prevented the youth from climbing trees near the gorge as a precaution to avoid accidental falls.
Furthermore, the Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau and the Bishoftu culture and tourism office knew about the existence of the deadly gorge. They also knew of the type of soil in front of the stage and the rocks behind the stage. In the past, the police knew the safe exits and in what direction to let out or disperse the crowd. This year, there were no police guarding the cliff; no rope or tape to mark off the dangerous hole; no piece of wood to indicate the same. So the crowd, which includes first time attendees, had no warning about the existence of the gorge.
Taken together, the closing of the wider exit road on the left side and firing on a panicked crowd from the direction of the safest and more visible exit cannot be a simple case of recklessness. It was deliberately planned to absolve the government of responsibility and might have saved the military some bullets. It’s a cold, calculated and inhumane military decision.
I learned about the existence of the gorge two years ago when the police stood guard to protect us from a potential disaster. I, along with my wife and our friends, was on the far right side of the stage closer to the lake. When the gunfire started and tear gases rained over us, the wave of crowd swept some of my friends and landed them inside the gorge where they survived only by sheer luck. Everyone was running down. The scene was chaotic. I focused my attention on saving my wife, who’s pregnant. I kept her from running toward the gorge even as she insisted that we should try to escape the rain of bullets.
Within seconds, the crowd pushed us and my wife fell down. I kneeled down beside her, put my hands around her shoulders to cover and protect her from being crushed by the panicked crowd. Behind us, the square is filled with a cloud of teargas which suffocated us. Incidentally, my wife had water with her and we immediately washed our faces.
When we finally gained consciousness from the tear gas, many of the festival goers have either left the area, or are in the ditches, some already dead. It was extremely difficult to watch dead bodies being collected from the ditch. We were eventually escorted out by heavily armed police on top of several pickup trucks and machine guns pointing toward us. Survivors and some police were still pulling people out of the ditches, including those who were buried alive and those who died from suffocation. I also saw that Abba Gadaa Bayana Sanbato vomiting near the stage.
I had one central goal in mind: To save the life of my wife and our baby. So we left the area as soon as we could get out. Most of the survivors walked toward the center of the town and continued to chant anti-government slogans and express their outrage at the measures taken by the police which caused the massacre at Hora Arsadi.
By the time we reached the Circle, the anti-government protests were intensified. Gunfire started as we crossed the circle into the main road. We took shelter inside a hotel but a tear gas was thrown into the compound of the hotel. My wife screamed for help as she could not breathe. I was vomiting. We pleaded for water and received some. The people inside the hotel compound scrambled for water. We shared the water with the crowd and left the hotel in search of open air.
After a long walk, my wife and I reached Chuqala around 12:30 p.m., where we left our car in the morning. Since phones did not work in Bishoftu at the time, I could not get hold of my friends, or find out whether they survived or not. We decided to wait in the car. One of them was pulled out of the ditch and came wearing different sets of cloth that he received from strangers after losing his cultural attire in the ditch. He told us at least one other colleague survived the tragedy but he was helping pull the dead bodies from the gorge. He later joined us around 2:30 p.m. We were relieved when all of our colleagues came one after the other.
The last survivor from among my friends called us from the local hospital. He believed that all the people who were buried beneath him died from suffocation. As soon as he regained consciousness, he said he searched for the bodies of me and my wife at Bishoftu Hospital where the corpses were collected in three different centers — dead bodies of female victims in one center and the corpses of male victims in the remaining two centers.
He joined us at Chuqala around 3 p.m., and we immediately left Bishoftu for Finfinne. None of us could believe what happened and the fact that we all survived. Some of us had medical checkups scheduled and others have started treatments. But every one of us remain in trauma.