Lingering Effects of December 13 Massacre on Diaspora Anyuaks

By Ojullu Owar
January 16, 2015
Rochester, MN
Posted to the web on January 17, 2015

On December 13, 2003, Christmas and New Year celebrations among the Anywaa tribe in town of Gambella, Ethiopia, were overshadowed by a horrible tragedy. According to a report of Human Rights Watch of 2005 and eye witnesses, in one day more than four hundred Anywaa people were murdered by military forces of Ethiopia and thugs who went on rampage in retaliation for the death of eight highlanders who were killed in a car ambushed by unidentified people in the district of Itang. The massacre was a premeditated killing targeted at Anyuak men. It impacted the Anywaa people’s lives with an unprecedented magnitude of internal displacement and migration of Anywaa to neighboring countries in East Africa. The incident formed an exodus of Anywaa and an imposed burden of financial assistance on Diaspora Anyuaks, a surge in armed insurgency, a proliferation of nonprofit organizations in the United States of America (USA), political division and a risk of statelessness among Diaspora Anyuaks.  Read more

Historically, supervision of security of the Gambella Region since its integration into Ethiopia has remained difficult for the central government of Ethiopia due to hot weather conditions in the lowlands, diversity of the communities, and the geopolitical position of the region and the splitting of the Anywaa tribe between two countries: Ethiopia and South Sudan. The region is located in the western tip of the Ethiopian frontier, where there are high temperatures, flooding of numerous rivers during rainy seasons, and swampy and malaria infested areas. In spite of its extensive natural resources and service as an inland port during the colonial era, the region has stayed marginalized, neglected and underdeveloped. Medhane Tadesse confirms this assessment in saying: “Gambella has been ignored by governments, development agencies and political analysts despite its historical significance, and remained the most backward and poverty-ridden areas of the country” (p. 4). Likewise, the poor infrastructure in the region continued until the socialist government of Derg constructed gravel roads, an international airport, the Openo Bridge, and a dam on the Alworo River in 1980s. Inversely, an involuntary resettlement of internally displaced peoples from the highlands into the region, and a massive influx of refugees from South Sudan during the second civil war restricted the free movement of the local population and increased tribal conflicts and illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Tadesse discloses the security tension of the cold war era between Sudan and Ethiopia in saying that the Anyuaks were increasingly isolated when “the Nuer, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Derg formed a loose coalition against the Anyuak” (p.7 and 26). This triple alliance among the Derg, SPLA and the Nuer became a strategic military structure against the Anyuak insurgency, the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM). Consequently, Anyuak were branded as “wenbede” or “shifta“, meaning bandits or anti-revolutionaries of socialism. Deplorably, the overthrow of the Derg by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and GPLM did not fully stabilize the security situation in the region. Eisei Kurimoto, a Japanese anthropologist, indicated the deterioration of the security during the transitional government by describing that ” hatred and hostilities accumulated during the Derg era exploded all at once when the powerful centralized regime collapsed ” (p.807). Equally, Abraham Sewonet in 2002 reported the persistent ethnic conflicts between the Anyuak and the Nuer tribes along the Openo River as well as sporadic conflicts between the Anyuak and the Majanger in the district of Abobo.

However, the massacre of the Anywaa on December 13, 2003 caused massive migration and the worse security concern to the Anywaa in Gambella Region. The mass killing was an absolute failure of laws and an indicator of mob rule which threatened the security of Anywaa under Ethiopian federalism based on ethnicity. It revealed an explosion of ethnic hatred and animosity which resulted in genocide. Hundreds of Anyuaks were murdered while others spent weeks in the compounds of the Mekane Yesus Presbyterian and Catholic Churches. Houses were ransacked and burnt by groups of offenders. Food, beverages and clean water were inaccessible in stores mainly owned by hostile highlanders. All means of transport including regular Ethiopian Airline flights to Gambella were at a standstill. It was a scary situation which compelled the Anyuaks to migrate into South Sudan and Kenya. Suffice it to mention that an Anyuak survivor of the massacre who was airlifted from Gambella town to Addis Ababa by a counselor from the United States Embassy and the US Marines on December 17, 2003, confirmed that he “was psychologically very exhausted thinking that EPRDF militaries really wanted to exterminate the Anyuak tribe in Ethiopia” (Anyuak Media). A Human Rights Watch report confirmed the presence of eight to ten thousand Anyuaks who had fled to Pochalla in the period between December 13, 2003 and early 2004 (HRW 43). Likewise, the International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard University stated that “violence has become a way of life for civilians living in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region; [and] abuse of Anyuak remained rampant from December 2004″ onwards.

The counterargument that the government was not involved in the massacre seems unconvincing, and official explanations given for the mass killings in the town of Gambella were unreliable and flip flopped for several reasons. At first, there were no proper investigations done by a rescue mission sent from the Ministry of Federal Affairs in finding criminals behind the ambush. The Ministry and the rescue mission declared a state of emergency, exercised absolute power in Gambella Region and blamed insurgent groups of the Oromo Liberation Front, Al- Ithyiad al Islamyaa and Eritrea as offenders. Later on the federal government reduced numbers of people killed in the town and tried to reduce the magnitude of the bloodshed by attributing it to traditional tribal conflicts between the Anywaa and the Nuer tribes. Moreover, chances were not given to relatives to identify dead bodies, and proper funerals were not allowed. Instead the federal government conducted mass burials in secret locations. To avoid the increasing international pressure, the federal government hesitantly agreed to conduct perfunctory investigations which did not lead to tangible arrests or trial of suspects. Thus, justice for the crimes against humanity remains elusive and makes it difficult for the Ethiopian government to claim that it protected and respected human rights of Anyuaks.

The first effect of the tragedy is the burden of financial assistance on Diaspora Anyuaks to support their families and relatives who escaped from Ethiopia. The customary and moral obligation in Anyuak culture to care for extended families increased remittances sent to relatives who migrated and became refugees in Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. According to a 2013 World Bank report, money transfers to Sub- Sahara Africa increased in 2004 and are expected to grow in favor of Kenya, one of the countries hosting Anyuak refugees. Likewise, a 2007 Time Magazine report indicated that Kenya’s official inflow of remittances is 5.3 percent compared to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and it is second only to Senegal which has a 7.9 percent influx of remittances. Definitely for the last decade, remitting money to relatives in Africa has become the norm of solidarity to the victims of the massacre among the Diaspora Anyuaks who reside in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. This really made it difficult for Diaspora Anyuaks to save money for future investments.

Secondly, the incident inspired armed insurgency among Diaspora Anyuaks and the GPLM veterans who had no choice except to fight against Ethiopian defense forces. To the GPLM the massacre was a mistrust and violation of the political and military coalition formed at the founding conference of EPRDF in which an “agreement was reached between the EPRDF and GPLM on working together as political allies without interference in each other organization political affairs  and respect of self-governing right of Gambella State “. In fact the presence of several military stations outside of the town of Gambella after the incident, the strong criticism of the genocide by Ethiopian opposition political parties and the international community restored armed resistance among Diaspora Anyuaks under armed group of GPLM II. Besides the GPLM II, the Gambellan People United Democratic Party (GPUDP) and GPLM/Front were involved in armed insurgency. However, the armed resistance for implementation of the principle of self-determination of Gambella people remained uncoordinated among Gambella opposition political parties, and advocacy for secession from Ethiopia by few political parties did not attract international and national support in the struggle for regime change.

Thirdly, the massacre led to a proliferation of charity organizations among Anyuaks in the USA. This tendency came after Diaspora Anyuaks initially conducted peaceful protests and held several meetings with government high officials of the United States in Washington D.C and Saint Paul, Minnesota. While impatiently waiting for a lasting political solution to this humanitarian crisis and justice for crimes against humanity, efforts in finding charitable organizations for an immediate humanitarian assistance became an urgent concern among the Diaspora Anyuaks. In effect most of Anyuak Diasporas volunteered for churches and non-profit organizations which responded to the crisis. Partnership in Africa (PIA), which had early connections with different churches in the USA, was the first such agency to visit Pochalla, South Sudan. The Anyuak Community Association of North America (ACANA) and the Anyuak Meer Ministry based in Spokane, Washington State, (Ramel, Simone, 6), facilitated establishment of an Anuak Justice Council (AJC). The AJC mission is to “promote and safeguard the security, human rights, and just treatment of the Anyuak people around the world”. Accordingly, AJC became an advocate for Anyuak human rights and attended several meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Likewise, the Gambella Relief Organization, an offshoot entity of ACANA, became an active actor in making several visits to Pochalla where most of the December 13 victims and Anyuak refugees were located. Alternatively, Gambella Ethiopian Community formed in May 2007, joined the ACANA and the Department of Public Diplomacy at Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D. C. in efforts of conducting direct consultations with federal Ethiopian officials. However, Ethiopian opposition political parties and the international community consistently joined the Diaspora Anyuaks in condemning Ethiopia for the genocide. Indeed, the United States and European Union officially put more political pressure on the federal government of Ethiopia to conduct an investigation of the massacreAs a result, the Ethiopian parliament for the first time established a commission of inquiry which did result in arrests and indictments of suspects.

Fourthly, the poor outcome of the investigation into the massacre, which was a denial of the justice, increased the political division between moderate and radical groups of Diaspora Anyuaks. The moderate group of Diaspora Anyuaks favored limited and modest levels of relations with Gambella Regional State and the federal government of Ethiopia on mitigating poor governance, violation of human rights, insecurity, injustices, food security, investment and poverty reduction. The radical group constitutes factions of guerrilla warfare, and it is fully interested in solving the humanitarian crisis and injustices by military action and regime change. The discord between the two political groups increased when the ACANA, the Gambella Ethiopian Community and Ethiopian Embassy arranged two public meetings for the State of Gambella in 2008. The two meetings and official visits were intended to normalize relations with the Diaspora Anyuaks and to reduce the hostility in Gambella Region. However, all Gambella opposition political parties including the Gambella Relief Organization strongly opposed and boycotted those meetings held in Minneapolis, MN. ACANA’s leadership was publicly criticized for taking such initiatives and requested to stop organizing annual memorial services of the December 13 massacre. Indeed, one of the delegations from Gambella State that visited the USA was denied entry visas by Canada due to the influence ofthe Anuak Justice Council. Certainly, Ethiopia’s international image was tarnished by the December 13 massacre, subsequent Anyuak advocacy for violation of human rights and armed rebellion.

Fifthly, the massacre created a likelihood of statelessness among the Diaspora Anyuaks. According to the UNHCR ten years campaign, statelessness is defined as “life without education, without medical care … without the ability to move freely, without prospects or hope.” Equally, the UNHCR legal experts describe statelessness as “situations where a person becomes an individual without a nationality” in the form of de facto and de jour. Thede facto statelessness refers to a person lacking an effective nationality while de jourdescribes a refugee who does not have a nationality at all. Historically, both cases of statelessness occur due to succession or separation of states, incompatibility in applications of persons with two or more nationalities, and the inability of an individual to establish nationality through legal documents, such as birth certificate, passport and identification card. In this context, Anyuaks who left Ethiopia without proper documents and applied for asylum as Sudanese are likely exposed to statelessness and migration related problems such as discrimination, lack of access to education or health services, insecurity and unemployment. Apparently in May 2009 a nonprofit organization, based in Nairobi released Mr. Morgan’s report: No Information, No Protection, and Anyone Out There. Thereportconfirmed the existence of stranded victims of December 13 who failed to get international protection in South Sudan.Likewise, the secession of South Sudan from Sudan after the referendum made it more difficult for the Anyuak refugees to seek international protection. In this regard Anyuaks of Sudanese and Ethiopian origins had to produce proper and legal documents in determining their nationalities and claiming right to vote  in the referendum. After the referendum, the Anuak Justice Council in its press release of May 2012 indicated security concerns for Anyuak refugees in Pochalla and requested the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR, and the President of the South Sudan to “provide safety and protect the rights of Anyuak whose indigenous land lies on both sides of the river” of Akobo. The same press release contends that Anyuak refugees “never be returned to Ethiopia where they will be tortured… killed and their land given away to foreign investors”. These facts evidently show that Anyuak refugees in South Sudan and Sudan do not have full-fledged international protection. Their refugee status is in legal limbo. Some are arbitrarily detained and deported to Ethiopia in violation of Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Certainly, the deportation of few Anyuaks of Ethiopian origins to South Sudan by Canada and the USA implies the reality of statelessness among Diaspora Anyuaks.

In general, the December massacre remains a controversial issue and discourages Diaspora Anyuaks from taking part in any viable political agenda and investment opportunities in Ethiopia. Gambella Regional State’s two official visits to the USA in 2008 neither reduced political rhetoric among Diaspora Anyuaks nor attracted investments. The ruling political party of Gambella State, Gambella Peoples United Democratic Movement (GPUDM), neither has strong constituency nor an effective chapter in the Diaspora. The Chapter of GPUDM needs to play catalyst role and steps out of its  secret booth of conveying information on security, and aggressively engages Gambella State through the Department Public Diplomacy at Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C. Deceptively the land lease, forceful resettlement of local population in Gambella Region and new arrivals of Nuer refugees due to the third civil war in South Sudan are complicating dimensions of security  of East Africa and the prospect of fixing relationships between Diaspora Anyuaks and the federal government of Ethiopia. Therefore, the protracted situation of Anyuak refugees in East Africa continues, and durable solutions to the humanitarian crisis will remain elusive. An organized Diaspora Anyuaks humanitarian and public diplomacy with Ethiopia and South Sudan are worth considering in unlocking this stalemate. The ACANA and the Association of South Sudan Anyuaks in Diaspora (ASSAD) are suitable entities to initiate and coordinate such an endeavor to avoid the dysfunctional status quo, polarization, divisiveness and politicization of non-profit organizations in the aftermath of the December massacre. In other words all non-profit organizations of Anywaa in the USA have to work together to prepare humanitarian action plans in concerted efforts with the ACANA and ASSAD to save the lives of Anyuak refugees in East Africa. Likewise, Gambella opposition political parties need to bridge their political differences and avoid strict allegiance to clans, villages and ethnicity. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “we must learn how to live together as brothers or perish as fools”.

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Works Cited:

Anyuak Justice Council.  “Mission and Goals”, 2005. Web. 2 Dec, 2013.

Anyuak Media Archive. “Calls on President Salva Kiir to provide safety to the Anuak”. Web. 23 May 2012.

Anyuak Media Archive. “Psychological Scar of December 13, 2003 Anyuak’s Massacre”. Web. 22 Oct. 2006,

Human Rights Watch. “Targeting the Anyuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region”. Dec. 2005, Vol. 3(A).

Kurimoti, Eisei.

“Politicization of Ethnicity in Gambella Region”. Ethiopia in Boarder Perspective, Volume 3. Japan Publishing Trading Co. (1997). Print.

Ochalla, Ojulu Tekon. “Political History of Gambella”. Web. 23 May 2014,

Ramel, Simone. “Remarkable Women, Painful History and Powerful Mission“.  EVE: A Women Magazine 34. Spokane, WA. Aug. and Sep. 2007. Print.

Sewonet, Abraham. “Breaking the Cycle of Conflict in Gambella Region”. Assessment Mission of United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia. Web. 23 Dec. 2006.

Tadesse, Medhane. “Gambella: The Impact of Local Conflict on Regional Security“. Institutefor Security Studies, volume n.b Web. 25 Mar. 2011,

World Bank. “Report on Migration and Remittances”. Web. 5, Dec. 2013, http://www.


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