After a day of high tensions, calm has returned to the western region of Gambella following Saturday’s deadly clashes involving South Sudanese refugees from the Nuer ethnic group and Ethiopian ‘highlanders’ – a term referred to other Ethiopian ethnic groups from other regions – residing in Gambella town.
The leadership of the armed opposition faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-IO) also said it regretted the violence involving the refugees.
Sources told that a violent demonstration inside the Gambella regional capital was staged by thousands of the Ethiopian highlanders after 10 Ethiopians were killed by South Sudanese refugees in a revenge killing in Jewi refugee camp located 18km north of Gambella town on the road to Addis Ababa.
An Ethiopian driver accidentally overran two Nuer girls inside the camp, killing both of them on the spot. Some of the youth responded by attacking Ethiopians working in the camp, killing at least 10 and wounding many others, on Saturday.
The incident prompted the Ethiopian highlanders inside Gambella town to mobilize themselves, backed by Anyuak ethnic group members – another tribe rival to Nuer – and began to target Nuer members inside the town. No further casualties were reported on Saturday.
It was not clear why the Ethiopian highlanders targetted their Ethiopian Nuer citizens when their colleagues were killed in the refugee camp by South Sudanese Nuer from a different country.
Local sources said the refugees killed two women and eight men. Another thirteen injured. The victims were “carpenters, masonry workers and daily laborers.”
However, VOA Amharic reported fourteen Ethiopian deaths. The number could rise further since the refugees chased the victims to the forest.
Ethiopian highlanders living in Gambella town held a demonstration on Saturday in protest of the killings. It lasted for about four hours from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm in the afternoon.
Federal police blocked the protesters from going to Jewi camp where the South Sudanese refugees are camped. They later unsuccessfully tried to cross the Baro Bridge into Newland - an area inhabited predominantly by Ethiopian Nuer members.
However, federal police and soldiers, in charge of securing the bridge, prevented the protesters as they shot in the air bullets to disburse the angry crowd targeting the Nuer.
Eyewitnesses however in the Nuer dominated areas, Ethiopian highlanders were still seen on Saturday opening their shops and sitting side by side with the Nuer friends, refusing to imitate the chaos in the other parts of the town.
He blamed the South Sudanese Nuer refugees for “overreacting” by killing so many others because of the accident.
“We understand that what the refugees did was wrong. They should not have overreacted by killing many Ethiopian highlanders. It was an accident that killed their two women,” Deng Kong, an Ethiopian Nuer from inside Gambella town.
“However, we also don’t understand why the highlanders have turned against us, the Ethiopian Nuer, who have nothing to do with what happened in the camp,” he added.
He said the Nuer in the town did not mobilize themselves to counter the highlanders, adding they were still living peacefully with their Ethiopian highlanders who lived among their predominantly inhabited areas in the town.
But another eyewitness told that some of the Ethiopian highlanders among the Nuer began to flee on Sunday morning after learning that three Nuer members were killed in the morning hours at a bus station while trying to travel to Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian authorities have been restoring law and order. Up to 30 South Sudanese refugees have been reportedly arrested for taking part in the lynching and killing of the Ethiopians in the camp.
Some of the refugees have accused the Ethiopian driver that killed the two women of allegedly being bribed by the South Sudanese government to stir up trouble in Gambella as the South Sudanese first vice president designate, Riek Machar, was scheduled to come to the town on his way to Juba.
Others however dismissed the claim, saying it was an accident which had nothing to do with the ongoing political situation in South Sudan.
SPLM-IO REGRETS THE KILLINGS
The SPLM-IO said the incident was regrettable and should not have happened, paying condolences to the families of the deceased on both sides.
“H.E. First Vice President designate, Dr. Riek Machar, has expressed his condolences to the families of the victims,” said James Gatdet Dak, his press secretary.
“Dr. Machar regrets this unfortunate incident which has involved South Sudanese refugees in Jewi camp. This should not have happened in a host country like Ethiopia and particularly in Gambella,” he said, while quoting the opposition’s top leader.
He said the opposition leadership appreciated that calm had returned to the people of Gambella and the matter would be resolved in accordance with the law.
Machar, he said, commended the Ethiopian people and their government for their historical hospitality which hosted South Sudanese refugees for decades.
Up to 30 refugees have been reportedly arrested in the Jewi camp, accused of taking part in the killing of the Ethiopians using machetes and sticks.