Minnesota Anuak community reacts to new outbreak of attacks, killing, disappearance in Ethiopia and South Sudan

How is an entire Minnesota community supposed to cope when every person in that community, all at the same time, must cope with the recent violent death or the sudden, suspicious disappearance of a mother or father, a brother or sister, a relative or friend?This was the urgent question of a May 26 St. Paul gathering of 150 Minnesotans who are members of the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia and South Sudan.A recent outbreak of widespread killing, rape, torture and disappearance of members of Ethiopia’s Anuak tribe, of whom nearly 2,000 live as refugees in Minnesota today, is sending the Anuak of this state into a controlled panic of worry, urgent meetings and frenzied actions on behalf of loved ones who are ensnared in an outbreak of a vicious ethnic cleansing of the Anuak tribe back home.“Psychologically, it is killing us,” said Magn Nyang, an Anuak who lives in Spring Lake Park. “People are very depressed and angry. We are trying to figure out, what can we do?”At the St. Paul gathering, which was held in a meeting hall above the Fasika Ethiopian restaurant on Snelling Avenue, and in meetings at churches, meeting halls and living rooms around the state, Anuak are gathering these days to respond to the crisis.The cause of the violence — detailed in a recent documentary aired on PBS’ Lehrer News Hour, and in a Human Rights Watch Report — is a massive forced relocation of 70,000 Anuak and other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in Ethiopia, to make way for mega-farms being created by foreign investors from Saudi Arabia, India, China and other nations.A handful of armed Anuak rebels have fought the relocations by ambushing Ethiopian soldiers, which in turn has prompted Ethiopian troops in the Anuak lands to seek vastly disproportional revenge by killing, torturing and “disappearing” innocent Anuak.Politically active Anuak have met in recent weeks with the staffs of Senator Al Franken and Representative Michelle Bachmann, urging them to bring all possible influence, through the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa or through U.S. government aid programs, on the Ethiopian government to stop the bloodshed.“We are writing you with a sense of the utmost urgency on behalf of our friends and families in our homeland,” the Gambella Relief Organization, a Minnesota group, wrote to Sen. Franken in a recent letter detailing dozens of recent cases of the murder, rape and disappearance of Anuak in Ethiopia, at the hands of government soldiers.One Anuak group in Ethiopia, the Gambella Democratic Movement, recently published an article on the Minnesota-based web site Gambella Today, saying that the group’s “military wing” recently killed several Ethiopian soldiers in battle.The article, written in English in Minnesota on behalf of an Ethiopian Anuak rebel named Ngeli Opiew, vowed that “unless the terms of the land grab in Gambella are reversed in favor of Gambella people, there won’t be peace in the region.” The article promised the rebels “will fight to stop the sale of Anuak land to foreigners and for the return of displaced Anuaks to their ancestral lands.”Akuthi Okoth, an Anuak from Stillwater, has taken an entirely different approach in response to the crisis. Continue Reading

Somali-Minnesotans travel to Norway for peace-building discussions

A Minnesota-based Somali group is heading to Oslo, Norway on Wednesday, March 21, for a week of meetings with peace-building experts to discuss how to organize exploding numbers of Somali immigrants worldwide who are seeking to help rebuild Somalia after 20 years of civil war.The Eagan-based non-profit group, the Somali Institute for Peace Research (SIPR), sponsors Somalia reconstruction conferences, runs a popular Facebook site and regularly consults with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, offering ideas and plans for rebuilding Somali society. Minnesota is home to the world’s largest diaspora community of Somali immigrants, some of whom in recent years have left stable lives and careers in the United States to take up key positions in Somalia’s civil society and in the Transitional Federal Government.In the past few months, several changes in Somalia, especially the military defeat of the extremist group Shabab in key areas, has infused fresh hope that Somalia may have the chance to reverse its fortunes. That prospect has encouraged many in the Somali diaspora, which numbers more than a million refugees worldwide, to consider returning to Somalia to help with reconstruction or in some other way to offer their skills and aid. “There are so many efforts to help Somalia now, but they’re not organized and not efficient,” said Sakawdin Mohamed, executive director of SIPR and of three of its members traveling to Norway.  “The goal of our Norway trip is to learn how to unite all of these efforts so that the skills and resources in the Somali diaspora are harnessed in the most effective way.”“A new window of opportunity for peace and stability has opened,” the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, said last month at a meeting in London of the world’s top diplomats, who gathered to discuss supporting Somalia consolidate it recent gains into a lasting peace.The other two SIPR members visiting Norway from Minnesota are Sheiknor Qassim, one of the group’s founders and a resident of Rochester, MN and Daniel Brevick, a web site developer at Mayo Clinic, also of Rochester. Timeline for change(from “Somalia has best chance in decades to end conflict, Security Council told,” UN News Centre, 3/5/2012)The country’s Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) are in the process of implementing a roadmap devised in September last year that spells out priority measures to be carried out before the current transitional governing arrangements end on 20 August.Before then, the Horn of Africa nation needs a new constitution, a smaller and more representative Parliament and elections for the positions of President, Speaker and Deputies.“Ending the transition on time will require more efforts and support from all international actors in the coming months,” Augustine P. Mahiga, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, told the Council via video-link from the country. “We must ensure that all of us are pulling together in this regard.”He pointed out that the drafting of the constitution has to be completed by the end of this month. The selection process to the 1,000-member Constituent Assembly from over eight community-based constituencies, including women, must be completed in eight weeks for the provisional adoption of the constitution by the end of April.Drawing on the skills and resources of the Somali diaspora, the SIPR has offered Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government a detailed multi-year blueprint for national reconstruction, and a more detailed plan to establish a national emergency aid agency for Somalia based on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency model.In Norway, the Minnesotans will meet with former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who since 2006 has worked extensively on Somalia aid through a post with the United Nations; with members of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights (which has an active branch on Somali issues in Bloomington, MN); and with the Nansen Academy, which runs programs to foster dialogue and reconciliation in postwar scenarios.The Minnesota group will also meet with leaders of Norway’s Somali community, who are among the most politically and socially active in Europe. In two decades of civil war, Somalia has suffered one after another loss from fighting among regional warlords, drought, famine, invasions from neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, and in recent years an effective takeover of the southern portion of the country by the Shabab, whose cruel imposition of Islamic law has alienated most Somali citizens.Foreign Policy magazine rates Somalia as the world’s worst failed states, and the near total breakdown of government agencies and services since 1991 has made it among the most corrupt nations as well.Many Somali refugees, either from their previous lives in Somalia or after two decades as immigrants, are highly-educated professionals whose skills across a wide variety of fields — e.g., government, law, agriculture, medicine, engineering —would be indispensable in rebuilding Somalia.After living outside of Somalia for so long, many of these immigrants lack the local personal and political connections in Somalia, and knowledge of present conditions in the country, to be able to quickly offer help.Whether they return to Somalia or not, the Minnesota group hopes to devise practical methods for Somali immigrants to channel their skills and resources to help rebuild a country devastated by civil war.“In Norway we want to connect with partners and learn how to empower the Somali diaspora,” said Sheiknor Qassim of Rochester. “These people have the skills Somalia needs, and they need the chance to offer their assistance. Continue Reading

Minnesota Somalis to global leaders: Let us help rebuild Somalia

Is Somalia, the world’s ultimate failed state, on the brink of authentic renewal and reconstruction? Is its bloody, famine-furthering, piracy-producing 20-year-old civil war close to an end?That has been the fierce if fragile hope recently of tens of thousands of Somali refugees living in Minnesota, most of whom last saw their homeland in the period after its last functioning government was toppled in 1991.Hopes in Minnesota’s Somali community, one of the world’s largest Somali diaspora groups, soared especially high last week when top government leaders from 55 countries convened in London on February 23 to seek answers to Somalia’s crises.Hosted by Britain and led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, the London meeting’s goals were to help restore a legitimate and representative Somali government, to end Somali piracy and terrorism, and to ease a continuing Somali famine worsened by the war.Yet today, a week after the conference, many Somali Minnesotans, including hundreds of former Somali civil servants, teachers and professionals, say it fell far short of its stated aims, producing a gale of high-flown rhetoric but virtually no specific plans or programs.Leaked Communique“A lot of people expected drastic changes, but the conference showed the same status quo thinking,” said Sakawdin Mohamed, the executive director of the Eagan-based Somali Institute for Peace Research. “The corrupt officials of the Transitional Federal Government now have huge momentum. The bad people kind of won.”The Somali government officials who attended the London meeting appeared much different to Somali diaspora members who have known them well over the years, than they did to outsiders who did not.“What we saw as Somali citizens was tribal representation,” Sakawdin said. “They were basically representing their own tribes and interests.”The conference was transparently insincere, many Minnesota Somalis say, noting that a draft of its final communique, containing conclusions and recommendations, was leaked days before the conference even started.The conference offered Somalia a welcome moment of global attention, but the moment was short, with the conference lasting a mere five hours. Continue Reading

A Minnesota-Somali mentor, mathematician and moral force

“There is no wire connecting my mind to yours,” Abdikadir Adan Xiito informs me crisply. He’s explaining his philosophy for teaching math to children, in between sessions correcting the workbooks of two dozen young students in an afternoon homework class at the tutoring school here that bears his name, the Xiito Academy.The young Somali boys and girls bend over their desks solving sets of addition, multiplication and fraction problems. One might expect high-energy hubbub and hijinks in a late afternoon class for kids, after they’ve spent a full day in school. But no, the room is quiet, energized but serene.The swish of turning notebook pages is the loudest sound in the room.Every few minutes, a child completes a set of problems, jumps up and plops down in a chair next to Teacher Xiito (pronounced HEE-toe, the word is a nickname meaning “skinny” in Somali), nervously handing over a notebook for his corrections.Elegant and slim, decked out in a woolen scarf, Xiito exudes an air of focused intensity. In the classroom, his focus is somehow placed equally on every child in the room. He speeds through each finished problem set that is brought to him with a ballpoint pen, drawing a quick slash through the correct answers, engaging the students to correct the flubs.A Minnesota Miracle“Very good,” he finally pronounces before writing down a fresh set of addition problems for a seven-year-old boy, the set customized to slightly expand the child’s skill level. Continue Reading

Minnesota-Somalis face armies on the march

At the Bright Moon Cafe at the corner of Cedar Ave. and Lake Street in Minneapolis last weekend, Abdikarim Hashi sipped on steaming cinnamon-ginger Somali tea, peering into his cell phone for news of home.Hashi’s home is the sun-drenched Somali port city of Kismayo, where year-round blue skies, lush vegetation and sugar-white beaches would normally qualify it as among the most stunningly beautiful cities in the Horn of Africa.Except that today, Kismayo is located on the most active front line of Somalia’s torturously complicated civil war, which has been raging for 20 years and is now escalating to new heights — or more accurately, depths.The latest news is nerve-rattling:  2,000 Kenyan troops crossed the border into Somalia last October, heading for Kismayo supported by attack helicopters, fighter jets and probably U.S. Reaper drones. They continue their advance toward the city every day, along the way battling the al-Qaeda linked extremist group, the Shabab, for control of the town.In its way, the Kenyan army is thus marching towards Minnesota, too.As home to the world’s largest community of Somali refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, Minnesota feels the impact of every new battle and rumor of war in Somalia. Each new piece of news lands with a terrifying thud here, sending Minnesota-Somalis like Hashi to their cellphones and computers to learn the fate of relatives back home.“Our first concern every day is how is the family doing back home, are they okay?” Hashi said. “What happens over there has a big impact on us right here. Continue Reading

OPINION | Journalism’s dilemma: The watchdog needs a bailout

A fresh crop of desperate bulletins from the nation’s newsrooms, which are shuttering and downsizing in unprecedented numbers, is stirring debate over what journalists until now have considered the worst option for keeping America’s newsrooms open – government subsidies and supports. It has finally come to this: an emerging consensus in the journalism profession that the nation’s free press – our most important government watchdog – needs some level of government bailout. Total job loss in the U.S. newspaper industry has been about 40 percent since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In real numbers, roughly 14,000 reporters and editors – about a fourth of the nation’s total – having lost their jobs since 2000 as the Internet has drained away advertisers and readers. “This is a dire moment for democracy,” write the progressive media critics John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney in a new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. Continue Reading

Ethiopians in Minnesota rally to free an “Icon of Democracy”

In churches, schools and meeting halls around Minnesota, the state’s sizeable population of Ethiopian refugees is rallying to free a heroine to them who is wasting away in a prison hellhole in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.The woman is Birtukan Mideksa, a 34-year-old mother and charismatic political leader who has been attracting millions of young followers – and who a year ago paid the price by being sentenced to life in prison by an Ethiopian government that is cracking down hard on all opposition ahead of national elections coming this May. With representatives of virtually every one of Ethiopia’s many opposition groups living in Minnesota, freeing Birtukan Mideksa has become a rallying cry for many of them – and a unifying one among dissident groups that usually would not work together. At a commemorative event marking Birtukan’s first year in prison, held last month at at the Longfellow Park Recreation Center in Minneapolis, members from many of those groups met to share a meal and discuss strategies to release Birtukan. Flyers were also distributed at the Medhanealem Orthodox Ethiopian Church in Minneapolis. “Birtukan is a prisoner of conscience but there are many others, from many ethnic groups, who are also in prison because of their political opinions,” said Asheber Worku, the organizer of the December commemoration. Continue Reading

At last, the Minnesota Oromo share their secret

Who knows the Minnesota Oromo?Who knows their dark secret?Fifteen thousand Oromo live in Minnesota but they blend in almost invisibly, like a stealthy, anonymous population in the state. They are teachers, doctors and lawyers; they run retail shops and corporations; they attend Viking games, relax at coffee shops and stroll at malls. They are sometimes called “Ethiopian immigrants” because they are indeed from Ethiopia. But among friends and family, or if you ask them specifically, they carefully call themselves “Oromo.” Who are the Oromo? Continue Reading

At a peace forum, seeking solutions to a holocaust in the Horn

It was a peaceful peace conference, which in itself was a kind of miracle. It was a miracle because the countries represented at the conference – the “Africa Peace Forum” held last Friday at the Hubert Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis – are all in one way or another at war today, either with each other or in a state of civil war. Filling the auditorium were immigrants from the Horn of Africa including Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. On the podium, the four main conference speakers – academic experts and human rights activists – painted a picture of crisis that was not only tragic, but practically apocalyptic. “Can Somalis survive their own political death?” Continue Reading

OPINION | Ethiopia’s despot goes hunting for billions in Copenhagen

A mind-boggling usurpation of moral authority at the highest global level is set to unfold at the United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins in Copenhagen next Monday. Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and one of the world’s worst dictators, is preparing to use that global platform to scold other nations for their irresponsible energy policies – and to demand hundreds of billions of dollars for African nations to compensate for global warming damage done to the continent. The hypocrisy of Meles playing a role in Copenhagen – indeed a leadership role where he could potentially block a global agreement – is outrageous. As Africa’s top negotiator in Copenhagen, Meles in recent weeks has already begun posturing as the moral environmental voice of Africa by criticizing industrialized countries for their “lack of seriousness” on global climate policy, and by threatening to lead a walk-out of the 52 African countries at the conference (out of 190 total participating nations) if their demands for compensation aren’t met. Gulag Prisons This theft-in-plain-sight of a critical global role is being carried out by a man who runs his own country by a “divide and conquer” strategy – hardly the best model for global collaborative decision-making. Continue Reading