The burning question in the days before the tense meeting held here last Saturday was: How would the traumatized survivors of an accused mass killer greet the very person who had planned their doom?
Omot Obang Olom has been named by human rights groups as a key architect of a genocide against the African Anuak tribe of western Ethiopia.
This article and others by Doug McGill appear in The McGill Report.
Last Saturday, that same man met face-to-face with more than a hundred Anuak survivors of the genocide who now live in Minnesota, which is home to the largest Anuak diaspora population in the world.
The Minnesota Anuak and Olom confronted each other in an otherwise plain conference room at a Minneapolis Sheraton. The Anuak sat in rows before a dais where Olom perched watchfully if impassively for a full six hours, flanked by two stony-faced Ethiopian officials on his either side.
The dais was draped with the red, green and yellow flag of Ethiopia, with bunches of white cut flowers and brightly painted Anuak gourd bowls.
Olom today is the governor of the Ethiopian state of Gambella, the ancestral homeland of the Anuak tribe and ground zero of the genocide. The declared purpose of his visit was to assure the Anuak of Minnesota, who fled here to escape likely death in Ethiopia, that their homeland is now peaceful enough that they may return to raise their families, to do business, and to invest.
A microphone stood in the center aisle of the audience for anyone brave enough to address Olom publicly. An Anuak moderator however began the session by declaring that if anyone was too afraid to speak – many Anuak had said they feared for the lives of families members still in Ethiopia — they could write down their questions instead on a piece of paper.
In Jesus’ Name
The Anuak of Minnesota who attended the Saturday meeting were dressed as if for church, and sat respectfully as if in pews.
The Anuak men were immaculately groomed, wearing handsome suits and patent leather shoes, sometimes with subtle silver ear studs and stylish eyeglasses. The women likewise were tastefully turned out in flowing long colorful dresses, bright gold- and silver-bangled jewelry and sweeping headscarves covering long braided hair.
The meeting began with a vigorous prayer from Omot Aganya, a Minnesota Anuak pastor.
“We must be sure that there are absolutely no hard words, no fighting today!” Aganya thundered, jabbing the air with his fist. “We thank God for this opportunity to meet together and to talk. We REBUKE ALL EVIL SPIRITS that might enter this room. We CAST THEM AWAY so this meeting will have a positive outcome, IN JESUS’ NAME!”
Olom, the reputed killer, was a baby-faced man only in his mid-30s. He wore a powder blue suit and wire-rim glasses, and spoke in the flat tones of a technocrat, not the impassioned tones of an ideologue.
“It’s been too long since we have talked,” he told the crowd in his opening statement. “We need to all be in conversation today because Gambella needs you. You all need to become a part of a new democratic Gambella. We are peaceful today and there are chances for development. If the Anuak of America don’t become a part of that, we won’t make any progress.”
When he was finished, about half the audience applauded weakly.
Then, during the Q&A, the positive-to-negative comment ratio veered sharply negative. All but a handful of the audience questions were sharply critical of Olom.
Sorrow and Fury
The most poignant comments came from Anuak women who fixed Olom with intense glares and lashed him with words mixing sorrow and fury.
One woman began by sternly uttering a single word, “Okichi.” It was Olom’s childhood nickname which was known to everyone, and when she said the word a ripple of nervous laughter spread throughout the room.
Another woman leaned into the microphone and said to Olom: “Thank you for being here, for not running away from us. We want to tell you what we have in our hearts. We will say good things and bad things. But the first thing is, you should have started your speech with an apology. We want to hear your apology. Yet you still have not yet apologized. Will you now apologize?”
The apology the Anuak woman sought was for the gruesome events of December 13, 2003 and for the years that have followed – the period of time that a major 2005 Human Rights Watch report says that Olom was involved in “crimes against humanity” against the Anuak.
On December 13, according to those reports and to a journalistic account, more than 100 soldiers entered the Anuak town of Gambella, where they led a rampage that ended in the deaths of 425 Anuak men, the destruction of hundreds of Anuak homes, and the rape of Anuak women and girls.
Two reports by the human rights group Genocide Watch cite witnesses saying that Olom, who was Gambella’s security chief during the massacre, gave lists of educated Anuak men to the Ethiopian army to be targeted for execution.
In the years following 2003, Olom “has taken an exceptionally hard-line approach to stamping out the threat to regional security,” the 2005 Human Rights Watch report said. “Unarmed young men have been frequently shot at and in many cases killed while traveling between villages. Many [Army] patrols seem to view any Anuak civilian who runs away from them a legitimate target.”
The Living Dead
In the six-hour Saturday meeting, Olom never apologized. To the contrary, he flatly denied having passed a death list of Anuak names to the Ethiopian army, and he blamed the massacre of December 13 on his predecessor as governor of Gambella, whom he called weak and cowardly.
“It is wrong that people point to me as the bad guy,” Olom said, even though he was Gambella’s security chief during the 2003 massacre. “I was only trying to calm the situation.”
During the Saturday meeting, members of Olom’s delegation said that lists of the Anuak dead that are published on the Internet are inflated and inaccurate.
“I have seen people on that list walking around in Gambella,” the official said. Some names on the list also were double-counted, he said.
In many cases it was Anuak troublemakers who caused the killing on December 13, one Ethiopian official told the crowd. Olom said that dozens of Anuak men in prison today in Ethiopia are still suspects in the killings.
My translator, an Anuak named Magn Nyang, offered a bitter comment after translating those words.
“Is he saying that we killed ourselves on December 13?” Magn asked.
“He is blaming the victim,” Magn said. “Omot Olom is not answering the most important question, which is who has been found guilty of the crimes? We want that question answered and we want those who are guilty to be arrested.”
Many Anuak refused to attend yesterday’s meeting on ethical grounds. Some of them contacted the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to try to deny Olom a visa or even to have him arrested.
One of the boycotters was Obang Metho, a prominent Anuak activist and writer who lives in Saskatchewan and travels frequently to Minnesota.
Last Wednesday, Metho, the director of the Anuak Justice Council, published an article explaining why he would boycott Saturday’s meeting: “It should take place under some other venue — a legal hearing in a court, a truth-and-reconciliation hearing, or at least an Anuak traditional approach where there is accountability for what one has done and the truth is held in high regard,” Metho wrote.
The traditional Anuak approach mentioned by Metho is a prominent feature of Anuak culture called “gurtong,” in which aggrieved parties meet, the facts of a case are painstakingly determined, accountability is established, and a mutual settlement is reached.
Literally translated “to blunt a spear,” gurtong has been studied by anthropologists and proposed by some human rights groups as a model peacemaking process.
Another boycotter of Saturday’s meeting was Obang Kono Cham, an Anuak from Rochester who sends money regularly to a brother who has lived in a refugee camp in Kenya since he fled the massacre of December 13, 2003.
“I’m still suffering because of my brother, and every Anuak does the same thing because of Omot Olom and his crimes,” Cham said. “I didn’t want to go to the meeting and see him deny all of that in front of me.”
Yet, Cham added, “Olom also has suffered from the violence. He’s been forced by the Ethiopian government to kill his own people. When you look into his eyes, you see there is nothing there. He also is a victim.”
Douglas McGill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org