Cairo, Egypt – For months, Gutama Gallatobati, a proud farmer and mechanic of Oromo descent languished in an Ethiopian prison over accusations he burned an Ethiopian flag. While inside, guards physically abused him.
Sada Ahmed, a mother of five children and wife of a wealthy husband lived a good life in Ethiopia until she was accused of financially supporting the rebel group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Her husband disappeared in Sudan and she was forced to flee to Egypt.
The Oromo make up 40 percent of the Ethiopian population. However, the minority Tigray government has persecuted the Oromo people, jailing more than 20,000 suspected OLF members. As a result, many have been forced to flee, leaving behind family, friends and jobs.
Ahead of World Refugee Day on Thursday, the Oromo who have fled to Egypt are again endangered.
Over the last few weeks, there has been an emergence of xenophobic attacks against Ethiopians on the streets of Cairo, motivated by Ethiopia’s goal to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam”.
The Ethiopian government is planning to dam the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power, a move Egypt worries will affect its water supply.
In response to the project, Egypt’s government has reached a new level of bellicose rhetoric. In a televised meeting of key government officials recently, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour suggested Egypt launch air strikes to stop construction of the dam. Others proposed destabilising the Ethiopian government by funding rebel groups.
The Oromo in Egypt are now caught in the middle here and say they’re facing increased hostility from Egyptians.
In response, hundreds of Oromo refugees have staged a sit-in outside the Cairo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) demanding safety. They’ve refused to leave, sleeping on the grass outside the building, near leaking sewage from a surrounding apartment complex.
Jeylan Kassim, head of the Oromo Sons/ Daughters Refugee Association, has played a leading role in organising the protests. “We will not leave until the UNHCR will protect us,” he told Al Jazeera.
A heavy silence blankets the Oromo as they sit on scraps of cardboard listening to members of the community discuss in frustration fruitless meetings with UNHCR representatives.
The UN says it cannot provide temporary shelter or food outside the UNHCR building because they do not have authority over the land, nor the resources to supply those camping out for the nearly two weeks.
The UN has offered a phone hotline for refugees to call with their problems, as well as legal assistance.
But the Oromo say this is not enough. “Our case cannot be resolved with lawyers and judges and courts … We don’t want legal protection, we want physical protection,” says Mohamed Zein, a journalist from Ethiopia.
He fled to Egypt after he was falsely accused of providing secret government information to NGO Human Rights Watch and the Eritrean government.
The UNHCR acknowledges the situation is a difficult one but says its options are limited. “The outcome is not in your hands. As the United Nations, you don’t get involved in [internal] politics,” says UN press officer Ahmed Aboughazala.
The Oromo in Egypt are united not only by their heritage, but also by a collective sense of uncertainty.
When 33-year-old Gutama Gallatobati arrived in Cairo a month ago, he thought his biggest troubles had been left behind. A week ago, however, his landlord evicted him from his apartment and his belongings were taken. When asked what reason he’d been given, he sighed: “The Nile.”
“They said if you take our water, we will take your blood,” recounted Abdi Harboury, a lanky youth shy to make eye contact.
According to the Oromo community, Abdi was the first person to have been attacked over the dam issue. He was beaten by three Egyptian youth, they say.
Hussein Ahmed, an asylum seeker who has been in Cairo almost two years, admitted he lies when asked about his origins. “I was at the barber and he asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said Nigeria. I am scared to say I am from Ethiopia.”
Even outside the UNHCR office, the refugees say it is not safe. Ahmed said he was beaten recently, and a woman was groped on her way to find a toilet. They claim the police did nothing to stop the attacks.
Some police officers have told locals passing by that the refugees are not suffering, and are being paid by the American government to protest, the Oromo say. “They protest in the day and then at night they’re paid and many of them leave,” said a young officer, who declined to give his name because he was not authorised to talk to the press.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, meanwhile, arrived last Sunday in Addis Ababa to meet with his Ethiopian counterpart in an attempt to find a political and economic solution over the dam issue.
Ethiopia and Egypt agreed to hold further talks on the impact of a huge Ethiopian dam project to quell tensions between the two countries over water-sharing.
Until it gets resolved, however, the Oromo who fled persecution in Ethiopia say they will continue to face threats to their safety in Egypt.