This past Sunday , June 8, 2014 workers clearing land at the former Hameressa military camp stumbled on human skeletons, incidentally unearthing one of the most gruesome mass murder committed against the Oromo people. Pictures and videos of what discovered and public reaction to it has been circulating on the internet. When did the mass killing happen? Who committed it and who were the victims? The following is information pieced together by speaking to survivors, former prisoners, individuals who worked at the military camp as cooks, elders who live in the vicinity and other first hand witnesses of the area.
The military camp was used under two regimes: Dergue and TPLF. Hence mass killing and executions of political prisoners took place at this location under two consecutive regimes in span of two and half decades.
Under Dergue: The 1990 mass killing
Dergue began using the military camp as prison during the Somali-Ethiopia war and increased its usage during the Red Terror. Fitted with underground jail cells and heavily fortified it was one of the most secure prisons whereby once a person is thrown in, the chance to escape alive unimaginable. Suspected insurgents, farmers, students and military officers who fell out with the regime were kept at the camp. People arrested from as far as Bale and Afar were brought in and very few survived the harsh treatment and execution.
However, the major mass killing took place in late 1990 just months before downfall of the regime. Most of the victims were Oromos who returned from Somalia refugee camps. From 1960s onward due to the political crisis, conflict and persecution, some 200,000 Oromos were forced to flee to Somalia. Most of these refugees came from Hararge, Arsi, Bale, Borana, Wallo and Guji areas that were affected by Bale Oromo movement of 1960s, the Ethio-Somali war and the OLF insurgency . The refugee community was mostly hosted in Hargiesa ( now capital of Somaliland) and Borema and Saba’ad refugee camps.
As Said Bare’s regime was losing grip on power, Hargeisa and other areas fell to the Somalia National Movement, a rebel group that was supported by the Ethiopian government. As a tactic to weaken OLF, the rebels attacked the refugee camps forcing Oromos to flee back to their homeland. The returnees were met with the Dergue officials and military commanders on the border. The officials assured them of safe passages to their areas of origin and fair treatment once they reach there. However the promise began to breakdown once the refugees crossed the border. They were told to gather in one place for transportation. Then security officers began identifying and selecting individuals. They selected about 7,000 individuals, mostly young men and women , known elders and spiritual leaders. ( This number is given by an elder who mediated between the regime and the refugee community representatives and confirmed by survivors). They were told that the government wanted to conduct further investigation in order clear them and let them go. Then they were loaded to military trucks and taken to Hameressa military camp. ( Few ‘high value’ prisoners were taken to prisons in Dire Dawa, Harar and Addis Ababa). Death as a result of contagious disease, malnutrition, torture, and execution was a daily event in the camp. An elder in the nearby village recalls that farmers in the vicinity had to stop their work as they were made busy burying prisoners handed to them by the military.
At the mean time the regime was losing grip over the country very fast and armed confrontation between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Dergue army was intensified in rural districts. In a week leading to the mass killing, OLF fighters overrun several outlying military posts. The causality on the government side was said to be severe. General Getachew Gedamu, who was in charge of the security operation in Harage at the time, said to have lost personal friends and family members. He and the rest of the military officers also panicked due to possible fall of Harar town to the rebels’ hand. Consequently, they began angrily executing high profile prisoners during the day. When the night fell, they brought in five bulldozers from the city and dug up huge hole outside the compound at place called Sharif Kalid. First, they loaded up bodies of those who were killed during the day. Then they tied up the remaining prisoners and told them to line up facing the hole. They fired on them from behind. Many of the victims were thrown in alive. The bulldozers put back the soil on the top. It was said that, the next morning, food prepared for prisoners had to be dumped as there were just few of them were still there. Its not possible to ascertain the exact number of people buried on the ground that night. However only few of those refugees who were transported from the Somalia border were ever to be seen again.
Among individuals whom we have been able to confirm were kept in Hameressa and killed on that fateful night.
Mustafa Abdi (Harawe), an Oromo singer
Haji Mohammed Dolal of Laga Mixee , a well known religious scholar and key leader of the refugee community in Somalia.
Usman Keyrullah ( from Laga Hama)
Sufiyan Mohammed Sule and his sister Kimiya ( from Fal’aana)
Momo Adam ( from Haban)
Mohammed Ammee ( from Hursoo)
Fatiya Haji Ahmedo ( whose father and 36 of family members were victims of another mass killing 10 years earlier in Daro Labu District)
Haji Dadi Tarre ( from Tumtu Furdaa, Gololcha District of Arsi)
Abdoo Katabee ( from Gaara Mul’ataa)
Hameressa under TPLF Control
After the fall of the Dergue, the Hameressa military garrison was taken over by the TPLF army’s Eastern Command led by Samora Yunos, the current Army Chief of Staff. Samora used the Hameressa camp as his operational headquarters. The TPLF at the time was engaged in fighting against the OLF in 1990s. In 1992, TPLF army arrested tens of thousands people for alleged membership and support of OLF. This swift mass arrest was facilitated by the infamous disarmament and encampment of OLF’s Eastern Command as part of the transitional period deal. Most of those arrested jailed at the Hurso military camp located not far from Hameressa. Upto 20,000 people are said to have been kept there at the height of the mass arrest. Once screened in Hurso, ‘high valued’ prisoners were transferred to the headquarters in Hameressa for intensive interrogation and keep them secured. A former prisoner who was kept there until late 1990s recalls death of 84 people from one section of the prison where some 500 prisoners were housed. TPLF continued to use this prison, particularly its underground jail cells upto mid-2000s. Residents who were present during the recent discovery claim seeing less decomposed bodies compared to older ones. This might a reason why the current regime who is often eager to expose crimes committed by its predecessors has tried to suppress publicity of the discovery of the mass grave.
Note that the main mass grave at Sharif Khalid has not been fully unearthed during the recent discovery. The remains that were exposed appears to be either on the periphery of the mass grave or those of smaller, isolated killings.
Residents of the area now demand the government to
Stop the planned construction the site
Help conduct proper excavation to identify the remain so that the loved ones can give them proper burial and get closure
Declare the place hallowed ground and erect memorial statue in order to preserve the historical memory
The initial response by the government was to deploy its notorious ‘federal police’ paramilitaries to forcefully remove elders camped on the site. However, facing growing resistance, it appears to back down from the construction. It has yet to respond to the remaining two demands