Alabachew Belay stands among the remains of his destroyed property in Ataye, Ethiopia, on May 15, 2021. - More than 100…
Alabachew Belay stands among the remains of his destroyed property in Ataye, Ethiopia, on May 15, 2021. - More than 100 civilians died in a recent flare-up of violence in the town of Ataye that also saw the assailants torch more than 1,500 buildings.

As gunfire crackled outside, Genet Webea huddled with her husband and seven-year-old daughter, praying they would be spared in the latest bout of ethnic strife to rock central Ethiopia.

But that morning in April, around a dozen gunmen broke down the front door and, ignoring Genet’s pleas for mercy, fatally shot her husband in the chest and stomach.

He was one of more than 100 civilians to die in a recent flare-up of violence in the town of Ataye that also saw the assailants torch more than 1,500 buildings, leaving once-bustling streets lined with charred and twisted metal.

The destruction continues a pattern of unrest that has blighted the tenure of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and now threatens to disrupt elections in which he will seek a new term.

Ethiopia’s polls are scheduled for June 21, but officials say insecurity and logistical challenges make voting impossible — at least for now — in at least 26 constituencies across the country.

That includes Ataye, where Abiy’s vision of unity for Ethiopia’s diverse population of 110 million can seem like a distant dream.

Since Abiy became prime minister in 2018, the town has endured at least six rounds of ethnic killings, and ties between members of the country’s two largest groups, the Oromos and Amharas, have visibly frayed, said mayor Agagenew Mekete.

Genet, an ethnic Amhara, told AFP that since the April attack she blanches when she hears the language of her husband’s ethnic Oromo killers, saying it conjures the painful image of him bleeding out on their kitchen floor.

“I don’t want to see or hear them,” she told AFP.

‘It was a war’

A lowland farming town 270 kilometers (167 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa, Ataye’s population of 70,000 is majority Amhara, but it borders Oromo settlements in three directions. For Agagenew, the mayor, the relentless violence reflects tensions over lush land used to grow wheat, sorghum and maize.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most-populous country, with different ethnic groups living cheek by jowl in some areas, straining ties as they jostle for land and resources.

In recent years tensions have worsened in parts of the country, leading to deadly violence and displacing millions.

Abiy took office vowing to put an end to the government’s iron-fisted rule, yet this has created space for violent ethno-nationalists to wreak havoc, Agagenew said.
“There has been a looseness after Abiy came to office, in the name of widening the democracy,” he said.

“There is looseness in enforcing the rule of law.”

Like Genet, he blames the killings partly on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group that lawmakers last month designated a terrorist organization.

But the OLA denies any presence in the area and says officials falsely invoke the rebels to justify “ethnic cleansing” against ordinary Oromos.

Boru, who gave only his first name for safety reasons, is one of several Oromo residents of Ataye who said the OLA were not involved.

Instead, he said, the carnage was set off when Amhara security forces shot dead an Oromo imam outside a mosque, then prevented mourners from retrieving the body.

“It did not come out of the blue,” he said. “It was a war. Each side was attacking the other.”

This jibes with accounts from officials in nearby Oromo communities, who note that the violence extended beyond Ataye and claimed many Oromo victims.

Ethiopia’s chief ombudsman, Endale Haile, told AFP more than 400 were killed in total and more than 400,000 displaced, declining to provide an ethnic breakdown.

Election apathy  

Whoever bears responsibility, there is no disputing the killings have left Ataye resembling a ghost town.

The hospital and police station were both ransacked, and demolished storefronts offer only scattered clues — burnt shoeboxes, the ripped sign of a beauty salon — to what they once contained.

Most residents have fled, with crowds gathering only when officials hand out sacks of wheat as food aid.

Ethiopia’s electoral board insists voting will take place in Ataye and other violence-wracked constituencies before a new parliamentary session opens in October.

But no preparations are under way and residents have little enthusiasm.

“Why would we vote in elections? We have no interest in elections,” said 19-year-old Hawa Seid. “We’ve lost our homes.”

‘Politicized’ deaths  

The Ataye violence spurred days of protests in cities across the Amhara region, where the bloodshed could shape the election.

“For people whose basic existence is questioned and being violated, I think the security of Amharas all over Ethiopia will determine how people vote,” said Dessalegn Chanie, senior member of the National Movement for Amhara, an opposition party.

The Amhara Association of America, a Washington-based lobbying firm, says more than 2,000 Amharas have been killed in dozens of massacres going back to last July.

The regional spokesman, Gizachew Muluneh, accused rival parties of “trying to politicize the killings and get something from the deaths of others,” adding, “It is not morally good.”

Genet, whose husband was shot dead in their kitchen, participated in the protests herself.
“I was happy to be there because I wanted to show how much they are hurting us and to ask the government to stop the Amhara genocide,” she said.

But she has not given up on the idea that Amharas and Oromos could one day live together in harmony.

She noted that after her husband was killed, Oromo neighbors briefly housed her and her daughter until it was safe to leave.

It was a gesture of kindness that reminded her of a more peaceful era she would like to return to.
“Once,” she said, “we all lived together like a family.”