For decades, the village had been a sanctuary for the families, who tilled the land and cared for their herds in Ethiopia’s largest region.
But Monday, two days after gunmen set upon the ethnic Amhara residents of Tole village in the Oromia region of Ethiopia — killing perhaps hundreds, injuring many others and laying waste to property — any sense of sanctuary had vanished.
“We are not safe,” said Fikadu, a resident of the village who only gave his first name over fears for his safety.
The rampage in Tole on Saturday shook Africa’s second-most-populous nation, where a surge of interethnic violence and a grueling civil war has left millions dead, displaced or in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Fikadu fled from the massacre scene to the nearby town of Gimbi, where he said dozens of injured people from the village had been brought to medical receive assistance. He blamed an outlawed militant group, the Oromo Liberation Army, for the attack.
There has been no official confirmation of the number of consequences yet, but witnesses and reports put it at 200 people or more.
Yilkal Kefale, president of the neighborhood Amhara regional state, also attributed the attack to the militants, who are known as the OLA, according to the regional state media. And Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said the militants’ offensive Saturday had resulted in “severe civilian consequence, injuries and damage to property.”
But the OLA denied carrying out the attack, instead attributing it to a militia associated with the regional government in Oromia.
The assault was the latest in a string of ethnic attacks that have cast a pall on Ethiopia, raising into question the Horn of Africa nation’s long-term stability, its regional standing and the ability of its many ethnic groups to coexist in peace.
The violence came almost two years into the conflict in the northern region of Tigray, which has been marked by the mass of civilians, destruction of schools and hospitals, and a mass exodus of refugees, including to neighbors Sudan.
The war has battered Ethiopia’s economy — once among the fastest-growing in Africa — which was already struggling as large swaths of the country remain in the grip of a record drought that has devastated farms and livestock.
The violence has also underscored the task facing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as he tries to centralize his authority in a nation of 115 million people and dozens of ethnic groups with divergent, and sometimes competing, interests.
On Monday, Abiy said in a post on Twitter that the attacks on innocent civilians were “unacceptable,” adding, “Restoring peace and security in affected communities remains our key priority.”
But as ethnic violence spreads, human rights groups have denounced the government’s communications blackouts in many areas that have hindered the ability to report and investigate abuses.
Observers say the latest attack signaled the growing discontent Abiy, 45, faces among his own Oromo ethnic group.
Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests led by the Oromos, the country’s largest, if historically marginalized, ethnic group. But soon after, authorities began cracking down on their protests and arrested Oromo and leaders, some of whom had stood up as formidable opponents to Abiy’s vision of a more centralized Ethiopia.
Feeling shhunned, many disaffected Oromo nationalists turned to the Oromo Liberation Army and its revolt against the federal government, said William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“This meant the rebellion has increased in potency, has more weapons and more members,” Davison said, “and that has led to increase violence and more OLA control of territory in rural areas.”
Authorities have repeatedly tried to subdue the Oromo Liberation Army, but the group has fought back — and last week teamed up with another rebel group carrying out attacks in the capital of the neighboring Gambella region, as the OLA attacked two major Oromia towns.
These operations, Davison said, “were primarily to send a message to the government and others that the OLA has not been defeated and it is a force to be reckoned with and, ultimately, needs to be negotiated with.”
The political challenge in Oromia continues for Abiy, who last week announced the establishment of a committee that would handle peace negotiations with the Tigrayan leadership. Even though the government declared a humanitarian truce in March, Tigrayan officials and aid groups say supplies are woefully inadequate to assist those in the region, who are still cut off from telecommunications and banking services.
In a bid to expand his control over an intractable nation, Abiy has also faced off with the ethnic Amhara group in recent weeks.
Police have arrested thousands of civilians and in the Amhara region, along with members of the Fano militia, who were a key ally in his fight in the Tigray war. Early in the war, Amhara forces took over parts of western Tigray, which both Amharas and Tigrayans claim as their own.
The fertile area along the border with Sudan could become a pressure point during Abiy’s negotiations with the Tigray.
As the state of uncertainty widens in Ethiopia, rights say the lack of accountability for previous abuses has left many communities in fear.
This is particularly true of “Oromo and Amhara minority communities in Western Oromia, who have widespread abuses by security forces and armed groups,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Fikadu, the Tole village resident, said that it was too late for those killed in the attack — but that he hoped authorities would work to protect those still alive.
“Many people died in this country, but no justice has been served,” he said.