Helping Victims of Ethnocide: Akuthi Okoth
Some 400 members of the Anuak ethnic group in Gambella in southern Ethiopia were killed on December 13, 2003, by government security forces and members of highland ethnic groups. The assault followed the deaths of eight Ethiopian and foreign refugee workers traveling in a United Nations vehicle. The Ethiopian government dismissed the killings as "inter-ethnic" violence among "backward elements." Survivors reported that Ethiopian troops used a list of names to identify educated Anuak men whom they dragged from their homes and shot with AK-47 assault rifles, and that they incited hundreds of ethnic Nuer and other "highlanders" living in Gambella to fetch machetes, knives, and spears and join them in the slaughter. Sporadic raids continued until April, during which hundreds of homes were burned and Anuak girls were gang-raped. Some 10,000 Anuak refugees fled to refugee camps in neighboring Sudan and Kenya. The government has not conducted a meaningful investigation into the violence.
Anuak leaders describe the violence as the latest in a campaign of intermittent government-sanctioned ethnic cleansing that has occurred for over two decades. Since the 1980s, Ethiopia has resettled more than 60,000 famine victims from the northern highlands, as well as refugees from Sudan's civil war, in the fertile, resource-rich Gambella region. Rivalries over land have occasionally exploded into bloody conflicts, which makes it easy for the government to blame all violence in the region on inter-ethnic tensions.
I came to the United States in 1985 as a student from Sudan from the tribe called Anuak. Anuak live in the southeast of Sudan and southwest of Ethiopia. I’ve been in the United States for almost 19 years, and I am married and have two children.
When I was home, I really loved my people and it didn’t make any difference whether they were Sudanese or Ethiopian—if they were Anuak I really cared for them. In 2000, I moved to Minnesota. There I met a lot of Anuak refugees who had fled the violence in our homeland. In March 2003, I helped to form an organization called Anuak Women Community.
On December 13, 2003, in the Gambella area of Ethiopia, 424 educated Anuak men were murdered, some of them in front of their wives and children. Some of the boys who survived ran away. Some educated women were targeted as well. But most women are left with children and no husbands. Some of them are not educated, and they have no means of supporting themselves or getting food. Those still in Gambella are being threatened by the government. Women and girls are being raped by Ethiopian soldiers, many of whom are infected with HIV and all kinds of diseases. Many of the women are not getting medical attention because they are in the bush, hiding. Those who have run away to neighboring countries like Sudan and Kenya are still not getting any international help or attention at all. I have become involved in the international indigenous rights movement because my people are being eliminated.
Between 1993 and 2000, my two sisters and brother-in-law left Sudan because of the war. They went to Ethiopia as refugees. But then the Ethiopian government started putting Anuak people in prison. My brother-in-law and sisters went to prison in December 2002 and their children were left without proper care. During the massacre a year later, my sister’s children almost died—their neighbors were killed and their houses were burned. The children were hidden by non-Anuak people and later tried to find a way to leave. They are now in a refugee camp in Kenya, but their parents are still in prison. The oldest is 20 years old and she has been taking care of her siblings for the past 22 months.
Being a refugee is very difficult—especially as a woman. Most of the time the men who work in the camp, and especially the Ethiopian authorities, will not give women the portion of the food that belongs to them and their children. Most of the time these men get away with it because the women do not have a voice.
The Difficult Lives of Anuak Women
In general, life as an Anuak woman is difficult. Most Anuak women are forced to marry someone they do not want to marry. Most men cannot take care of their wives. The wife has to raise the kids by herself, with no education and with no proper support from the man. If this genocide had not happened, our women’s organization would have focused its work on the education of the Anuak people. Most of the time parents do not allow girls to travel from their villages to go to school, and most of the time the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments do not give Anuak women access to education. We were hoping that with the help of the United Nations or other organizations we could get support to open schools in rural areas and villages, and build dormitories for girls who live far away from the villages.
Lack of acccess to education remains a burden even for some women who have come to the United States. Other than being protected from the Ethiopian government, Anuak women often do not gain much benefit from being a refugee in the United States.
The younger generation of Anuak refugees growing up in the United States are not doing well because, in most cases, their family members, especially their parents, have difficulty with the language and the culture.
Most Anuak refugee women’s husbands go to school and let their wives work and bring the income home, yet the women do not have access to education and have language problems. We hope to register Anuak Community Women as a nonprofit and get funding from the government to open a childcare center so that women can take the time to study English and better their lives. I am praying to find an organization that will support Anuak Women Community so we can have a center for organizing cultural activities, meeting together, helping children with their homework, and teaching our children about our values.