KIGALI, Rwanda – For decades, the village had been a sanctuary for families, who tilled the land and cared for their herds in Ethiopia’s largest region.
But on Monday, two days after the gunmen set on the ethnic Amhara residents of Tole village in the Ethiopia of the Oromia region – killing 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.
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 receive medical assistance. He blamed an outlawed militant group, the Oromo Liberation Army, for the attack.
There has been no official confirmation of the number of casualties yet, but witnesses and reports put it at 200 people or more.
Yilkal Kefale, president of the neighboring 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-Certified Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said The militants’ attack on Saturday had resulted in “serious civilian casualties, injuries and damage to property.”
The attack was the latest in a string of ethnic attacks that have cast a pall on Ethiopia, raising the question of the Horn of Africa nation’s long-term stability, its regional standing and its ability to coexist in peace with many ethnic groups.
The violence came nearly two years into the conflict in the northern region of Tigray, which has been marked by massacre of civilians, destruction of schools and hospitals, and a mass exodus of refugees, including from neighboring 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 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’s 115 million people and dozens of ethnic groups with divergent, and sometimes competing, interests.
On Monday, Mr. Abiy said in a post on Twitter The attacks on innocent civilians were “unacceptable,” adding, “Restoring peace and security in affected communities is still our key priority.”
But as ethnic violence spreads, human rights groups have denounced the government’s communications in blackouts in many areas that have hindered their ability to report and investigate abuses.
Observers say the latest attack signaled the rising discontent Abiy, 45, faces his own Oromo ethnic group.
Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests led by the Oromos, the largest, if historically marginalized, ethnic group. But soon after, the authorities began cracking down on their protests and arrested Oromo activists and leaders, some of whom had stood up as formidable opponents to Mr. Abiy’s vision of a more centralized Ethiopia.
Feeling increasingly shunned, 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 had increased potency, had more weapons and more members,” Mr. Davison said, “And that has led to growing violence and more OLA control in rural areas.”
The authorities have repeatedly tried to subdue the Oromo Liberation Army, but the group has backed off – 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, Mr. Davison said, “There were many messages sent 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.”
The political challenge in Oromia continues for Mr. Abiy, who was announced last week by a committee that will handle peace talks 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 increasingly intractable nation, Mr. Abiy has also faced off with the ethnic Amhara group in recent weeks.
The authorities have arrested thousands of journalists and activists in the Amhara region, as well as members of the Fano militia, who were a key ally in their fight in the Tigray war. Early in the war, Amhara forces took over parts of western Tigray, which both the Amharas and Tigrayans claimed as their own.
The fertile area along the border with Sudan could become a pressure point during Mr. Abiy’s negotiations with the Tigray.
As the state’s uncertainty widens in Ethiopia, rights activists say the lack of accountability for past abuses has left many communities in fear.
This is especially true of “Oromo and Amhara minority communities in western Oromia, who have widespread abuses by security forces and armed groups,” said Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Fikadu, a Tole Village resident, said it was too late for those killed in the attack – but that he hoped the authorities would work to protect those still alive.
“Many people have died in this country but no justice has been served,” he said.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.