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Exiled Anuak confront Ethiopian official

Confrontation to take place in Minnesota
May 31, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Moderators made sure no one asked too many questions, but there was opportunity enough for exiled members of Ethiopia's Anuak minority to put Omot Obang Olom on the spot. Omot went to the community meeting Saturday hosted by an Anuak organization in Minneapolis to urge emigrants to return home and help develop the Gambella region, where he heads the regional government.

But most of the 125 Anuak community members who turned out had a more pressing issue on their minds: the Dec. 13, 2003, massacre that Human Rights Watch says killed more than 400 of their kin. Omot was then in charge of security for the regional government, and many in Minnesota's Anuak exile community believe he played a role in the attack.

"We are supposed to talk about peace before we talk about development," said Ojoye Akane, a 31-year-old Anuak student who clutched an open notebook during his turn at the microphone. "You can't talk about development before you talk about peace."

Ojoye said that his sister's 15-year-old son was shot and killed shortly before the massacre, and that the government has done nothing to help his sister. He and others listened intently as Omot responded to their questions and accusations, first in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, and then in Anuak. Like most of the audience members, Omot is Anuak.

"We could not stop those killings," Omot said, according to translator Magn Nyang, a 33-year-old Anuak who lives in Spring Lake Park and was openly skeptical of much of what Omot said.

Omot blamed the killings on weak regional leadership in Gambella at the time and said he tried to stop the bloodshed. He said allegations that he gave up names of Anuak to be targeted were an unfounded rumor.

Omot appealed to the Anuak diaspora to return to Gambella. He said conditions in southwestern Ethiopia region have improved.

Some Anuak community members boycotted the event because they say that Omot should be brought to justice, and that they did not expect an open dialogue at the meeting.

The Anuak Justice Council in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has been pushing U.S. and Canadian authorities to arrest and try Omot for war crimes. He is expected to continue on to Canada next week. But advocates haven't been able to confirm whether he's traveling on a diplomatic visa that would grant him wide-ranging immunity.

State Department spokesman Bill Strassberger confirmed that Omot received a visa, but said that because visa records are confidential, he could not discuss the application. He also declined to discuss whether Omot had a role in the 2003 killings.

A message left Saturday for officials at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington was not immediately returned.

Human Rights Watch detailed a campaign of killings, rape, torture and displacement against the Anuak by government soldiers and members of other ethnic groups, beginning with attack in Gambella in southwestern Ethiopia. Thousands fled, some to southern Sudan.

 

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