By Jonathan Alpeyrie

In part 1 of our upcoming series, war photographer and journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie recounts the time he spent, and the women he met, in war-torn Ethiopia.

“You have to fight with courage. If you’re surrounded by the enemy, always save one bullet for yourself,” says 40-year-old Abdata Basire, commander-in-chief of the Southern front. This sentence serves as a rule for all OLF fighters, who struggle to protect and give a voice to the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (35%). The phrase serves as a reminder of the desperate situation the Oromo people have found themselves in. However, these ethnic tensions are nothing new for the current Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who recently survived an onslaught from the TPLF rebel group, part of the Tigray minority in the North. The powerful rebel faction held power before Ahmed came to prominence and has since fought to regain this power in Addis Ababa, the capital. 

The Prime Minister, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is no stranger to the country’s ethnic conflict. Both of his parents were Oromos, so Ahmed knows all too well that a successful leader in Ethiopia needs to navigate a balancing act between the various ethnic groups operating within the country. Whether it is the Oromos, the Ogadens, or the Amharas, Ethiopia is in a constant state of possible disintegration. 

2018 was a time of significant change for Ethiopia. Ahmed came to power with the promise to unite all major ethnic groups in the country, and to clean house as major institutional corruption ran rampant. At the same time, the Tigray minority ruled the land. One of the first things the new Prime Minister did was release tens of thousands of political prisoners to appease ethnic tensions. He then disbanded the old ruling coalition led by the TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia since 1991. The New Prosperity Party became Ethiopia’s leading political force. The TPLF saw them as a serious threat to their national interest who organized an election in violation of the central government’s constitution. Six weeks after the poll, with no clear result, conflict broke out between both parties. 

The TPLF forces launched attacks against Ethiopian government bases in the Tigray Region, killing hundreds of soldiers while making strides Southwards, bringing to light the declining security in other parts of the country. Oromo forces and Ogaden rebels (operating as separate entities) began to pressure the government to keep its word in protecting various ethnic minority groups present within the land, but the government’s response against TPLF troops and Tigray civilians was a clear sign that it would stop at nothing to hold on to power. The central government then launched regular airstrikes on civilian targets to scare and force many civilians away from urban centers.

The other major rebel faction, the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), accused the government of taking advantage of the situation to create further conflict. As tensions rose, so did clashes between the Oromos and the government, despite the fact that they were supposed to be allies.   

Below are six interviews with women fighters working for the Oromo Liberation Front, where they open up about their stories, and why they fight. 

Karu Aba-Gure, Hiddi, Southern Ethiopia, 20 years of age. 

Aba-Gure is from a farming family, who she has not seen since she volunteered in the OLF in April 2004. Aba-Gure joined the OLF to fight the governmental abuse on the Oromo people. She thought joining the OLF would be the best way to counter Addis’s mistreatment of other ethnic groups in the country. She also joined for personal reasons—her father was put in jail by Ethiopian authorities, who accused him of participating in the OLF struggle. He remained in prison for six months and was tortured and interrogated about his affiliation with OLF. He was arrested while Aba-Gure was at school. When she got home, she found her pregnant mother being beaten by TPLF troops. She soon lost the baby. She got their blessing when she told her parents she was joining the OLF ( after her father’s return). Since her presence in the OLF, she has been involved in firefights against TPLF. (At first) I felt revenge. Now I don’t feel anything,” she says. Aba-Gure is considered one of the commander’s best freedom fighters on the Southern front. “I will fight until Oromia becomes independent,” she says. Like all OLF fighters, she will not hesitate to put one in her head if cornered by TPLF troops. The idea of promotion within the ranks is of no interest to her. She just wants to fight.

Sa’ida Dida. Born in Ya-Belo, Southern Ethiopia. 20-years-old.

Sa’ida Dida is from a small village where she lives with her four sisters and two brothers. Her parents are merchants, but her father died recently. She joined the OLF to defend Oromia because “they are my people,” she says. Most of her siblings took part in the student uprising, and most spent various amounts of time in jail for it. She joined the OLF in 2004 and will fight until the war is over and a compromise is found with Addis. After the war, she wants to become a teacher and teach about the Oromo people’s sacrifice during the struggle. She wants the new generation to learn from it. She feels abandoned by the Western community, who seems not to care about the full scale of what is at stake here. She also talks about her first combat action, “I was very scared, but also because we had very little water.” Now she is used to war.

Lalistu Hussen. Born in Bale, Southern Eastern Ethiopia. 21-years-old.

Lalistu Hussen is from a farmer’s family. Like many Oromos, her father was forced to flee to Nairobi. The family is somewhat divided as two of her brothers work for the Meles government in the administration, while she has decided to join the OLF in the combat branch. She says she won’t meet with them until the war is over. She decided to join in 2004 after being beaten by TPLF units during a peaceful student rally in her hometown. She and her family were sent to jail for her involvement. During her time in jail, she was forced to sign papers stating that the government held no responsibility if she died in prison. At first, she was scared of the noise made by guns, but with time and experience, this fear disappeared. She says that she will marry after the war and start a family after the war is over.

Margitu Mangasha. Koovara, South Eastern Ethiopia, 22-years-old. 

Margitu has had little family to rely on since her father’s death. Her three brothers have dispersed throughout the country; one is a teacher, the other two are in the OLF. She has not seen any of them in the past four years. She joined the struggle in early 2003 due to her “lack of freedom.” Between 2001 and 2003, he was part of a student organization in her native village. The army used live bullets to disperse the villagers during one specific rally, killing some. Most of her family was arrested, and her grandfather was severely beaten and put into a coma. “The OLF is my new family, and I want to take revenge,” she says before explaining that revenge will only be accomplished once the war is over. After the war, she wants to become a teacher and start a family.

Badhatu Balayneh. Aiddi Lola, Southern Ethiopia, 25-years-old.

Balayneh comes from a farmer’s family, with five brothers and one sister. One of her brothers is in the OLF. She joined the OLF five years ago and was later promoted to squad leader, leading a team of ten men into battle due to her battlefield and medicinal experience. Each man in her unit respects her more than if their commanding officer was a man. She joined the OLF because “it breaks [her] heart to see [her] people suffer so much.” After the war, she wants to remain in the new national army and follow a military career.

Qabale Abraham. Moyale, The Ethiopian border, 20-years-old.

Abraham’s family are merchants. Four of her siblings are refugees in Nairobi. She joined the OLF in 2004 because she believes “in the way of the gun.” For her, war is the only answer to the conflict between the government and the Oromos. She also says that the country’s political framework does not work, and only war can resolve everything. She joined OLF soon after her father was arrested. TPLF took everything from him, including all his goods, leaving him in poverty. Her uncle is in prison for being an OLF sympathizer; she hasn’t heard from him. She is seeking revenge. After the struggle, she wants to share her war experience with others and have a family.

Images courtesy of Jonathan Alpeyrie.

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