He sits down on a small rock in front of me and wraps a blanket around himself. Rainclouds are building up, but he also uses the textile as a cover, not to show his face.
He says he knows his name is on the Ethiopian military's deathlist. He has left his home village and comes to this place to tell us his story.
– They have sent me a message, saying they are going to kill me. They can arrive at any moment, he says and looks around.
We are sitting in the bush in southern Omo, in the south of Ethiopia, two days travel south of the capital Addis Abeba. The man speaks with a clear and strong voice about what he says happened when he was a prisoner at the government camp ”Romo”.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/vPfSi/1/
– They hung us upside down with ropes around our feet, forced our legs apart and beat us with rebars. Then we had to sit in the the sun all day, with nothing to drink, he says.
He tells about what happened to a young man, the one who was treated the worst. The soldiers tied a rope around his testicles and pulled him on the ground.
– They hung him naked with his feet, then beat him on his testicles with rebars. The testicles cracked.
– These are our enemies. They came to destroy us!
The man says he doesn't have a lot of respect for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed.
– He thinks we are stupid just because we have no education, that's why they are doing these things to us.
Why are the Bodi and Mursi people persecuted?
The Ethiopian government has for several years forced the tribes to leave large areas that used to be farm- and pasture land and has instead built sugarcane plantations and -factories.
The traditional lifestyle of the tribes has also been severly affected by the fact that the authorities have constructed dams on the Omo river and built several power stations and irrigation projects.
The Bodi and Mursi people have by tradition been armed in order to protect themselves and their cattle against lions and other local tribes. During the autumn government troops have started to collect these weapons and the conflict has escalated sharply. Government sources say that this has been done in order to protect governmental investments, like sugarplantations, and in order to secure peace in the area.
Brutal stories about torture in Ethiopia
A month and a half has passed since Expressen was reached by the first cries of help from southern Omo in Ethiopia. The stories about torture and killings in the home country of the Nobel Peace Prize winner were brutal.
According to the French news agency AFP around 40 members of the Bodi tribe had been killed by government forces. AFP´s reporter Robbie Corey-Boulet referred to information given by leaders of the Bodi people about widespread persecution and killings. The headline in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian was ”Death without a reason”.
The reports were denied by official Ethiopian sources. They claimed instead that the disarmament of the local tribes were necessary in order to protect the government's investments in the area, for example in sugarcane plantations, and to keep the peace in the region.
On October 29th several Ethiopian and international researchers sounded the alarm in a detailed report, where survivors and witnesses told about extensive abuse, torture and murder being committed by Ethiopian security forces in the southern Omo province.
According to the report, eleven members of the Bodi tribe were killed during the second week of September. Most of the victims were old people. A five year old boy is reported to have been kicked to death and in Chirim women have supposedly been killed and thrown into the river. The report also talks about gang rape of women being committed by government soliders.
The Bodi people were the first victims and now the same thing is happening to the Mursi and Suri people, according to the report.
The experts behind the report did not dare to publicly give their names due to fear of repercussions, but Expressen knows their names and and can confirm that they are all persons with deep knowledge and experience of the people of southern Ethiopia.
The claims of systematic crimes being commtted by the security forces of Abiy Ahmed against the Bodi and the Mursi people deserved to be checked on site, despite the many risks and practical difficulties.
Under cover as a bird-watcher
There are only about 7 000 Mursi living today and only a handful of them speak english. And many of these were said to be locked up in the camp Romo, a place that has been described as a torture camp. Or they had disappeared or gone into exile.
But the lifestyle of the Mursi people – with their traditional lip- and eardiscs – has made them world famous. Tourists pay large sums to be taken on day trips to to visit three villages in Mursi land.
Our chance to meet them was to travel there undercover as tourists and bird watchers and secretly interview the victims of torture, when the armed and paramilitary park rangers weren't paying attention.
We enter the nationalpark where the Mursi people live without any of the paramilitary guides that keep control of things. But the situation turns critical when we have a flat tire at military checkpoint. The Mursi men I travel with, try to explain that I'm their guest but the soldiers are suspicious.
I explain that I'm here looking for a particular bird, a ”Dusky Babbler”, a dark, small bird, and after a while the soldiers relax and shake their heads over the fact that someone has travelled so far just for a bird. They let us pass.
The first victims start to arrive, already by dawn the day after we have raised our tent, to tell their stories. We had set up appointments before our journey here. They come from neighbouring villages and not from the village we are based at.
We do some interviews a couple of hundred meters out in the bush, at the same time as visiting tourists from the US and Europe arrive in mini buses, surveilled by a handful of paramilitary guards in camouflage uniforms.
”I was hung upside down for five hours”
Another member of the Mursi tribe has also walked from his village to visit us and tell us his story.
– They hung me upside down with ropes around my feet, with separated legs. They beat me very hard with rebars. I can show you my wounds.
He says it's been two months since he was tortured. It took place in a shed built with corrugated tin in the Romo camp. Nobody outside could see what took place inside.
He says the security forces used poles, around which the shed was built, to hang up the victims. Other victims were strung up in a tree, he says.
– I was hung upside down for five hours. Then they made me sit in the sun for hours without water.
We meet a young woman who has walked for hours to tell us her story. She doesn't wear her traditional lip disc today, but you can clearly see how the the lower lip has been cut. She is wearing brass bracelets around her arms. They tinkle while she talks and gesticulates.
– They forced us to sit in the sun all day. I was only beaten once by the military, but had to stay out in the sun for twelve hours without water. Many fainted. I was locked in the camp for almost a month, she says.
She was never raped, she says, but she knows of others who were.
– I've heard they raped women there.
One evening I managed to hide in the grass and when it became dark, I climbed over the fence and escaped.
She has a toddler, a son, who was being looked after by her mother, while she was imprisoned in the Romo camp. Her focus the whole time was to try to get out of the place.
– One evening I managed to hide in the grass and when it became dark, I climbed over the fence and escaped, she says.
The Romo camp measures – according to several witnesses from the Mursi tribe – around 500 by 500 meters and is surrounded by a three meter high fence, covered on the inside and on the top by barbed wire. The exterior is partly covered with corrugated tin to block the view of the inside.
Expressen has gained access to pictures that have been smuggled out of the camp. It was impossible for Expressen's reporter to get close to Romo. The risk of getting caught by the government troops was far too high.
Many Bodi killed in September
On our way to the Mursi people we meet a man from the Bodi people. He calls himself ”Black Buffalo”. He is afraid he will be killed if his real name was to be known. He says that many Bodis were killed by government forces between September 8th and September 13th.
– Ethiopian military did a lot of horrible things to my people. They killed us like animals. They used heavy machine guns and they tortured us.
The soldiers placed heavy lorry tires around their waists. Then they poured petrol and lit the fire.
According to local testimony and international Human Rights Organizations, 38 people from the Bodi people were killed. Claims that have been denied by the Ethiopian authorities. Many people are still missing.
”Black Buffalo” says that the people who were killed by the soldiers were mainly persons who wouldn't give information about ”criminals”, or who refused to collect weapons or cows for the soldiers.
– They burnt four members of the Bodi people alive. The soldiers placed heavy lorry tires around their waists. Then they poured petrol and lit the fire. The four who were burnt alive were Shimut, Bhocha Girbala, Olikoro Basmut and Komorut Dorwa, he says.
”Black Buffalo” also says that the soldiers who did the killings came from Addis Abeba and Hawassa. One of the them later published pictures of a burnt body on Facebook.
A short distance from the Mursi village we meet yet another victim of the Ethiopian security forces. The elderly man can hardly walk, or sit down. He also tells how he was hung upside down. He was beaten so severly that he was maimed for life.
– I can't pee anymore. They urinated on me and made me drink my own urin, he says.
He remembers the rebars with ice cold horror.
Mursi standing in line for torture
Another elderly man says:
– They hung me up from the ceiling with a rope around my waist, upside down. They placed a rope around my testicles and tightened the rope. And then they started to beat me with rebars.
– Five times in one place. Then onto the next. Outside other Mursis were standing in line. Waiting for their turn.
They almost killed me. The beatings were the worst part.
When the torturers had finished, they loosened the rope and the old man fell to the ground. Then they cried: Next!
– They let me hung there for nine hours. They kept asking about ”criminals”.
He tells in detail how the soldiers used a rusty reinforcing bar, wide like an index finger.
– They almost killed me. The beatings were the worst part.
He shows how the soldiers aimed for his genitals and strangled him.
– I almost suffocated. I had already heard how they had killed two men from the Bodi tribe. One was hanged, the other was shot.
The old man pulls up his sweater so we can film his back.
Several of the Mursi men who in detail describe how they have been tortured by Ehtiopian security forces, let Expressen film and take pictures of their bodies.
Expressen has shown these pictures to four doctors in South Africa, all with experience of these kind of wounds. They say that some of the scars seem to be older and healed, but they all independently say that some of the wounds are only months old.
Professor Peter Krantz at the Swedish Forensic Institute in Lund has checked four videofilms and 19 pictures. His assessment is: ”The appearance and location of the wounds on several of the men strongly suggests they were caused by beatings with an elongated object held by another person. The spotted look of the wounds on one of them gives credibility that it was caused by a reinforcing bar with ribbed edges.”
Professor Krantz has this to say about the age of the wounds: ”Many of them have scattered scars and skin wounds that are older than two months, but it is difficult to tell the age of the elongated beating wounds. The appearance of keloids on elder men is at the limit of what is possible, but with the others the pink colouring seems to be more fresh. I cannot say for certain that this is younger than two months, but I cannot exclude it either.”
Jens Modvig is president of the United Nations Commission against Torture (CAT). Ten of the world's foremost experts on torture sit on the Commission. Modvig is also the medical head of the Danish Institute against Torture. His assessment – after having checked the pictures together with his colleagues – is:
”Our conclusion is that we cannot exclude the possibility that these wounds are about two months old, and thus consistent with the story about torture around that time.”
Afraid of going back
When we meet the old man he has just visited a hospital to get some help, but he couldn't afford it. He is too afraid now to return to his home village.
According to people we have met, the Ethiopian military has said they will do the same to the Mursi as they did with the Bodi, enter the villages and kill the ones who don't cooperate. But in that case they have to wait until the rainy season is over and the roads are once again passable.
The only hope for the Mursi tribe is for the rain to keep on coming, unless the international pressure on the Nobel Peace laureate Abiy Ahmed to stop the killing and the torture becomes too big.
Who is Abiy Ahmed?
Born: 1976 in Beshasha
Family: Wife Zinash Tayachew, three daughters and an adopted son.
Background: Belongs to the Ethiopian Pentecoastal movement. Lieutenant-colonel in the Ethiopian military and UN-soldier in Rwanda. Founded INSA, the Information and Security Bureau of Ethiopia in 2007. Politician since 2010. Prime Minister since 2018.
Education: Studied peace and security at the University of Addis Abeba, and management at the University of Greenwich in London.
Nobel Prize: Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having normalised the relations with arch enemy Eritrea after a 20 year long conflict.
”He has to be informed about what is going on”
David Turton, an anthropologist at Oxford University, has worked with the Mursi and the people of southern Omo for 40 years. He is deeply worried about the development in the area and stories about abuse and torture reached him early on.
Expressen shared the witness stories from the Mursi people, and he says they confirm the information he has recieved from the area.
– It's important to see this from a historical perspective. The Mursi has been living by the Omo river for hundreds of years. Now they have taken both land and water from them.
David Turton says he has kept asking himself for many years, why the Ethiopian state treats the Mursis this way.
– I am chocked! There is now an enormous fear among the people of Omo. And I hear the prisons in Jinka are now filled with young people from Omo, he tells Expressen.
David Turton says he now places his hope in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and that he will stop the crimes being committed by the security troops against the people of southern Omo.
– Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is well worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but what is taking place now in Omo is the exact opposite. He has to be informed about what is going on there.