In recent weeks, mothers and families across Addis Ababa have been persistently visiting detention centers in search of information about their detained children and other loved ones. Tens of thousands of people have reportedly been detained in Addis Ababa alone, according to sources, who say some detainees have even been transported to camps in Awash.
The widespread detentions across the capital began following clashes in the Amhara region, leading the government to declare a State of Emergency. While the SoE primarily targets the Amhara region, Justice Minister Gedion Timotwos stated it can be enforced elsewhere in the country as deemed necessary by authorities.
The Reporter observed many distraught families making daily trips to schools in areas like Wondirad near Kotebe and Kokebe Tsibah close to the Kenyan Embassy. Only a small number of families are permitted brief moments to see detainees, as these schools turned temporary holding facilities, are now guarded by security personnel.
As the crackdown widens, thousands have been detained and mothers’ urgent inquiries continue in hopes of gathering news about their missing family members. With limited access granted, they seek any information that might provide clarity on the situation or condition of their children and relatives now in government custody.
Each morning the search began anew. Mothers rose before dawn, steeling themselves for another long day of praying for answers. Their weary feet traced well-worn paths to the detained school-turned-prisons, as familiar to them now as their own homes.
Outside the guarded gates of Wondirad School, which is located in Kotebe neighborhood, lines of grieving families stretched into the distance, clinging to desperate hopes and refusing to abandon those taken until every lead was chased. United in search, they drew strength from one another, sharing what little they learned and endeavoring together to pierce the shroud obscuring their family’s fates.
“I raised my son alone. He works hard and never asks anyone for help,” says Abiyot Zega, mother of Abiti Tesfay who is detained.
Though Abiyot had scoured every prison and makeshift jail in the city, Abiti remained lost in the maze of the capital. Still, each morning found her wearily returning to Wondirad School, just maybe today her long vigil would be rewarded. Beneath the compound walls, she joined the other families, their anguished faces mirroring her own.
Though tensions began elsewhere, mass arrests in the capital speak of troubles running deep within the heart of the nation.
“In the Addis Ababa City Administration, there has been widespread arrests of civilians who are of Amharan ethnic origin, as well as widespread detention of irregular migrants from Eritrea,” reads the statement of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued on August 14, 2023.
The Commission says it has received multiple reports from families and friends of detainees, but “has not yet been granted access to monitor the conditions of detentions since the declaration of the state of emergency,” adds the statement.
The Commission’s duty was to bear witness – to shed light where shadows gathered deepest. Yet now barriers rose against their mandate, as control slipped into hands less yielding to oversight.
Its core mandate is to access prisons and detention centers at any time in order to monitor the human rights conditions of detainees and prisoners. It requires timely visits to controlled facilities that house detainees, to properly assess and oversee how those individuals are being treated while imprisoned or detained.
Officials from the EHRC say the state of emergency did not freeze this mandate but rather complicated the accession process.
Selamawit Girmay, the Human Rights Monitoring and Investigation Regional Director at the HRC regional office, told The Reporter on Tuesday that since the security is now under the control of the state of emergency command post, the Commission has to get approval from the command post to access the detention centers.
“But the command post has not yet been able to grant us access so far,” says Selamawit.
The mass arrests have spread across regions, especially in Amhara towns, according to sources.
Reports filter through of conditions inside detention centers. Lack of food and shelter in detention centers, as well as alleged torture and human rights violations, have also been reported. Detainees also remain for weeks without being brought to court.
Sadly, this echoes crises past.
Under previous states of emergency, mass arrests also swelled cells in Oromia, Tigray and other regions. Then, as now, extended detentions saw basic human needs unmet. Due process was absent, sources say.
Yet their stories remain untold as emergencies upend lives, overriding the laws meant to protect all people equally.
“The constitution allows the government to suspend most rights and provisions during a state of emergency. Under these circumstances, normal laws and institutions cannot function. No region is sovereign,” Gedion justified to Parliament this to approve the state of emergency.
Recent events bring forth a dark period in Ethiopia’s past, when widespread arrests of Tigrayans occurred amid fighting between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Now, tensions have escalated between Amhara groups and the military, shifting the focus of instability while threatening the gains of the Pretoria agreement that ended the Tigray war.
According to a phone conversation between The Reporter and health center officials in Finote Selam town in Gojam, hundreds of injured people could not access medical care as the region has been cut off from transport and medical supplies.
Manaye Tenaw, general manager of Finoteselam General Hospital, said, “217 wounded people arrived at the health center this week, including from ENDF, armed groups and civilians. There is no glucose, oxygen or means to transport medicines from Addis Ababa. Some people died after arriving here as the health center lacks resources. Others came after already passing away.
The Manager says the people could have survived if they had received timely medical support.
“40 people died at this health center alone this week, with 20 dying here and the rest arriving deceased. We could not perform surgeries without oxygen,” Manaye explained.
This week has seen a major shift in the pattern of conflict between Fano and government security forces.
“Currently, Fano is leaving towns and relocating to rural areas,” said a source based in Bahir Bar speaking to The Reporter.
The government confirmed that major towns in the Amhara region are now stable and public life is gradually resuming normal patterns and activity.
When Parliament reconvened to decide and vote on the state of emergency declared in Amhara region, differences in opinion were clearly on display among members. Some voiced support for the actions taken to address instability, while others expressed concerns about the use of force under the emergency measures.
Gedu Andargachew, the former president of the region, opposed the federal government’s military operations in Amhara, sparking counterarguments from lawmakers supporting the government’s actions.
“The conflicts in the country are caused by the government’s wrongful approach of addressing political crises through military operations,” argued Gedu. Other politicians and parties from the region also called for an urgent ceasefire and peace talks.
The National Dialogue Commission stated that the conflict in the Amhara region has contributed additional challenges to existing obstacles delaying the launch of a fully inclusive national dialogue process soon.
On August 16, 2023, AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat stated he is following closely and with “grave concern, the continued confrontation in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.” The chairperson strongly called on the parties to “immediately cease fighting and ensure the protection of civilians.”
He further urged the parties to engage in dialogue to reach a peaceful solution. “The chairperson reiterates the AU’s continued readiness to support an inter-Ethiopian initiative in the pursuit of peace and stability,” reads the statement.