[ACNS] Life in the Gambella region of southern Ethiopia is getting back to normal after a recent surge in tribal tensions, the Bishop for the Horn of Africa reports. The Rt Revd Dr Grant LeMarquand, an area bishop in the diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, says that “buses have started running, banks and shops are open again” but he asks for continued prayers for the region.
“Many troops remain in the town and fear is still evident,” he says. “Nuer and Anuak are not crossing into each others’ parts of town. Our theological college is running classes in two separate places. But life is slowly getting back to normal.”
In a newsletter for supporters, Bishop Grant – who, with his wife, Wendy, a medical doctor, are missionaries with the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (Sams) – describes how the troubles flared after a hectic January in which visitors from the US, Canada, Ireland and the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa had helped with painting, carpentry, preaching and teaching.
“As the last guests were leaving, life in Gambella began to unravel,” he says. “It started as a dispute between two local Gambella officials. Well, apparently that’s how it started. Accurate ‘news’ is hard to come by here at the moment. Innuendo and rumour substitute for anything close to ‘fact’ or ‘reality.’ In any event, the two officials were from differing ethnic groups. The Anuak and the Nuer have always lived in a very uneasy tension in Gambella, tension which can flare up quickly.
“The two officials and/or their representatives had guns. Guns were fired and at least one person was injured. In apparent retaliation, a pregnant women from the other group was beaten. Two days later she and her unborn child died of their injuries. Then came the explosion – literally. At a local college someone let off a bomb. Rumours as to the nature of the explosion include that it was a grenade, a landmine, or some more improvised device. Students from one group began throwing rocks at students of the other group. Police came and began firing in the air, or perhaps lower . . . panic set in all over Gambella town and other towns in the region. Everyone's cell phone was buzzing with so-called information, or at least with hearsay about what had happened to ‘their people’.
“My clergy began phoning me and texting me. Much of the ‘news’ was inaccurate, although it was clear that death and injury on both sides was mounting up. Some accurate reporting was mixed in with the speculation. Our theological students, both Nuer and Anuak, lost family members. On the night of 29 January, much shooting was heard from the centre of town. Worries were that there was a gun battle in the streets. It seems now that the suddenly over-crowded prison experienced a mass jail break. A woman who cooks for groups on our compound lost a nephew in that violence. Doubtless we will learn of more deaths in the coming days. No one knows the number of casualties from this whole event. Or, if they do, they aren’t telling. Twenty seems to be the best guess.”
The following day, around 70 women and children from a small community near the church compound sought sanctuary in the Gambella Centre.
“As they entered our compound, they reminded me of the lines of refugees we saw heading into Akule refugee camp two years ago: women with their meagre belongings on the heads, little babies in their arms, and children, silent, stony faced, walking alongside,” Dr Wendy LeMarquand said. “One difference – razor sharp spears and deadly pangas (machetes) were carried by a few of them, mostly boys, eight or nine years old. They had heard that 'people were coming to kill them', and they fled to us for refuge.”
Bishop Grant continued: “After convincing our ‘visitors’ to sit and give up their weapons we heard their worries. . . We made some calls and ascertained that there was no hostile group on the way. We gave them water and whatever we could find to feed them – and most importantly we prayed with them – and after a few hours they relaxed and began to head back to their homes.
“I was grateful that they decided that our compound was the safest place to be in a crisis – even though our dilapidated barbed wire fence wouldn’t really keep anyone out (a cow walked through one section a couple of days ago!).”
Order in the region has now been restored by the army. “We pray that the soldiers may not over-react and may act wisely in a chaotic situation,” Bishop Grant said. “Their task will not be easy. It is clear that the town is over-crowded. Shortages of power, water and many other things have left people on edge for months now. One group blames another for the problems.
“We don’t know the future for the Gambella region. At the moment hatred, anger, grief and fear are ruling the hearts and minds of many; in the short term, instability, insecurity, and suspicion may remain for some time.
“Our prayer is that our churches and our pastors will be calm, will preach forgiveness, will welcome and advocate for people whose language and culture is other than their own.”