Just 120 Km drive from Addis Ababa, there is Woliso town, South West Shewa zone of Oromia region – one of the hotspots of the three-week long protests.
Being close to Addis is not unique to Woliso, as several hotspots are also close to Addis Ababa, including Bantu, where one of the first deaths was reported. But Woliso is a town of 50,000 residents, with a campus of Ambo University and located on the main road to Jimma, which is a major city and trade center. In short, it is a kind of area where the Ethiopian state traditionally cares to ascertain its control.
However, today, travelling to Woliso was not a smooth affair.
Half way on the road, on Tulu Bolo town, the bus driver declined to go anymore. Fellow travelers could not sway him, as half a dozen minibuses parked in the bus terminal agreed with him. Fortunately, another minibus popped up to save the day.
Students and locals in Woliso had been staging demonstrations for three consecutive days. Fellow travelers claimed protests were sparked when the authorities detained university students – even those who left the campus and took refuge in local households – in a bid to preempt demonstrations. It was not easy to inquire specifics without drawing attention. Plus, why bother to interrogate random travelers when I can interview local youngsters after a cold shower with a beer?
Yet, their account adds up with a university staffer’s narrative, that Oromo students in the campus have been gathering in the beginning of the week. They requested other students to join them or vacate, for fear of embedded security officers. There are rumors about the campus at Ambo town plain-cloth police officers were posted around dormitories.
At the sight of bricks and stones on the road and on the sides, I exhaled, “this must be Woliso”. “No, this Dilela, 10 kilometers away”, the driver interjected. “This is where it began, two weeks ago. There were recent incidents too,” he added, vigilantly screening the area, “This is the place I have been warned about”. Dilela! Its story did not even draw attention on facebook if mentioned at all.
Interviewing people in Woliso was a fanciful idea.
Upon arrival, it looked like a deserted town. I could only count three cafeterias on the main road. Banks, government offices, shops, everything, was closed. A compound of the city council, however, was curiously open. The people, mostly young, standing close to the center of the city were barely talking to each other. By center, I meant the area around the bus terminal – which was also closed. Otherwise, how do you tell the center when there is no activity?
Gunshots, or sounds like it, were audible from distance. I sat at a cafeteria and tried to question the waitperson, he stonewalled me: “business is okay, no trouble, just rumors.” It was apparent he was not convinced I was visiting a friend at the university. I asked the location of the hospital and departed.
There was a sizable demonstration by students in the town since Tuesday. That same day or the next day, locals from informal settlements from two corners of the town had joined. The road was a no-go for vehicles with government plate. Of course, Oromia police and federal police were deployed, tried to break up the demonstrations and detained many, an old man whom I was asking for directions casually narrated.
A group of protestors allegedly destroyed the house of a former administrator and some incumbent officials, a local teacher told me. Yet, many asserted, the protestors mostly refrained from civilian properties. Noticeably, the shiny glasses of the buildings – on the side of the roads with burnt tires and stones -were intact.
By Thursday, farmers from surrounding areas arrived in Woliso to reinforce the protestors. From 12 pm noon to 5pm, I was told, the town turned into a battle zone. The road to Jimma was blocked. The demonstrators briefly captured a police station and secured the release of those in detention. The road to Woliso itself was blocked, thereby delaying the military contingent sent to secure the area, locals described to me.
“There are rumors some people died,” a local claimed. Another stressed, “it’s true, especially the youngster shot around his stomach could not survive”.
The administrators of the Catholic operated St. Lucas hospital were polite but nervous. Its European head and Ethiopian deputy insisted, “Our mission is to keep the patients safe and well not turn them into exhibition. You can talk to them when they are discharged. We also refused access to police investigators.” However, with prolonged debate, I grasped there may be tension with the staff as well.
With big hesitation and prolonged nagging, they disclosed “about twenty-five” people were admitted during the protests. None of them have died or admitted to ICU (intensive care unit). Later, they divulged, “one is under strict and close observation, being watched closely.” They also claimed many of them were released and only few are still under treatment. How many? “Just few, not more than the number of my fingers”.
While picking my bad, I casually asked, “They were hit by bullets, right?” “Not all of them”, they replied. “Ok, half of them?” “Please, we already said more than we should. Understand our position.”
On my out I asked the same to other staffers, they guessed eight or nine were admitted. “Have they been released?” I asked. “Are you kidding, they are still in”. “The police batons must have hit a sensitive part of their body”. “No, just those wounded by bullet came here. Other….are probably in their homes.”
What was the gunshot sounds heard earlier?
The mystery was solved later, as I wandered on the road, hoping either a taxi will show up or the telecom network will be restored. “There is an active fight a few kilometers outside the town on the road to Jimma, a lot of vehicles have been stranded”, a man of age who claimed to be employee of health bureau. “How come you didn’t see the military vehicles rushing up and down,” he added. “They are stationed in the city council compound,” he helpfully explained. Another mystery solved.
Later, another person, who was in town to visit relatives, told me he saw the police and the men in fatigue battling to remove road blocks from feeder roads in some neighborhoods.” He thinks they gave up with partial success after hours of battle.
As the hours go by, the number of people on the main road increased. Around 4 pm, a federal police truck or two coming from the Jimma road. It was loaded with officers, who appeared to me stressed.
Then, I noticed an activity at the city council. Pick-up military vehicles were coming out. Men in fatigue, with a rifle pointed to the front side. One of them started shouting on speaker, “You are advised to be at home. After this hour, we cannot take responsibility for whatsoever transpires”.
It was obviously time to leave the town.
After a wait, a minibus came from the Jimma road. It had a seat for me. The driver was talking loudly, “the scene down there is terrifying. After Goro, I saw a burned down health post. The smell of the medicines was on the air. I also saw a soldier having his arm massaged clenching his teeth.” The attendant was talking about a previous day demonstration inside Sebeta high school, 22 kilometers from Addis Ababa.
I was too exhausted to inquire anymore.