Ethiopia: It is possible
The change is now visible. I can still clearly recall the time when you first visited us, to start the Peace Radio project.
At the time, I was really worried that the fresh conflict and the hatred between our people from Oromiya and the people from the southern region would herald the start of new violence. But now we have peace.
I also clearly remember this first encounter, in early 2012, on which the elder Gemechu Bedecha reflects in the early summer of 2013. My Ethiopian work colleagues and I were visiting a small village for the first time, about a 30-minute drive from my project base in Hawassa in southern Ethiopia, to introduce the Peace Radio project to the villagers. We sat in the shade of a big tree, near Lake Hawassa, next to a small and basic administrative building that was under construction. Choked with emotion, a young man was telling me how his brother was recently murdered. ‘He was slaughtered like a goat’.
My Ethiopian project partner Kussia Bekele was, like me, shocked by the brutality of this murder. Kussia very briefly told me the story of the recurring conflict, which has been going on for a number of years, between two ethnic groups on the border between the regions of Oromiya and Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) in the south of Ethiopia. At the end of the visit, we asked the people there whether they would be interested in taking part in the Peace Radio project. Once a week, a group listens to a radio broadcast on the subject of peace and non-violent conflict resolution. The programme is produced by the project and transmitted via the public radio station. After the broadcast, they discuss and reflect on what they have heard. The elders, among them Gemechu Bedecha, who, with his face marked by life experience and his carefully chosen words, had immediately caught my notice, were sceptical whether, in light of the recently reignited conflict, there was any point in the project, but they were willing to give it a go. However, they refused to meet with the other warring faction once a month to listen to the broadcast, as was customary in other groups which brought together previously or currently warring factions to listen to the radio together.
And so Gemechu Bedecha’s village and that of their ‘enemies’ became part of the Peace Radio project and we regularly visited both villages, but always separately.
In February 2013, during a monitoring visit to the two villages, to my complete surprise a number of people expressed a desire for reconciliation and peace. They wanted to listen to the radio broadcast together and asked our project for support.
Back at the office in Hawassa, I told Kussia about this moving moment.
Together with the other project partners, we began a peace and reconciliation process involving various levels and staged a number of events in which Gemechu Bedecha also took part. Among other things, key figures from the two villages were able to attend a training course in conflict management together. We also organised a field trip to visit once-warring factions who had peacefully ended their similar, long-standing conflict.
Another very moving moment came in April, when we saw our warring factions sitting together on the bus bearing the flags of Ethiopia, of the SNNP and Oromiya. The stories of the former warring factions that we heard there left a deep impression on us all. In the evening, we all sat together for a long time, in the dark, without any electricity, and talked about what we had heard.
The people were weary of the years of conflict, of the violence and the hate. They wanted to finally live in peace. An old man told us that, as well as his own son, he had raised a boy from the other ethnic tribe, ‘as if he were my own’. Only for the boy to later murder his own son. Despite that, to this day this old man supported the ‘murderer’s’ family because he was part of the family. He believed you had to overcome the hatred and forgive.
‘Our’ elders were ashamed that they had not been able to achieve reconciliation before now, despite the fact that they came from the city and were educated. On the second day of our visit, they solemnly promised, in front of witnesses, that they would now work towards reconciliation and peace.
And so it came about that, in May 2013, one month before I left Ethiopia for good, I had the opportunity to take part in the traditional ceremony of reconciliation. This ceremony entails a lot of rituals, carried out by the elders of the two warring factions. I was deeply moved when, at the climax of the ceremony, the elders slaughtered two goats and, using a simple frond of a plant, sprinkled their blood over the victims and relatives of the dead victims of the conflict. This was followed by lots of gestures asking forgiveness. At the end of the ceremony, I was moved to see the former enemies hand in hand. When the event began, the faces of the participants were tense, but now they were relaxed and there was even the occasional sound of laughter.
Simone Notz, advisor and trainer in conflict management and the promotion of peace, CPS expert