Unreported violence in Gambella

by the Rt Revd Andrew Proud

On Friday 15 April, Murle raiders crossed the border into Ethiopia from South Sudan to raid Lare and Niniyang, two Nuer towns I know well. 182 people, all ethnic Nuer, were killed; some were shot on the spot, others were pursued into the bush and gunned down. The under-resourced government hospital in Gambella town reported that it has treated 80 for severe wounds and official reports say 102 children were abducted and 2,000 head of cattle were taken in the raid.

Church members greet Bishop Andrew, running alongside his car on the cinder topped road at nininyang.

Church members greet Bishop Andrew, running alongside his car on the cinder topped road at Nininyang.

Gambella2

An Adult Nuer man who Bishop Andrew met recently.

This was a major incident, by any reckoning, but there were no mass protests with people carrying ‘Je suis Nuer’ banners and no one edited their Facebook photo to register their outrage. Amazingly, it made the BBC and, if you search for a few minutes, you can still find the occasional news piece, but none of them is particularly well informed. Why? Because the Gambella region of Ethiopia is still one of the most remote places on earth.

Despite investment in a new road which will take you from Addis Ababa all the way through to South Sudan, Gambella still feels a little like a wild-west town and I love it. The town, which is home to Annuak and Nuer, as well as many who have settled, or been resettled there, from the Ethiopian highlands, hums with life and energy. Eighty years ago the river here was navigable all the way through to Khartoum. It is still used for trade, but you can no longer reach Khartoum that way, so the main route into South Sudan is the wide, cinder-topped road that sweeps through Lare and Niniyang. There are Anglican thriving congregations in both towns and I have stayed with friends there many times. Believe me, there can’t have been anywhere for them to run to and nowhere to hide.

Talk to anyone in the Gambella regional state, particularly my friends among the Annuak, in Dimma (two days’ drive from there) and they will tell you that Murle tribesmen have been raiding across the border for years, stealing cattle and abducting children. Some believe the children are forced into marriage; others that they are sold on to slavers. We cannot begin to imagine how anyone could talk about that as if it were just a fact of life, but they do. So far, these raids have been small-scale but I know that they have been terrifying.
This raid was of a different order of magnitude entirely. They came in force, they were very well armed, they had plenty of ammunition, wore combat clothing and they were brutal. Speculation is rife and fear is running very high. Several of the raiders were killed and whilst some of the tribal markings [scarification] were definitely Murle, others were more ambiguous, which has fed memories of other ethnic conflicts. It also looks as if these raiders avoided the main road, but had made a long detour through the bush to avoid conflict-ridden, contested areas in South Sudan.

The people of the Gambella region are deeply shaken, the Addis government is about to send troops into South Sudan to deal with the raiders and the people in these towns and villages will be getting on with life as best they can, constantly looking over their shoulders as they collect firewood or walk to School or Church. They know we are praying; they would love us to stand in solidarity with them, too. Perhaps I shall change my cover photo now.

The Rt Revd Andrew Proud is the Bishop of Reading.