Girma had no choice but to watch from afar as a crowd chanting “This is our place!” set fire to the school he founded more than a decade ago.
Though he has lived his whole life in Shashamene, a fast-growing town in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, Girma’s parents are not members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, meaning he is often treated as an outsider.
Had he tried to intervene and save his school from the Oromo youths bent on destroying it, he thinks he may well have been killed.
“If you leave them to do whatever they want, they don’t touch you. But if you try and save your place and property, they’ll come to you,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name.
The unrest that left Girma’s school a charred ruin was kicked off by the murder two weeks ago of Hachalu Hundessa, a pop star beloved by Oromos for giving voice to deep-rooted feelings of political and economic marginalisation.
In the days that followed, between 179 and 239 people — officials have provided conflicting tallies — were killed because of inter-ethnic violence or the use of lethal force by police and soldiers against demonstrators.
Yet those numbers fail to capture the full devastation in places like Shashamene, where hundreds of homes, schools, hotels and other businesses owned by non-Oromos were targeted for destruction by mobs.
Similar property damage has been reported in towns across Oromia, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa.
“Our research so far suggests that the property damage has been worse than in previous bouts of unrest,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
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To non-Oromo victims, the damage indicates they may no longer be welcome in places they have long called home.
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