Politics of Death: The map maker who finds the bodies in Ethiopia land battle
It was late 2015 when Endalk Chala began documenting deaths in his home country of Ethiopia, scouring Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to piece together who had died and where. Chala comes from Ginchi, a town 72 km from Addis Ababa where protests began in November 2015, initially over a government plan to allocate large swathes of farmland to the capital city for urban development. The plan would have displaced thousands of Oromo farmers, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
“There were reports that people were killed in the protests and no one was reporting about it. No one cared who these people are,” Chala told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “The information was all over the internet, not well organized. I just wanted to give perspective.” While the land re-allo- cation project was officially scrapped by authorities, protests and conflict reignited over the continued arrest and jailing of opposition demonstrators with full-scale protests over everything from Facebook to economics. Several hundred protesters were killed in the 11 months to October 2016 when the government declared a state of emergency and shut down communications, including the internet.
More than 50 people died at a single demonstration that month, after a stampede was triggered by police use of teargas to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival. Witnesses also reported security forces firing live rounds into crowds of protesters at multiple locations. A government report presented to parliament in April acknowledged a death toll 669 people - 33 of them security personnel although activists believe it could be much higher. For the government shutting off the internet for periods all but ended online contact across Ethiopia, leaving it to the Ethiopian diasporas to pull together the facts.
Enter Chala, a PhD student in Oregon, the United States, who decided to log every death he could on an interactive map, inspired by a similar Palestinian project. “I started to collect the information from the internet: Facebook, Twitter and blogs. And I started to contact the people who had put that information out,” he said.
Once word spread that Chala was collating the deaths, Ethiopian friends and activists began to send details, including photographs of those injured and killed. They contacted Chala via social media and instant messaging applications like Viber. Chala learned that Ethiopians in rural areas were driving miles to put evidence of the killings online, but he still feared there were information black holes. In its report of 669 deaths presented to parliament, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission - which works for the government - blamed protesters for damaging land and property.
In the report, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Commission said the disturbances had damaged public services, private property and government institutions. It also cited harm to investment and development infrastructure. However the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, criticized the government for a lack of accountability and called for access to protest sites.