Politics of Death: The map maker who finds the bod­ies in Ethiopia land bat­tle

Kuwait Times - - IN­TER­NA­TIONAL -

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.

Di­as­pora’s data­base

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.

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