Beyond the Bubble: Conflict in Ethiopia and the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth

Lily Yost, News Reporter

Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia

Civil war has spread throughout Ethiopia. Regional conflicts have led to a devastating genocide as rebels from multiple ethnic groups target each other on the basis of ethnicity. To grasp an understanding of this conflict, the Wire spoke to Eleshaday, a Whitman student from Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. 

In 2018, Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister of Ethiopia. The following year, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which borders northern Ethiopia. Now, he is facing accusations of war crimes. He faces criticism of corruption and idleness as Ethiopians live in fear of violent rebel groups. 

“He sounded like a very promising person in the beginning,” Eleshaday said. “He promised he could bring equality among the regions.”

After decades of colonization, Ethiopia gained independence and in 1995 adopted its own constitution. The country was officially divided up into different regions based on the various ethnic groups. Today, extremists from these ethnic groups fight over land, resources and their existence. Prime minister Abiy is from the Oromo region, which makes up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. This appealed to citizens because the country had been ruled by the Tigrayan party, a minority ethnic group in power, poisoned by government corruption. 

“What was considered good about him is that he was not from the Tigray ethnic group, he was from Oromo…people were really hoping that he could compensate for the other regions and he could see the political situation from an outsider perspective,” Eleshaday said.

Ethnic tensions have become increasingly violent in the past few years. Eleshaday explained how people from one ethnic group can detect that someone is from a different region by the language they speak. If rebels from Oromia, the dominant ethnic group in central Ethiopia, find people who do not speak their language, they will violently harass or kill them. 

Many of the rebels are coming from the Oromia region. 

“They believe that ethnic cleansing is the best way to solve this. Abiy is not really doing anything, as far as I know. The government is not intervening. They are not doing anything to solve the problem,” Eleshaday said.

Eleshaday explained how rebels target Ethiopians outside of their ethnic group by labeling a house with paint in the middle of the night.

“They will write Amhara outside of your house with paint. Next morning you know people are barging into your house, a man sees his wife and his daughters being raped, his son being killed, his materials, his furniture being destroyed, things being taken out, and it is really extremely inhumane,” Eleshaday said.

All the while, police stand by and watch. Abiy and his government are concentrating their efforts on infrastructure, on beautifying the city. 

For Eleshaday, being a full-time student in the U.S. while her friends and family remain in Ethiopia, amidst the conflict, has been extremely challenging. 

“It is a very terrible feeling. It is like waking up everyday expecting a phone call to tell you that your parents [have been] murdered,” Eleshaday said. “As if it’s a joke when I call home and communicate with my friends, like yeah they’re killing a bunch of people in this side of the country, 50 people were found dead, 150 people were killed in daylight. They burned a church and raped a woman and this and that and it has become a normal conversation.”

Eleshaday hopes for a unified Ethiopia. She wants the different ethnicities to see themselves as Ethiopian people, not just Oromo, Tigrayan, Amhara or whichever region they come from.

“The only way out of this is a discussion, not a war,” Eleshaday said.

Commemorating the Birth of Muhammad

On Oct. 18, Muslims acknowledge Eid-Milad-Un-Nabi, the birth of the prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic belief, he was born in 570 AD in Mecca, Arabia (now Saudi Arabia). The angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, and from here, Muhammad dedicated his life to spreading God’s word. To learn more about this important day for Muslims, the Wire spoke to Arham Ullah Khan, a first-year from northern Pakistan who practices Islam. 

“For the whole day you can hear through the loudspeakers of the mosques that echo through the neighborhood. You can hear them singing hymns and naats and praising God, little poems that they’ve written,” Khan said.

He recalled walking through his hometown, seeing mosques and houses sparkling with colorful lights.

“We are very rowdy. We go out on the streets in huge processions, people blowing trumpets on the street, everything draped out in lights, religious music’s playing, and religious poem competitions are going on, people wearing fancy clothing, going out. Just enjoying themselves.”

However, not all Muslims celebrate the Prophet’s birthday.

“It’s quite a controversial topic,” Khan said.

His family chooses to honor the day by giving back to the community and worshiping God. His mother fasts from sunrise to sunset and cooks a huge meal to distribute around the neighborhood. 

Some Islamic sects, including Khan’s, believe that Eid-Milad should not be celebrated because Muhammad did not celebrate it, and “therefore we should not be celebrating it. It’s a display of excess and a waste of resources…that can go towards other causes, like giving it to the poor and the needy,” Khan said.

Muslims who refrain from celebrating note that it was out of character for Muhammad to draw attention to Himself.

Khan and his family believe that celebrating Eid-Milad is an “indulgence in our worldly desires.”

“We don’t participate in it but we like to go out and watch and see what’s going on. It’s pretty nice,” Khan said.

Khan encourages students to check out the MSA (Muslim Student Association) events and learn more about Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern culture. 

“It makes for a great conversation and getting to know each other better.”