Amnesty International on Wednesday called on the administration of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to disclose measures it has taken to rescue 17 Amhara students from Dembi Dolo University in Western Oromia who were abducted by unidentified people in November 2019 and have been missing ever since.
The call came as universities across Ethiopia began closing to avert spread of COVID-19, the potentially deadly respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Amnesty said the anguish of the students’ families is exacerbated by a phone and internet shutdown implemented in January across the western Oromia region, which further hampers their efforts to get information about their missing loved ones.
“The sense of fear and uncertainty spreading across Ethiopia because of COVID-19 is exacerbating the anguish of these students’ families, who are desperate for information on the whereabouts of their loved ones four months after they were abducted,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa.
“The Ethiopian authorities’ move to close universities in a move to protect the lives of university students is commendable, but they must also take similarly concrete actions to locate and rescue the 17 missing students so that they too are reunited with their families.”
Amnesty International said it has spoken to several families of the missing students who expressed “mounting desperation and helplessness as their children remain unaccounted for”.
This is despite an announcement by Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen on 31 January 2020 that a taskforce had been formed to locate and facilitate the safe return of the students to their families.
Girmanesh Yeneneh, a third-year biotechnology student, was one of those who was abducted on her way home in November. Her father Yeneneh Adunya told Amnesty International: “We packed and sent our children to the university so that they can have a better future. Now we don’t know where they are or whether they are alive. We have been mourning since the day she told us she had been abducted; she told us to pray and as a priest I have been going all over the place praying. But her mother is devastated and (is going) crazy, and not a word from the government.”
While the alleged abductors had initially allowed the students to call and speak to their families, it has now been more than three months since any of the students’ families heard from them. The last time any of the students spoke to their families was on 18 December 2019.
“The shutdown of communications networks and services in Western Oromia is an unacceptable violation of the people’s rights to information and freedom of expression,” said Seif Magango.
“All communication services must be immediately restored to enable not only the missing students’ families to easily access information, but also the public to access vital public health information on the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The 17 students were abducted on various dates in November 2019 as they fled fatal ethnic clashes between Oromo and Amhara university students.
One of the students, Gebre-Silassie Mola Gebeyehu, told his uncle that he and a few other students had been abducted on 28 November by a group of Oromo youth while on their way to Gambella and had all been taken deep into a forest in the area.