Professor Habtamu Tegegne,Historian

The mass rape and heinous genocidal killings frenzy the Oromo young men known as Qeerro carried out against the Amharas, Dorzes and Guraghes residents of Burayu in the outskirt of Addis Ababa is nothing new from the perspective of Oromo history. The habit of rape and mass murder are deeply embedded into Oromo culture of warfare and social practice. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Oromo spread out to the Ethiopian highlands through sheer terror and unbridled violence. They brought a distinct culture of violence that radically differed from Ethiopian, civilized, standard of behavior of war.

Contemporary Ethiopians and European missionaries and soldiers found Oromo warfare exotic and dishonorable. They were shocked by its savage cruelty and bloodlust. The description of savagery in the works of the famous Ethiopian ethnographer and chronicler Abba Bahrey, the royal chroniclers of the reign of Emperor Susenyos (d.1632), such as Azaj Takla Sellase and Abba Meherka Dengel, and the Jesuit missionary Pedro Páez reflect their shock at the scale and scope of violence. All of them viewed the Oromo as degraded by their savagery and desire for bloodlust. Bahrey in particular was disturbed by the high spirit of fighting and unusual readiness of the Oromo to kill non-Oromo which he interpreted as bloodlust.

The Oromo warrior fought both for tangible and less tangible forms of reward. In the past, and to a very large extent still today, the killing carried out by the Oromo was not exclusively about land and booty in captives and property. Warfare in Oromo society was profoundly gendered and used to reinforce masculinity. Bahrey notes that warriors who killed men and big game adopted a physical mark of their bravery in their hairdressing. “If they have killed men or large animals,” writes Bahrey, “they shave the whole head, leaving a little hair in the middle of the skull. Those who have not killed men or large animals do not shave themselves, and in consequence they are tormented with lice. That is why they are so eager to kill us.”

Ritual mutilation of the dead and wounded used to underscore masculinity was a part of Oromo habitual practices. Genital organs were the most desired human attribute. In the case of big wild animals, they cut the tails and ears as proof of killing and trophy. Taking genitalia of the enemy as trophy provided concrete evidence of the bravery of the Oromo warrior in battle. Killing men or large animals was not only honored by also rewarded. A young Oromo man who killed big games or who killed a man was regarded as brave, and this increased his reputation in the eyes of potential suitors. P. Baxter, who did extensive anthropological work on the Oromo society, writes that “To kill an enemy, lion, or elephant is the aim of every young man and was formerly an essential, and still is a frequent, preliminary to a respectable marriage, which is the first step towards formal recognition as a social adult.”

Thus, for the Oromo young man, the killing of men or women was not a concern at all just like the killing of big game. The quest for glory, the requirement of shaving hair and marriage, and asserting one’s masculinity animated the young Oromo warrior and highly motivated them to kill. It is this state of affair that made the horrified Bahrey to write “Nobody has found, as we have, an enemy which takes so much trouble to do evil.”

One could say that the Oromo system of religion and social and political organization known as gada was a cult of death and destruction. The gada system and the violence built in and around it ignited indiscriminate slaughter and even deeply subsumed genocidal tendencies. Virtually every male needing to prove his worth and masculinity must kill either a big game or a man. Every male non-Oromo, armed or unarmed, was a legitimate target.

In many instances, killing a man was not simply a part of warfare; It was the exclusive goal of many campaigns. It was this state of affair that caused the well-known German historian and social anthropologist, E. Haberland, to make the following judicious statement about the indiscriminate violence inherent in Oromo culture and society:

“whereas the merit of killing was honored among other Ethiopian people as a man’s personal merit, among the Oromo it was merely regarded as the fulfilment of the natural order of things. What counted for them was not the heroic achievement – the killing of an enemy warrior or a dangerous wild beast – but simply killing as such. It is true that the sacrificial victim had to be a human being or an animal of particular kinds. But within this range it did not matter whether it was a young elephant, a delicate youth or an old man.”

The Oromo burned, looted and killed without any kind of consideration of sex and age. In the course of the conquest of Dawaro which took place sometime in 1550s, Bahrey writes that the Oromo “killed people—men and women, horses and mules, leaving alive only the sheep, goats, and cattle.” This pattern of indiscriminate killing was repeated again and again wherever the Oromo went. The Oromo launched many devastating raids against all people in the Ethiopian region throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the atrocities the Oromo perpetrated against the indigenous people had no chroniclers and witnesses and are therefore forgotten, but there are exceptions. Some of the most devastating raids they carried out against the people of the province of Gojjam in the seventeenth century were fortunately recorded by Jesuit missionaries and royal chroniclers.

The massacre the Oromo raiders perpetrated against the Agaw people in Gojjam in 1621 is unparalleled in its savagery as described by Pedro Paez. The horrified Paez writes the following:

“Many heathen Galas came from a province called {Bizamo}… and, after crossing the River [Blue] Nile, entered the kingdom of Gojjam and fell on some lands of heathen [Agaw] bordering the land where the father was with those that had just become Christians. They slaughtered many people and carried out extraordinary cruelties, because they cut to pieces the men and many of the boys and girls that they seized, and they opened up pregnant women with their spearheads and pulled the babies out of their wombs. The people of that land therefore came to fear them so much that nobody dared resist them. They all fled in whichever direction they could, trying only to save their own lives by climbing […] up into mountains and hiding in the bush, which is very thick. But not even this was to any avail, because they pulled them out of there and exercised their accustomed cruelty on some and captured others, principally women and children. They took plenty of cattle, mares and stallions as booty, and they remained there for almost a month as lords of the land. When the father, who was nearby, heard of the destruction they had caused and that they were coming closer, he wrote to [Ras Se’ela Christos], who was in another province, about what was happening and the danger he was facing. [….]

When these men saw the dust raised by [Ras Se’ela Christos’s] horses in the distance, they thought there were many men coming and that they would not be able to withstand them, so in a great fury they slew many women, boys and girls. Afterwards the father, who saw them, said that it is a pitiful sight to see some with their throats cut, others with their entrails showing, and many of the women badly slashed and breathing their last, with their suckling children in their arms.”

In this way the gada system created a distinct culture of death and violence. As Bahrey noted in the late sixteenth century and later elaborated by the many European and American scholars, the Oromo young men had, and still have, this distinct predisposition to rape and kill without any consideration of age and sex.

From their perspective, therefore, the barbaric mass killing and rape the Oromo youth perpetrated against the Dorze and Gurage people yesterday is socially accepted and regarded simply as one of the natural order of things. They killed and raped defenceless children, men and women as a matter of habit and because of the grisly culture of violence their gada system promotes. By all accounts the plunder and the mass killing the Oromo embarked on yesterday against the Dorze and the Gurage is unprovoked. They killed and looted where and when it pleases and just for the thrill of looting and killing as per standard Oromo social practice. It is business as usual.