By Sasha Chavkin, Huffington Post
The soldiers pointed their guns at Odoge Otiri and led the 22-year-old student into the forest outside his village in western Ethiopia. Then, he says, they began pounding him with their nightsticks, leaving him bloody and unmoving.
“I was unconscious,” he recalls. “The reason they left me is they thought I was going to die.”
That night, soldiers arrested his wife, Aduma Omot.
“The soldiers took me to their camp,” she says. “Then they mistreated me, they raped me.”
They held her for two days, she says, before they let her go.
The soldiers attacked them, Otiri says, because he opposed Ethiopian authorities’ efforts to force him and his neighbors from their homes as part of the country’s so-called “villagization” effort — a massive social engineering project that sought to move almost 2 million poor people to newly built sites selected by the government.
Otiri and Omot are among thousands of Anuak, a mostly Christian indigenous group from the rural Ethiopian state of Gambella, who have fled from Ethiopia’s mass relocation campaign.
The Ethiopian government financed the evictions in part by tapping into a pool of aid money from the world’s most influential development lender, the World Bank, two former Ethiopian officials who helped carry out the relocation program told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The money, the former officials said, was diverted from the $2 billion in funding that the World Bank had put into a health and education initiative.
The World Bank strongly disputes that its money supported the mass evictions in western Ethiopia. Even as Anuak refugees and human rights groups have publicly charged that World Bank money has been used to bankroll brutal evictions, the bank has continued to send hundreds of millions of dollars into the same health and education program.
“We are confident that the money was used for the purposes intended,” Greg Toulmin, the World Bank’s country program coordinator for Ethiopia, told ICIJ in March. “We remain confident that there was no link.”
New evidence gathered by ICIJ undermines the bank’s continuing denials that its money bankrolled the evictions.
One of the two former officials interviewed by ICIJ was well-positioned to know exactly how World Bank funds were being used: Omot Obang Olom, the former governor of Gambella, oversaw the resettlement program in his state.
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Olom told ICIJ that he personally oversaw the diversion of some $10 million from the World Bank’s health and education initiative, redirecting the money to finance mass relocations through the villagization program. He said senior officials in Ethiopia’s federal government instructed him to divert the funds, and this money was essential to conducting the resettlement program.
“If we were not ordered by the federal government to reallocate the World Bank budget for the program, the program would not be possible,” Olom said.
Olom, who left the country last year and is now seeking political asylum in the Philippines, has never before spoken to the news media about the eviction program. He now acknowledges that the mass evictions were carried out through threats and violence.
“The farmers came to me and they say, ‘Omot, we are not free because members of the defense force come and intimidate us,’ ” he said. “There are incidents of abusing farmers, even raping the women.”
Farmers who spoke out agains
t the evictions, he said, “were beaten, were tortured, by the national defense forces.”
The evictions in Ethiopia fit a larger pattern.
Communities displaced amid World Bank Group projects in Nigeria, Honduras, Kenya, Indonesia, India, Guatemala and Uganda have accused the organization’s borrowers of committing human rights violations.
Governments and companies backed by the World Bank or its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have bulldozed and burned homes and deployed soldiers or private security operatives who have arrested, beaten or even killed people, residents of affected communities have said in official complaints and in interviews with ICIJ.
Human rights experts say the bank is undercutting its mission of helping the world’s poorest people by failing to embrace international policies upholding human rights.
Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has accused the bank of hiding behind a “sleight of hand” argument that it can’t fully engage in human rights issues because its charter forbids it from getting involved in politics. In December Alston and 27 other U.N. human rights officials wrote World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim to complain that the bank’s proposed revisions to its “social safeguards” policies for protecting people in the path of development “avoid any meaningful references to human rights.”
A spokesman for the World Bank said the bank takes communities’ reports of human rights abuses “very seriously,” and that “these cases show we must continually improve our approach to supervision.” He said the bank has been a leader for decades in setting strong safeguards for people living in the footprint of its projects, and that its proposed new rules go “as far as or further than any other multilateral development bank” to protect vulnerable populations.
The World Bank’s Ethiopia program director, Toulmin, said the bank’s mission is to support initiatives that fight poverty, not to police unrelated activities by its borrowers.
“We are not in the physical security business,” he said.
Fearing The Worst
In Ethiopia, claims of human rights abuses associated with mass evictions in Gambella prompted neighboring South Sudan — a nation ravaged by a civil war — to grant group refugee status to Anuak who have fled Ethiopia.
Otiri and Omot escaped the violence in Gambella in the summer of 2011 by trekking across the Ethiopian border into South Sudan.
The young couple did not make the journey together.
When he awoke alone in the forest after his beating, Otiri faced a choice. If he returned home, he would likely put both himself and his wife in further danger. He decided the safest thing was to head for an Anuak settlement in South Sudan.
He hoped his wife would realize what had happened and follow him there.
Shortly after her husband disappeared, a neighbor told Omot that soldiers had taken him into the forest. She feared the worst.
“What came into my mind,” she says, “was that I was not going to see my husband again.”
Later that night, three soldiers arrived at her parent’s compound, looking for Otiri. They demanded, she says, that she tell them where her husband was hiding. When she said she didn’t know, she says, they arrested her and marched her toward their camp, at one point pushing her to ground because she wasn’t moving fast enough.
At the soldiers’ open-air encampment in the village of Gog Depache, they continued to interrogate her about her husband’s whereabouts. When she again insisted that she didn’t know, she says, the soldiers raped her.
“After those two days they set me free,” she says. “From there I decided to leave the country.”
She headed for South Sudan, not knowing what she would find at the end of her journey.
Otiri and Omot fled from Gambella across the border of South Sudan before heading to the Gorom Refugee Camp, a settlement of Anuak who fled violence in Ethiopia.
‘Friend Of The System’
The World Bank has long made Ethiopia a top priority, funneling loans to its government to help the East African nation of some 90 million people move past its legacy of poverty and famine. In 2005, the bank cut off funding for Ethiopia after the country’s authoritarian leaders massacred scores of people and arrested some 20,000 political opponents following disputed elections.
A year later, the bank lifted its ban, launching a new strategy of funding local and state governments rather than central authorities. In 2006, the bank approved $215 million in loans and grants to support a program, called Protection of Basic Services, that’s supposed to provide health care, education, fresh water and other support to rural Ethiopians.
In May 2009, the bank approved $540 million to extend the program.
Soon after, the Ethiopian government began rolling out its ambitious resettlement campaign. The villagization program sought to relocate 1.9 million people in four rural states with large indigenous populations, moving them into larger settlements where authorities could provide schools and clinics.
The goal, according to a 2010 plan for the state of Gambella, was the “socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people.”
The World Bank says Ethiopian authorities didn’t consult the bank when they developed the resettlement program, and it didn’t learn of the plan until October 2010. In January 2011, the World Bank and other foreign donors wrote the Ethiopian government warning that forced relocation “can impact negatively on the wellbeing and livelihoods of those who were intended to benefit.”
Othow Nyigwo, then an education administrator in the state of Gambella, says that in February 2011 superiors summoned him and other local health and education officials to a meeting with Olom, Gambella’s governor at the time. At the meeting, Nyigwo says, Olom ordered him to divert some $1,500 in World Bank funds intended for primary school classes into the relocation program. Olom gave the same order to divert funding to all the officials assembled at the meeting, Nyigwo says.
“This money which was given from the World Bank had to be given to the villagization program,” says Nyigwo, who is now living in a refugee camp in South Sudan.
As a local supervisor for villagization, Nyigwo heard repeatedly from Anuak villagers who complained they were being forced to give up fertile farmland in exchange for small, barren plots at the new government sites. When he reported these complaints to his superiors, he says, they told him he should stop causing trouble.
Olom, the former governor, confirmed Nyigwo’s account of the February 2011 meeting. Olom says federal officials directed him to divert the funding after it became clear that the government didn’t have enough money to fully finance the relocation program.
By the second year of the villagization effort, Olom says, top officials told him he needed to tap other sources of funding, including money coming in from the World Bank’s health and education initiative. He says he diverted 90 million Ethiopian birr — roughly $5 million at the time — in each of the next two years.
What Is The World Bank?
The World Bank Group is the globe’s most prestigious development lender, bankrolling hundreds of government projects each year in pursuit of its high-minded mission: to combat the scourge of poverty by backing new transit systems, power plants, dams and other projects it believes will help boost the fortunes of poor people.