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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Immigrants Decry Violence in Ethiopia

Washington Post -- Like many Ethiopian immigrants, Gabriel Bezuneh holds two jobs, working at Reagan National Airport and at a liquor store. But yesterday, he took a rare morning off to join hundreds of protesters massed outside the State Department.

"There's bloodshed in Ethiopia. So how can we work?" he exclaimed, joining a chanting, singing crowd waving the red, yellow and green flags of their homeland.

The Ethiopian community in the Washington area has been roiled by election-related violence back home, with hundreds or thousands gathering in spirited protests over the past week outside the State Department and White House.

Taxi drivers and professionals, students and shop owners have converged to plead for more U.S. action to resolve the turmoil in the African nation, which was sparked by a dispute over the results of the May 15 elections. About three dozen people were reported killed last week in Ethiopia after police opened fire on crowds protesting alleged fraud.

Ethiopian immigrants have been calling home and tuning in to local Ethiopian radio stations and cable TV to keep up with the drama. Prayers for peace are being offered in both Ethiopian Orthodox and Ethiopian Muslim worship centers.

There are at least 15,000 Ethiopian immigrants in the Washington area, according to the 2000 Census, and community leaders say the figure is much higher.

"Always I wake up, I'm scared of what [is] happening," said Bezuneh, 34, of Arlington in heavily accented English. He is in constant telephone contact with family back home, who have not suffered any harm. "I call, 'Mom, you okay? My brothers, okay?"

Another immigrant, Getmet Woldemichael, 42, of Silver Spring reported he had gotten frightening news from home: His nephew had been shot in the leg during a student demonstration, he said, and other relatives had been taken away by police.

"A lot of people [are] killed," the taxi driver said, drawing a finger across his throat. He said he joined the protest yesterday to bring the problem to the attention of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "[If] it continues, more people die," he said.

The demonstration at Foggy Bottom was organized by local branches of Ethiopia's two main opposition parties, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). Other Ethiopian groups and immigrants unaffiliated with the parties joined in.

Under a broiling sun, protesters marched in front of the State Department bearing cardboard coffins draped with the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Others clutched posters showing Ethiopian victims of the violence, spattered with blood.

"Dr. Rice! Can you hear us? Will you hear us? Stop! The killing! In Ethiopia!" they chanted, echoing a protest leader with a microphone.

"President Bush has been advocating for democratic governments all over the world. We want Ethiopia to be part of that democratic process," said Seyoum Solomon, an economist from Rockville and a protest organizer who is a local CUD leader.

The State Department issued a statement Monday condemning the "unnecessary use of excessive force in the continuing election-related violence in Ethiopia." State Department spokesman Noel Clay said yesterday that Rice and other U.S. officials had expressed their concerns to Ethiopian officials.

"All sides need to step back from violence," Clay said. "The way to resolve questions and issues with respect to the election is to let the political process unfold."

Several hours after the demonstration at the State Department, a group of protest leaders was received by Donald Yamamoto, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Mesfin Mekonen, an Ethiopian immigrant and resident of Beltsville who attended the session. He called it a "good meeting" in which the demonstrators were able to urge the U.S. government to keep up the pressure on the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian Embassy did not return a phone call requesting comment about the demonstrations.

Ethiopia's main political parties reached an agreement yesterday to work together to resolve the dispute over the elections, according to wire service reports.

But local immigrants gave no sign they were ready to end their protests.

Solomon Bekele, 59, an insurance executive from Potomac, said he would continue to demonstrate and write letters to U.S. government officials "as long as it takes."

"We live here, we are U.S. citizens, but we have our families there," he said. "Our roots are there."

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