ADDIS ABABA – A year ago Firommisa Darasa barely made it out of Ethiopia’s Irreecha festival alive, managing to escape from a deep ditch where dozens perished.
The tragedy happened after police fired tear gas at anti-government protesters, sparking a stampede.
Last year’s bloodshed at the annual religious festival held by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo people, became a turning point in months of anti-government protests that prompted the government to declare a nationwide state of emergency.
While dissatisfaction with Ethiopia’s government still runs deep among the Oromo, last year’s protests have since died down.
Those planning to attend this year’s Irreecha festival say they are hoping for the best when Sunday’s gathering begins in the resort town of Bishoftu, southeast of the capital Addis Ababa.
“I feel fear inside but if I don’t come, the people around me won’t come. This is our ancestral celebration and we will have to keep it,” said one of the festival-goers, 28-year-old Firommisa,
At least 50 killed
The Oromo people began protesting in late 2015, angered by a government proposal to expand Addis Ababa that they feared would deprive them of land without proper compensation.
Those tensions exploded at last year’s Irreecha when activists took to the stage and began shouting anti-government slogans, prompting police to open fire with tear gas.
At least 50 people were killed in the ensuing stampede, according to government figures. Activists put the death toll much higher.
Changes have been made this year at the festival grounds adjacent to a lake in the town 60km southeast of the capital.
A new open-air amphitheatre has been built and cobblestones laid on the ground, while the ditch that claimed so many lives last year has been fenced off.
The presence of armed security forces was seen as exacerbating last year’s chaos, but the Oromia regional government said this year there would be no weapons.
“This year will be different because there will be no political involvement from the government and no security from them as well,” said attendee Dachassa Gosa, 22.
Irreecha, or thanksgiving, is the most important annual festival of the Oromo people and it celebrates the end of the months-long rainy season and the upcoming harvest.
While traditionally a time to give thanks and pray for prosperity and abundance, it has increasingly been an opportunity for the Oromo to assert their identity and criticise government policies they say marginalise them.
Last year’s deaths re-ignited the protests across the Oromo region, but this time the targets were government and foreign-owned businesses, with several destroyed.
All told, the months of violence left more than 940 people dead, according to the government’s human rights commission, while arrests topped 22,000.
The bloodshed only ended with the declaration of a state of emergency, which was lifted in August.
However many Oromo say their grievances were not addressed and sporadic strikes and protests still occur.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Ethiopian government to “act with restraint” this time around and to take measures to ensure there is no repeat of last year’s tragedy, while calling for a proper investigation into what happened.
“Certainly, if there were to be a return to what happened at least year’s Irreecha, you would expect that would lead to much wider unrest,” HRW researcher Felix Horne told AFP news agency.
Oftaha Oromoo travelled from a district hours away to join the celebration but expects a more subdued event this weekend.
“Personally I am still angry, but we have to be patient and celebrate,” he said. “This year we want to remember the people who died.”