COVID-19 raises families’ anxiety over abducted students
“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.
As is the case elsewhere around the world, learning has been disrupted and universities across Ethiopia have been closed indefinitely to avert the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
According to human rights activists, the anguish of the students’ families is exacerbated by a phone and internet shutdown implemented on 3 January across the region, further hampering efforts to receive information about their missing loved ones.
While the alleged abductors 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 have heard from them, Amnesty International officials said in a statement.
The last time any of the students spoke to their families was on 18 December 2019, the rights group added.
“The Ethiopian authorities’ move to close universities in an attempt to protect the lives of university students is commendable, but they must also similarly take concrete action to locate and rescue the 17 missing students so that they too are reunited with their families,” Magango said.
Amnesty International said it had “spoken to several families of the missing students who expressed mounting desperation and helplessness as their children remain unaccounted for”.
The latest reports come in the wake of 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.
Human rights activists said the affected parents had not heard from the government.
According to Amnesty International, Girmanesh Yeneneh, a third-year biotechnology student, was one of those who was abducted on her way home in November.
Her father Yeneneh Adunya said the family was distressed.
“We have been mourning since the day she told us she had been abducted,” he said, adding that “her mother is devastated”.
Mare Abebe, a guardian to another missing student told the BBC that she was worried about Belaynesh Mekonnen, a first-year economics student, who also disappeared following the kidnapping incident.
“We’re grieving,” she said, according to the BBC.
In early January, the authorities disconnected mobile phone networks, landlines and internet services in western Oromia’s Kellem Wellega, West Wellega, and Horo Gudru Wellega zones which are under federal military control. The explanation given was “security reasons”.
“The shutdown of communication networks and services in Western Oromia is an unacceptable violation of the people’s rights to information and freedom of expression,” said the senior official from the rights group.
“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,” Magango said.
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.
With pressure mounting on the Ethiopian authorities to account for the students from Dambi Dollo University, the whereabouts of the students remain unknown.
An online campaign #BringBackOurStudents launched on social media is part of an ongoing effort to rescue the missing students.