As separatists in Ethiopia disarm, a new chapter for D.C.’s Oromo community (Washington Post)

April 2nd, 2012 Print Print Email Email

On a windy Saturday afternoon at a small Petworth cafe, Taha Tuko orders a round of celebratory macchiatos for three of his countrymen and tells them their 38-year armed struggle for secession from Ethiopia is over — fighters back in Africa have laid down their arms.

The dream of an independent Oromia long cherished by Tuko and other Oromo Ethiopians might never be realized. Their revolution is being repurposed with a new goal: uniting with other Ethio­pian opposition parties in the Washington region against the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which they all accuse of being autocratic and corrupt.

“The violence is over, and this is good news!” insists Tuko, the Washington region leader of the now retooled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), one of the factions that fought for an independent Oromia. “But our mission is no longer for independence. We’ll be one with the Ethiopian community now. Both back home and here in Washington.”

Washington is home to an estimated 100,000 Ethio­pian immigrants — the largest concentration in the United States — including ethnic Oromos such as Tuko, from central and southern Ethi­o­pia, as well as a half-dozen other ethnic groups, such as the Amharas from the eastern and central highlands and the Tigrayans from the northern highlands.

But what happens to diasporas of this kind when a revolution or a political movement dies? Does everyone just go out for coffee, become friends, start working together? Sometimes. Older political factions from Washington’s Salvadoran diaspora, for example, still come together every year to honor the end of the Central American country’s civil war 20 years ago because it was so powerful in uniting the community here.

The Oromo countrymen, a cook, a cab driver and a teacher, pull off chunks of injera, Ethiopia’s crepelike flatbread, and use it to sop up a traditional lunch of goat and vegetables, washing it down with the customary glass of milk. The Georgia Avenue cafe is called A Land of Medicine, after an Oromo city. Grainy Oromo music videos play on a beat-up television — flashing images of Oromia’s lush barley- and coffee-growing regions — as each of Tuko’s guests share harrowing stories about friends and relatives hauled off to jail in the middle of dinner or found dead after being assaulted. Oromos, 50 percent of whom are Muslim, are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and the men and women talk about religious persecution and attempts to limit their political power in the majority Christian Ethio­pian Orthodox country.

The OLF, one of the world’s long-running insurgent groups, was so active in Washington that it had offices in a Takoma Park bungalow, a U Street rowhouse and a commercial building in Petworth that now has a “For Rent” sign out front. The group organized Howard University political rallies, functions at Oromo churches and mosques and high-level meetings with Congress — even a Miss Oromo-North America beauty pageant.

Those events will continue, Tuko promises the crowd, just with a different spin.

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