Sparked by a plan to expand the capital, Human Rights Watch says more than 200 people have been killed, but history is also playing a major role.
FEAR is so pervasive in Ethiopia’s largest region Oromia, where the government is accused of killing scores in a crackdown, that people don’t even like to give their names.
Oromia, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, is dotted with machine-gun mounted vehicles and Ethiopian soldiers who locals say have disrupted daily life with incessant checks, harassment and intimidation.
“If you go out in the evening, the police will arrest you, check your papers and your phones. If you have music or photos linked to the protests, you’re in serious trouble,” a young man in his twenties said in Ginchi, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Addis Ababa.
“I am very scared for our children, for our youths. I no longer sleep at night. Our life has become hell and it has no meaning,” said a mother of two aged in her forties.
Demonstrations began in Oromia in November due to a government plan to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the region, raising fears among the Oromo people that their farms would be expropriated.
Authorities dropped the urban development plan on January 12 and announced the situation in Oromia was largely under control.
But the demonstrations continued, along with the brutal response, which Human Rights Watch said has claimed the lives of more than 200 people, according to Ethiopian activists.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in the east African country, estimated at 27 million in a total population of some 99 million.
Their language, Oromo, is distinct from Amharic, spoken by the Ahmara people and used by the national administration.
In Ambo, 40 kilometres to the west of Ginchi, policemen and soldiers patrol the streets. Some shops are open but schools and hospitals have been closed for three months.
Three young bank employees, huddled on small paved street, discreetly recount the latest protests that erupted at the end of last week.
“There are more policemen in Ambo than there are cobblestones,” said one.
“We are scared of soldiers. There have been a lot of arrests. Tension has been growing since the start of the protests,” added another.
At a nearby dimly-lit billiard hall, a dozen-odd students relate their version of last week’s events.
“One of our professors was arrested and we have had no news of him since. We decided to go to the ministry of education to get some news. The police came and asked us what we wanted. We wanted to explain why we were there but they fired tear gas,” said one.
“Then special army commandos arrived and started firing live bullets.”
Villas in Addis Ababa. The capital city is growing.
They said a young man, named Elias Arasasa, died of bullet wounds and his sister Nagasse was injured by gunfire.
“The soldiers do not speak our language. We cannot communicate with them. Weapons are their only language,” said the mother of two.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said security forces have arrested several thousand people since November and are holding them without charge.
“Almost daily accounts of killings and arbitrary arrests have been reported to Human Rights Watch since 2016 began,” said the New York-based non-governmental organisation.
The HRW’s Horn of Africa expert Felix Horne told AFP that while the expansion of the capital was the spark that triggered the protests, the Oromo people had been feeling marginalised for a long time.
“There is also less and less information coming out from the areas where the protests are happening,” he said.
“Many individuals who provided updates and information have either been arrested, have disappeared, or are afraid to provide further information.”
Addis-based expert Tadesse O’Barr said the “Oromo people have underlying unanswered cumulative political and socio-cultural questions.
“Language is the major and oldest question of the Oromo. The government of Ethiopia denied to make it a federal language … (but) while Addis Ababa is the centre of the Oromia region, the government denied even a single school in Oromo language in the capital.
“Oromos often ask for self-rule, language and freedom,” he said.
Ethiopia has rejected the criticism as lies and said the recent violence did not involve protestors but criminals.
“Now they are armed gangs who are committing crimes; they destroyed bridges, burned down churches. It’s nothing like before,” Communications Minister Getachew Reda said.
“If one thinks these are demonstrations, it’s far from the truth.”
But despite the overriding fear, the youths say they will press on with their movement.
“We are not going to abandon our right to freedom. It’s too late for that now.”