Sat. May 25th, 2024

Kemant people

The Kemant (also known as the “Qimant” or “Kimant”) are one of Ethiopia’s many distinct indigenous ethnic groups, and live in north-west Ethiopia in the Amhara region. As one of Ethiopia’s minorities, very little is known about them among the international community. But this fact, as well as the very little attention their plight has received, does not just come down to a numbers game – it is also due to systematic efforts to forcefully assimilate the Kemant people by the regional state. To gain insight into the story of the Kemant, OLLAA conducted an exclusive interview with two members of the Kemant community, hoping to shed light on one of Ethiopia’s most overlooked cases of human rights abuses. The Qemant (also known as western Agaws) are a small ethnic group in northwestern Ethiopia specifically in Gondar, Amhara Region. The Qemant people traditionally practiced an early Pagan-Hebraic religion, however most members of the Qemant are followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Despite their historic relationship, they should not be confused with the Beta Israel.

The ethnicity’s population is reported to be 172,000, according to the 1994 national census;the latest available national census, the one performed in 2007, does not list them as a separate group. However, only 1,625 people still speak Qimant, and it is considered endangered, as most children speak Amharic; likewise, adherence to the traditional religion has dropped substantially, as most of the population has converted to Christianity. Converts often consider themselves to be Amharas. The Qemant live in an area traditionally called Qwara, along an axis stretching from Ayikel in Chilga woreda to Kirakir and north to Lake Tana in the woredas of Lay Armachiho. Most remaining speakers of the language are near Ayikel, about 40 miles (64 km) west of Gondar. They are mainly farmers.

The Qemant are divided into two patrilineal moieties, the Keber and the Yetanti; the Keber is higher in rank. A traditional Qemant can only marry a member of the other moiety, so, while the moieties are exogamous, Qemant society as a whole is endogamous. The Qemant traditionally practiced a religion which is often described as “Hebraic”. According to the American anthropologist Frederic C. Gamst, their “Hebraism is an ancient form and unaffected by Hebraic change of the past two millennia”. A recent sociolinguistic survey notes that the Qemant religion is in a very precarious situation since very few people still adhere to it due to rapid assimilation. According to this study, the ratio of those who follow the Qemant religion vs. those who are baptized and converted to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is about 1% vs. 99%.

Their religious observances include a literal reading of the 11th chapter of Leviticus (see Kashrut). As with mainstream Judaism, even permitted animals can only be consumed if they are properly slaughtered (see Shechita). Their practices include continued animal sacrifices, and the tending of sacred groves (called degegna). Worship is conducted outdoors, usually at a site near a sacred tree (called qole), wrapped in variously-colored strips of cloth. This appears to be a survival of a biblical tradition:

Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there the name of God (Genesis 21:33).

and..where the women wove hangings for the grove (II Kings 23:7).

However, due to their dislike to being observed by the increasingly pervasive Christians, they eventually constructed a prayer-hall at Chelga. The Sabbath is observed on Saturday, when it is forbidden to light a fire. The extent as to which they observe other prohibitions often found in Judaism is unclear.

The Qemant call their Deity Adara (God) or Yeadara (My God) or Mezgana, which might be a proper name. He is described as omnipresentomnipotentomniscient, and anthropomorphic. He is approachable directly or through qedus which are angels or culture heroes.

The highest political and religious leader among the Qemant is their High Priest, called the Wember (also transliterated Womber and Wambar), an Amharic term meaning “seat.” There were formerly two superior wambars, at Karkar and at Chelga, with the first being senior, and a varying number of subordinate wambars in other parts of Qemantland. All wambars are chosen from certain lineages in the Keber moiety. The last wambar of Karkar died in 1955, and since then the only wambar has been Mulunah Marsha, Wambar of Chelga (born 1935). Each wambar chose (from the Keber moiety) one or more delegates with the title of afaliq to represent him in judicial matters. These men traveled the countryside, settling disputes, seeing that the laws were obeyed, and punishing wrongdoing, usually with a fine. Each wambar also chose two stewards with different titles, one from each moiety, who served different elements of the sacred meals. There are two orders of priesthood, the kamazana, the higher, of the Keber moiety, and the abayegariya, the lower, of the Yetanti moiety. Each Qemant locality has at least one of each; they must work together to conduct the traditional sacrifices and other religious ceremonies. When offering a sacrifice, the abayegaria holds the legs of the victim and the kamazana wields the knife. The priests also have a subordinate judicial function.

Due to lack of written evidences, for some scholars, the origin of the Qemant is obscure. However, according to the Qemant tradition and history, everything started when Noah’s ark settled at the top of Mount Ararat also believed to be Mount Guna which is located in northern Amhara region. The meaning of guna in Qemant language is “starting point”. Qemants are descended from Yaner (also called Ayaner). He is “…the grandson of Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, son of Noah. Noha and his familily starts to live there for few years but Shem and Japheth moved to Asia and middle east however Noha and his son Ham stayed in Ethiopia until his death . Noah was buried in now day The Fasil Ghebbi and his wife aykel was buried in chelga aykel city, here we can see city aykel is named after Noah’s wife. However according to some legends, Canaan’s son, Arwadi, came to Ethiopia from the land of Canaan to found the Qemant group, whereas in other legends it is Arwadi’s son, Yaner did so.”

According to the early 19th century missionary Samuel Gobat, their neighbours considered the Qemant boudas, or sorcerers, along with “the Falashas or Jews (Beta Israel), most Mussulmans (Muslims), and some Christians.” Gobat knew little more about this “small Pagan people inhabiting the mountains in the vicinity of Gondar.”

Writing in 1967, US anthropologist F. Gamst said he expected total assimilation of the Qemant with the Amhara within three decades. However in the modern era, Qemant identity has resurfaced.

Today, most ethnic Qemants overwhelmingly identify as Amharas, and Qemant was removed as an identity from Ethiopia’s 2007 national census, but there are some Qemant communities who are still attempting to preserve their culture and language.

“There will be no more Kemant”: The struggle for survival

Targeted violence against the Kemant has been escalating since 2015 and has involved the “abduction of children, illegal detention, torture, systemic rape and murder”, says Abeba, who is a member of the minority ethnic group and president of the Kemant Advocacy Group. This violence reached new levels following a referendum in 2017 when the Kemant voted to form their own administrative jurisdiction and continues to this day. 

Although largely hidden from international media and subjected to strenuous denials by the Amhara State, there has been documentation of large-scale attacks on the Kemant community in the Amhara region by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. In May 2020, Amnesty International  wrote:

“Amnesty International’s report reveals that the Liyu police, local administration militia and two Amhara youth vigilante groups joined forces to attack members of the Qimant community in January 2019, and again in September-October 2019, leaving at least 100 people dead and hundreds displaced. Qimant homes and property were also destroyed.”

According to Abeba, the attacks go much further, but retaliation from regional forces to those who speak out make getting information difficult: she tells us that some of those individuals that spoke to Amnesty International were subsequently arrested. Abeba, who has been facing threats to her life since 2015, has described horrifying acts of ethnic cleansing by these actors, with women (including pregnant women), children and university students often the targets, in what she describes as efforts to ensure “there will be no more Kemant”. Our other witness, Negesu, also from the Kemant ethnic group, recounts how her youngest brother was shot and killed when he was just seventeen years old.

Members of the Kemant community have blamed the Amhara special forces and youth-led armed militia Fano for the attacks, accounts which have been corroborated by organizations such as Amnesty International and Al Jazeera. A witness interviewed by Al Jazeera described how local militia Fano “have dragged people from homes and butchered them in the streets.”

Negesu (whose family is pictured in the title image) is one among many Kement who have lost their entire families in the attacks in September, 2019. After being subjected to escalating threats and attacks since 2015, Negesu’s four brothers and sister were at home celebrating a religious festival when their home was set alight. According to Negesu, when they tried to escape from the burning building, her family were shot at with machine guns by Fano, regional special forces and police. Only one of Negesu’s brothers, who was shot and wounded, managed to escape. He is still hiding from the perpetrators today. 

As corroborated by the Amnesty International report, Negesu describes how Ethiopian Defence Force soldiers, based in a camp just 5 minutes away, failed to come to their assistance.

Negesu, who was living in the United States when the attack occurred, is still deeply affected by the events that have left her without her family. In one of the events OLLAA attended, Negesu could not hold back her tears when she talked about how she lost her whole family at once.  Her brothers and sisters, who had so many hopes and dreams, can no longer call her; instead, says Negesu, “I am alone… I can see them running from the fire. I cannot forget.” 

Negesu’s singular story reveals the brutality of the Amhara regional government in its targeting of minorities within its territory. It is important to understand and shed light on how minorities are treated in the Amhara region and why the federal government has failed to protect minorities; enabling such ethnic-based targeting to occur. 

The Amhara region is made up of many different ethnic groups. Yet today, most (including Kement, Agew, Argoba, and Oromo) are fighting against the Amhara regional government. The Amhara region is the only region that is openly calling for the current war to continue against Tigray – or what they call “junta”. Amhara youth militias known as Fano and Amhara elites are adding fuel to the fire by directly participating in the current war, which has targeted Tigrayans and anyone else not supporting the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party. It is this attitude of “if you are not with us, you are against us” that has left minority groups such as the Kemant in the line of fire as conflict in the north escalates.

Who are the Kemant and why don’t we hear about them?

The last Ethiopian census to include the Kemant people was in 1994, which placed their numbers at 172,000 (although this was likely a significant underestimate). Of the more than 90 distinct ethnic groups found in Ethiopia, the Kemant were the 10th largest group at that time. Despite this, in 2007, when the next census was due, the decision was made to remove the Kemant from the list of ethnicities, forcing the Kemant people to identify themselves as Amhara or “other” on their federal ID cards. 

This was not merely an administrative oversight. According to Abeba, members of the Kemant minority that tried to appeal this, or register as Kemant were told by regional security forces that they would be arrested if they did so. Found within the administrative region of Amhara, the Kemant are neither recognised as a nationality in the 1994 Amhara Constitution, nor the Revised Amhara Constitution of 2001 – effectively rendering the Kemant people invisible within the diversity of Ethiopia. Despite this, it is estimated that their current population is significantly higher, with as many as 1.5 million self-identifying as Kemant. This has had significant consequences for the Kemant people, who historically have a distinct and ancient language, religion and culture, and are thought to be the original inhabitants of north central Ethiopia. 

In 1995, the Ethiopian Constitution gave birth to a federal system of ethnically delineated regions, which granted considerable autonomy to each group for self-determination and self-rule. For a minority like the Kemant – who have been effectively removed from the list of recognized ethnic groups – this removed their capacity for self-administration. Not only does this imperil the survival of what is a distinct culture, it also removes their capacity to represent themselves at a political level. 

When, in 2015, after long calls for representation, the Kemant living inside the Amhara state received self-administration status, harsh penalties were swiftly enacted by regional militias. Abeba describes how in 2016, an entire village was burnt to the ground, killing more than 100 civilians and displacing up to 35,000 others. Events, which, as described above, have only gotten worse in the intervening years. Much of this appears to stem from the resistance of the Amhara state to losing territory – despite self-administration being a clearly set-out right in the Ethiopian Constitution.

The dire consequences of the war in the north

Since the outbreak of war in Tigray and into the Amhara region, the Kemant people have increasingly found themselves caught in the crossfire. Already facing years of documented attacks against their people, the escalating situation has aggravated previous tensions and heightened vigilante attacks against the community. 

Recent investigations and satellite imagery analysis by Al Jazeera found that at least 557 civilian structures had been destroyed in Kemant-inhabited areas since May, 2021. Despite claims to the contrary, Al Jazeera confirmed that these investigations point to the Ethiopian military and allied militias such as Fano as the culprits behind the destruction. Thousands of Kemant have brutally lost their lives, homes and livelihoods in these attacks, with many left to live in fear on the streets or in the desert.

According to the UNHRC, at least 2,000 ethnic Kemant have fled to a refugee camp in Sudan since April. Many face the same situation as Negesu and Abeba: the loss of their loved ones in brutal, ethnically targeted attacks, and daily threats to their lives. In a time where entire families and communities face violence for the simple fact of their identity, we hope to raise the voices of Negesu and Abeba and share their stories with the wider community..

As Negesu says: “I urge everyone to stop the genocide against the Kemant people. I want justice for the people that have lost their loved ones.” 

“I want someone to be my voice”.  

Currently, Abeba tells us, there are reports of government forces kidnapping and forcibly recruiting Kemant victim survivors – aged anywhere from 12 to  62 years old – to join what has been described as a battle over the country’s existence by government figures. Much like the cases documented by OLLAA, Abeba tells of how those who try to run away get shot and killed, and that in Gondar and surrounding areas, jails, prisons and schools are currently full of Kemant detainees. Many are also ordered to contribute what little left food they have to the war instead of feeding their children.

OLLAA calls on the international community to condemn the Amhara regional government for its crimes against humanity against minorities in the Amhara region, as well as the role of Amhara regional forces, militia and Fano in the violence in Tigray. The current push for dialogue and ceasefire will not bring lasting peace if the voices of the forgotten minorities in the Amhara region are left out.

We call for the international community and humanitarian organizations to help the hundreds of thousands of Kemant victims in need of food, shelter and medical care for survival, who have thus far been denied humanitarian assistance by the Amhara regional government and Ethiopian Government.

Sources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qemant_people
  2. https://ollaa.org/there-will-be-no-more-kemant-the-forgotten-voices-of-the-kemant-people/#:~:text=November%2018th%2C%202021,them%20among%20the%20international%20community.
  3. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063915391442

By Chala Dandessa

I am Lecturer, Researcher and Freelancer. I am the founder and Editor at ETHIOPIANS TODAY website. If you have any comment use caalaadd2@gmail.com as email contact. Additionally you can contact us through the contact page of www.ethiopianstoday.com.

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