For the last three years, this region of Ethiopia has seen horrific violence, much of it ethnic. Between 437 and 537 civilians have been killed and 100,000 people displaced from their homes. Unspeakable atrocities have occurred. Many Christians have been doubly attacked, first by the other tribes and then by their own people because they have refused to join the fighting.
Everyone has suffered to the extreme. People have lost family and animals and watched their homes and crops burn as they fled into the forest. Friendships have vanished, livelihoods have been lost, and PTSD has become the norm. Not only have church buildings been destroyed, but relationships between believers have splintered as people have run for their lives. Prayer and faith itself have become casualties for many who have been calling out, “Where is God?” Worst, church members and even leaders have joined the fighting and done things they would never have imagined themselves doing.
Several years ago, our colleague helped to plant 81 churches in the area on both sides of the ethnic divide. He has maintained phone contact with some of the leaders, but could not get into their area because of the fighting. In the meantime, he focused his work on two tribes in the south who had been in conflict. We rejoiced when they made a formal peace agreement in early January.
In March, our colleague finally flew north to meet for a few days separately with pastors on each side of the dispute. At first, he just listened and wept. Little by little, the pastors began to confess their own sins of racial discrimination, lack of love, and participation in the violence. Both meetings ended with tears of deep repentance and resolutions to talk with their extended families and coworkers about what they had learned.
The pastors made good on their promises. Small groups of believers across the area started to meet to talk and pray together. Several pastors became bold enough to go into the forest and talk to the rebels. As a result, over 600 rebels surrendered to the government and gave up their weapons. It seemed to be the right time to bring the two sides together.
Through our connections, our colleague met an Ethiopian trained in peacemaking and persuaded him to join him for a trip to the region in May. One of our donors funded a meeting of 66 church leaders from all eight tribes there—the first time they had been together since the violence began. After again listening to and weeping with them, our colleague led them through what it means to live above earthly influences, whether political, ethnic, socioeconomic, or spiritual. The second day, the peacemaking trainer led them in a discussion of their purpose in life and how evil keeps people from discovering and living out that purpose. Laughter filled the air as he gave them tools with which to play a game that forced them to work together to figure out how to play it.
The third day was more serious. The trainer broke the 66 up into eight small groups by tribe and had each tribe write down the losses they had experienced: first physically, then emotionally, socially, and spiritually. When they had finished, each group explained its list to the other groups, who listened silently. When they were finished, they gathered the papers on the ground and burned them.
During the final session on forgiveness, everyone was sobbing and bear-hugging. Dereje told us he has never experienced anything like that in his life. Others said, “We have attended peace talks before, but never like this!”
The attendees are now back in their homes, sharing what they have learned despite people in the community who do not want peace.
Meanwhile, our colleague has spoken with government officials in the area about bringing together other religious groups to advocate for peace from within their traditions. He is aware that such peacebuilding will require much work by many people for many months. In the meantime, we are grateful for this remarkable beginning of reconciliation!