A two-day protest by residents of Alamata town, 600Km north of Addis Abeba, in the Tigray Regional State, led to the arrest of close to 40 people, who are all currently under custody, in a Maichew town prison, 60Km farther north.
Residents, no less than 13, had blocked the main highway crossing the town early last week, protesting the demolition of what local authorities deem to be illegally built squats, in an area south east of the town. Local officials issued letters of eviction to around 100 residents, after giving an ultimatum for their departure.
The town's officials, accompanied by the police force, tried to demolish the squatters in 09 Kebele, Kidanemihret area, aka Garbe Sefer, according to Gebre Ingda, corporal at the town's Police Department.
Residents were called to the Kebele 09 office for community work, whilst officials from the administration of the town and police brought over 140 workers, equipped with hammers, sledge hammers and metal sticks, and began demolishing some of the 290 houses at Garbe Sefer, at 11am, on Tuesday, according to eye witnesses. Residents came back running and fought with the police force, which dispelled them, these witnesses added.
Town officials could only complete the demolition of three of the houses, according to the eye witnesses. Most of these houses were built with two to four rooms, estimated to cost between 20,000 Br to 60,000 Br, according to residents that Fortune talked to.
Residents blocked the way, lying on the highway, and piling up debris from the demolished houses on the tarmac, thus demanding that the "government should hear our problem," said eyewitnesses. Many chanted, "We have no place to go."
Subsequently, residents closed the main highway, near Garve Bridge, found at the southern entrance of Alamata from Addis Abeba, Haftu Kiros, chief of the kebele administration, with 5,000 residents, confirmed to Fortune.
Local officials brought additional forces from Mekelle, the seat of the regional government, at 1pm, Fortune confirmed. Another round of standoffs between angry residents and law enforcement officers took place, whilst vehicles were left stranded behind the bridge. Law enforcement forces, deployed to quell the protest, managed to clear the protestors at around 7.00pm, the same day, according to eyewitnesses.
Alamata is a small town with a population of 95,000, according to the last available data from the Central Statistics Agency (CSA), in 2011
Though the kebele, where the dispute took place, is under the Alamata town provision and was thus provided with infrastructure, such as; electricity, water and inner roads, three years ago, illegal squatters began to appear six years ago, building illegitimate houses on farmland, according to Haftu. It is a claim residents Fortune spoke to strongly reject, for they say they have been settled in the area for more than 20 years. Not only do they claim to be paying taxes for the plots on receipt, kebele authorities have also provided government support, through safety net programs, to residents in the area, showing recognition of their existence, observers say.
Nonetheless, the town's mayor ordered Kebelle 09 officials to demolish the squatter's homes about a month ago, Haftu confirmed to Fortune.
"We've not been given other plots to move to, or any notice, except Haftu and some of the police officers came and marked our 290 homes with "X" signs, and informed us they would be demolished, on December 29, 2012," a resident at Garbe Sefer told Fortune.
After the standoff, local authorities have suspended their demolition efforts, eyewitnesses told Fortune.
"But we are here to protect our houses," a resident told Fortune.
Following intervention from the Region's anti-riot police, some residents, however, scattered from the scene of the confrontation, near the bridge, and reportedly spent the night inside Iyesus Church, father north in the town, Fortune learnt.
Later on, police identified residents involved in the protest and transported them to Maichew, to be taken into custody, family members of those arrested told Fortune.
It is not clear whether they have been brought to a court of law yet. The Mayor of Alamata town and the Police Chief were not willing to comment, despite repeated efforts by Fortune.
Alamata Town, established on the cut border of Amhara and Tigray regional states, was the scene of the protest that occurred on Tuesday January 8, 2013.