Nearly 100,000 people marched into the heart of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa today to demonstrate against a video released Sunday by the Islamic State (IS) that showed members of the extremist group murdering more than 20 Ethiopian Christians in Libya.
Many attendees were still visibly devastated by the killings.
"I feel bad — so, so terrible," said Helen, 26, as a few tears streamed down her cheeks. She held a black shawl to her mouth. "I don't understand why a human being would do such a thing. It is so bad."
Helen and her friends claimed they heard rumors on social media that IS is still holding more Ethiopians captive in Libya.
"We want the government to do something for those people, who live there in Libya," she said. "There are a lot of people like that you know, they don't have food, they don't have water, so we want [IS] to release them."
At least 100 people were arrested at the end of the protest after skirmishes broke out between protesters and police. The demonstrators threw stones at police, shouting that they wanted Ethiopia to avenge the deaths of their countrymen. Video of the protest showed police beating demonstrators with batons and firing what appeared to be tear gas.
Asked whether he thought Ethiopia would pursue military action against the militant group, Bantu, 37, said he hopes it will. "This would be very, very nice," he said. "I am ready to fight them. If anybody gives us a chance to fight them, I will fight them."
The slain Ethiopians were allegedly captured in Sirte, a Libyan coastal town that is a common point of departure for African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Sirte, which fell under IS control earlier this year, is also believed to be the location where 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded in a video released in February were likely kidnapped.
The video released Sunday showed one group of Ethiopians being decapitated in a location that resembles northern Libya's Mediterranean coast. Victims in the other group were shot in the back of the head amid desert terrain.
The Ethiopian government responded to the video by coordinating prayer sessions between the country's Muslim and Christian groups, and enacting a three-day period of national mourning that ends tomorrow.
On Tuesday, the Ethiopian parliament hosted an emergency meeting to discuss the killings. Though the government has yet to issue a formal announcement on whether it will pursue a military intervention against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn spoke at the rally today as if Ethiopia will retaliate.
"The government will undertake activities with the Ethiopian people and the international community aimed at punishing the terror group and its surrogates," Desalegn said.
Photo by Johnny Magdaleno
Roads around Meskel Square, an open stadium at the center of Addis Ababa's rapidly modernizing metropolitan area, were closed to traffic during the demonstration, giving the city a solemn quiet during what normally would have been morning rush hour.
There was a heavy police presence in the streets, and officers formed security checkpoints to monitor the crowds trekking across the Kazanchis district to participate in the demonstration.
Around 8am, people began to fill the stadium's vast stretches of rock seating. Orthodox Christians paraded quietly across the aisles with traditional crosses as Muslim men in skullcaps thumbed prayer beads and held signs written in Amharic, which stressed that IS does not represent Islam.
Yonas, 30, wearing a Rastafari beanie and holding a handwritten sign in misspelled English that read "ISSI is the Symbole of 666!!!," supported a hard response against the group, which is also known as ISIS.
"We Ethiopians have never been colonized," he said. "We are heroes, and we are not afraid of anything. Not even ISIS."
Photo by Johnny Magdaleno
As the crowd grew larger, a government spokesman took the stage on a temporary platform positioned about 70 yards away from the stadium.
He described the killings as "the most despicable act of inhumanity and barbaric deeds of terror." The massive crowd, which had broken off into smaller protest sites in some areas, roared with applause.
Protesters faced resistance from police when they took to the streets Tuesday in largely peaceful demonstrations across Addis Ababa. Government officials condemned the gatherings, citing the potential for instability and the specter of terrorism.
"I have seen certain groups asking for [a separate] mass rally," Government spokesman Ewnetu Bilata said in a statement released on Facebook. Bilata said the call for protests was a "conspiracy" organized by terrorist groups
At the gathering Wednesday, citizens reflected on Ethiopia's role as a historic place of unity between Christian and Muslim communities. Abdul Hafiz, 25, quoted passages of peace from the Quran and paused to reflect on the country's history of acceptance.
"Ethiopia was the first country to accept the first refugees of Islam, and they are the first to accept Islam as a country," he said. "Ethiopians have a special place in Islamic history, so the international community and international Muslims have to give Ethiopia a special place."
Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno