Kassa Tadesse does not affiliate with political parties. He is no activist and never has been, he says. But in the past six months, that has changed.
Tadesse drove yesterday from his home in Silver Spring to Northwest Washington, where more than a thousand members of the Ethiopian community gathered to raise money for relatives of people killed or detained during election-related violence in their homeland this month.
"I am just an Ethiopian who is angry about what's going on in my country," he said at Washington Hebrew Congregation, where the $50-a-ticket fundraiser -- a community meeting -- was held. "I am here to stand against the present situation. There are mass arrests, killings. People are scared. My relatives are there. Children are scared when they walk to school."
More than 40 people died and thousands were detained this month after demonstrators contested the May 15 election results that favored Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Medical officials have said police have killed many of the victims; Meles contends that the opposition groups are responsible for inciting the violence.
The groups say the election was rigged, and European Union officials have said the election did not meet international standards. But government officials say the irregularities were not significant enough to have swayed the election.
Once before during this year, demonstrations in Ethiopia ended in violence. In June, police shot student protesters in Addis Ababa, the country's capital. Meles has promised an independent inquiry into all the killings.
Daniel Abebe said he has no doubt that the election was rigged and that the government has become a dictatorship.
"The facts on the ground are very convincing," said Abebe, who drove from Richmond to attend the fundraiser. "We're not even talking democracy now. It's just basic human rights," he said.
Ethiopian officials said local protesters have exaggerated claims because of a lack of information.
"Everything is now calm. Everything the government is doing is in accordance with the laws and regulation of that country. That's it," said Mesfin Andrias, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Embassy. "Those who have tried to incite violence, those specific extremists, they are under custody," he said. He urged patience while the independent investigation continues.
The Washington region is home to one of the largest groups of Ethiopians outside Africa. The 2000 Census recorded at least 15,000 Ethiopian immigrants in the area, although community leaders say the number is much higher.
Yesterday's event was their latest effort to call attention to the turmoil in their homeland. On Tuesday, thousands marched from Capitol Hill past the State Department, World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings to the White House.
They urged U.S. officials to pressure Meles to free political prisoners; create an independent judiciary, election board and security force; allow for freedom of the press; and end the violence.
Many Ethiopians across the region are watching events in their country with great concern and hope that the local protests will get the U.S. government's attention.
"Over the last two weeks, they have woken from their slumber, and now they are making noise," Seyoum Solomon, an economist at the World Bank and member of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Ethiopia's leading opposition party, said recently at Addis Ababa, a Silver Spring restaurant. Many of his friends back home are imprisoned or are in hiding, he said, and he calls the U.S. government's support of the current leadership "an embarrassment."
Seated nearby, Tigist, 25, a Montgomery College student who would not give her last name out of concern for her family in Addis Ababa, said that a friend's cousin was jailed recently. She is worried about her family and friends.
"They have to stop killing innocent people," she said.