Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

Photo source: Reuters

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When ten thousand Ethiopian protestors took the streets of Adis Ababa, in May 2021, the message was clear. They wanted an end to Washington’s sanctions on the government, and its army officials, over the war in Tigray, a conflict in the north of Ethiopia, that has claimed thousands of lives, and displaced more than two million people. 

Some Ethiopians, at home and abroad, staged a “Hands Off Ethiopia” social media campaign, where they appealed foreign countries to stop “meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs”. But, the silence wouldn't help the situation. 

The seeds of conflict in Tigray were sown in November 2020, Back then, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, for ending a long war with Eritrea, had sent federal troops into Tigray for a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the northern region’s ruling leftist political cabal, that had dominated national politics for decades.

Some Ethiopian media had expressed ethnic animosity towards Tigrayans, with derogatory language used indiscriminately to stigmatise all Tigrayans, due to the alleged misdeeds of the TPLF, which was in power at a federal level, for more than 25 years, and had a bitter fall-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, after he took office in 2018.

The US responded to the military action by imposing visa and economic sanctions on Ethiopia, moves that could block funds from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. However, China, which is a big investor there, was keeping a much more low profile. Although, it supported the Ethiopian government’s claimed effort in providing assistance to people in Tigray, and restoring local life and production, which actually doesn't seem apparent. 

Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, ascertains that China was reluctant to play a more prominent role in the attempts to resolve the Tigray conflict, in part because of its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and because of its low level of cultural and political knowledge in African societies. This policy clearly juxtaposes with the US sanctions on Ethiopia, which imply culpability, and a somewhat nuanced action.

On the other hand, Ethiopia’s potential hosting of the 2022 Russia-Africa Summit, and growing importance to Moscow’s Red Sea strategy has increased the likelihood that Russia is also adhering closely to Ethiopia’s official position on Tigray.

It was in November 2020, when Abiy ordered a military response, including air raids, to what he called a traitorous attack on federal army camps in Tigray. The eruption of war came after TPLF decided to hold a regional election, without the consent of the federal government. The president had commented that the landslide victory of TPLF was illegal, and began to bar the social welfare programmes in Tigray, a region of six million people. Within 10 days of fighting, the United Nations had warned of possible war crimes in Tigray.

In retaliation, the TPLF forces had fired rockets at Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, which has a long enmity with TPLF. As a collateral damage, thousands of refugees had fled to Sudan, describing sinister tales of war, including killings that involved knives, where pregnant women had their bellies opened, rapes, and indiscriminate shooting on streets. The people, who escaped Tigray on foot, in lorries, horse carts, and buses observed that government was bombing civilians, as they wanted to get rid of them. Several children and women were seen swimming across the Setit River on the Sudan Ethiopia border. Some of them had even drowned. Witnesses revealed that around one hundred fifty people had died of hunger in one area of southern Tigray.

The dire situation is the result of ‘starvation crimes’, a term coined by Bridge Conley.  Pillage, forced displacement, destruction of food, water, health facilities, and widespread rape are also rampant. The scenario also prevents survivors from caring for themselves and their children, and even obstructs humanitarian aid. In fact, mothers are feeding their children with raw leaves to keep them alive. 

When violence erupted in Mai Kadra, an ethnically mixed town of Tigrayans and Amharas, Tigrayan youths in a TPLF dominated town shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death hundreds of Amhara civilians, according to dozens of Amhara witnesses. Some recognised neighbours among their attackers. The TPLF denied attacking Amhara civilians. In retaliation, fifty Tigrayan civilians were rounded up, and trucked by Amhara forces, to the Tekeze River that bisects Tigray. The forces ordered the civilians to climb down into a freshly dug ditch, and then they were indiscriminately shot at. Fano militiamen, too, have been responsible for killing many Tigrayans. There are some Tigrayan villages, such as Shumari, which have been completely razed. 

Amhara people also took possession of fertile Tigrayan farms, they say were taken from Amharas, during the TPLF dominance. According to Reuters, fleets of minibuses packed with household goods and mattresses were tethered to the roofs, traveling from Amhara to western Tigray. New Amhara settlers were among the passengers.

Tigrayans are in the majority in their home region, but make up less than six percent of the wider population. Amharas, the second biggest community in Ethiopia, are made up of more than ninety ethnicities, and lay claim to western Tigray as ancient Amhara land. Amhara leaders consider the Tekeze River a borderline between their territory and Tigray’s.

In history, there also had been a civil war in Ethiopia that included present day Eritrea, fought between the Ethiopian military junta communist governments, and Ethio-Eritrean anti-government rebels from September 1974 to June 1991. The Ethiopian civil war left at least 1.4 million people dead, with 1 million of the deaths being related to famine, and the remainder from combat, and other forms of violence.

Before the recent crises, there were separate neighbourhoods, but many Tigrayans and Amharas worked, ate and worshipped together, and were friends. In Ethiopia's Orthodox’ churchyard, Amharas and Tigrayan graves lie side by side. Many residents spoke of the language of the other group well enough. However, Tigrayan neighbourhoods appeared more affluent, and Tigrayans owned many of the area’s sesame, and millet farms. Amharas often worked as seasonal labourers.

It was in 2018 when first protests ended the TPLF dominance. The party jailed thousands of people, others were forced into exile or disappeared. Some Amharas complained that Tigrayans monopolised local government positions, in western Tigray. Officials sometimes suppressed the use of Amhara language, or unfairly intervened in land disputes.

The interesting thing to note is that Prime Minister Abiy had defended Amhara forces. “Portraying this force as a looter and conqueror is very wrong,” he said.

Amidst the current war in Tigray, there has also been a communications blackout, on a large scale, where journalists could not perform their duties. There is also restriction on aid workers. Wifi is only available in few hotels. It had made it very difficult to pinpoint the exact vagaries of this conflict. Even if the war is ended soon, the scars will last forever.

In Mekelle, Ethiopia, there are around twenty six camps, where two hundred thousand refugees live. In one of the camps, around hundred people slept in one classroom. There, they mourned their dead, and missing families. Dozens of children with missing limbs, broken bones and gunshot wounds filled room after room, with quiet parents by their side, at a nearby hospital.

Back in Sudan, the officials were also registering refugees, but could not provide sustenance to several thousand people, who made the journey. The outbreak of fighting had instantly sparked fears that a prolonged conflict could reverberate across the Horn of Africa, and draw in external forces.

As a reaction, Eritrea had also sent troops across the border in support of Ethiopian government forces, but provided no evidence. With the result, the traveling refugees from Tigray had died of numerous artillery volleys, while trespassing, which reflected a sort of professional lying, and a hidden agenda from Eritrean administration.

Refugees, who survived, till reaching Sudan, cut Sudanese trees, and protected themselves from the sun, as they couldn’t get a space in the camps, during the time of sorghum harvest.

Some Sudanese villagers had offered any help that they could give. However, many Sudanese feared that thousands arriving from Ethiopia would strain their very limited resources.

In February 2021, Amnesty International divulged that Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in November 2020, in the city of Axum in Tigray. More reports of atrocities emerged, with civilians accusing Eritrean forces carrying out systematic rapes.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on March 10, 2021, had urged Eritrea to withdraw from the region, and described the violence in western Tigray, an area of rich farmlands, as ethnic cleansing. He also called for special forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, to be expelled out of disputed areas they have taken.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also released a statement where they indicted Eritrean soldiers massacring more than hundred civilians, in Axum, in November, 2020. It may amount to crimes against humanity. These findings ratified separate investigations by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

When Ethiopia revealed that Eritrean troops had started to evacuate Tigray, the UN’s top humanitarian official countered the statement by saying that there had been no evidence of withdrawal, and warned of more crisis in the embattled region.

The UN’s Security Council had finally issued its first joint statement on the continuing crisis, expressing 'deep concern' about allegations of human rights violations.

The fighting has been already threatening the unity of Ethiopia, as TDF rebels tried to enter it's capital in June 2021 with celebratory gunfire. The interim government had ran away, and a unilateral ceasefire was announced. 

While Amharas are seeking to take away disputed lands, equal to about a quarter of Tigray, other regions in Ethiopia’s grumpy federation are watching their government’s actions closely in the hope that the conflict is pacified. They seem to be well acquainted about the prospective violence near their borders, and towns, but at the same time the war is becoming unpredictable. 


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