Cultural genocide is a tactic of ethnic cleansing.

Whilst not defined nor protected by international law, when a state attacks the culture of a people, when it destroys their history and threatens their morality, it is done with genocide as the end goal in mind. Targeting people’s cultural heritage is an intentional attack on the soul of a people, and fosters the process of their annihilation through the spirit. The Armenian Genocide Museum defined this as: "acts and measures undertaken to destroy nations' or ethnic groups' culture through spiritual, national, and cultural destruction”. Alongside war criminals of the past, Ethiopia’s now “President”, Abiy Ahmed, has adopted its tactics in his campaign for the persecution of the Tigrayan people.

A concerning increase of reports of the shelling, looting and pillaging of Tegaru institutions have been leaving the region as of recently, only to be explained away as “collateral damage” by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These institutions are homes to the region's heritage, an attack on these institutions is an attack on the spirit of the people. With destruction comes lost generations of artefacts, historical data and indispensable evidence of ancestry.

Tigray is home to some of the major religious centres of Abrahamic faiths, some even protected by UNESCO World Heritage. The rich histories of its religious sites act as Tigrayan museums and archives. A consortium of religious institutions in the region named dozens of mosques destroyed and looted, including al-Nejashi Mosque, believed by many to be the oldest mosque in Africa, to have hosted the Prophet Muhammed and where 15 of his companions are buried. A Belgian NGO, Europe External Programme with Africa, reported that al-Nejashi Mosque was "first bombed and later looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops", shooting at those trying to protect it.

Looting of manuscripts from Tigrayan monasteries and churches have happened before in previous wars; they've led to invaluable assets being lost, only to be sold to antiquities markets in other countries. This upholds the intent behind these attacks, and debunks any notion of this cultural erasure as merely ‘collateral’.

The attack on religious leaders is not separate to this. During this conflict there has been a violent campaign to kill priests and religious leaders, with reports of over 300 priests being murdered during service. Where religious sites themselves are monuments of history and culture for Tigrayan people, religious leaders who uphold these sites, act as the people's historians and anthropologists. Tigray is one of the many parts of the world where it's history is oral as opposed to written, learn via Gee'z, the ancient sematic language, now mostly spoken by priests.

An attack on the "intellectual", is also a sub-category of acts leading up to genocide. Universities and schools are imperative in the discovery and development of intellectual assets. Alongside destroying research papers, research institutions and archives, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have also destroyed school supplies, computers, student history and recorded data. This is to put a stop to a capable, dignified, and hopeful future for generations to come.

A looted classroom at Ksanet Junior Secondary School in Wukro, north of Mekelle [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

In light of recent TDF victory, it's vital we all understand that the declaration of the unilateral ceasefire has not stopped the continued destruction of Tigrayan heritage. Most recently, eyewitness testimony of Ethiopian forces ransacking Hawelti Sematat, (a museum and memorial ground of the seventeen year civil war). It was left completely destroyed and looted while the forces withdrew the region.

These sites hold indispensable historical and intellectual property.

However, the greatest attack on Tigrayan culture is the continued communication blackout, sanctioned by the central government themselves. This blackout is through all communication streams: internet, cellular and electricity. This is the central government gagging the Tigrayan people, forcing them to silence.

This blackout continues to exacerbate the Tigrayan experience by rendering them voiceless, whilst blind sighting the international community of the reality of Abiy’s "democracy". Abiy’s siege over information rages on, despite the withdrawal of federal forces from the region and TDF reclaiming capital Mekelle on 28th of June. His administration has unfettered control over the flow of information coming out of Ethiopia, and in such, his denial of genocidal war in the region is the biggest assault of all. This paired with recent “landslide election” win, and political distractions through green initiatives and hydroelectric dam developments, his administration can freely steer and discredit the narrative to the advantage of unified-Ethiopia.

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