Tigray: An Under-reported Genocide
Since the onset of violence in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, in early November 2020, shocking figures and stories of human rights abuses illustrate a humanitarian crisis devastating the lives of the general population of Tigray, caught in the middle of a multi-military conflict. This invasion has forced 2.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) to flee their homes for their lives, with the UN warning that 4.5 million people - two-thirds of Tigray’s total population - are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and food
Large parts of the region remain out of reach by humanitarian agencies, as this ‘zoned-out battlefield’ is separated by Eritrean forces dominating the North; Amhara (second largest ethnic group) militia occupying the South-West and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed federal forces controlling the capital and other major towns. With current ongoing blockages to the internet, media, border-crossing and aid delivery, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening on the ground. But from the testimonies leaving the estimated 900,000 refugees flooding into bordering eastern Sudan, the world falls silent, once again, to a harrowing internal conflict. Testimonies paint a gruesome battlefield for its combatants and ordinary civilians, including widespread death and destruction, textbook methods of war carried out by military troops and the weaponisation of rape and hunger.
“I have spent months in this hospital, my legs are broken, my back is broken, let alone moving, I can’t get up. I cannot control my urine, there is a mix of urine and blood. The enemy has ruined my life”.
The Tigrayan population are Ethiopians of ethnic minority; whereby Tigrayans make up 6% of the country's total population. They are a people that, despite their histories dating back to 10th century Ethiopia, have felt historically disenfranchised and oppressed by central Ethiopian administration. And so, the ethnic political party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was founded as a grassroot movement, with its tenacity persisting within the plight of its people.
Since its founding, for three decades, TPLF maintained significant dominance in government. Between TPLF’s power grab in the 1970s, and their federal control between 1991-2018, TPLF accumulated many internal and cross-border rivals, now manifesting in the brutal force of this crisis. It seems since ousting the TPLF in 2018, the central government coalition of PM Abiy Ahmed has targeted all Tigrayans as payback for TPLF rule.
“After three days, I crawled out of the forest where they left me, and people helped me. In our village, many women were raped, even unmarried girls, even the priest’s wife. A soldier said, “This is our time and now we will murder you. We were ordered to kill your children and come after every woman” (…) Children from 5-15 years old and pregnant women were killed”.
Abiy has amassed tremendous local and border support through his depiction of the TPLF as ‘aggressors’, ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists', with his administration as pavers of a new, pan-Ethiopian landscape. At present, PM Abiy’s legacy from his Nobel Peace Prize for ethnic reconciliation, back in 2019, now seems paradoxical in character.
We now witness what this new landscape costs. Ethiopian unity propagated from Abiy administration and supporters comes at the cost of the ‘othering’ and elimination of those who don’t align. With PM Abiy being both Oromo and Amhara, the two largest ethnic groups of Ethiopia, this cultural erasure pushes for majoritarian Amharic identity in central government, and threatens the future of Ethiopia’s current system of ethnic federalism. And so, to opposition, Abiy paves not the coming of a unified Ethiopia, but a homogenised Ethiopia.
This incessant persecution of the people of Tigray paints yet another example of the calculated logic and costs of majoritarian politics, justified through nation-building and one-Ethiopian identity. In turn, PM Abiy strategically leaned on his allies sharing similar animosity to TPLF.
Reports of the worst human rights abuses have been leaving Northern Tigray, occupied by Eritrean forces, where President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, is described as being “in this war from day one”. Evidences including widespread massacres, destruction, and the weaponisation of rape and hunger are leaving this region in massive accounts.
Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia, but separated in the early 1990s, after a 30 year war for independence. The TPLF governed majoritively during that period, maintaining ongoing hostile sentiments between each party. In the wake of Abiy’s appointment in 2018, Eritrean relations to Ethiopia eased, allowing for allyship in defeating their common enemy; the TPLF.
Abiy also leaned on Amhara forces (second largest ethnic group) to secure the West and South of Tigray after a push back leading to TPLF retreating into those regions. This instruction was tactical, as the Amhara and TPLF also shared tension dating back to TPLF rule.
Many ethnic Amhara and Eritreans alike have felt as though TPLF illegally appropriated fertile land when they came into power, instigating nationalist sentiment for the TPLF to fall under Amhara administration . This war, as a result, is playing out as textbook war crimes; through a process of denial of ethnicity, dehumanisation, eradication, and denial of accountability. The war that the Eritreans and Ethiopians are instigating is against the TPLF and its allied parties, but the ones suffering is coming at the cost of the Tigrayans themselves. This is organised violence; it is systematic and with the intent to pillage and ravage. By calling out these crimes against humanity, we can see these perpetrators for who they truly are. And in the likelihood that TPLF falls, these forces show they have the vengeance and brutality to commit genocide in future.
“When I was giving birth, I was in the desert with strong sun, no people, no clothing. Afterwards, some people came and saw me and gave the baby a bath in a random puddle.”
Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan refugees have been forced to flee to neighbouring Sudan. Still recovering from its own genocide, Sudan has been unable to sustain a refugee population, and aid agencies are struggling to keep up with increasing numbers. The influx of refugees has seen prices of basic food and goods increasing, as Sudan experiences its deepening economic crisis since the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.
Sudanese alliance with Tigrayan refugees stem in gratitude, from when TPLF mediated several Sudanese military and civilian group insurgencies in the post-Bashir transition. However, this gratitude acts as an unsustainable safe haven for the Tigrayans, with Sudan and Ethiopia sharing merky relations economically and politically. Ongoing clashes between both countries accusing each other of border pushing and land grabbing of the Al-Fashaq border region have seen violent repercussions, further marginalising any foreseeable future of peace for the Tigrayans.
The international community have produced statements condemning potential crimes against humanity in the region, as they continue to shy away from any further action. They have agreed to support investigations alongside the Ethiopian Investigation Bureau. With recent withdrawal of EU observers for upcoming June 2020 national elections, these words fall onto the deaf ears of the perpetrators themselves. If the Ethiopian government is involved in the investigations of their war, in any capacity, it inherently cannot be impartial.
Ultimately, peace for Tigray lies not in political disputes, or in language, but in recognising the traumatic human cost of this war, and the born right to dignified living of the people of Tigray. For the innocent civilians, it means millions facing invaders waging for their destruction through systematic torture, murder and starvation. For the women and girls, this means affliction to gang rapes, forced sterilisation and active spread of HIV and STIs. For the children, this means generational trauma of the thousands and growing of unaccompanied children coming into Sudan. And so, for Tigray, peace means immediate international support, accountability of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, and external body investigations of war crimes to stop their systematic annihilation and any potential genocide.