(Source: Awash Post, ) –
On November 4, 2020, three disjointed partners in the Horn of Africa declared total war against Tigray, a small region of 6 million people in northern Ethiopia. At a national level, the Ethiopian government, run by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, deployed most of its federal troops and Special Forces enlisted from other regions (kilil). At a sub-national level, the Amhara region deployed tens of thousands of Special Forces and militias. At an international level, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki deployed the majority of that nation’s bloated army. Accompanied with heavy armaments, hundreds of tanks and scores of fighter jets, and allegedly UAE drones, the tripartite troops set out to vanquish a tiny region in the shortest time possible—all under the deceptive mission of enforcing ‘law and order.’
When a nation is convinced that it has to kill part of itself through whatever means and alliances to continue existing as a state, its very existence will be put to further test. Abiy has repeatedly declared that “ኢትዮጵያ አትፈርስም or Ethiopia will continue” at all cost, even if millions have to die. Similarly, the Amhara nationalists’ favorite slogan has been “the continuation of the nation” (ager mesqetel), which puts the nation above and over the people. The oxymoronic goal of ensuring the nation’s continuity at all costs is a sign of Ethiopia’s existential crisis. At worst, it would be a nation disintegrating for lack of a cause, unable to answer what holds it together other than the necessity to continue as a nation-state.
The notion of nationhood in the Horn region has always been suspect, but Tigray’s war has laid bare the fault lines within which old and new nationalities are claimed; where borderlines between nations are rendered fluid and ignored, and new and rigid ones are drawn within the country itself. Alliances are made within and across borderlines, even across the sea, to subjugate those on the way of a multiple redrawing, both physical and mental, representing various geopolitical interests; ranging from sub-national to regional. Masses of people are then made to move with such drawings, as imaginary lines are made to move back and forth, with all the brutalities needed to accomplish such tasks, to satisfy the elite in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, and Asmara. Tigray has become the focal point wherein their converging and diverging goals meet.
But even as these overwhelming forces conducted their blitzkrieg, reaching Mekelle, the capital of Tigray Regional State, within a short time, nobody expected what the architects of death, who had planned this for a long time, had in mind: a total war against the people of Tigray, with heightened risk of genocide and mass atrocities. Genocide Watch has already updated Tigray’s case into stage 9, which is ‘extermination.’ Nothing else follows after that except ‘denial’ (which is stage 10), something that ultra-nationalists in Ethiopia are already rehearsing in morbid anticipation. A man-made famine is being deliberately induced and facilitated with hunger as a weapon of war to force the Tigray people into submission. The Famine Early Warning System has put it at Phase 4 (emergency), after which comes Phase 5—the famine itself.
So far, the world is letting this happen, even as it watches total war waged against Tigray, with all the warning signs of genocide in the making across the region. Even the interim Tigray government, propped up by the invading forces, came out with these grim numbers, “4.5 million people in need of emergency food, out of whom 2.2 million are IDPs.” Since then, the number of displaced has increased to 2.5 million. An administrator added that “hundreds of thousands might starve to death.” The Ethiopian Red Cross has warned that 80 percent of Tigray is cut-off from humanitarian assistance. The limited international reporting from Tigray offers grim predictions: “We could have a million dead there in a couple of months.” Opposition parties in Tigray contend that, so far, 52,000 civilians have been killed, 3 million displaced, and 6.5 million (almost the entire population of Tigray) is in need of humanitarian assistance. They estimate the loss of 4.8 million livestock.
The regime in Addis Ababa is determined to see this devastating campaign run its full course, unhindered by any humanitarian intervention.
The war has six targets, with the destruction, dismemberment, and subjugation of Tigray as its final goal:
- the wiping out of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), its leadership, and its army;
- the degradation of Tigray’s elite, with its higher learning institutions and schools, looted or destroyed, and many of their attendants forced to flee the towns and cities.
- the total destruction of Tigray’s developmental and infrastructural projects: hospitals, clinics, schools, universities, factories, businesses, farms, banks, hotels, markets, private and public buildings, etc.;
- the destruction of Tigray’s historical and cultural heritage, with many such sites, vandalized and destroyed and their artifacts looted;
- the dismembering of its territory, with about one third given to Amhara and a large section along the border to Eritrea, beyond what it has ever claimed before;
- the making of atrocity crimes by inducing famine and hunger through the ravages of the war and then letting it run its course unhindered.
In this article, I will focus on the last one. Where the connection is intimate, as in-between ‘famine’ and ‘war,’ the words are not used as distinct categories that hold independent of one another, since the former is also used as a war strategy to subdue Tigray and the latter as a famine strategy to induce mass starvation. The three parties overseeing the war on Tigray—Isaias, Abiy, and the Amhara nationalists— are not only the architects of the total war but also of the ethnic-cleansing, each party playing a distinct role.
A morbid division of labor
The massive displacement caused by the scorched earth approach of the war (massacres anywhere the armies enter, burning down of houses and homesteads, emptying of villages, large-scale bombing by planes and drones, etc.); large-scale destruction, burning, and looting of food sources (harvest heaps, crops on the ground, food and grain storages, fodder, livestock, etc.); destruction or suspension of their functional supplements (mills, fuel, transportation, electricity, water, etc.); and extensive elimination of livelihoods in towns and cities (with the destruction of factories, businesses, health centers, universities, hotels, civil service buildings, etc.) have left millions in rural and urban Tigray in dire need. In West Tigray, systematic ethnic cleansing has displaced hundreds of thousands more. The tripartite axis deployed these strategies in tandem to induce famine at a massive level, with millions of victims.
In this morbid division of labor, the Ethiopian government is focused on one obstructive strategy with intense determination: deny and delay food aid from reaching those who need it on a timely basis, thus letting the man-made famine run its course unchecked. Abiy’s determined stance not to cooperate with concerned states, international organizations, relief agencies, humanitarian agencies, and NGOs comes from a belief that this famine has to do its work first if he is to succeed in subjugating Tigray.
Other measures supplement this famine policy that the government is attentively undertaking. It has done everything from drastically reducing cash flow in Tigray to creating mass unemployment. The media blackout imposed on Tigray prevents the world from witnessing the famine’s emergence and how it is deliberately induced and facilitated. The Amhara forces and the federal troops are assigned to block the route to Sudan, lest the starving masses reach the only safe place available to them.
In other words, this famine policy is implemented through the denial of access to aid, employment, cash, information, and escape routes.
In fact, looked at from a bit of a distance, this all-out campaign resembles a battle strategy, with the entire population of Tigray identified as enemy combatants. Not only are all the roads to escape closed to these ‘enemy combatants,’ all route through which help could arrive are cut off. Any communication from the ‘enemy combatants’ for help is intercepted before reaching the rest of the world. Having thus encircled them, the ravages of war are employed in wiping out as many of the ‘enemy combatants’ as possible before the world takes full notice of what is going on.
Tragically, the international community has been mostly reluctant to respond to the Abiy government’s maneuverings, and where there have been responses, they remain inadequate and ineffective. Bogged down in details—investigations, studies, reports, assessments, dialogs, meetings, warnings, phone calls, pleadings, concerns, worries, statements, etc.—the world fails to see the overarching policy, which motivates the disengagement of the Abiy government.
From the outset, Prime Minister Abiy saw blaming the TPLF for all of Ethiopia’s ills and misfortunes as an important strategy to galvanize public support for his administration. Over the last two years, Abiy has been demonizing the TPLF through his rhetorical speeches and selective actions. Coded phrases such as ‘daylight hyenas’ and ‘changing colors’—interpreted as insatiably corrupt and treasonous, respectively—were understood by the rest of the population to refer not only to TPLF but also to Tigrayans in general. The ‘27 years of darkness’ was meant to erase anything that TPLF or Tigray has contributed in those years.
To be sure, the TPLF were not saints, but they were part and parcel of ruling EPRDF coalition (with Abiy and Co.) and should not be singled out for persecution. His government also put out a documentary in which Tigrigna speakers are depicted as the antithesis of justice that Ethiopians seek. Thus, by making sure that Tigray, Tigrayans, and the TPLF remain interchangeable in these negative attributions in people’s minds, he opened Pandora’s box to which the elite quickly latched on.
The Abiy government has been denying any such allegations, especially regarding the brutal execution of its war and its refusal of humanitarian access. Abiy has even outrageously claimed that not a single civilian was killed in a war that has already killed thousands of civilians and is poised to kill much more. But there is one thing that, surprisingly, the government is not denying: its ethnic profiling of Tigrayans, with tens of thousands relieved from their jobs because they are considered security risks, even in civilian jobs like the Ethiopian Airlines. This probably is the clearest sign that all the coded phrases that Abiy has been using go beyond implicating the TPLF.
TPLF issued their fair share of provocative statements, but once the Amhara nationalists noticed Abiy’s dog whistle messaging, the mental and physical preparations needed for the final military assault that was already underway were accelerated.
With the ascent of Abiy to power, the hate campaign came out in the open through legitimate means. The elite did a successful job of convincing the Amhara masses that Tigray is at the root of their existential problem as a people and Ethiopia as a nation. They considered themselves to be the primary custodians. And more practically, they provided the masses with real causes they can quickly identify with centralization at the national level and ‘land restoration’ at the regional level.
Soon after that followed the physical preparations, an ominous blueprint for what would happen later in the war. After Abiy’s ascent, they didn’t wait for long to block all the roads that lead to Tigray, making it difficult for Tigray to meet its needs. Thus, the blockage of Tigray that was to be total in times of war, ensuring the efficacy of the genocide, was already being put in practice much earlier in the Amhara region.
Second, they started ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from their region years before the war, with tens of thousands of Tigrayans evicted from the Amhara region. Thus, the massive ethnic cleansing that we are witnessing now in West Tigray by Amhara forces is an extension of that policy, now perfected to be total. Lastly, they have done all the preparations for a military assault, with tens of thousands of Special Forces and militia ready to strike, as they waited for the tripartite alliance to coalesce.
But no one could outperform the Asmara regime in this campaign of hate, which has been preparing its troops for this day for more than two decades. Not only had it turned the entire nation into an extensive military camp, mobilizing its entire population, it had also indoctrinated a generation with ‘anti-Tigray’ ideology. Abiy came to fully grasp that he could fully harness the intense hatred and over preparations of Afwerki and the Amhara elite to unleash a tsunami of destructive forces against Tigray.
Abiy and his famine policy
There is no doubt that famine is emerging as the biggest weapon the Abiy government is willing to wield in the process of subjugating Tigray.
The government’s first step in its systematic famine policy against Tigray is to let the famine run its course; that is, not to obstruct it in any way.
The refusal to let any humanitarian organizations or relief agencies get free access to Tigray derives from this policy. The Amhara elites have been pointing out that the 1984/85 famine’s global aid helped the Woyanie win the war and shouldn’t be repeated. But here is the question: if more than a million dead at that time didn’t deliver Mengistu Hailemariam a victory over the Woyanies, how many more are they planning to kill now to get the victory that eluded Mengistu? This shows the extent to which the nationalists are willing to go for ‘Ethiopia to continue’; indeed, a morbid journey that Abiy, too, is ready to traverse.
Despite Ethiopia’s promise to let UNICEF humanitarian aid pass through unhindered, no such thing has happened until recently, even as it has claimed that there are 2.3 million children in need of its help. Confined to the cities, it has yet to be seen how much they would cover now. So is it with OCHA, which has faced obstructions at different levels; even when the government presumably permits it, it was met with refusal or delay in the Amhara occupied areas. And so is it with the UNHCR; the government still refuses to give it access to two refugee camps (Hitsats and Shimelba), where much of the atrocities against the refugees have been conducted by Eritrean troops.
The latest satellite update is that the two camps have been deliberately demolished, over 1,000 structures were destroyed, and nearly all of the 20,000 refugees who used to live there unaccounted for. On February 8, Ethiopia announced the permanent closure of the two camps.
Overall, the UN has been met with all kinds of obstructions. So is it with many other relief agencies and NGOs? The EU and the U.S. have also been met with similar resistance. Leaders from the U.S., France, Germany, and others have been pleading with Abiy to no avail. Thus, despite all kinds of promises, so far, little of that aid has reached Tigray.
The bureaucratic obstacles have been one of the Abiy administration’s biggest weapons in its deny-and-delay strategy. Many aid workers have been deliberately stranded in Addis Ababa, entangling them with visa requirements. This is beside the numerous other obstacles they face in local areas, all designed to deny or delay aid.
But the greatest strategic means Addis Ababa uses to delay and deny humanitarian access is by refusing to let this happen in areas it doesn’t control. Since the TPLF is still in control of substantial parts of Tigray, this amounts to denying access to large segments of the population. The EU has identified the strategy for what it is: “International humanitarian law is not about giving access to government-controlled areas… International humanitarian law means giving access to all areas where people need us, and it’s evident that this is not the case with the current agreement. We told the Ethiopians that we stand ready to negotiate something different, but what is now on the table is not working.”
Not only is the Abiy government deliberately obstructing aid from reaching needy people, but it is also doing its utmost to prevent people from going to where assistance is found. Its federal troops and Amhara militia are ordered to stop people from reaching a safe destination in Sudan, where the humanitarian organizations have been helping. They have been so efficient in this task of closing the border that, lately, the outflow of refugees entering the Sudan camps has dwindled into a trickle. Here too, the EU seems to see the motive behind this move, as it demands, “Civilians must be able to seek refuge in neighboring countries.”
Thus, various tactics are being openly employed by the government to deny access to the needy people: denial that there is starvation, denial of the extent of the need, outright refusal to grant access, bureaucratic hurdles, rerouting of aid to other areas, etc. Even when allowed, various obstacles are set along the road to Mekelle and from Mekelle to the outskirts—all with the government’s blessing. And, as we speak, the government is putting a Potemkin show in Mekelle for the “reconstruction of Tigray” meant for the consumption of the outside world—another deny-and-delay strategy.
Second, not only is the Abiy Ahmed regime letting the famine run its course unchecked, it is actively inducing it.
Despite multiple invasions of locusts in the south, this year, the harvest has been good in the rest of Tigray—that is until the invaders showed up. With a meticulousness that only a determined enemy can muster, the armies of the tripartite alliance have slashed and burned their way throughout Tigray, burning homes and homesteads, grain storages, crops on the ground, harvest heaps, fodder, grasslands, and even forests along their way, and slaughtered and looted all kinds of livestock; in the process, displacing millions, mainly peasants who have been forced to flee their homes, leaving behind their farm animals and harvests—that is, if not already slaughtered or burned down. Most of those who have stayed or returned live in utter destitution, with most of their possessions destroyed or looted. An internal assessment says that half of the IDPs’ houses have been burned down, putting the figure of ruined homesteads in their hundreds of thousands.
Thus, the more than two million displaced Tigrayan peasants, and millions more who have stayed or returned to their villages but have lost their crops and livestock are living on borrowed time. The small aid that has arrived in the cities couldn’t reach them because of infrastructural and security problems that the tripartite armies have created.
Abraha Desta, head of the Tigray Regional State Interim Administration Bureau of Social Affairs, has said that transportation problem has been the main bottleneck that prevents aid from reaching rural areas, without noting that the large-scale looting of trucks by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops (taken to Addis Ababa and Asmara respectively) have created this problem. Given the slowness with which aid is trickling to Tigray, these peasants will be the first victims of the famine.
And this morbid policy to starve the Tigrayan masses to submission is not limited to peasants; the urban population is facing the same fate.
First, as soon as it occupied the towns and cities in Tigray, the Ethiopian government quickly imposed a cash policy to exacerbate the famine in the region. It delayed the reopening of banks as much as possible. Even as it opened some banks later, it deliberately froze bank accounts of the entire urban population by prohibiting any withdrawals. Besides, it delayed the exchange of old notes with new ones, making it almost impossible for those living in remote areas to beat the deadline. The destruction and looting of banks by the invading forces have also exacerbated this problem, something that the government doesn’t seem to mind.
Second, extensive livelihoods have been made to disappear by the tripartite armies’ relentless and vicious destruction. With almost all the factories in Tigray either destroyed, looted, or idled, the number of those out of work would amount to tens of thousands. If we add all other businesses closed and civil servants idled, the unemployment number would be massive; at minimum, hundreds of thousands. And wherever civil services have been started, salary payments have been delayed.
Besides, in many towns, the residents’ entire food supply has been looted, especially in towns and cities close to Eritrea. The insecurity in the villages has also added to this plight. The regular supply of food products used to reach urban areas at a steady pace is being interrupted. Further, the insecurity in the cities caused by the looting armies and criminals (deliberately set free from prisons by the occupying troops) have made many store owners reluctant to open their shops. All of this has driven the prices of food products to a prohibitively high level. It has created a precarious condition for most urban dwellers; so much so, there are reports that some are already dying of starvation.
To annihilate TPLF and forcibly crush and subdue the people of Tigray, fences have to be erected around the region. Hostile forces from Eritrea, Amhara, and Afar have made sure that no starving people make it out of Tigray. That is to say; there is no safe place for them anywhere in Ethiopia. As noted before, the Amhara forces and federal troops are further assigned to block the Sudan route. Now, the starving masses have nowhere to go except to coil up and die or wait for the world to intervene.
Finally, the information blackout over Tigray is meant to conceal the extent of the destruction and the true scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the region. It is intended to prevent the world from witnessing the policy of starvation and its consequences on a timely basis. To that effect, Abiy has adamantly refused to let any independent media enter Tigray. And, second, he has cut off telephone and Internet services. Recently, limited telephone service started in Mekelle and a few other towns after pressure from outside. Abiy believes that he could somehow manage this partial opening while giving the impression of relenting to Western demands.
The Internet is what he dreads the most. First, the images of carnage and destruction taking place all over Tigray—abandoned villages, burned-out homes, collapsed buildings, looted universities, ransacked health centers, demolished factories, burned-out military vehicles, vandalized worship places, torched harvests, crowded IDP camps, etc.—will only add to the negative image of a government that still claims it is on a ‘law and order’ mission.
Second, the notion of brutal Eritrean soldiers terrorizing residents and looting everything on their way will be exposed. Third, social media’s power in shaping opinion in Tigray, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the outside world will be enormous, even forcing some Amhara elite into doublespeak to straddle two worlds. But the last thing that Abiy dreads is the image of emaciated starving people, especially children, making the media’s headlines worldwide. If genocide is to do its work, then, for Abiy, total blackout of the Internet is a non-negotiable necessity.
The longer the war, the more it will be shown for what it is. The looting and murderous army of Eritrea would find it hard to explain its extended presence. The ethnic cleansing that the Amhara forces are conducting would be unable to continue in stealth. Above all, there is fear among the three partners that time could only benefit the TPLF. That is why famine is now firmly solidifying as a war strategy they cannot afford to give up.
Amhara forces and the famine policy
The Amhara forces are made up of Special Forces, militia, and its younger version, Fano; all joined in their irredentist aspiration: ‘restoring’ the land that Tigray supposedly had taken from them; namely, West Tigray (Wolkayit-Tsegelie) and South Tigray (Raya). Not only does this claimed area amount to about one-third of the total landmass of Tigray, but it also happens to be the most fertile. Even though the overwhelming majority in these areas are Tigrigna speaking, the Amhara region wants to redraw it with different criteria in mind.
When it comes to Tigray, it does not wish to abide by the drawing of borders along linguistic lines that makes the foundation for the federal system in Ethiopia. And where the federal arrangement suits them—as in Addis Ababa—the Amhara elite want to maintain it. That is to say, although the Amhara forces on the ground were the actual perpetrators of atrocity crimes, the leading architects are the Amhara elite, who have been articulating this morbid vision for a long time.
It is easy to see how ethnic cleansing could be very appealing to some Amhara elite. If one is to settle the land with Amhara peasants, one must first clear the Tigrayan peasants. That is why in West Tigray, the assault by Amhara forces is more systematic: massive ethnic cleansing, accompanied by the expropriation of homes, farm plots, harvests, and livestock. Given that, in this area, farmers’ main occupation is cattle rearing, the extent of the livestock expropriated by the Amhara forces would amount, at minimum, to hundreds of thousands.
The eviction of tens of thousands of Tigrayans from West Tigray to Sudan happens to be the beginning of that ethnic cleansing. And they would have continued doing that until the rest of the Tigrayans were evicted had it not been that the refugees reaching Sudan, with their stories of horror picked up by the world media, were becoming a headache to the Addis Ababa government.
The alternate solution the government came up with was not better: it put pressure on the militia to block the refugees from reaching Sudan. The evicted Tigrayans were left in limbo. Some managed to reach Sudan through long routes to avoid the militia. Many are believed to have perished along the way. Among those who successfully arrived at the refugee camps, many were emaciated, dehydrated, and exhausted, some losing loved ones while en route. Many are still trapped in between, with the path to Sudan blocked, and with no chance of going back from the villages, they were violently evicted.
That doesn’t mean the eviction of Tigrayans from West Tigray has stopped or slowed down; what has changed is the destination to which they are being evicted. Many of the more than 2 million IDPs in Tigray are supposed to have fled from West Tigray, obviously fleeing the Amhara militias who have been massacring them and burning down or emptying their villages. This is what Gebremeskel Kassa, the head of the region’s Interim Administration, had to say, “There are 2.2 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Tigray, half of them are whose houses were burnt and lost all their properties, the other half fled by foot from western Tigray and other places in Tigray to regional cities including Axum, Shire, Adigrat and Mekelle.”
The extent of ethnic cleansing conducted in West Tigray must have been massive, at minimum, involving hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans. There are 40 thousand IDPs in Shire town stationed in university and school campuses and 68 thousand more in Mekelle – almost all of them from West Tigray. This hasn’t received proper coverage simply because no independent media have reached the IDPs (as they have done with the refugees in Sudan, for instance). The entire of West Tigray has been under the Amhara militia control until recently. There is no doubt that they must have systematically burned down or emptied villages of entire districts for the above statistics to make sense.
To give legitimacy to the Amhara settlement, their elite are working hard to annex those areas to the Amhara kilil. They have become de facto Amhara districts, with Amhara administrators and bureaucrats taking charge in all positions. The mass settlement of Amhara peasants will start soon, they hope; that is if it hasn’t already started. There hasn’t been any protest at all from the Abiy government to this territorial expansionism reminiscent of the Nazis’ ‘lebensraum’ policy; to the contrary, it seems it is being done with all of its help and blessing.
With additional troops from the ENDF being recently deployed to block the route to Sudan, the death trap is enlarged to include those escaping from West Tigray and the rest of Tigray. Thus, the blockage to Sudan will play a significant role in the emerging famine. In the 1984 to 1985 famine, when the TPLF managed to carve a route to Sudan, it helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. If the federal and Amhara forces manage to block that route successfully, millions of lives in the entire Tigray will be in grave danger.
Eritrean troops and the famine policy
Even as the involvement of Eritrea in the Tigray war has surprised many, though not unexpected, it is the extent of the brutality, depravity, and irreverence displayed by the Eritrean troops with which they have conducted their invasion that has caught many off surprise: massive lootings of anything they could carry; wanton destruction of anything of worth; large-scale displacement of peasants through continuous terrorization; civilian massacres in places they pass through or are stationed; hunting down of young men, especially if they happen to be educated; destruction of refugee camps, followed by killings, forced conscription, and abduction; wide-spread raping of girls and women, even in gangs, and sometimes taken as hostages for days; the lack of respect for anything traditional, with vindictive targeting of historical, cultural and religious sites, vandalizing churches and mosques and looting artifacts, etc.
When the Eritrean troops moved into the northern part of Tigray, the people were alarmed by their voracious appetite to take anything they saw and to burn or destroy the rest. These troops have gained a reputation for all-out looting, with trucks lined up to transport the looted sacks of grain and other items to Eritrea. Even camels have been used to transport these goods, probably stolen from inaccessible areas. Obviously, it is the peasant population that fared the worst.
There is an age-old tempo that peasants follow in harvest time depending on the type of soil, elevation, weather, and crop. As a result, it is normal to see three harvest stages at the same time: some crops are harvested early, threshed and winnowed, and then stored; some other crops are gathered in harvest heaps, sometimes waiting for weeks before they are threshed and winnowed; and still, others are not grown or dried enough to be harvested. This was too much of a temptation for the vindictive Eritrean troops, who looted much of the stored grains and torched the rest at all stages. They even burned the chaff, which is used to feed the oxen and donkeys, making sure that these animals too would die of starvation—that is, if they haven’t already been killed or eaten by them. If there were any more left, after all the livestock that has been driven to Eritrea.
This wanton destruction followed the troops from Shire to the west to Zalambessa to the east, an arch of hundreds of kilometers. And as they kept moving deep inside Tigray, they kept it up with a zeal that would be an envy of any barbarian army from the distant past.
Further, with indiscriminate killings of peasants and burnings of homesteads, many villages have been entirely emptied, adding hundreds of thousands to the IDP population. One of the most potent weapons used by Eritrean troops in the displacement of peasants is the string of civilian massacres—especially young men—that have been following them wherever they go. So much so that by now, in just three months, together with the federal and Amhara forces, they have killed an estimated 52, 000 people.
That is why when they leave the villages that they have visited, even briefly, it is as if swarms of locusts have visited them. With starvation a sure thing; all the peasants could do now is coil up and wait for death, or wait for the world to help.
It is the same thing when these marauding Eritrean troops occupy towns and cities.
Trucks have been following them to be filled up with anything they loot—from fridges to plastic chairs, from clothes to second-hand shoes, from laptops to cell phones, from tables to doors. Every soldier was equipped with a large sack to cram it with anything; then, he would tag it with his name and his family’s address before he piled it on the truck. Their pockets were full of jewelry and cash they robbed at gunpoint or from civilians they killed. The lucky ones—the colonels, no doubt—head directly to the banks.
In the urban destruction they relish, they always aim at the residents’ livelihoods, food supplies, health services, and anything that serves or employs large numbers of residents. The pictures and videos that have come out so far show public and private buildings damaged, demolished, or burned down; factories destroyed after being thoroughly looted; universities and schools ransacked (libraries, laboratories, offices, etc.), and anything they could carry taken to Eritrea; health centers invariably destroyed, with all the medicine spilled all over the floors and their equipment dismantled and shipped to Eritrea; and all sorts of vehicles—small cars, trucks, heavy-duty vehicles used in construction, military, and police vehicles, ambulances, busses, etc. (so much so, that a vast place known as Asha Golgol near Asmara has been packed with these stolen vehicles)—looted. All kinds of services—water, electricity, telephone, health, education, banks, transportation, etc.—have been destroyed, cut off, or denied.
Again, when they are done and over with, nothing is left for the dwellers except to abandon the place altogether or to lie low, living in precarious conditions.
Reports are coming out from Tigray of people starting to die of starvation, mainly in territories occupied by Eritrean troops, testifying to the spectacular success of Isaias’ mission to starve Tigray to death. Only the Amhara forces have done a better job in ethnically cleansing entire areas through systematic mass evictions. With federal troops following in their footsteps at this pace, it won’t be long before mass starvation shows up everywhere in Tigray—again, if the world does nothing about it.
What is to be done?
Let’s start with what the EU is demanding before continuing budgetary aid to Ethiopia, so far the most vigorous reaction; and then point out what more is needed to make it work: “Granting full humanitarian access for relief actors to reach people in need in all affected areas, in line with International Human Law. Civilians must be able to seek refuge in neighboring countries… Communication lines and media access to Tigray should be fully re-established.”
The EU has rightly identified the three main problem areas that the Abiy government is unwilling to do, but it fails to see the overarching policy that motivates the three partners-in-crime.
First, it assumes that the Ethiopian government is ready to allow access to aid in the areas that it controls, not rebel-controlled areas. Even if we assume that it wants to help the people in areas under its control, two of its allies- Amhara and Eritrea – do not want this to happen.
Any aid has to pass through Amhara land; and, so far, they have been reluctant to let this happen in a meaningful way. For three years (since the coming of Abiy), they have successfully blocked all the roads that lead to Tigray; the idea that they will do it now without a fight is implausible. The government might eventually force them to comply, but only when it, in turn, is forced to comply by the outside world. So far, the Abiy government seems happy that whatever aid it allows is getting obstructed along the way before it reaches its destination. The EU assessments fail because they do not truly comprehend the nature of the beasts involved in this genocide.
Another even bigger elephant in the room that the EU has overlooked: the Eritrean army in Tigray. Even if Ethiopia is forced to give access to the areas the rebels do not control, it doesn’t amount much without factoring in Eritrea’s role since most of those who need it most happen to live in territories occupied by Eritrean troops. Think of this: if Eritrean troops have looted or burned almost all the food supply produced by Tigrayans, what prevents them from stealing the aid that makes its way to those territories? It would be easier for them to reroute trucks already loaded with food aid than the messy way they have been doing, by pillaging individual households. Again, the failure is to see the nature of this bigger beast.
Besides, it has been the central policy of the Isaias regime to create this man-made famine. Together with the Abiy government and the Amhara leadership, they count on this famine to deliver them victory over Tigray. With the resurgence of the Tigrayan resistance, they have lost hope of winning the war soon. The more their losses on the battlefield, the more they depend on the famine to deliver that victory. Cooperating with humanitarian groups is, according to them, self-defeating: after having worked so hard to induce starvation, they are now being asked to cooperate in fighting it—imagine the anger. No wonder that Isaias, Abiy, and the Amhara nationalists are furious that the world is intervening just as they were about to declare a mission accomplished, with all the help they could get from the famine.
Given Eritrea’s pivotal role in the war and the making of the famine, it is incredible that the world, in general, and the EU, in particular, is not paying enough attention to the Isaias regime. The US seems willing to fill the gap left by the EU: it has told Eritrea to withdraw its troops out of Tigray immediately. Better late than never, the EU also seems to support that idea now. Yet, so far, no measures have been taken to enforce that, and those so far entertained are woefully inadequate.
The harshest proposal so far has come from the Washington Post editorial board, “The United States and European Union, which heavily fund Ethiopia, should withhold further aid until there is full humanitarian access to Tigray and the government agrees to pursue talks.” But this, on its own, won’t do the job because Abiy and Isaias believe they can weather any ‘sanctions’ imposed on them for a few months; that is, enough time for the war and the famine to deliver them victory—they think.
They might even count on the largesse of their Arab neighbors to fill in the deficit. Soon after that, they will be amenable to ‘negotiations’ with the world at large. They will even be willing to open Tigray for aid after the genocide has done much of its work. Given the world’s short memory and the ‘indispensability of Ethiopia’ to the region, they believe the world would have no alternative but to accommodate them.
With that in mind, Eritrea is doing just the opposite of what the Biden administration has been asking it to do. Anticipating the Biden administration’s move, Abiy and Isaias finalized a final offensive they hope will deliver them the victory that has eluded them so far just after Biden moved to the White House. With Eritrea’s expanded presence, that final offensive is now being waged all over Tigray.
There is no doubt that Isaias and Abiy will test the will of the US before they relent. For this duo, it is a do or die mission. While for Abiy, there might be some wiggling room to save himself (by switching back to his Oromo base), there is none for Isaias. If he is forced to withdraw his troops prematurely, it would be the beginning of his end. That is why the final offensive is mainly coming at the expense of Eritrea, with the mobilization of the last kind—women, child-soldiers, and retired men included—being scraped from the hollowed-out population of Eritrea. This is Isaias’s last gasp. He is a desperate man, and the US shouldn’t allow him to take his revenge on Tigray once more before he goes down.
Thus, the key to solving the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.
First, there is no way that the Abiy government could defeat the Tigray forces without Eritrea’s help since it remains the backbone of the tripartite alliance. Even with all the support it has been getting from Eritrea, the chance of winning the war is getting slimmer and slimmer by the day. So, the best way Abiy could be coaxed towards the peace table is only if he sees the war option as impossible to attain. Second, one of the main reasons for Abiy’s reluctance to let in humanitarian groups and media is the heavy presence of Eritrean troops and the horror that follows them wherever they go.
More importantly, the world can be assured the aid that reaches the most affected areas won’t be stolen only if the looting army of Eritrea is gone for good. Finally, all the horrendous humanitarian crimes associated with Eritrea would come to an abrupt end, to the great relief of the traumatized people of Tigray and the remaining Eritrean refugees.
President Biden should realize that the main reason why the two leaders are rushing to finalize the war on Tigray is the switch of guards in the White House. Any delay on his side to act would come at a colossal expense to the people of Tigray, who will be massacred in enormous proportions because of the morbid calculations of Abiy and Isaias. Eritrea should be given an ultimatum of only a few days to pack its armaments and get out of Tigray. Ethiopia, too, should be given an ultimatum to open a humanitarian corridor. But the main focus should be on Eritrea, and with a big stick behind it. That is the only way the world can avoid a potential genocide of epic proportion, one that could easily surpass that of Rwanda in a month or two.