(By Professor Jan Nyssen, Ghent University, Belgium) –
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed published a sinister communiqué (“Final notice”) on 19 March, related to the war in Tigray (https://twitter.com/EthiopiaEU/status/1372893773324247044). It ends with these words: “The government calls on these [TPLF] leaders to do their part by learning from the devastation and damage so far, presenting themselves to justice, preventing further national loss and not shedding the blood of citizens in vain. TPLF’s top military and political leaders who do this will save themselves from severe punishment and prevent misery of their people.” Every Tigrayan reads this as a threatening omen of what may come (e.g. https://twitter.com/GlobalGsts/status/1373099281838641154).
1. Investigating crimes against humanity
The Ethiopian Government has given official permission to investigators from the UN Office for Human Rights to travel to Tigray and investigate human rights abuses and crimes in the region (together with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission). The decision comes lately, and under immense international pressure. A first team of UN Human Rights Monitors will deploy to Mekelle very soon – including their own Tigrinya speaking investigators. Hopefully, like the international journalists recently allowed to enter Tigray, the OHCHR will manage to investigate independently. Our Atlas of the humanitarian situation has been updated and, though the widespread traumatic gender-based violence occurrences have not yet been mapped, there is a map representing the 94 known massacres that have occurred so far in the Tigray war. And just while writing reports come in from numerous civilians massacred in villages around Samre. There is work for the OHCHR!
- Channel 4 News, 18 March: The Horrors of the Hidden War: Inside the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia – How women, again and again, bear the brunt…
- Sky News, 17 March: Ethiopia: Hundreds executed, thousands homeless – the human cost of fighting in Tigray – This is in line with our earlier report concerning the burning of hundreds of homesteads in the Gijet area (and concomitant killings): Cluster bombing on Tigray by the Ethiopian army – more than 500 homesteads destroyed in Gijet
- The German television chain ZDF brought a report covering areas between Mekelle, Aksum and Shire, with witnesses speaking about killings, rape, and the Aksum massacre: https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/zdf-mittagsmagazin/zdf-mittagsmagazin-vom-16-maerz-2021-100.html (from minute 22:09) [in German] Occasionally, in the report, Eritrean troop transports are visible.
- AFP, 16 March: ‘The fighting continues’: A Tigray town reels from drawn-out war (relates the situation in Wuqro and Agula’i)
- Le Monde, 11 March: Les Etats-Unis dénoncent des « actes de nettoyage ethnique » au Tigré [in French]
- France24, 10 March: Ethiopia: video of Tigray massacre lifts lid on ‘war without photos’
- Mistir Sew: Ethiopian government cannot investigate their own crimes in Tigray
- Various government outlets now openly admit heavy rape as a widespread phenomenon, but still try to divert responsibility by “blame-game”. Referring back to our earlier report on president Sahlework visiting the rape victims, we recently learned from a close witness that she kept asking the victims: “did these men speak Tigrinya?”
2. Public health
In a press release on 15 March, Médecins sans Frontières, mentions that
- Violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has extended to attacks on health facilities, with barely one in 10 functioning.
- Of the 106 health facilities MSF teams visited, one in five had been or was occupied by armed soldiers; one facility is being used as an army base.
- The looted, vandalised facilities and resulting lack of medical staff means people in the region have very little access to healthcare. MSF Head said malicious intent was evident, the damage intended to make sure no one could use the facilities afterwards.
- MSF urges all armed groups in the area to respect medical facilities and for services to be restored as soon as possible.
The MSF report holds numerous photos, including that of a graffiti realised by Ethiopian soldiers in the destroyed Debre Abay health centre. It reads: “Fuck you the people of Tigray: now we have handed you over to sha’ibiya [the Eritrean regime] and they will roast you”.
Other NGO people who were in Tigray last week confirm the MSF report for the facilities they saw in Eastern Tigray. Besides, most agro-input shops have been vandalised too…”
- UN News, 19 March: Tigray crisis: Children must be protected from harm, urges UNICEF
- Norwegian Refugee Council, 18 March: Hunger and disease rife among displaced as aid workers gain access to new parts of Tigray
- UNHCR and the NGOs have returned to the two remaining refugee camps in Tigray in the course of the last month.
- BBC, 16 March: Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: Hospitals ‘vandalised and looted’
- Der Spiegel, 15 March: An Ethiopian Doctor Records the Destruction of His Homeland – (also in German language)
3. University and education
We continue updating the situation of the four Tigrayan universities in our status report. Important news is that Prof. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, previous president of MU, who was evicted from his position by the Ethiopian government late October 2020, has recently posted several messages on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ProfKindeya). Reportedly, as he was on the authorities’ search list (for sake of his position in the TPLF party), Kindeya retreated to the mountains. He now managed to find internet connection and to send out several tweets – in the first place, I am so relieved that he is alive!
The Ethiopian Ministry of Peace claims that, on 8 March, 1000 Tigrayan 12th grade students participated in the national exams in Tigray. (https://twitter.com/MoP_Ethiopia/status/1371162367715860480/photo/1) However, a month earlier, it was stated that about 12,000 students were expected to take these exams, physically in Mekelle, Adigrat, Aksum and Raya universities. Our contacts in Mekelle doubt very much even about this number of 1000 participants. On that day, the Tigrayan students that could be reached were ordered to go to Kwiha to participate in the exam. When reaching the town they saw that the school where the exam was to be taken was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. Most students feared that a bad thing could happen (such as forced recruitment to the army) and they went back to Mekelle without taking the exam.
Primary and secondary schools in Tigray have not yet resumed classes.
4. Supporting the Tigrayan students abroad
I have received this message from one of the many committed Tigrayan students abroad:
“In the wake of the ongoing crisis in Tigray, significant trauma is being dealt by students in higher education who have family in Tigray, Ethiopia. This, in addition to an already isolating experience of graduate school amid the COVID-19 pandemic has a big toll on the physical, psychological and spiritual health of students.
I wanted to reach out to you to distribute this form in your network http://bit.ly/3tmEwzl designed to assess the current needs and hopefully organize virtual dialogue to support graduate students through this time of distress.
Thank you for your persistent advocacy to end the suffering of our people in Tigray!”
The message is in the first place addressed to Tigrayan students abroad. I do hope that all readers realise their immense suffering, not only when hearing about relatives killed and wounded, but also the numerous (filmed) massacres, the huge suffering of raped women (only those who suspect pregnancy or have suffered severe injuries will report to hospital!), the fact of being targeted as a nation, including the agricultural base, the infrastructure and the spiritual centre Aksum. The above initiative will for sure enhance self-help groups among Tigrayans, but I think it is as important to strengthen ties between the numerous international supporters and the Tigrayan community abroad.
5. News from the Western Tigray
In many places in Tigray, tens of thousands of internal refugees are arriving from Western Tigray, like confirming the notion of “ethnic cleansing” of Tigrayans that is happening there. Some contacts in Western Tigray mention indeed that remaining Tigrayans are fleeing; the provisional Amhara administration writes “laissez-passer” letters for them, in order to travel to the other side of the Tekeze. Fanno youth groups looted almost everything from harvests to generators to water pumps to health facilities. Remaining Welqaytés considering themselves Amharas or declared Amharas by the new authorities, are yet upset against the Amhara region’s administration. Some said, about the lootings: “What did the TPLF do worse than this?”. Some new administrators have Tigrayan names, speak more Tigrinya than Amharic and have the Tigrayan traditional scarifications on their temples… Some people who barely understand Amharic now claim their “Amharaness” as Welqaytés. “Tigrayan” there refers mainly to the people who were resettled in the lowlands over the last 30 years, according to the new nomenclature introduced by Amhara leaders. Eritrean soldiers are very active in Humera where they hold regular meetings with the provisional Amhara administration.
Prof. Wolbert Smidt has carried out ethnohistorical research in Western Tigray and mentions that “Welqayté are usually Tigrinya-speakers, today and also according to older historical sources, and belong to the cluster of several old autonomous Tigrinya-speaking provinces which were characteristic for the historical north.”
We do not have contacts in May Kadra, but a witness travelled through the town: “in the middle of the town, where a full block of houses has been burnt to the ground, they left on the road all the furnitures, broken things, pieces of corrugated iron and so on. They did not clean anything, as if they wanted to show the scars of war to anybody passing by. May Kadra is the symbol they were waiting for.” No names of the Amhara victims have been confirmed, including by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which was on the scene. The last word has not yet been said about May Kadra, there are very different versions to what is in the first Amnesty report. It’s one of 94 known massacres so far. “The government directly engaged in a PR campaign about one massacre without clear investigation and neglecting all other massacres in Tigray”.
We learnt also that the new Amhara administration plans a land distribution in the conquered Western Tigray.
6. Meanwhile in Amhara Region
It is interesting to follow up what happens in Eritrea and Amhara Region. Both have their armed forces actively involved in the Tigray war. From Eritrean side, there is growing concern of civil society, both in diaspora and inside the country. 491 Eritrean women have written an open letter “Not in my name” to oppose the rape culture of the Eritrean army. Eritrean Church leaders have recommended their followers not to buy looted goods from Tigray, and Christians asked forgiveness for the war crimes by Eritrean soldiers.
We do not see such clearly expressed opinions from Amhara side (even not in the diaspora), and it worries. Hence, we telephoned to some contacts in Gondar and Soqota, to learn more.
In Gondar, people genuinely think the war is over. The main daily problem is inflation. Prices of absolutely everything are skyrocketing. 120 birr for a litre of oil, if available. Queues for gasoil are one kilometre long. People are really angry about the huge inflation. But, they just don’t know about the war crimes in Tigray. Common people only have access to government propaganda. When travellers coming from Tigray tell what they’ve seen there, the others are shocked in disbelief. “You have no idea of the strength of media propaganda.” Many people find it more comfortable to believe the government talk. And there is a very vocal minority of young Amhara male activists, who enjoy war crimes against Tigrayans. The problem is that they are the only ones we hear.
In Soqota, the talk of the town is the occupation of the rural marketplace Tsata by the Tigray forces on 18 March. Tsata is part of Amhara region, some 20 km east of Soqota. There are fears that the local Agaw people may cooperate with the Tigrayans, and the Waghimra Zone (to which Soqota and Tsata belong) issued a communiqué inviting the population not to side with the rebels and mentioning that Soqota is not at risk. For the rest, same worries as in Gondar for inflation, but people clearly link it up with ongoing warfare.
7. Other news
- New York Times, 19 March: Fear and Hostility Simmer as Ethiopia’s Military Keeps Hold on Tigray
- Associated Press, 19 March: Ethiopian leader warns fugitive Tigray leaders to surrender
- Washington Post, 19 March: A border war looms between Sudan and Ethiopia as Tigray conflict sends ripples through region
- CNN, 19 March: ‘Practically this has been a genocide’. Doctors say rape is being used as a weapon of war in Ethiopia’s conflict
- Foreign Policy, 18 March: Biden Dispatches Senate Ally to Ethiopia to Address Crisis – Chris Coons to deliver a tough message to Abiy Ahmed
- Channel 4 News, 18 March: Refugee exodus on Sudan-Ethiopia border as women report mass rape and torture in Ethiopia’s Tigray Province
- Channel 4 News, 18 March: Nobel peace prize of Ethiopian Prime Minister questioned amid conflict in Tigray Province of country
- Voice of America (Tigrigna), 17 March: ቢሮ ኮሚኒኼሽን ክልል ትግራይ 700 ሽሕ ነበርቲ ካብ ም/ትግራይ ተመዛቢሎም ይብል መንግስቲ ክልል ኣምሓራ ግን ነዚ ይነጽግ [In Tigrinya] – Tigray Communication Bureau says 700 thousand inhabitants of western Tigray displaced, while the government of Amhara region denies.
- Sudan Tribune, 17 March: Ethiopia must recognize border treaties before negotiating with Sudan: al-Burhan
- Fana BC, 16 March: EU, Germany provide Federal Police with IT supplies, Forensic items
- Associated Press, 11 March: ‘People are starving’: New exodus in Ethiopia’s Tigray area
- EUobserver, 11 March: EU floats Ethiopia sanctions over humanitarian aid
- World Athletics, 10 March: Despite conflict and uncertainty, women runners from Ethiopia’s Tigray region becoming a rising force
8. Opinion pieces
- Cameron Hudson: Ethiopia, Take a Lesson from Sudan and Stop the War in Tigray
- Omid Nouripour, Moritz Müller: Menschenrechtsverstöße und Konflikte: Äthiopien droht zu zerbrechen [in German]
- Taha Abdi: Elections, conflict, and creeping autocracy in Ethiopia
- S. Assefa: Crossing the Tekeze
- Tsega Etefa: What’s causing the violence in western Ethiopia
- Jendayi Frazer, Judd Devermont: Fighting in Ethiopia threatens US security interests