English translation of the article published on Trouw (The Netherlands):
A year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he is also held responsible for heinous war crimes in the renegade Tigray region. ‘He could even be complicit in genocide.’
Some reports from Ethiopia’s Tigray province, where civil war has been raging for more than four months.
November 9th, 2020. The town of Humera on the border with Eritrea is being bombarded with artillery fire. Civilians are targeted and fleeing.
November 9th, 2020. In the town of May Cadera, about 600 people are killed in the street with machetes and cleavers.
November 19th, 2020. The city of Aksum is under fire from a hill with mortar shells. The bombs are falling on residential areas.
November 28th, 2020. Residential areas in Tigray’s capital, Mekele, are heavily bombed by the Ethiopian army, killing 27 people and wounding 100.
28 and 29 November 2020. Hundreds of unarmed civilians are executed in Aksum. The city is completely looted by Eritrean troops.
January 29th, 2021. The Ayder hospital in Mekele already treated 750 women who were raped by soldiers.
February 11th, 2021. The hospital in Adrigat treated 74 rape victims.
March 4 – 7, 2021. Executions and rapes in Wuqro by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops. Similarly, nuns from the Wuqro monastery were also allegedly raped.
March 7th, 2021. In the city of Azeba, Eritrean soldiers opened fire on people in the market.
These news reports from Tigray, the northern Ethiopian province where civil war is raging, are just a few of a much larger number. Senders: Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, UN human rights organisations, the Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights and NGOs. The data is based on witness statements from survivors, messages from foreign aid workers on the ground, satellite imagery and captured communications between Eritrean and Ethiopian troops in the area by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Qualifications such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and even genocide fall. Comparisons with the crimes in the former Yugoslavia, such as in Srebrenica, and the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, become self-evident.
It starts on November 4 last year when the Ethiopian army invaded the rebellious state of Tigray. Tigray is led by the TPLF, the party that ruled Ethiopia with a dictatorial hand for 29 years but was sidelined in 2018. Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s new prime minister and promised to open the country’s windows and doors. Freedoms beckoned.
The TPLF retreated to its home base in Tigray and opposed all of Abiy’s innovations. Tigray was heading for autonomy. In the federal country, with ten regions and about 80 peoples, this was indigestible to the central authority in Addis Ababa. When TPLF militias attacked an Ethiopian Army base in Tigray in the fall of last year, the measure was full. Abiy sent troops to force Tigray into line.
From the southeast, the Ethiopian army advanced. From the southwest, heavily armed militias from the neighboring Amhara region invaded Tigray. In the north, at least fourteen Eritrean divisions crossed the border with Tigray. Abiy had just made peace with neighboring Eritrea after nearly 30 years of cold war, the first years of which were bitter and left many dead. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of 2019. Meanwhile, there are persistent reports that Somali units are also attacking Tigrayan militias from the east.
On November 28 last year, Abiy declared the total victory. Tigray was back under control, but to this day heavy fighting and heinous crimes against the population are still being reported. Internet and phone traffic has been virtually flat for months to keep the region out of view. “It’s a paradox,” says Kjetil Tronvoll. “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and more than a year later war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed under his leadership. Abiy may even be complicit to genocide.”
Professor Tronvoll is director of Oslo Analytica, Norway, which researches peace and conflict, and has been studying developments in Ethiopia and Eritrea for 30 years. He closely follows the reports of the many atrocities. Tronvoll still characterizes the violence in Tigray as a civil war, because Eritrean troops are fighting alongside the Ethiopian army, and so are the Somali military. “It has become a hopeless and desperate civil war. Ethiopia is not able to defeat Tigray alone and needs help from neighbouring countries and Amhara state.”
Despite all these foreign and domestic forces, the TPLF militias in mountainous Tigray still offer fierce resistance. They are said to have 250,000 fighters under arms. “In this war, Abiy is now powerless, sitting in the corner,” Tronvoll said. Ethiopia’s prime minister has no control over the situation in Tigray, where Eritrean soldiers in particular seem responsible for war crimes. Those troops are led by the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, a North Korean-style dictator. To this day, both countries deny the involvement of Eritrean units on Ethiopian territory. And Afwerki despises human rights and the law of war.
“The civil war in Tigray started as a political territorial conflict, but is now increasingly getting the pulls of an ethnic conflict,” says Thijs Bouwknegt, a historian at NIOD who specializes in mass violence in Africa. He is a specialist of the genocide in Rwanda that took place more than 26 years ago. The comparison with Rwanda is becoming increasingly common in Tigray.
“Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and even the new Secretary of State of the United States, Anthony Blinken, are already talking about ethnic cleansing that is going on in Tigray.” Curiously, ethnic cleansing of an area is not an international crime in itself. “But such a purification process is often accompanied by mass violence, as is now the case in Tigray, so there can be international crimes, such as persecution, expulsion and mass murder,” Bouwknegt said.
“Genocide has more or less the same acts as crimes against humanity, but genocide involves large-scale and systematic violence against the civilian population, and the discriminatory objective is to destroy all or part of a particular national, ethnic, religious or racial group. We hear reports that Eritrean troops have orders to kill and loot in Tigray. Soldiers, according to witnesses who survived, would say the Eritreans are doing this because they are Tigrayans,” Tronvoll said.
He is now convinced that war crimes are being committed. “There is increasing evidence in the form of statements from witnesses and victims, photographs and videos of atrocities. There are also satellite images.” International humanitarian law is about the scale at which crimes against civilians have been committed, the systematic way and how widespread it is. “It has to be controlled from above”. According to him, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops are guilty of this, as are the Amhara militias.
The TPLF militias don’t do that. Tronvoll: “They’re not going to kill their own people.” Although the May Cadera massacre on November 9 last year is attributed to paramilitaries from Tigray, who are said to have killed 600 Amhara migrant labourers there with machetes.
Range of systematic events
Tronvoll needs to see this confirmed. “The fact that the TPLF did this only came out when militias from Amhara May had taken Cadera, so this could also be propaganda,” Tronvoll said.
A range of systematic events reinforces the idea of extermination of the Tigray people. Doctors Without Borders reported that the care system in Tigray has collapsed due to “deliberate attacks, destruction and looting of most hospitals.” The starvation of the population – two thirds are now severely short of food – is also seen as a form of genocide. Tigray has been largely sealed off from the outside world for months. Aid agencies can only do their work in a very limited way, such as delivering food.
And then there are the many reports of rapes of women and very young girls. The Ethiopian Minister for Women’s Affairs has expressed her concern about this. “These are serious crimes, which, if accompanied by impunity, can escalate further if they are not acted upon,” Bouwknegt says.
Process of dehumanization
There would even be reports of men being forced to rape girls belonging to their own families, otherwise they would be killed, the United Nations High Representative against Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramilla Patten, previously reported. Bouwknegt also knows the stories. “You also saw this in Rwanda, where Tutsi fathers or grandfathers had to rape their daughters or granddaughters under Hutus’ duress. It is about demoralizing and terrorizing the civilian population. Very frightening and a process of dehumanization.”
Meanwhile, all these atrocities continue unabated. This raises the question: who is held responsible for this? Of course generals, army commanders, soldiers, paramilitaries and civilian militias, but the eyes are also on the political leadership.
“Lawyers will argue that as a prime minister, Abiy bears ultimate responsibility for what the military does. He must do everything possible to prevent excessive violence and international crimes against civilians and, where appropriate, bring the perpetrators to justice,” Bouwknegt says.
Following on all the evidence that has already come out, Tronvoll believes that the President of Eritrea, Afwerki, can be held responsible for the crime of crimes in Tigray: genocide.
Complicit in genocide
Potentially, Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia is complicit in genocide, Tronvoll believes. “If Abiy has asked the Eritrean troops for help in Tigray, he is familiar with their crimes there and has done nothing about it, then he is assisting in genocide and Abiy is complicit.”
Ultimately, research will have to show what really happened and on what scale. The pressure on Ethiopia to allow this is high. Last Thursday, an agreement was reached. The UN High Representative for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, is going to investigate the war crimes complaints in Tigray together with the fairly independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Ethiopia has said it is cooperating. If evidence is provided for war crimes and/or genocide, then there is a problem with the prosecution of suspects. Ethiopia and Eritrea do not recognise the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Then lawsuits can only be filed in Ethiopia.
The fact that the man of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy Ahmed, who is ultimately responsible for what is happening in Tigray, will have to appear in court for crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide does not seem very likely at this time.