(Source: Dr Abdul Bari) –
Massacre, sufferings and desecration of religious places
The armed conflict in Tigray, home to six million people in northern Ethiopia, began in the nights of 3-4 November 2020 and was between the Tigray Regional Government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) supported by the police, militia fighters and other forces. It has been alleged that Eritrean Defence Forces have had an unholy alliance with the Ethiopian Govt forces who entered Tigray. The Ethiopian forces captured the Tigrayan capital Mekelle on 28 November; any military takeover out of conflict has manifold outcomes.
The human consequences have been dire, with tens of thousands of Ethiopians fleeing to neighbouring Sudan and there are allegations of violent crimes against civilians. It is feared that about two million people might have been internally displaced. The area has been cut off from the rest of the world due to internet and phone outages.
In recent months, outrage has poured in on social media. News also emerged that the conflict damaged one of the region’s most revered religious heritage sites: the historic al-Nejashi mosque, Africa’s oldest and UNESCO World Heritage site, in the area of Wukro. The Ethiopian government, however, promised to repair the mosque.The nearby Amanuel Orthodox church had also been shelled around that time. There are reports that parts of it have been destroyed and the manuscripts looted by Eritrean troops.
The news of al-Nejashi mosque has naturally provoked widespread shock and outrage among Ethiopians, Muslims and Christians alike. The iconic 7th century mosque was reportedly built by early followers of the Prophet Muhmmad (peace and blessings upon him) who fled persecution from the ruling Quraysh tribe in Makkah in modern Saudi Arabia and sought refuge in the kingdom of Aksum, in present-day Ethiopia, where the Christian king Nejashi offered them sanctuary. The mosque symbolised a rich history of justice and tolerance, as King Nejashi rejected bribes from the Quraysh leaders to hand over his guests to them. After hearing of Nejashi’s passing Prophet Muhammad led an absentee funeral prayer for the King.
Humanitarian toll, legacy of mistrust and international community
Since gaining control of the Tigray capital the Ethiopian government declared the Tigray operation ‘over’. However, the TPLF stated that it would continue fighting. The ground reality was also different. According to reports by Anadolu Agency, Ethiopian government and militia fighters had carried out ethnic cleansing operations in Tigray region. Accounts of continuing violence have still been emerging. Opposition groups have said the death toll from the Tigray conflict amounts to at least 52,000. Atrocities including the massacre of civilians, burning and looting of buildings, sexual violence and extra-judicial killings have marred the conflict. Without immediate humanitarian aid, famine is a genuine concern. There are also reports that Tigrayans across Ethiopia are being ethnically targeted.
An Amnesty International report on 26th February says the Eritrean troops’ massacre of hundreds of civilians in the northern city of Axum on last 28-29 November may amount to crimes against humanity. It has called for a “UN-led investigation into the massacre, but also into other grave violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Axum”.
Around 100,000 Eritrean refugees who had already been living in the UN-run camps in Tigray have also been caught up in the conflict. A spokesman for the UN refugee agency said they had received reports that some of them were ‘eating the bark from trees and drinking water from puddles’ after being forced to flee their camps. Ethiopian authorities continue to resist calls from the UN to grant unfettered access to the region and have also barred journalists and aid workers from much of the region. As a result, the information flow is patchy and slow but there are reports of potential war crimes coming forth.
The UN says it is frustrated that talks with the Ethiopian government have not yet secured adequate humanitarian access to provide essential goods including food, medicines and water. There are already reports of a shortage of flour and fuel – and, worst of all, water, which itself was already rationed.
The EU and major countries such as the US, the UK and Germany are taking strong stand to stop this conflict. But the UN Security Council failed to agree on a joint statement in early March on the Tigray crisis, after Russia, China and India concluded it was an internal matter.
The role of the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate Abiy Ahmed is now being questioned. After months of ambivalence on this, he has admitted for the first time that troops from neighbouring Eritrea entered Tigray during the conflict, suggesting they may have been involved in abuses against civilians and “atrocities have been committed in Tigray region”. But he also accused the TPLF’s leaders of “drumming a war narrative”. Only a few years ago in 2017, the world was horrified to see how another Nobel Laureate, Suu Kyi of Myanmar, callously reacted during the massacre, destruction and genocide of the Rohingya people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare many socio-economic problems and already added an additional 88 million people into ‘extreme poverty’ – defined as living on less than $1.90 a day – by 2021. The majority of them are from war-torn, poorer and low-income countries. Amongst the 80 million forcibly displaced people across the globe that includes 45.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 29.6 million refugees and displaced outside their country. The violent conflict in Tigray is adding additional pressure on humanitarian agencies.
The cardinal rules of international humanitarian law are: parties to the conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants; between civilian and military objects; and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. The UN need to be involved to identify the triggers to this conflict and how this tragedy can be stopped. The UN human rights office should be granted access to investigate reports of atrocities carried out by all combating forces. The Ethiopian Govt should also withdraw restrictions on news and allow bona fide humanitarian organisations to help people on the ground.
We desperately need sanity and bridge-building in our fractured world, not hatred and violence.