Tigray, the Armenian Genocide and an Open Letter to President Biden

Ethiopia Open Letters Tigray

(Source: Armenian Weekly, By Dr. Goitom Aregawi, 26 May 2021) – 

Armenians and Ethiopia have a long history, one that goes back as far as the 13th century. Early in the 1900s, Armenians sought refuge and a safe haven from the massacres and persecution in the Ottoman Empire and emigrated to Ethiopia, an Orthodox Christian country. Many more followed after the Armenian Genocide in the 1920s.

Armenians significantly contributed to Ethiopian society over the last century, in particular in its capital of Addis Ababa from participating in government and owning businesses to working in various industries, including the fields of medicine, engineering, law and finance to being craftsmen and musicians. It is well known that 40 orphans of the Genocide were brought to Ethiopia in 1924 by Emperor Haile Selassie I to form a royal brass marching band. Leading the band was maestro Kevork Nalbandian who also happened to write the first Ethiopian national anthem. Following the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia which led to the fall of the monarchy and the installation of a Marxist government, many Armenians left the country.

Ethiopian refugees, fleeing clashes in the country’s Tigray region, cross the Tekeze river into Hamdayet, Sudan (Photo: © UNHCR/Olivier Jobard)

Today, the Tigray region of Ethiopia is facing a devastating humanitarian crisis, a situation that will feel familiar to many Armenians. In November 2020, the Ethiopian government, with its Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), adopted what appears to be a scorched-earth policy in the region, designed to eliminate Tigray’s ethnic population. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) are engaged in a war for survival.

 

Despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s announcement that “military operations” had ended at the end of November with the ENDF taking control of the regional capital of Mekelle, fighting persists with a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing. Adding to the severity of the conflict is the involvement of the neighboring Eritrean government, which has aligned with the ENDF and is reportedly responsible for large-scale human rights violations.

On May 23, the US State Department announced restrictions against Ethiopia and Eritrea due to the ongoing atrocities after providing $52 million in assistance in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region back in March. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says more than two million people have been displaced by the conflict to date, with 5.2 million in need and more than 63,000 refugees fleeing the region.

Earlier this month, the Weekly received the following open letter to Pres. Biden from Dr. Goitom Aregawi, also known as activist Ztseat (meaning Exodus) on social media. The 36-year-old Aregawi is a medical doctor who worked at the Mekelle University Hospital and serves as chairman of the grassroots youth movement Seb-Hidri Civil Society of Tigray whose mission is “furthering democracy, justice and Civic Engagement for the rights of Tigreans.” Dr. Aregawi fled Mekelle in disguise and went to Nairobi, Kenya three weeks ago seeking asylum. His activism and outspoken criticism of the Ethiopian government’s actions in Tigray led to his detention and targeting by authorities. He says that the UNHCR offices and Kenyan immigration offices are closed and not registering migrants which has halted his appeal for asylum and could lead to his deportation. “I am assured I will not be deported to Ethiopia in the coming two months, at least,” Aregawi told the Weekly via email.

An Open Letter to His Excellency Mr. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. , 46th President of the United States of America

Tigray’s grandkids shall not wait for a century to even get recognition of what their forefathers went through, like what happened to the generations of Armenian survivors.

Mr. President,

I am writing this appreciating Your Excellency’s historic decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide, with hopes of appealing to your administration to stop the ongoing genocide in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray, a conflict with distinctively similar features to the Armenian Genocide.

Mr. President,

Last year you promised Americans and the world that you will make human rights a central guidepost of your foreign policy. You said that you would pursue a values-based foreign policy. You also said that failing to call the atrocities against the Armenian people a genocide would pave the way for future mass atrocities. Calling the atrocities on Armenians “Genocide” in your first 100 days in office shows your commitment to human rights.

Tigrayan Americans show their solidarity with the Armenian community outside the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles, Calif., April 2021.

Mr. President,

I salute you for this historic declaration and for your principled position, with hopes that it will right the wrong done to all those Armenians who perished in the state-sponsored genocide 106 years ago by the Ottoman Turks, which exterminated an estimated 1.5 million Armenians (more than 90-percent of the Armenian population, by then). I also hope this extends to all parts of the world. In fact, your action cannot be more timely than now when it comes to the ongoing genocide in Tigray, in the Horn of Africa.

Mr. President,

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “History teaches us that if we ignore its darkest chapters, we are destined to witness the horrors of the past be repeated;” so, your declaration was an important milestone in history and instilled the hope that similar crimes will be prevented before being repeated.

Unfortunately, the world has repeatedly failed to learn from its mistakes in the past, and has repeated them time and time again over the years.

Between 1941 and 1945, six million Jews were exterminated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators across German-occupied Europe in the Holocaust. Around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population were exterminated.

In 1994, the world saw one of the most shocking human tragedies in Rwanda. Between April 7 and July 15, 1994 (100 days), members of the Tutsi ethnic group and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered by armed militias. The world acted as a ‘bystander,’ very much reluctant to act on time and stop the genocide before its devastation plagued the nation. On March 25, 1998, President Bill Clinton expressed “a deep regret” for failing to act on time and stop it.

After the tragic Rwandan Genocide, the international community in one voice echoed “Never Again.” Many of us hoped such horrors wouldn’t happen again – “Never ever, again!”

Tragically, 27 years after the Rwandan Genocide and 106 years after the Armenian Genocide, similar atrocities are being committed under Your Excellency’s watch in Tigray.

The genocide in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, a genocide that I have witnessed with my own eyes, could even be at a scale worse than that of the Armenians and Rwandans.

For more than six months now, Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, Amhara forces (Amhara Special forces, Amhara militias, Amhara Fano – an armed youth squad) are committing a well-planned, deliberate, well-executed act of ethnic cleansing against the Tigrayan people. The international community once again appears to be embracing a spectator role, reluctant to act decisively and stop the genocide in Tigray, a genocide that is unfolding before your very eyes. Many, including your senior officials, are issuing statements of concern, yet to this point there is a total absence of concrete action on the ground that can put a stop to this atrocious genocide against the Tigrayan people.

Between the months of November 2020 and March 2021, more than 150 mass massacre sites have been identified by a team at the University of Ghent in Belgium. There have been numerous additional massacres since this study was conducted. Between 70,000 and 150,000 innocent Tigrayans are estimated to have been exterminated in these mass murders. The most notable massacres are as follows:

  • The Mai-Kadra massacre which according to a report by Amnesty International took more than 600 lives
  • Axum massacre tallying more than 800 civilian deaths, according to AP’s February 18 report of witness accounts
  • Dengelat Massacre (a March 22 report by the CNN put the figure at more than 100 casualties; Europe External Programme with Africa put the figure at 150; my witnesses have the figure to be 165)
  • Mahbere-Dego (a leaked graphic video and witness accounts collected by CNN and BBC Africa suggest 39-73 young men to have been killed between January 15 and 16; my witnesses estimated 193 civilians to have been killed, including on the subsequent days)
  • Abi Addi: an April 7 report by The Telegraph shows that 182 civilians were killed on February 10 alone
  • Bora (more than 160 civilian deaths occurred according to a March 19 witness report by the Los Angeles Times)
  • The Zalambessa massacre killing 56-72 civilians according to reports by Tigray Television, Tghat.com and Jan Naysen
  • Sheraro, Humera Dansha, Maykinetal, Selekleka, Irob, Debre-Abay, Idaga-hamus, Adwa, Shire, Humera, Idaga-Arbi, Adigrat, Hawzen, Edaga-Berhe, Miriena, Seglamen, Hagere-selam, Hitsats, Samre, Gijjet, Hiwane, Nebelet, Wukro, Workamba, Killele, Azeba etc. are just a few of the more than 150 massacre sites where Eritrean, Ethiopian and Amhara armies systematically slaughtered civilians of all age groups (as young as two years of age and up to 93 years old).

Like in the case of the Armenians, thousands of women and underage girls (as young as six years old) in Tigray have been gang-raped, in an intentional use of rape as a weapon of war; in some cases the rapists burn the victim’s vagina and uterus with hot iron rods and insert metals to make them infertile. Various media outlets, UN bodies including United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in addition to other humanitarian organizations have talked extensively about such acts of crimes on humanity. Ethiopia’s government has even verified these claims.

Like in the case of the Armenian Genocide, tens of thousands of Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian Defense forces are disarmed and detained arbitrarily in various unknown concentration camps. Many among them are feared to have been executed. Likewise, Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia are profiled and indiscriminately arrested for months; Tigrayan civil servants in federal government bureaus are fired from their jobs; and Tigrayan businesses have been shut. Tigrayans in Ethiopia are enduring all kinds of humiliation and harassment for who they are. On April 29, the Associated Press released a report detailing this ethnic profiling, arbitrary detention, and purging of Tigrayans.

With the same method employed in the Armenian Genocide, one to induce mass starvation and destitution of Tigray, Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces are burning crops, seeds, cutting trees, destroying agricultural materials, burning grasses (food for the cattle), killing livestock, especially targeting oxen and donkeys, as well as destroying small dams and irrigation canals in a systematic campaign of crippling the agricultural sector. The World Peace Foundation produced a 58-page comprehensive report about such targeted attacks. According to reports by UN agencies and Tigray’s interim government, currently more than 2.3 million people in Tigray are internally displaced and 4.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. 50-100 people have already died of hunger. Like the Turks, the Ethiopian government, Eritrean Army and Amhara forces have tried everything they can to block humanitarian aid from reaching the people that they have systematically starved with the intent of decimating the entire Tigrayan population.

Like the Turks, the three governments are utilizing starvation as a weapon of war, and they want the effects to endure for years to come in case the international community steps up and provides life-sustaining humanitarian aid.

In addition, like in the Armenian Genocide, Ethiopia’s government and Eritrean and Amhara allies have enabled rape, sexual slavery, starvation and the destruction of civilian livelihood as a weapon of war.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces are destroying health facilities, clean water infrastructure and water pumps so greater numbers of Tigrayans will die of water-borne illnesses and other communicable diseases, gun-inflicted injuries and non-communicable diseases; this is a damage maximization strategy to decimate the Tigrayan civilian population. For months, Tigray was left in the dark with electricity and telecommunication services cut, banking services stopped, business transactions placed on hold and roads blocked with much of these grave atrocities against humanity hidden from the world. By blocking access to the media and to human rights organizations, these horrific crimes have been successfully committed in the dark. The Internet remains cut, telephone service only limited; and, most of Tigray remained inaccessible. The Turks also tried to finish the Armenians in the dark.

Ethiopia’s government and its allies are destroying schools, roads, a variety of civilian infrastructures, heritages (including AlNejashi Mosque, Debre Damo monastery, the Maryam Dengelat monastery etc.), private houses and factories for the sake of destroying Tigray, including its history and identity, and leaving it in indefinite destitution and humiliation. In order to erase Tigray, entire villages and small towns are indiscriminately shelled with heavy artillery and bombarded with missiles from drones; private houses ransacked, systematically burnt and destroyed; some villages and small towns completely turned to ashes, erased.

Amhara militia, Fano, Amhara special forces are also committing ethnic cleansing and genocide in Western Tigray. There is an estimated one million (a study by the Ethiopian Ministry of Health puts it at 1.2 million) Tigrayans who used to live in Western Tigray who are no longer there. They are either killed, forcibly displaced or kept in concentration camps. Some 700,000 Tigrayans accounted for so far have been forcibly evicted from their lands and homes empty-handed, now sheltered in many towns in Tigray and in Sudan. Tens of thousands are feared to be dying in concentration camps there. Their prosperities, their lands and their houses are confiscated by the Amhara regional forces.

Ethiopian refugees, fleeing clashes in the country’s northern Tigray region, cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, over the Tekeze river. (Photo: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag)

After committing 100-percent ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans in Western Tigray, which Secretary Blinken also repeatedly stated, the Amhara have brought hundreds of thousands of ethnic Amhara from Gojjam and Gonder, transferring them into the houses and places originally inhabited by ethnic Tigray for generations, making Western Tigray a “homogeneously Amhara” land. Men are not spared no matter what; thousands of women and children under the age of seven are forced to take the Amhara identity in order to remain in their homes. The women must be willing to be a concubine to an Amhara militia, though. Tigrayan traces have been erased.

These are the same methods employed by the Turks against the Armenians 106 years ago.

[N.B: The 1994 Housing and Population Census and the showed 96.3-98.1 % of people in the various districts in Western Tigray spoke Tigrigna, so were Tigrayans; the 1978’s ‘Nationalities in Northern Ethiopia’ map also show these areas to be “Tigrigna speakers”.]

Mr. President,

Today’s genocide against Tigray is the same as the hundred-year-old genocide against Armenia.
Our kids shouldn’t wait 106 years to get recognition of what their forefathers went through, like what generations of Armenian survivors endured.

Mr. President, with the cumbersome evidence in your hands, it must by now be clear to you and the international community that Ethiopia’s government and allies are on a campaign of completely destroying the Tigrayan population, erasing Tigray altogether, just like what the Turks did against the Armenians.

The international community has repeatedly witnessed the untrustworthiness and the genocidal appetite of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and allies.

Unfortunately, what we have witnessed over the past six months is an international mechanism failing to do anything tangible to avert the situation in Tigray.

Mr. President,

While the courageous decision you took to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide is to be commended on its own, what is the use of acknowledging historical genocide if it cannot stop an ongoing genocide under your watch?

I urge you, Mr. President, to name an investigative commission composed of the experts that studied genocides including that of Armenia and Rwanda, and deploy these same experts to Tigray. I urge your administration and the western world to name the Ethiopian and Eritrean state-sponsored campaign of decimating Tigrayan population in Ethiopia with the proper descriptive name “genocide.” In the meanwhile, Your Excellency needs to do everything in your capacity to stop the ongoing genocide in Tigray. The United States of America is more than equipped to stop it. What it needs is your attention and your strong leadership.

Mr. President,

Now that the war is in its seventh month, Tigrayans do not think a solution will come from the UN Security Council given China’s transactional politics and Russia’s soft heart for dictators. Over six million people in Tigray are in imminent danger of extinction due to a paralyzed international mechanism of dealing with grave situations like this. We rather look to you, the free world you lead and the institutions of the free world, for a decisive action to stop it.

Therefore, I appeal to you, Your Excellency,

  1. America and the western world should be bold enough to categorize the atrocities as “genocide” and “famine” with regards to the crisis in Tigray.
  2. America shall mobilize the western world to use all the leverage and the existing diplomatic, economic and military machineries at its disposal to put palpable necessary pressure on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to put a stop to the ongoing genocide on Tigray.
  3. The United States government and western allies, like the European Union, the United Kingdom government and the governments of Canada, Australia and New Zealand shall sanction the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea for the continued civilian massacres, use of sexual violence, induced hunger and destruction of civilian infrastructures and livelihood as weapons of war.
  4. A US commission should be put in place to determine the genocide committed against Tigrayans.
  5. It is time for AFRICOM and NATO to militarily intervene (by triggering Article 5) in Tigray.
    1. To provide rapid, unconditional, unfettered and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and items essential to survival, including establishing a “lifeline humanitarian corridor” from Sudan to Tigray under a demilitarized route designated for safe passage of humanitarian supplies;
    2. To ensure the immediate and verifiable cessation of all forms of hostilities;
    3. To ensure total withdrawal of all internal and external forces, including Eritrean armed forces and Amhara Special Forces and militia from all Tigray parts to their deployment lines before the November 4, 2020
    4. To enforce a “no fly zone” across the skies of Tigray.
  6. An immediate joint UN-US-EU independent investigation into the war crimes and grave crimes against humanity in Tigray and for the perpetrators to be held accountable.
  7. America and all developed countries shall scale up the humanitarian aid to a point that is necessary to avert the impending humanitarian catastrophe.
  8. The US and other western powers shall press the United Nations with all the leverage they have to put Tigray under a UN-mandated international interim civil and security administration (using the Kosovo model).

 

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