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Dispatch #2: The Humanitarian Crisis in Tigray

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

By Seamus Bozeman

Image via Euronews

The Ethiopian Government has committed genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against the Tigrayan people. This has freely continued, as the international community ignores what is happening. A humanitarian crisis in the hopeful democratic state of Tigray has largely been hidden, as the influence of the Ethiopian government has blocked information in and out of the area, and there has been limited international coverage, allowing an already dire situation to worsen. Ethiopia has actively fought against Tigrays rights to self-determination and self-governance, from military actions to the blockades of necessary food, water, and medicine, creating a mounting human cost. This ongoing situation deepens the need for transparent investigations, the intervention of U.N. peacekeeping forces, and the international condemnation and sanctioning of Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. While both sides are committing war crimes, acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations, in this specific conflict the Tigrayan people have faced the brunt of the abuse.

Tigray, through the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, has continually fought to create an independent state and has been met with resistance throughout Ethiopia’s history. The Ethiopian government, in dismissing Tigray’s calls for independence, has had no qualms crushing dissent or disregarding human rights of the short-lived attempt at democracy in Tigray. Abiy Ahmed, current president and a 2019 Nobel peace laureate, destroyed any hopes of peace with a murderous military operation that began in early November of 2020, which threatens to destroy the delicate balance of power in a nation on the brink of civil war, as a patchwork of 80 different ethnic groups falls into a wider-reaching proxy war within their own nation. When Abiy Ahmed first came to power amidst the anti-government protests of 2018, he openly dismissed the idea of Tigray as an independent nation and called for unification. This has been a matter of contention from the onset. The hope for unity has been an impossibility as both Tigray and Ethiopia have very different end goals. This is also challenged by vast geographical differences from one of the hottest deserts on earth to lush, expansive jungles, hotly contested borders, catastrophic economic struggles, and continued widespread famine. The ethnic and cultural makeup of the region has ebbed and flowed as different groups took power, collapsed, and were defeated by coups, revolutions, or elections.

In Ethiopia in 1948, after Haile Selassie, a brutal dictator rose to power he annexed Eritrea and was then later overthrown in a military coup in 1974. That gave way to a Marxist-Leninist regime, The Derg, which devastated Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, causing widespread suffering, famines, and power struggles. During the Derg’s control of Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was born, and this began their first attempt at self-governance and self-determination, which has been called a “launchpad” for socialist revolution. Being the most powerful out of all of the Tigrayan groups, they began their first sessions of regional congress, again repeating their calls for internationally recognized self-determination as an independent Tigrayan state while also building their political ideology from communist principles.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the TPLF ended all affiliation with communist practices and worked to adopt a system of multi-party politics, a constitutional democracy, and a mixed economy. This shifted over time and the TPLF eventually created an authoritarian, oppressive, and brutal one-party regime, which led to merciless crackdowns on anti-government protests that eventually led to the rise of Abiy Ahmed, in 2018.

Abiy Ahmed brought with him hope for unity and peace for the majority of the ethnically diverse nation, and a chance at democracy, except for the TPLF and Tigrayan people who still wanted independence. Early on, Abiy ended the war with Eritrea after agreeing to cede back territory on their border, which had been a hotbed for skirmishes and smaller conflicts. He also set hundreds of political prisoners free, made an effort to revitalize the struggling economy and admitted to some of the tortures of political dissidents committed by the government. His reforms were enough for the international community to start investing in the success of Ethiopia as he received over three billion in aid from the U.A.E, and a sizable amount of aid from the European Union. Some funding also included military support from France, China, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

When the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) conducted regional elections in Early September in defiance of orders by the Central government, and the election commission to suspend any voting because of COVID-19, which was seen by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as a ‘breach’ of the Ethiopian Constitution, and an illegitimate grasp of power by Abiy Ahmed. The supposedly illegal grip on power by Abiy Ahmed can be interpreted and twisted due to the loophole filled wording of the Ethiopian constitution, where it is stated that democratic elections must take place every five years. The last one was held in 2015. These elections determine who sits in parliament, and who will hold the presidency. Emergency powers overruled the constitution, and parliament voted to extend Abiy Ahmed’s term another 12 months until elections could be held safely. In consideration of emergency powers, the government called the Tigrayan elections “null and void” and threatened to withhold crucial financial aid, and had considered military intervention as an option, which later came to pass.

The government of Ethiopia in early November branded the military invasion as a “law enforcement operation,” and an end to the chances of the TPLF creating a breakaway state. But instead of stability, the wider-reaching, and damaging consequences of this military takeover has destabilized the region further.

Concern was widespread that Tigray was setting the groundwork for a breakaway state, and a new parliament for the Tigray region, which also supported the calls for separating from Ethiopia without the approval of the Election Commission. In contrast, the TPLF never said it would break away, and agreed to remain a part of Ethiopia under the conditions that it could self-govern, and its rights for self-determination could be respected. The TPLF and many ethnic Tigranyans are opposed to the idea of unification, as Mr. Abiy had proposed. And many in the Tigray region only identify as Ethiopian because of their citizenship, but ethnically they are Tigrayan and support the calls for independence.

On November 2nd, 2020, following high tensions, possibly illegal elections, the rejection of ethnic Tigrayans from parliament, and a number of other high-level profilings, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were planning to attack the region to restore full control, and end any attempt by the Tigrayan parliament to continue its quest for full autonomy.

Following attacks by Tigray’s loyal military force on an army base that the Ethiopian government-controlled, in the capital of the region Mekelle, the Abiy Government started a full-scale ruthless offensive, where the government led airstrikes, and tanks to the region, likely causing the deaths of thousands of civilians despite Abiy’s claims that the offensive did not target civilian infrastructure or people. The border with Sudan was also closed, and a six-month state of emergency was declared. The state of emergency shut off power, phone lines, foreign aid, and other forms of communication. This has since been partly restored, but when the war was happening no information was leaving the region, and human rights abuses and war crimes were being committed under the blanket of the communications gaps. Most reports came from those who crossed the border seeking refuge in Sudan, and they detailed incidences of horrible atrocities, but it has been unclear who has perpetrated these acts.

Both sides have accused each other of human rights abuses, which have been hard to verify due to the ongoing limit of independent investigations, and longstanding censorship of the situation in Tigray. Many humanitarian groups that have previously reported on incidents of grave human rights abuses are connected to the Ethiopian Government, which raises the concern of biased reporting, and one-sided evidence.

In the waning days of the conflict, Tigray slowly opened up, shedding light on the full picture of the human cost nine weeks into the conflict. Almost 1 million or more have fled into Sudanese refugee camps, or have been trapped in the crosshairs of the ongoing war without proper access to food, water, gas, or money because the Ethiopian government has blocked the United Nations from free access to the region. Many who have fled have told stories of mass tortures, targeted executions by the government-affiliated army, looting of basic goods, the destruction of crops, and widespread abductions by the Ethiopian government.

The massacre in the region during the conflict in the city of Mai Kadra, a city 4 miles south of the Sudanese border in the north of Tigray, generated outcry as hundreds were beaten, hacked to death, and mauled by an unidentified group supposedly supported by the Tigrayan military, police, and special forces. The intent of the attack is unknown but was likely connected to the war, as they targeted and killed hundreds of ethnic Amhara’s, the other major ethnic group in Ethiopia. These war crimes and acts are genocidal and can also be labeled as ethnic cleansing. An unfortunate commonality in a war that is ripping more and more in a fragile ethnic coexistence. Though the reports of the brutal murder of hundreds were conducted by groups with direct monetary ties to the Ethiopian government, as has been mentioned before, the need for an independent investigative body is extremely important to conduct proper fact-finding missions.

In addition to the deepening human toll in the Tigray region, the Ethiopian Government has ramped up efforts to discriminate against ethnic Tigrayans by treating them like “criminals” and have been profiled in various incidents of harassment, discrimination, and maltreatment by the Abiy government. There have also been reports, and allegations of widespread wrongful imprisonment, forced closings of Tigrayan businesses, travel restrictions, homes searched and destroyed by government security forces and the unlawful freezing of monetary assets. Many have also gone missing, and those outside of the country who are a part of the Tigrayan diaspora, have not been able to reach family members who have been wrongfully jailed and profiled, signaling the possibility of long-term arbitrary imprisonment. All of these actions by the central government against Tigrayans are a case of ethinc cleansing, war crimes, human rights violations, and genocide. Tigrayan and international journalists have also faced unjust profilings, executions and imprisonment based on false reporting, vague charges, and bias. None of which has credibility when freedom of the press is clearly supported under international law, especially when reporting during a conflict.

Though the Ethiopian government declared victory on November 28th, 2020, heavy fighting has continued and reports of Eritrean military support have been confirmed, highlighting the growing ties between the nations who were once deeply at odds. Many Tigrayan leaders who the Ethiopian government has been after, are being extrajudicially executed and imprisoned for their supposed “treasonous” and “insurrectionist” acts against the Ethiopian constitution, in a move that will anger those who support the Tigrayan leadership, creating more volatile tit-for-tat killing sprees.

The future of the region is uncertain, as elections in the next year will decide on the next president, parliament, and legislative seats, as well as the future of Tigray, which will probably hold a legal referendum to determine their future rights to self-determination, and self-governance. But with the thousands that have fled, and those who supported a free Tigray imprisoned, killed and having fled the country and will change the demographics of the region, narrowing the possibilities for a free and independent state. What is known is the ethnic patchwork that makes up the nation of Ethiopia may continue to be in a perpetual state of war until they can form separate self-governing regions or be unified.

Written by writer Seamus Bozeman

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