Early on the morning of Nov 4th 2020, Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea waged a joint war on Tigray, irrevocably changing – long and deeply held – beliefs about sovereignty, citizenship and patriotism in the hearts of most Tigrayans. For centuries, Tigray and Tigrayans had fiercely defended Ethiopia’s borders and safe-guarded the social and religious heritage shared with the rest of the country. Tigray knew no other way until War on Tigray changed everything.
Through a scripted propaganda campaign Abiy Ahmed claimed that the war involving the militaries of both Ethiopia and Eritrea and drone support from a third non-African country, alleged to be the UAE, was a “law enforcement operation.”
This war, now in its 97th day, has shown us the worst of humanity on a scale that parallels the worst atrocities we have heard or read before. By the government’s own account and eyewitness testimonies, reported by independent international media, this war involves the entire federal military apparatus of Ethiopia (110 million population), the Eritrean Army, all forces of the Amhara regional state (Special forces, militia & vigilante youth named Fano), special forces of other regional states such as Afar and a contingent of Somali soldiers[1,2] that were being trained in Eritrea all allied against the Tigray Defence forces.
The immediate context of this war is the political contention between the federal government and Tigray Regional State, largely arising from Abiy Ahmed’s desire to centralize the federal structure and to consolidate power in his own hands. It is, however, very important to take into account the broader context to understand the sheer brutality and wanton violence. This context is one of deep seated hatred that has been preached against Tigrayans for three decades and which was ramped in the last three years through the dehumanizing language, profiling and targeted harassment initiated and empowered by Abiy Ahmed. As almost all long term observers of Ethiopia have known and warned from the outset, from the leadership that has been called on to define and execute this war to the language and viciousness of the attacks this is ultimately a war of vengeance for Isaias Afeworki and remnants of the brutal Derg regime.
Eritrean troops in particular have long been brainwashed into believing that everything bad their country has ever experienced, be it their abject poverty, pariah state status on the world stage, lack of democracy or the indefinite national service that has been identified as akin to slavery, happened because of TPLF and the TPLF led Ethiopian government. With this grudge firmly implanted in their minds Eritrean forces, which now control most of Eastern and Central Tigray, have been responsible for the worst of the war crimes and other gross human rights violations – including massacres at holy places, gang rapes, extrajudicial executions of civilians, pillaging and complete demolition of private and public assets – that have been reported [Tghat, WAP, AP, Reuters].
In addition to the many terrible atrocities that have already been reported in the media, almost every Tigrayan has personal stories of heartbreaking loss to share. This is mine.
Among the thousands of victims who have been murdered at the barbaric hands of Eritrean troops are the three grandchildren of a close relative (my father’s cousin to be specific). Their names are:
- Michael Hagos Hadgu, age 20
- Mearig Hagos Hadgu, age 17
- Ashenafi Hagos Hadgu, age 15
I remember Michael as a little adorable kid from my elementary school days with his big brother who was my childhood classmate and friend. When the war broke out he was with family for a short break from his work at a private transportation firm based outside of Tigray while both his younger siblings were still in high school.
The following is what I was able to find out from a witness who knows the family and who has been by them during this terrible time.
The three brothers – Michael, Mearig and Ashenafi – were taken from their homes in Mai Weyni, a small locality in Sasun BeteHawariyat, around 11kms south of Adigrat, to dig burial grounds for deceased Eritrean troops, and load looted machineries of the Goda Bottle and Glass Share Company in GuEguna (Hadihs Hiwot in the map below), near Edaga Hamus.
“A couple of days after Eritrean soldiers massacred more than 150 civilians inside Saint Mary’s church in Dengelat (in Edaga Hamus, on Nov 30th), they went into the neighborhood to forcefully conscript these boys along with eight other neighbors.”, says Hailu, a close family friend. The soldiers told the family that they needed their help and “they will be back soon”. Since people in the neighborhood knew about the tragic events in Dengelat just a couple of days before, they were terrified and suspicious. On the way to the Factory, two of the young men, Teame Hagos and Negasi Berihu, tried to escape and were shot dead immediately, while the other nine arrived at their destination and joined six others who were similarly brought in from around the factory.
My relatives family waited with trepidation all of that day, but the boys never returned home. Two days later, still not knowing their whereabouts and worried about the safety of his sons, their father along with elders from the community met the person in command of the Eritrean troops camped in the area and pleaded with him to help them. His response was “They are fine, but are not around because they travelled with the trucks to Senafe, Eritrea to deliver the [looted] property.”
After desperately waiting for another two days, they visited him again on December 06, 2020. and pleaded for an update. He then told them that they had been executed on the night they were taken, which is December 02, 2020. He went on to warn them to not even think of having a public funeral ceremony or that they will otherwise face further punishments. He then ordered some rank and file soldiers to show them where the bodies were hidden.
For more than two weeks, this gruesome tragedy was kept secret from the rest of the community, including from their seriously ill mom. And even when it finally became known to other people, they could only deliver their condolences under cover of night, for fear of retribution for daring to comfort the grieving families.
It was not until the 31st of December, almost a month after their murder, when Eritrean troops finally finished transporting the heavy machinary and withdrew from the area the community was able to have a formal gathering to mourn the loss of 17 people.
To add to the unimaginable horror, Eritrean troops were quartered in and were operating from the private home of the family located near the main street. Meanwhile the family were forced to move to an old house they had long abandoned.
In a few weeks a beautiful and happy family and neighborhood were torn by inconceivably excruciating trauma which has changed their realities forever.
Sadly this is only one amongst thousands of such stories describing the atrocities that have ravaged families across Tigray. Several books can and will probably be written about both the human and material losses but there is also something even larger that we will need to grapple with.
The most painful part of this genocidal campaign may well be the sense of betrayal by one’s own country and the gravity of the damage intended. This pain, in my opinion, is felt even harder by families such as this particular one which had considered protecting the borders and sovereignty of the country as an almost religious calling.
These three brothers were from a very patriotic family. Their uncle, Naizghi Berhe, died during the 17 years struggle against the brutal Derg regime. Their dad (Hagos Hadgu), two uncles (my second cousins) and their uncle-in-law defended Ethiopia from the Eritrean aggression back in 1998-2000. Their dad & two uncles had retired from the army long ago after careers of honorable service to their country, including in peacekeeping missions abroad. Ethiopia repaid this family for several lifetimes of service in defending and protecting its borders and sovereignty, a revengeful murder by invited foreign invaders. This is not only inexplicably painful, it is almost incomprehensible.