On the 9th of February a group of ‘elders’ made up of religious leaders and notable persons including retired athlete and businessman Haile Gebrselassie travelled to Mekelle for what was billed as a ‘peace conference.’
From the outset this trip was clouded in mystery and seeming deception. Firstly, although it had been announced a few days beforehand that a meeting with elders would take place in Mekelle on the 16 and 17 February, we along with the residents of Mekelle, came to learn (mainly through reporting by TMH) on the 8th that the meetings were actually scheduled to happen the next day. It seemed therefore that the original dates had been publicized as a ruse to avert any possibility of organized protests.
Secondly, it was not made very clear exactly what the group aimed to achieve other than that it intended to hold meetings with Tigrayan religious leaders and residents of Mekelle. Considering that the Ethiopian government had declared an end to war on Tigray in late November, it seemed strange that this group of elders was suddenly struck with the need to bring a message of peace or to attempt some form of a reconciliation at this specific time. Many suspected that the entire effort was a publicity jaunt, at the behest of the federal government, to bolster the impression that peace and normalcy had returned to Tigray.
This view was strengthened by the fact that a barely publicized visit made to Mekelle by President Sahlework Zewde on the 8th of February – just the day before – had been largely unsuccessful. Amongst other things, the president had, allegedly, insisted on bringing armed escorts into a shelter where displaced women traumatized by sexual violence resided. It was also reported that the donations – including sanitary pads – that she had brought with her were rejected.
Whatever the true intentions behind the trip made by the ‘elders’ so soon after, what we do know is that it was met with even more resistance and opposition than that which faced the president. Not only did Tigrayan religious leaders decline the invitation to meet with the delegation from Addis Ababa, the people of Mekelle registered their protest through various acts of civic disobedience, including blocking roads, and staying at home. Ethiopian soldiers shot at young people who took to the streets to voice their opposition, one person died and others were injured on the day while it is now being reported that scores more have been killed in ongoing protests incited by this visit.
Why was this group, ostensibly on a mission of peace, met with such strenuous opposition in Mekelle?
As many others have noted before, the reasons for the sentiment in the city were best captured by a very courageous woman, who I will refer to here as Selam (assumed name). Braving potentially lethal consequences – in a context where people are being shot for much less – Selam articulates the truth of why these elders were and – barring through national dialogue and reconciliation – are likely to remain unwelcome in Mekelle.
She begins by noting the morality of convenience exhibited in efforts to preach peace at the government’s behest after having publicly endorsed and blessed the war in the first place. This was a sad reality that had shocked and saddened many in the first few weeks of the war. Religious and other institutions that would, under most circumstances, be expected to retain neutrality were vocal about their support of the war. Indeed, the media controlled by the Ethiopian state, and later social media, was inundated with pictures of priests, pastors, sheiks, and notable persons expressing their support for the military forces that were at the time carrying out an armed attack on a constituent part of the Ethiopian federation. Which was why, as noted by Selam, it was hard to countenance these same personalities and institutions as messengers of peace, or even impartial forces for reconciliation when they arrived in Mekelle months into the devastating war launched with all their approval.
Selam also highlights the hypocritical editing of reality. Haile Gebrselassie and the others wanted it to be known they had made some efforts toward engendering dialogue between the government of Tigray and the federal government before the war, yet they carefully skipped over the fact that they ultimately supported war. They try to justify their actions by assigning blame, forgetting that as peacemakers and specifically as religious people that is not their role. They may not have been able to stop the war but supporting one side is a choice they made.
Another thing that was missing from this alleged mission of peace was truth. Selam bravely confronts the elephant in the room – the Eritrean troops committing horrendous atrocities across Tigray even as the delegation was in Mekelle. What good is it to preach peace in that one city when across the rest of Tigray foreign troops, invited in by the federal government, are killing, raping, and looting at will? Another important piece of truth that never seemed to make it into the message of peace was the role that the Ethiopian government was playing in hindering aid and thus effectively weaponizing hunger. Haile Gebrselassie, suggesting ‘let bygones be bygones’ because what is needed now was ‘bread’ (i.e. humanitarian assistance) seemed particularly hollow in this regard.
Selam finishes her heroic address by saying “Let’s first of all make peace.” I found this to be a very profound point. Peace entails a lot more than good wishes to engender such – even where such good wishes exist. Nor is it the absence of immediate violence. As Selam notes peace is something we make. But as has been established the world over, truly making peace does not emerge out of superficial publicity jaunts. It requires truth and true reconciliation.
Truth and truthfulness demand confronting what is happening in the now and not later when it is political expedient. It maybe that in a few weeks when the Ethiopian government is forced to formally admit the presence of Eritrean troops, these same people will come and find a way to make it palatable in the same way they are trying to do now with the humanitarian crisis and the rampant sexual violence which many had categorically denied not too long ago.
Selam shared these uncomfortable truths to the ‘peacemakers’ from what is effectively a war zone. In doing so she successfully lived out the true meaning of peace and peace-making. Reflecting on this from a very safe distance I am humbled and awed by the courage that it takes to do so in the face of unimaginable violence all around. It speaks both to the depth of suffering – the sense of having nothing more left to lose – and the unbreakable integrity of the person. The same can be said of the entire city of Mekelle, which through various acts of resistance, came together to speak truth to messengers of false peace.
To suggest, therefore, as a spokesperson for the group did in an interview, that these objections reflect misinformation is not only supremely disrespectful it further diminishes the very possibility for genuine peace. Equally problematic is the effort to outsource problems to the much-demonized diaspora activists while ignoring the very real suffering and injustice that the elders had the opportunity to witness first-hand, as Haile attempts to do in his speech. Without wanting – or even needing – to defend the character or motives of diaspora-based activism, it seems important to note that such voices only garner legitimacy and weight from the fact that political, social, and religious leaders in the country seem to exist in a moral vacuum.
A great illustration of this, in my opinion, is discovered in self-proclaimed ‘elders’ being unable to address murder, weaponized hunger, weaponized sexual violence and desecration of the most sacred of places even as they purport to be on a mission to ‘make’ peace. If elders are to meaningfully inhabit this role toward peacebuilding their moral light can not always shine directly away from power because it is impossible to make true peace by making a mockery of ongoing suffering and trying to erase lived experiences with meaningless assertions of benevolence.