In the past four months, genocide through the ravages of war, in general, and war-induced famine, in particular, has been emerging as the primary weapon of choice of its three architects—Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and the Amhara nationalists—to totally subjugate Tigray.
Their armies are meant to accomplish this task through total war that aims at the elimination of Tigray’s ruling party and its army, degradation of its higher institutions and its elite, destruction and theft of its public and private assets, razing and looting of its historical and religious sites, dismemberment of its domain and mass-killing of its people through war and famine.
It is no wonder that Abiy’s genocide policy resembles a well thought out battle strategy:
- First, the entire population of Tigray is identified as enemy combatants. If the three armies are to use unconventional means—ethnic cleansing, massive looting, massacres, indiscriminate bombing and shelling, burning of food supplies, emptying of villages, destruction of public and private assets, etc.—then it has to be made clear to them who the enemy is in the first place.
- Second, many of the ‘enemy combatants’ have to be smoked out from various areas and cornered to a place where they are rendered most vulnerable. When the armies displace millions to end up in IDP camps with little food and shelter, they are preparing them for the final assault—the famine itself.
- Third, the Abiy government too has its ways of smoking out the ‘enemy’, the people of Tigray. Among other things, by drastically reducing cash flow into the region (through its banking and other policies) and fostering mass unemployment, it has been deliberately exposing the urban population to starvation.
- Fourth, not only are these ‘enemy combatants’ surrounded on all sides, any possible escape route is plugged. Tigray’ neighbors—Amhara, Eritrea and Afar—have been incentivized through ‘land grants’ to seal off their borders. And the only route to safety (to Sudan) has been effectively blocked.
- Fifth, any possible routes through which help could arrive are cut off. The government does that through its various deny-and-delay tactics—from bureaucratic hurdles to outright refusal—meant to prevent aid from reaching those who need it most on a timely basis.
- Sixth, any communication from the ‘combatants’ for help is intercepted before reaching the rest of the world. The information blackout—media, telephone, internet, etc.—the government has imposed throughout Tigray accomplishes this task.
- And, last, having thus encircled them, the ravages of war and famine are employed in wiping out as many of the ‘combatants’ as possible before the world takes full notice of what is going on – that is when genocide does its final work.
At the highest level then, we see how this genocide policy works: while fully enabling the destructive forces of war to do their work unhindered in creating a man-made famine, the Abiy government involves itself directly by denying the people of Tigray access to aid, cash, employment, information and escape routes.
And so far, this genocide policy has been a spectacular success. The interim Tigray government came out with these alarming numbers, “4.5 million people in need of emergency food, out of whom 2.2 million are IDPs.” Worse numbers have come from opposition parties in Tigray: 52 thousand civilians killed, 3 million displaced and 6.5 million (almost the entire population) in need of help. Equally grim predictions are being made, “We could have a million dead there in a couple of months”. Given these numbers, it is not surprising that Genocide Watch has put Tigray’s crisis at stage 9, ‘extermination’.
In the rest of the article, ‘famine’ and ‘war’ are not to be taken as distinct categories that hold independent of one another, since the former is also used as a war strategy to subdue Tigray and the latter as a famine strategy to induce mass starvation. The three parties that are working in coordination with one another in the making of this genocide have become well conversant in this strategy, each party playing a distinct role for a maximum effect. This is how this morbid division of labor goes:
Amhara forces and their famine policy
What makes the Amhara forces—made up of Special Forces (the police) and various militias—different from the two ally armies is that ethnic cleansing has emerged as their main weapon of choice.
It is easy to see why this is very appealing to the Amhara elite. If one is to settle the land they have occupied with Amhara peasants, one must first clear it from Tigrayan peasants— reminiscent of the Nazis’ ‘lebensraum’ policy. That is why in West Tigray, the assault by Amhara forces is more systematic: massive ethnic cleansing, accompanied by the expropriation of homes, farm plots, farm equipment, harvests, livestock, etc.
The eviction of tens of thousands of Tigrayans from West Tigray to Sudan happens to be the beginning of this ethnic cleansing. When stories of horror were picked up by the world media in Sudan, the Abiy government ordered the border to be closed. With the closure of the border, many were stranded in between, subject to starvation, killings and rape.
That doesn’t mean the eviction of Tigrayans from West Tigray has stopped since then. What did change is the destination to which they have been being evicted: interior Tigray. This is what Gebremeskel Kassa, the head of the region’s Interim Administration, had to say, “There are 2.2 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Tigray, half of them are whose houses were burnt and lost all their properties, the other half fled by foot from western Tigray and other places in Tigray to regional cities including Axum, Shire, Adigrat and Mekelle.”
The extent of ethnic cleansing conducted in West Tigray must have been immense; at minimum, involving hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans. There are 25 thousand IDPs in Mai-Tsebri, 40 thousand in Shire and 68 thousand more in Mekelle—almost all of them from West Tigray. Many more are to be found scattered throughout Tigray. There is no doubt that the Amhara forces must have terrorized the Tigrayan peasants through torture and killings and systematically burned down or emptied their villages in entire districts for the above numbers to make sense.
After the latest US warning that Eritrean and Amhara troops should immediately withdraw from Tigray, the Amhara forces are expediting their ethnic cleansing. They have threatened the Tigrayans in Humera and surrounding areas to leave the city or face massacre. Already there are reports of killings and forced evictions.
Eritrean troops and their famine policy
When the Eritrean troops moved into the northern part of Tigray, the people were alarmed by their voracious appetite to take anything they laid their eyes on and burn or destroy the rest.
There is an age-old tempo that peasants follow in harvest time depending on the type of soil, elevation, weather, and crop. It is normal to see three harvest stages at the same time: some crops are harvested early, threshed and winnowed, and then stored; others are only gathered in harvest heaps; and, still others are not dried enough to be cut. The vindictive Eritrean troops looted much of the stored grains and torched the rest at all stages. They even burned the chaff, which is used to feed oxen and donkeys, making sure that these animals too would die of starvation. Much of the livestock has also been either pillaged or slaughtered. By one estimate, Tigray has already lost 4.8 million livestock, the major part of this task being done by the Amhara and Eritrean forces.
This wanton destruction followed the Eritrean troops from Shire to the west to Zalambessa to the east, an arch of hundreds of kilometers, widened to include many districts as they kept moving deep inside Tigray. One of the most potent weapons used by Eritrean troops is the string of civilian massacres that follows them wherever they go. So much so that by now they claim a lion’s share of the tens of thousands killed by the three armies. In the process, many villages have been entirely emptied, adding hundreds of thousands to the IDP population.
With starvation a sure thing, all the peasants could do now is coil up and wait for death, or wait for the world to arrive with aid.
It is the same thing when these marauding Eritrean troops occupy towns and cities.
In the urban destruction they relish, the troops always aim at the residents’ livelihoods, food supplies, health services, and anything that serves or employs a large number of residents. The picture that is emerging is that of public and private buildings damaged, demolished, or burned down; factories destroyed after being thoroughly looted; universities and schools ransacked and looted (libraries, laboratories, offices, etc.), health centers invariably destroyed, their medicine discarded and their equipment dismantled and shipped to Eritrea; and all sorts of vehicles—small cars, trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, military and police vehicles, ambulances, busses, etc. (so much so, that a vast place known as Asha Golgol near Asmara has been packed with these stolen vehicles)—looted. All kinds of services—water, electricity, telephone, health, education, banks, transportation, etc.—have been destroyed, cut off, or denied.
Again, when they are done and over with, nothing is left for the dwellers except to abandon the place altogether or to lie low, living in precarious conditions.
Abiy’s famine policy
The Abiy government not only condones and facilitates the strategies used by Amhara and Eritrean forces in inducing the famine, but also coordinates its federal troops with them for the same result. As they fight side by side with their Eritrean counterparts, the federal forces are turning out to be as efficient in their brutality. They are imitating the Eritreans in massacring civilians, burning villages, raping women and looting peasants.
What is more critical though is that the Abiy government has many more deny-and-delay tools at its disposal it could utilize through its various offices to similar devastating effect.
If famine is to accomplish its assigned task, the government has to deny and delay food aid through whatever means necessary.
The Amhara elite have been the main proponents of this morbid policy, arguing that a well fed people breeds resistance, pointing out that the global aid of the 1984/85 famine helped the Woyanie win the war. But here is the question: if more than a million dead at that time didn’t deliver Mengistu a victory over the Woyanies, how many more are they planning to kill now to get the victory that eluded Mengistu? This shows the extent to which the nationalists are willing to go for ‘Ethiopia to continue’. Given that ‘millions may die, but the nation continues’ happens to be the only ideology that Abiy subscribes to, it is not surprising that he too is willing to go through the same macabre route.
Despite Ethiopia’s promise to let humanitarian aid pass through unhindered, no such thing has happened yet. All kinds of humanitarian organizations, relief agencies and NGOs have faced obstructions at different levels; even when the government presumably gives them permission, they are met with refusal or delay in local areas. Overall, the UN (and its different branches) has been met with all kinds of obstructions. The EU and US have also been met with similar resistance. Thus, despite all kinds of promises, so far little of that aid has reached Tigray.
Bureaucratic obstruction has been one of Abiy administration’s biggest weapons in its deny-and-delay strategy. Many aid workers have been deliberately stranded in Addis Ababa, after entangling them with visas, permits and other requirements. This is beside numerous other bureaucratic obstacles they face in local areas.
But the greatest strategic means the Addis Ababa government is using to deny and delay humanitarian access is by refusing to let it happen in areas it doesn’t control. Since the TPLF happens to be in total or partial control in most parts of Tigray, this amounts to denying access to the majority of the needy population.
Local authorities have also said that transportation problem has been the main bottleneck that prevents aid from reaching rural areas, without pointing out that the large-scale looting of trucks by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops (taken to Addis Ababa, Amhara region and Asmara respectively) have created this problem. The health problem follows a similar pattern: the armies have looted about 140 ambulances; that is, after having destroyed most of the health facilities.
Thus, various tactics are being openly employed by the government to deny access to the needy people: denial that there is starvation, denial to the extent of the need, outright refusal to access, selective refusal to access, bureaucratic hurdles, coordination with local obstructionists, rerouting of aid to other areas, self-inflicted infrastructural problems, looting of food aid by Eritrean troops, etc.
Targeting the urban population
And this morbid policy to starve the Tigrayan masses to submission is not limited to peasants; the urban population too is facing the same fate.
First, the government, as soon as it occupied the towns and cities in Tigray, came out quickly with a cash policy meant to exacerbate the famine in the region. It delayed the reopening of banks as much as possible. Even as it opened some banks later, it deliberately froze bank accounts of the entire urban population by prohibiting any withdrawals. And now, whatever money one sends to Tigray cannot be withdrawn unless the recipient already has a deposit of 5,000 Bir in the bank, a precondition that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Ethiopia. In addition, it delayed the exchange of old notes with new ones, making it almost impossible for those living in remote areas to beat the deadline. The destruction and looting of banks by the invading forces has also exacerbated this problem, something that the government doesn’t seem to mind. All of this tells us that the Abiy government is using the banking system maximally in starving the people of Tigray.
Second, extensive livelihoods have been made to disappear by the relentless and vicious destruction carried out by the three allay armies. With almost all the factories in Tigray either destroyed, looted or idled, the number of those out of work is huge. If we add all other businesses closed and civil servants idled, the unemployment number would be, at minimum, hundreds of thousands. And wherever civil services have been started, salary payments have been deliberately delayed.
And, last, everything was done to bring food insecurity in urban areas. In many towns and cities, the entire food supply of the residents has been looted, especially those close to Eritrea. The insecurity in the villages has also added to this plight, in that the regular supply of food products that used to reach urban areas is being interrupted. Further, the insecurity in the towns and cities caused by the looting armies and criminals (deliberately set free from prisons by the occupying armies) have made many store owners reluctant to open their shops. No wonder the prices of food products have shot up to a prohibitively high level.
All of this has created a precarious condition for most urban dwellers; and for many, not unlike that of the peasants.
Denying escape routes
Not only is the Abiy government deliberately obstructing aid from reaching needy people, it is also doing its utmost to prevent people from going to where aid is found.
For genocide to do its work thoroughly, fences have to be erected around Tigray. Hostile forces from Eritrea, Amhara and Afar have made sure that no starving people make it out of Tigray. Abiy has motivated these three partners with lands from Tigray that they could annex to their respective territories. Besides, the ethnic profiling that is conducted by the government throughout Ethiopia, with tens of thousands forced out of their jobs and many more taken to detention centers, doesn’t encourage Tigrayans to seek refuge outside of their region. That is to say, there is no safe place for Tigrayan refugees anywhere in Ethiopia.
The Amhara forces and federal troops are further assigned to block the route to Sudan, lest the starving masses reach the only safe place available to them. They have been so efficient in this task of closing the border that, lately, the outflow of refugees entering the Sudan camps have dwindled into a trickle.
The blockage to Sudan will play a significant role in the emerging famine. In the 1984-85 famine, when the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) managed to carve a route to Sudan, it helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. If the federal and Amhara forces manage to block that route successfully for long, millions of lives in the entire Tigray region will be in grave danger.
And, last, the information blackout over Tigray is meant to give the making of this genocide through famine and war a necessary cover.
This blackout is meant to prevent the world from witnessing not only the famine’s emergence on a timely basis, but also on how it is deliberately induced and facilitated. To that effect, Abiy has adamantly refused any independent media from the outside world to enter Tigray. Recently, he has allowed some international media to Tigray, most probably due to the EU’s, Germany’s and the US’ decision to withhold hundreds of million dollars in aid.
But it has yet to be seen how much access they will be given. Already stories are emerging of unusual hectic activities inside Tigray to erase evidence or hide eyewitnesses or victims. And now, the local fixers are being detained, denying the foreign journalists the local staff such as translators that are needed to conduct any reporting. A BBC journalist has also been detained. Besides, there has been a veiled warning to any people who collaborate with the journalists.
And, second, Abiy has cut off telephone and Internet services. Recently, limited telephone service did start in Mekelle and a few other towns after pressure from outside. And whenever atrocities are planned by the army, such as blanket aerial bombing, the lines are made to disappear for days. Abiy believes that he could somehow manage this partial opening, while giving the impression of relenting to Western demands.
The Internet though is another matter. What Abiy dreads most is its visual power, especially given its speed and availability.
With the Internet, the lies of the government will be exposed for what they have always been. The images of carnage and destruction taking place all over Tigray—abandoned villages, burned out homes, collapsed buildings, looted universities, ransacked health centers, demolished factories, burned out military vehicles, vandalized worship places, shelled monasteries, torched harvests, crowded IDP camps, terrorized population, captured soldiers, battle scenes, massacred bodies, etc.—will only add to the negative image of a government that is still claiming it is on ‘a law and order’ mission. In addition, the image of the barbaric Eritrean soldiers as they terrorize residents and loot anything and everything on their way will be made stark clear to the world, exposing another big lie of the government. Already, even without the Internet, such images are trickling out of Tigray.
The ethnic cleansing that the Amhara forces are conducting would also be unable to continue in stealth under the visual glare the Internet provides. This search for lebensraum by evicting hundreds of thousands from a single ethnic group is unmatched in its fascist aspiration in the 21st century—and it will be shown for what it is.
But the one thing that Abiy Ahmed dreads most is the image of emaciated starving people, especially children, making the headlines of the world media and remaining visual fixture in the Internet. If the world fails to intervene now, such images will soon come out of Tigray scandalizing not only Abiy but also world leaders and organizations, the most shameful of which are the AU and UN. Abiy realizes that the fate of his two predecessors had been sealed because of such images and is doing his utmost to hide them from the eyes of the world.
With the Internet, the power of the social media in shaping opinions in Tigray, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the outside world will be huge, even forcing some Amhara elite into a doublespeak to straddle two worlds.
If genocide is to do its work then, for Abiy, total blackout of the Internet is a non-negotiable necessity.
Unlike the case of Rwanda, Abiy’s strategy is a highly organized and well-designed genocide; that is, both in the nature of its intention meant to confuse the world and in its high level of coordination and efficiency.
First, it is designed in a way that exculpates the criminals involved in this genocide. The main tools used in this genocide are not machetes (as in Rwanda)—where the ‘intention’ is literally worn on the sleeves of the killers—but the more diffusive war and famine, which make the crime look less ‘intentional’ in its nature. The designers want us to believe that in this case war is an unavoidable consequence of ‘law and order’ enforcement and famine as primarily attributable to nature. And, so far, they have been succeeding. That is why the West is still reluctant to attribute genocide to Abiy, even as his Nobel Peace Prize is losing its luster.
And, second, this genocide is meant to work incrementally and needs coordination at different levels with different parties to do a thorough job.
For famine to do its work, it has to go through various stages first. The designers are fully aware of this and realize that the world will react only when famine is declared, by which time it would be too late for most of the famished. Thus, the time in between is maximally used to coordinate the making of this genocide: not only do the three armies need to complement each other’s’ tasks, but also to work with various Ministries and regions to get the desired result.
In addition, the nation’s entire bureaucratic apparatus and its extensive facilities (banks, airlines, media, internet, telephone, health centers, electric power, transportation, water resources, etc.) have been put to the service of this genocide policy.
Sadly, the outside world, lost in bits and pieces of details coming out from Tigray, fails to see this overarching policy. Accordingly, its responses remain woefully inadequate. Its ‘concerns’ lack the sense of urgency needed to tackle this rapidly unfolding tragedy. Many states and humanitarian organizations want to ‘engage’ the very architects of this genocide, as if this whole crisis is some kind of misunderstanding; that is, even as tens of thousands of civilians have already been massacred by the armies through indiscriminate bombardment and shelling and cold-blooded executions. And, obviously, we are not including victims of the famine since it has yet to fully materialize.
The ideas in this article are based on my previous article, ‘The architecture of death in Tigray’, published in Awashpost.com.