Seven months into the war on Tigray, the world – from Hollywood actors, human rights activists, journalists, scholars, researchers, to members of the Senate/Parliament and Congress – is deeply concerned about the ongoing crisis. The United Nations has held 5 sessions on Tigray and issued one lightweight statement. The US Senate passed a bipartisan resolution S.Res.97-calling on fighting parties to cease all hostilities, protect human rights, allow unfettered humanitarian access, and cooperate with independent investigations of credible atrocity allegations. The US has imposed visa restrictions on perpetrators of atrocities alongside security and economic sanctions
I Am a Tigrayan Public Servant
I am a Tigrayan working in one of the Ethiopian federal institutions. Since tensions between the federal government and the Tigray regional government began, I and other Tigryans in the same position have been under an enormous level of pressure, including surveillance by close colleagues. Many have resigned protesting ethnic profiling, persecution, and killings. Others have been suspended and dismissed.
As an Ethiopian, I still find it difficult to imagine that the Ethiopian government could collectively target members of one ethnic group to such an extent with little to no consequences so far. It is particularly unimaginable that this is being done by the government, which was welcomed by all in the first few months of the so-called reform. Tigrayans, who had struggled with being perceived as special beneficiaries of the previous era were particularly relieved to see change. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was welcomed in Mekelle to standing ovations and ululations interrupted his 13 minutes speech in Tigrigna. Sadly, however, he has not only failed to honor his words, but his army is now raping and killing those mothers who welcomed him joyfully to Mekelle.
The first red flag as to the direction the reform would take was the reaction to an alleged assassination attempt against the Prime Minister on June 24, 2018. I was shocked and shaken by the news knowing fully well even then that whoever the perpetrators were, we would be criminalized This is just the way of Ethiopian politics, where every failure has to be blamed on past leadership. The tensions between Mekelle and Addis Ababa would start to unfold soon after and we were forced to watch as the possibility of any real discussions disappeared and suspicion became the rules of engagement.
One aspect of the profiling of Tigrayan civil servants after the dissolution of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) and the formation of the new Prosperity Party (PP) was a massive internal audit which resulted in Tigrayan’s being called to join PP. Many rejected the request and few joined. Following this, the party organized trainings for its members followed by separate meetings with Tigrayans who joined the party. Ultimately PP cadres came to believe that Tigrayan members were leaking information and decided that Tigrayans should not be recruited into the party at all. For Tigrayans, it is simply damned if you join PP, damned if you reject PP, to paraphrase a well-known saying.
The launch of a fully-fledged multifront war on Tigray inaugurated another and even more difficult stage for Tigrayan public servants. Almost everyone was suspended from work, reshuffled to less important positions, or even worse detained at camps. Bank accounts were frozen, contracts canceled, salaries stopped, travel banned, communications disconnected as the hate against Tigrayans reached an all-time peak. These actions were justified as security measures by many and some even tried to draw parallels with the internment of Japanese residents and Japanese-Americans in the United States during WWII and the arrest of some Iraqi’s and others post-September 11.
During the first weeks of the war, a decision was made by the management at the institution I am employed by to donate one-month salaries to fund the military for the war in Tigray. At that time my brother had joined the resistance army in Tigray and so I felt I was being forced to fund my brother’s killers. This not only keeps me awake at night blaming myself but it creates a rift within my family. When I telephone my brother, he always refers to the Ethiopian army as “yours” and TDF (Tigray Defence Forces) as ours, speaking of himself and his family.
A Government Divided
Amidst this personal turmoil, there is also the anxiety and frustration of seeing firsthand the confusion and lack of clarity within the government in Addis Ababa. The underlying problem with this government is that there is no internal discussion on ideas – the internal democracy of the party is dead. There is no common ground. No clarity of purpose or ideology even among the Ministers. No member of the party could explain to you what the party’s political and economic ideology is. In one training, for example, the trainer explained that the party’s ideology is a pragmatic approach and when asked what it meant he replied we take anything important at any time from anywhere.
The Prime Minister singlehandedly initiate an idea and it would trickle down without any argument or addition. What is more saddening is that intuitions are bypassed and have no role in any policy matters. Institutions have been re-engineered to channel the personal wishes, ego, and parochial desires of the leader. One institution might be working on specific issues for months and the Prime Minister will appear in public to undo or dismiss all the efforts. One public appearance of the Prime Minister destroys the country’s principles, institutions, and years of diplomatic assets.
At this time, anything is up for negotiation except something with the potential of being a threat to the hold on power of the people in leadership. One example in this regard is the extent to which the border issue with Sudan has been given a relatively low profile. The war in Tigray, however, is assumed to be a direct threat to the palace and is therefore amplified and pursued at all costs. The country’s diplomatic assets are thrown to the wind and the country no longer respects the international laws to which it is signatory nor does the government hesitate when offending centuries-old allies. The government fears dialogue and cherishes war.
There have been continuous internal discussions on the war in Tigray across the entire military and civilian government apparatus. These discussions are, however, not focused on solving the alarming problem in Tigray but on how to respond and handle the pressure from the international community. Tigrayans, or as the government calls us these days, natives, are not allowed to speak about Tigray unless we echo the government’s propaganda. Even the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarch, who in the Ethiopian Christian tradition is considered as the spiritual father of his followers, has been labeled “Junta ” and abused by government officials and media for speaking about Tigray. The Head of the World Health Organization, as reported by the New York Times is also in anguish and is the victim of constant online trolling for highlighting the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. No one is safe unless you bow down to authority but this does not come easy to Tigrayans. Three generations of my family had to pass through war and destruction, all from the center. My grandfather fought against Emperor Haile Selassie, my father fought against the dictator Dergue and now my brother is again at war against the current invaders.
Survivors must have the chance to speak
As Tigrayans we have solid sources of information from family members and friends inside the war and from the people of Tigray as a whole witnessing the atrocities and who are being victimized. My family lives in one of the places where a house-to-house massacre of 200 people was conducted by the Ethiopian army. I lost many childhood friends and family members. It is therefore excruciating to hear many Ethiopians claim these massacres never happened. Sometimes I wonder what evidence they are looking for to accept the facts. Collective empathy seems to be totally dead. Most of my close, non-Tigrayan, friends have never asked me about the well-being of my family because that has now become politicized. Healing starts with telling the truth. Survivors must have the chance to speak.
To add salt into our wound, we are asked to make statements and speak to the media in support of the government action as legitimate and condemn the TPLF for treason. Many refused to do so. Even when government officials were encouraged to use government accounts to counter the government’s diplomatic failures, Tigrayans are strictly prohibited from posting anything on social media supporting the victims at the cost of their job and maybe life. This enforced through computer and email searches, social media accounts are hacked.
Tigray Shall Win
Finally, we are now requested to sponsor the PP election and to contribute our monthly salary again which many of us have rejected. It is almost impossible to feel belonging that has not only put to question our loyalty but has terminated its protection against foreign invaders and put my right to life at risk and taken the lives of many of our people. The cost of the war is felt by every one of Tigrayan identity, our current reality is characterized by loss – of family, of jobs, of homes – and we can not make future plans: no plan of marriage, business, or anything that can be done under normal circumstances. The war has meant an indefinite pause on all activities of a normal life.
The only comfort I have now is watching the videos coming from the battlefield where thousands are shown dancing to revolutionary music. The Tigrigna revolutionary music transcends the battlefield to keep the spirit of everyone awakened. Its contribution must be researched further. Gratitude shall also be to our women, which is another unique feature of the struggle, who are fighting on all fronts. I know there are many brothers and sisters who are also suffering in silence in similar circumstances like mine. I want to say to them here that we shall shine again. Tigray shall win.