By Alem Berhe
I keep thinking about that old adage of “if a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If ethnic cleansing and genocide are being committed but the international community refuses to see it, do the atrocities count? The answer is obvious. The ‘banality of language’ with which the media and the international community dismiss the atrocities in Tigray is heart-wrenching. When did “concern” and “deep concern” become the new synonyms for action? Everyone sure feels comfortable after issuing a statement of concern – like it somehow alleviates your moral conscience that you felt bad about something.
Joseph Stalin surely knew what he was talking about when he said: “The death of one man is a tragedy; The death of a million a statistic.” Antonio Guterres has two children. Surely, one can only imagine the rage and media hysteria if his children were abducted for one night? This will never happen of course. But it’s just to put things in perspective. We currently have 900k+ Tigrayans in famine and 6.8m in dire need of emergency food – a whole region that’s being starved to submission in the 21st century. If Guterres is distraught at the imagination of the potential abduction of his kids even for one evening, surely the impending death of millions of people should make him shiver? Is this what Arendt meant that evil arises from the simple fact that people cannot decide to see themselves in other people’s shoes? I focus on Guterres as the face of an organization, of course – the appeal is to the international community at large.
The trees are falling in the forest and if you don’t believe us, believe your own. The Finnish Foreign Minister and EU Envoy said he was told in closed doors by Ethiopian leaders that “they are going to wipe out Tigrayans for 100 years.” Why is this only newsworthy for one day? Or the American government’s acknowledgment that ethnic cleansing is underway in Tigray? Or the then UN Humanitarian Chief, Mark Lowcock, alarming the bell that man-made famine is already the case in Tigray? Or the various Ethiopian mass media agencies spewing out hatred and calling Tigrayans “devils,” “hyenas,” “weed” that need to be eradicated from the face of the earth? Do these not illicit any response? Oh, but they did. Such profound melancholy at the heart of the international community that it shifted from being “concerned” to “extremely concerned.” How little we matter. If the Tigray Defense Forces weren’t in the picture – wouldn’t the world continue to watch us perish? It was the RPF that saved the Tutsis – those who survived anyway – not the international community. The UN is great at breaking parties that have somewhat subsided, like showing up four years after the Darfur Genocide. Or keeping the music low for parties currently running, like pretending there are presently no internment camps in China torturing over a million Uighurs. One wonders; if the UN is simply an organization that only knows to offer condolences, perhaps we should all focus on providing more support to funeral parlors? Has the UN ever been, and will it ever be able to timely respond and invoke its responsibility to protect against mass atrocities? The answer is no. But thank goodness for human agency, for the will to fight. Tigray is steadfast and regardless of all odds, it will persevere.
At its base, genocide is not even about the atrocities; it’s about the intent of destroying a certain nation or group. In Tigray, this is not just visible in the ‘usual’ forms of killing: massacres, bombings, shelling, or house-to-house shootings. It’s the willful gratification of the processes of killing which keep me up at night. It’s not just that you got raped, you are raped with the imposition that it’s, after all, to your benefit; that you are just being “purified of your ethnicity.” It’s that you have fifteen men gang-rape you across a week and make bets as to whether rape has been enough punishment or if they should still shoot you. Rape is how they let you know it’s “their season.” It’s the detainments and concentration camps in our century. It’s that men are walked out of prison camps, their hands tied behind their backs, and thrown into a river, to be collected at the borders of at-an-all different country. It’s the desecration of your social foundations; it’s the blood in your ancient churches. It’s the indulgence in the destruction of your infrastructure, the enjoyment of destroying a poor farmer’s crops, cattle, and livelihood. It’s food as a weapon of war in our century! It’s that food – a basic necessity – is a controlling means of a whole people. It’s the machetes slaughtering the heads of your small and big brothers; that your debasement has become akin to that of an animal. It’s not just that we are dying – it’s the way we are dying that keeps me up at night. That I am jealous of men and women who die of illnesses in the warmth of their surrounding family. When did this become a privilege?! I am jealous of the existential agonies of normal people; they at least have their individual stories. What’s a Tigrayan today – isn’t he the sad embodiment of all other Tigrayans? And all other Tigrayans are the epitomes of all the grief a group can have in a lifetime. There is no individuality; we all breath collectively, and we breath collectively for the right to exist. For those of us that made it out of Tigray, the pain is that we have to continue to mingle and carry out our daily obligations, in some sense of disillusionment. We have to pretend as if the first thing we thought about in the morning wasn’t suicide. But we think about our dead, handicapped, and detained family and friends, and we are reminded that we owe it to them to continue. To be somebody. To still mean something. To make a name for ourselves. To exist. To be a kindle in the darkness. We can’t complain of trauma when our people are not even getting food.
Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, said that dignity is possible even in concentration camps. That man can continue to be worthy of his suffering even in the darkest of times. Frankl is the rarest, most beautiful human beings to ever exist – one who managed to somehow come out unadulterated even after surviving years in Auschwitz. It’s hard for me to swallow the reality of his statement but I have no right to criticize him. I know that Tigrayans maintain their dignity in their resilience, in fighting all too literally, and all too small, against the impossibility of all odds. It’s not through the Bible, but through current events that we have come to believe in the mythical stories of David and Goliath. We are merely a small region fighting annihilation from our government, Amhara militias, and specialized forces from the whole country; the Eritrean army; purchased Somalian soldiers; and Emirati-Iranian-Chinese-Turkish drones. All for having an election to choose our own leaders! But perhaps the most important thing we are fighting is the deafening inaction of an international community which claims superiority simply because of issued diplomatic statements. Because it seems to know that the wrongs of the past are wrong and should not be repeated again, as they are repeated again and again. Hey, perhaps that will soothe our conscience. But the truth is this: if the past were to happen again, it would still happen again. There is nothing in the structure and the lethargy and the vetoes of the UN that assures one the past won’t be repeated. Because it is. And that’s a reason to stay up at night: it is now public knowledge that there is no international institution (without the vested, powerful interests of its permanent members) that can practically stop a mass atrocity. It’s an emboldening piece of knowledge and will only deteriorate the international order further. Diplomacy is dead. Anarchy reigns high and will continue to reign high as those who are willing to benefit from it are more outspoken than those who would like to maintain a cooperative and peaceful international order. This is especially true for Russia and China; they are more vested in tipping the status quo towards their hegemonic favor no matter how clandestine their role, than are the US or the EU to ensure human rights and maintain a stable order.
The Human Will pervades, nonetheless, and we will continue to fight. Tigray will not forget the deafening silence of most and Tigray will remember the few who spoke for us. We will prevail. We trust that we are bestowed with agency, no matter how small. We will use it. Heroism isn’t a word of old. In Ethiopia, existence is no longer a right for Tigrayans, nor for other oppressed groups. But we will exist, and we will continue to make names for ourselves. Tigray will prevail. Tigray will rise. At all costs.
Alem Berhe is a humanitarian specialist with many years of experience supporting vulnerable populations in East Africa. Previously, she served as a research specialist for various organizations focusing on the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Alem has an MA in International Security and a BA in International Relations.
Disclaimer: the views are her own, and not the views of her employer.