By Alem Berhe
A few days ago, a friend sent me the gruesome pictures following the drone strikes in Korem. I see an elderly Tigrayan woman, face down, with blood gushing out of her severed head. Her beautiful shifon has been drawn up as she fell down, her walking cane lies by her side, and her netsella on the other. She is murdered with all the beautiful symbols of Tigray surrounding her. Sometimes, language fails to describe horror, and tears and wails do not do justice to the grief that one feels. I think about my own grandmother. Who knows – perhaps she is also sprawled dead somewhere if not starving to death. In a communications blackout, it is best to assume the worst; the “maybe” and the “perhaps” are quite literal. That is beside the point anyway; the Tigrayan woman in the photo is my grandmother. She is all of our grandmothers.
There is no holiday to be celebrated during this carnage. Yet, upon seeing that picture, I am making an unusual New Year’s resolution in the name of Tigray’s past and Tigray’s future. It is this: to choose the hard truth and realism before kindness. At all times. In my view, truth is the highest moral element. As Ayn Rand once said, “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” As Tigrayans, we have made the horrible and consistent mistake of choosing the latter over the former in Ethiopian history. It is not that other virtues are not important; but all other honorable virtues – courage, compassion, forgiveness, humility, patience – are meaningless, and even detrimental if not applied under the aegis of truth. What is the price of kindness in a genocide? Tigrayans now reckon that we were the sheep foolishly grazing in the meadow when those surrounding us were musingly sharpening their knives. It is not just the genocide that is paralyzing you – it is the gnawing question of “who have we been living with this whole time?!” Why are they starving our children, gang-raping our women, bombing our grandmothers, and slaughtering our youth, with the help of foreign forces, and loudly celebrating it?
In his book titled Dagmawi Atse Menelik, Afewerk GebreYesus, the biographer of the genocidal Emperor Menelik, writes: “How senseless Emperor Yohannes is! He seeks help from Menelik to defeat the invasion of Egypt – little does he know we are working with the enemy to dethrone him.” Emperor Yohannes, the quintessence of sovereignty along with General Alula Aba Nega, successfully fought off myriads of foreign invasions in his reign. Later on, upon hearing that Gondar has been turned into scorched earth, that its churches were burnt down, and its inhabitants ransacked by the Mahdists, he left his seat in Tigray to save Gondar, to save “Ethiopia”. Tragically, as Afewerk said, it was all but senseless. He never came back; he was shot in his right hand, and his chest, and later his head disbanded from the rest of his body through a conspiracy between Menelik and enemy forces in Metema. This, despite victory being on his side during this Battle of Gallabat. It was Tigray that went to the rescue, and it was Tigray that had its head disbanded from its body, literally and metaphorically. But truth be told, who is closer to Gondar – Menelik II or Emperor Yohannes? This is Tigray choosing kindness over truth: the truth that Shewa elites will work with those desecrating their churches as long as Tigray is debased, while Tigray runs to them like a mother saving its child, saving its “Ethiopia”. Oddly enough, the irredentist Amhara elite camp use the Yohannes rhetoric while contemporarily dealing with Egypt to remind Egypt of “Ethiopian” bravery and victory in the past; their hypocrisy is, of course, unmatched. This was in the 19th century – what has changed?
Here is another instance. Debre Berhan used to be called Debre Iba (ደብረ ኢባ) before it acquired its historical change in name. I will not delve into the hagiography of our beloved Dekike Estifanos in this article. Suffice it to say that Debre Berhan (then capital of Shewa) was founded by Zereyacob in 1456AD following a “miraculous light in the sky” which ensued the brutal murder of the Dekike Estifanos. Dekike Estifanos were a group of Tigrayan saints brutally tortured, exiled, or murdered for fighting to uphold the foundational values of the Orthodox Church at the time. Perhaps one of the most vicious forms of persecution suffered by the members was when their live bodies were buried below ground, only their visible heads remaining above. By the order of the then-king Zereyacob, a herd of bulls were made to gallop over their heads, back and forth, until their imminent death. You can close your eyes for a minute and imagine the barbarism. However, the name Debre Berhan officially replaced Debre Iba following another massacre: members of the Dekike Estifanos being stoned to death en masse and a “light from heaven” apparently being observed in the sky a couple of weeks later. The light was considered a confirmatory blessing from St. Mary for the king that removed “heretics” and “traitors” — names Tigrayans are similarly assigned contemporarily, with the added flavoring of “breast-biters” and “cancer”. This is not symbolic; it is literal. When Tigray’s lights are dimmed and our heads above ground are being trampled or stoned to death, Ethiopia calls it light, celebrates it, and even establishes a capital city after it. This was in the 15th century – what has changed?
During the First Woyane Revolution, the movement that fought the centralization process of Haileselassie’s government, the English had sent many representatives to the leaders of the rebellion. Following a European model, the English wanted to extend their support and give Tigray the option of merging with their Tigrigna speaking “brothers” in Eritrea so they could form a part of the nation. This was kindly declined by the rebellion leaders, their response being that this is an internal matter and an internal conflict that did not require foreign support. “We are Ethiopians and will deal with our Ethiopian brothers accordingly,” they said. Haileselassie, on the other hand? The man did not flinch an eye to work with the English and blanket bomb Mekelle and southern Tigray into complete submission. Helicopters flew over our homelands, disseminating flyers that read “anyone who stands with the Tigrayan rebellion at this time be cursed like Arius on earth and in heaven in the name of Christ.” This, he of course did, with the blessing of the-then pope, Aba Qerlos. An Ethiopian-Orthodox-Church-mandated bombing under the disguise of a holy war – sound familiar? This was in the 20th century – what has changed?
Perhaps, the genocide we are currently witnessing in the 21st century, defies words and shows a climax in the genocidal campaigns against Tigrayans throughout history. But it is nothing new. Why do we toil so much to finalize the nation-building of the Ethiopian state? How can any entity fight to uphold an empire that will always plot to devour it back? Why can’t we choose the truth? I am lost at the number of historical instances in which Tigray has been considered “the prototypical other” to be eradicated. One would need a million parchments to write them all down. History has shown us that we have rarely been accepted for our identity in Ethiopia. This, of course, is quite ironic, as Ethiopia’s “exceptionalism” which it shamelessly preaches to the continent and the world, is based on the marketing of Tigrayan history. If you are enamored with Tigrayan history and hate the Tigrayan people who upheld it, it is simply because you want to claim the former at the expense of the latter.
We do not even have to look at historical periods; it is enough to look at our personal stories and the denial that came with it. I think about my childhood in the streets of Addis. Of men on the streets screaming out: “You’re very pretty; it’s a shame you’re a Tigrayan.” Unfortunately for the catcallers, I was a very proud Tigrayan, but it never occurred to me to delve deep into these comments. I just thought it was a fleeting political dispensation. I am stupid, of course. Both my mom and dad are veterans who fought against the Dergue at a young age, their romance beginning in the throes of a bloody battlefield. Until the day my family was indignantly removed from their government housing post the current civil war, my family has lived in plebian “soldier camps.” They, along with their other Tigrayan soldiers and ex-soldier counterparts, are dirt poor and what’s more, were absolutely okay with this fact. When you survive a war, all you care about is peace. You understand the price. I am only learning this now, of course, another generation down the line surviving a genocide. Growing up, I was never allowed to complain. Neither my father nor my mother, nor those Tigrayans who survived the 17-year civil war, blamed themselves for bringing me and other Tigrayan children into this world while they had nothing. They had lost their family, their friends, and comrades to make sure Tigray was safe and later on, they would have created the space for the now-genocidal Ethiopian state to move from a pariah to a beacon of African hope in the international order. What more can we ask of a generation? So, I never complained. I was told I could be anything I wanted to be, no matter how incalculable the odds because they had proven it to be true.
I am forever grateful to my parents, to the Tigrayans who fought and died in the 17-year civil war and beyond, for that opportunity that had (briefly) allowed us to dream again. It’s sad that you have to be a Tigrayan to recognize this fact because they died not just for Tigrayans, but for the empire that continues to gnaw at our bones. I worked endlessly hard to be where I am today – to be somebody. Yet, everywhere I worked and everywhere I went, I was told “your English is this good because you have Tigrayan privilege and had more opportunities than us. You’re good at your job because you were trained better and had Tigrayan privilege.” How is sacrificing 60,000 of your people in war and millions of your people in famine to create the system that you now murderously benefit from somehow a privilege to me and Tigrayans? How is becoming something from nothing on the basis of your strong values a “privilege”, something to be ashamed of, and something that I should apologize for? The irrationality and hatred with which the historical Ethiopian state and the revisionist Amhara camp treat Tigrayans is appallingly disgusting.
Again, I am choosing this truth over kindness, no matter how distasteful it is for our minds to accept. The more important point here is that these were all testimonies to the inborn hate that always surrounded us – that we downplayed – that we excused – that we justified – that we ignored – in the name of unity and peace. The same hate that is now translated into the child-rape and vandalism and pillage and absolute carnage that we see. I have learned that if you are a minority in Ethiopia – you can’t be great at something. Because you stand out in the wrong way, and the only way they want you to stand up is under the umbrella of their irredentist fascism. They will tell you that a minority cannot be good of their own accord – it has to be a privilege. They think in numbers, not in values. Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organization (WHO) is a good example of this. No matter your contributions, you will always be the 5 or 6%; the easy-to-kill 5-million day-time hyenas and devils in the grandeur of the 100 million. This time around, our responsibility is not to ignore and justify hate, but to find a way to be removed from it. Permanently. Let us make a pledge that we will not fight another war in Ethiopia after this one. Our values do not allow that we debase ourselves to the point of gang-raping a neighboring ethnic group in the name of purification – as is happening to us. But we can decide to not live with those who celebrate such quintessential evil; it is the least we can do. We owe it to the next generation. Even in individual relationships, we are advised – in a very evident manner – to distance ourselves from toxic partners. Why is this so difficult to understand on the scale of the nation-state? In a toxic individual relationship, perhaps you get domestic violence. But in a State that is hellbent on pulverizing and uniformizing different identities – you risk a genocide. We will realize this fact through the confirmation of our self-determination. There is a reason that self-determination is the holiest of political and human rights, and it is not just because it is explicitly enshrined in the currently defunct Ethiopian constitution. It is also unambiguously listed under the United Nations (UN) Charter – right there in the front – under Article 1 of the Purposes and Principles of the Charter. Unsurprisingly, it is also the first right mentioned in Article 1 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is obvious why it is necessary.
As I look at the picture of the Tigrayan woman from the Korem Massacre, an Irish friend next to me tries to reassure me: “I am sure she is in heaven. There is a different place where she will be dignified.” But all I can think of is the literal hell and fire that my people live in today. Stories of heaven are no consolation to me. Heaven is the hope and the attainment of a liberated Tigray. Heaven is a space and temporality where Tigray can breathe, where an elderly Tigrayan mother is not ironically air-bombed on her way back from church, having just expressed her gratitude to God for having given her another day. And I wish this for all oppressed groups and nations in Ethiopia. There is no doubt that Tigray will prevail. Tigray will rise from the ashes. And when it does, we will ensure to not place it in the same historical predicament. As a friend of mine on Twitter by the name of Saba has written “Never dim your light for anything. It is not preaching exceptionalism to be proud of and tell the world about your heritage.” I say amen.
Dear Tigray, just this once, choose truth over kindness. It is time to do yourself a favor. No one else will.
About the author:
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.
- Afewerk GebreYesus, ዳግማዊ አጤ ምኒልክ (Dagmawi Ate Menelik): a biography
- Yemane GebreMeskel, ቀዳማይ ወያነ (Qedamay Weyane), 2005
- Kassa Hailemariam, ገረብ ዓረና ወያነ ትግራይ (Gereb Arena Weyane Tigray) 1933-1939 ዓ.ም
- Dekike Esitfanos, A Hagiography
- Girma Elias, ደቂቀ እስጢፋኖስና የደብረ ብርሃን ሸንጎ (Dekike Estifanos and the Debre Berhan Council), 2000
- Getachew Haile, በህግ ኣምላክ, 1995