What has hell to do with war, and with others? In the war against Tigray, Tigrayans who are legal citizens of Ethiopia has been reduced to subjects or inhabitants without political rights (hereafter, denizens). In what follows, I wish to briefly reflect on war and the otherness of Tigray using the notion of hell as a lens.
The use of the term ‘hell’ is not my choice. Instead, it is drawn from the current political discourse of Ethiopia. Although it is borrowed from the religious domain, the term is used herein relates to war and its devastating consequences. Thus, I will be discussing hell within the context of the war against Tigray.
Tracing the term ‘hell’ goes back to the time when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 in Oslo, Norway. In his speech, he invoked the term, saying:
In that same speech, the Peace Prize laureate recalls his firsthand horrifying experience of the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000) that produced thousands of dead bodies. As someone who had witnessed such devastation most Ethiopians and the international community did not expect that he would almost immediately embark against a section of his own people, Tigrayans.
In light of his subsequent actions, however, it seems clear that the Prime Ministers’ evocative depiction of war was nothing more than one aspect of his relentless bid to build his image as a reformer and peace-loving leader (even as the messianic ‘Prince of Peace’).
To understand his real persona, however, one has to scrutinize his alliance-making efforts. In Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region to some extent, alliance-making is simultaneously enemy-making. The political culture of the region offers several examples of instances whereby ‘A’ from region ‘X’, who aspires to dominate ‘B’ of region ‘Y’, would enter an alliance with ‘C’ of region ‘Z’ and even ‘D’ from region ‘Y’. In this light, PM Abiy’s peace deal with Eritrea should have triggered a suspicion that Tigray would be constructed as an enemy to be exterminated. However, the international community hastily (and even naively) rewarded him with a Nobel Peace Prize.
Medemer – the PM’s quasi-political philosophy – was not about real unity but simply a rhetorical device to galvanize force against perceived enemies to the regime. This was revealed more clearly, when, subsequent to his Peace Prize, the laureate geared up a propaganda campaign against his strongest political opponents, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in the process inciting hostility and resentment against all Tigrayans. Political activists with significant control on mainstream and social media presence amplified the rhetoric coming from the Prime Minister and other officials in his government to mobilize people against TPLF and Tigrayans.
As conceived by the self-declared agents of ‘change’ led by the PM, a retributive attack against Tigray was inevitable if a new political dispensation is to be ushered in. They justify this quest for retribution by declaring the ‘Original Sin’ of instituting federalism and the principle of self-determination by the TPLF (as the core of the EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front]) as the source of all ills. An inherent contradiction of this co-belligerence is, however, that they aim at abolishing ethnic-based parties and ethnic federalism with the same logic of ethnic-based solidarity and hostility. Put differently, exterminating Tigrayans becomes tantamount to eradicating ethnic-based politics. Hence, Tigrayan citizens have become denizens – hierarchically below rightful citizens – who are objects of hate.
The Road to Hell
Understanding the political development that led to the making of Tigrayans as denizens of hell demands looking at the legal fiat that construed the war on Tigray as an operation of enforcing the rule of law and order. Meaza Ashenafi, Head of the Supreme Court, noted the possibility of a military intervention of the central federal government in the regional states of the country in August 2019 by drawing certain historical parallels such as the case of the United States of America under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is a kind of anaconda plan of action to besiege Tigray (the image of anaconda – the largest species of snakes [zӓndo] – has also been circulating among religious adherents of Orthodox and Protestant Christianity through prophetic utterances). The declaration of a ‘law enforcement’ operation on the 4th of November 2020 was, therefore, just the fulfillment of a premeditated plan of delineating Tigray as an earthly hell where Tigrayan bodies are deemed to suffer. Thus, the war on Tigray is the enactment of legal violence dictated by the sovereign-dictator and delivered by the legal apparatus and not just an arbitrary response to what was conceived as ‘a a preemptive attack on the Northern Command’.
Following the delineation of Tigray as a war zone, and the enactment of violence under the guise of law enforcement, Tigrayans have been subjected to horrific and devastating atrocities with the aim, as Lieutenant General Bacha Debele declared, to return “Tplfites” to hell where they properly belong. The Lt. Gen. went on to portray TPLF officials and the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) as beings who look like humans but are demons from hell. He further remarked that they devoured the innocent people of Ethiopia mercilessly in the most inhumane way and they must be dealt with bravery and cruelty.
Although it may, at first glance, seem that the target of the regime was a few TPLF leaders, the enactment of violence has not shown any discrimination between armed and unarmed Tigrayans. The whole exercise of war has been the extermination of Tigrayans. The siege that separated Tigray – de facto – from other Ethiopian regions and the federal center is to hinder the flow of goods (mainly food and medicine) necessary to sustain life, the information blackout, and the closing of banks are ways in which Tigrayan lives are systematically exterminated – as a form of silent violence.
Denziens of Hell
Both spectacular and silent forms of violence continue to be enacted on Tigrayan bodies, as various human rights reports indicate. Bodies besieged, bodies displaced, bodies detained, bodies disappearing, bodies tortured, bodies raped, bodies mutilated, bodies tied with ropes, bodies thrown into rivers, bodies burnt, bodies subjected to human-made famine, bodies denied medical treatment, bodies attacked by drones, and so on. Given the humanitarian crisis, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the WHO (World Health Organization), has recently remarked on the situation as follows:
The Tigrayan hell that targets Tigrayan bodies aims to exterminate them all (if possible) or to vanquish their psyche in order to produce docile bodies. I highlighted the suffering of bodies to interrogate other two kinds of bodies – the body politic that caused such atrocities against Tigrayan bodies and the religious bodies, as a full understanding of the sacrificed bodies of Tigrayans without having a view on the other two bodies. While the responsibility of the political body is obvious, the responsibility of the latter entity appears to be obscured. However, as Ethiopians are primarily religious, religious entities – especially Christianity and its teachings, which consider the church as the body of Christ – have been deeply implicated in the war. It has contributed to the othering and extermination of Tigrayans, including the legitimation and authorization of the war against Tigray. Thus, it is impossible to fully understand the suffering of Tigrayan bodies without referring to these two bodies linked to the production of the Tigrayan hell.
Of course, this is not to deny the fact that all the other ethnic-based regions and the federal government have not suffered any losses. For example, when the TPLF refused on 18 November 2020 to surrender to the federal troops, the leader of the party Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael claimed that they were winning: “Tigray is now a hell to its enemies.” Of course, if you gaze at the abyss for long, the abyss will call you. Now, the northern Abyssinian/Ethiopian field has turned into an abyss. The Amhara and Afar regions, which are involved in the extermination of Tigrayans, are also turning into earthly hell facing internal displacement and hunger. Eritrea, which is the main actor and perpetrator in the war against Tigray, continues to suffer the loss of its military forces.
Reflecting on Hell
The use of hell in this context serves to highlight how religious terms are used to promote relations of ethnic enmity and the legitimization of genocide waged against Tigray. In such situations, “hell is other people” (reiterating Jean-Paul Sartre). Implied in this statement is that others can treat me as an object. I am caught by and made subject to their apprehension of me. Here, the critique is against those who disturb my peace (and my peaceful and loving relations with others who are dear and near to me). Fyodor Dostoevsky, who defined hell long before Sartre, helps us to elaborate Sartre’s use of hell. For Dostoevsky, hell is the “torment of not loving.” Here, the critique is on the self that fails to love the Other. Elaborating on both, the Orthodox philosopher and theologian, Christos Yannaras, explains hell within a more profound religious (particularly, Christian) framework, arguing that the Other is the one who condemns me for my failure to relate to him/her properly. The self that is unable to love the Other carries a subjective form of hell within himself/herself, and this hell torments the conscience. The Other who I think should be relegated as a denizen of hell is “the confirmation of my existential failure” and it is important to realize that those people whom I relegate to an earthly hell (denizens of hell) are “the occasion of my own hell.”
In conclusion, I wish to accentuate the point that hell to the Tigrayan-self is Ethiopia (with its allied forces). Put differently, Tigray has become the occasion for Ethiopia’s hell, and the Tigrayan-Other is like hell to the Ethiopian-Self. What should be underlined here is not just the creation of hell out of Tigray, and the consequent relegation of Tigrayans to an earthly hell, but the torment of the Ethiopian conscience because of its inability to extend respect, recognition, and love towards Tigray. Although what constitutes otherness could evoke theoretical debates, in view of the concrete situation in Ethiopia, Tigrayans are constructed as others. Othering and enemy-making continue, as the allied forces of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Amhara with their foreign allies fight against Tigrayans. Is it necessary and desirable for Tigrayan-Other to be exterminated for others to exist? Should the global community continue to allow the Horn of Africa to turn into a living hell? If the world cannot affirm the humanity of Tigrayans, wouldn’t the universal human rights commitment be rendered a hypocritical dogma?
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Estella Barnes. London/New York: Routledge, 2003.
Yannaras, Christos. Person and Eros, trans. Norman Russell. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, Orthodox Press, 2007.