In the past ten months, I have written over two hundred threads on Twitter to try to raise awareness about the genocide being committed against the people of Tigray. The responses have been decidedly mixed. On one hand, I have received so much love just for being able to read humanitarian data and believing that Tigrayans should be treated as human beings. I am so very humbled by so much kindness and I treasure the many friends that I have made along the way. On the other hand, I have been accused of being a terrorist, a criminal, and a secret agent. I have also, by the way, been called horrible names, harassed, and insulted, but this is more often amusing than offensive.
I usually mock or ignore the insults or accusations, because I just do not have that kind of sensitivity and others get much worse. But it is important to note that I do not get paid to advocate for Tigrayans. I do so because it is the first time that I have ever observed a government commit such severe violence against a civilian population with almost complete international impunity. This can be better illustrated by looking at three specific reasons that I do not care about accusations that I am a secret TPLF agent:
Reason 1: I am not a Tigrayan in Ethiopia.
I cannot be persecuted for baseless accusations. I don’t have a business in Ethiopia to be confiscated by the government based on those accusations. No one can put me in a detention camp with my children and extort my family on the suspicion of being a TPLF supporter. No mob will show up outside my apartment to murder me in cold blood because I “sound like” a TPLF supporter. No militia will come through my neighbourhood to kidnap, torture, or kill me because they presumed that I am a TPLF supporter.
Every single Tigrayan living in Ethiopia is vulnerable every single day to everything I mentioned at the slightest suspicion of being TPLF supporters, except of course those living in areas of Tigray controlled by the TPLF. This has all been extensively documented by the most highly regarded human rights groups in the world, often in grisly detail. A recent report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International described brutal conditions for the Tigrayans in Western Tigray. Mass arrests of “TPLF supporters” (read Tegaru) have been documented by everyone from the New York Times, the UN, Amnesty International, and the list goes on. The University of Ghent maintains an extensive database of civilian massacres and there is by now hours of video footage of unspeakable atrocities committed against Tigrayans suspected of being TPLF supporters.
Reason 2: I am not a Tigrayan living in Tigray
No one will starve me and my family because my region supported the TPLF in the last elections. My family and I can see a doctor if we get sick and take medications if needed. We can go to hospitals with electricity and ambulances, where there is functional medical equipment, and the doctors are not starving themselves. I can use the telephone and access my bank account. I connected to the internet and the electrical grid.
Every Tigrayan living in Central Tigray has been under a humanitarian siege enforced by the federal governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the regional Prosperity Party governments in Amhara and Afar for at least a year. According to projections released in June 2021 by the IPC, the most recognized authority on food insecurity, 353,000 Tigrayans were at the worst stage of food insecurity around this time last year. The IPC was never allowed to conduct another assessment of Tigray, but the group projected that more than 400,000 Tigrayans would be in “famine conditions” by last September and another 1.8 million would be one phase behind famine, based on the assumption that 60% of the households in Tigray could rely on outside food assistance for more than 50% of their daily caloric intake. The government of Ethiopia has done everything in its power to hide the conditions in Tigray but cannot stop aid groups from knowing and reporting that nowhere near the amount of food needed to feed 60% of households was allowed into Tigray.
Tigrayans are being deliberately starved because, in September 2020, they re-elected the TPLF, which was immediately declared to be illegitimate for holding the election. From that moment forward, Tigrayan civilians have been the collective target of collective punishment by the federal government for living in a region governed by the TPLF. In November, on the pretext of a coordinated attack on Federal military installations that refused orders from the regional government to withdraw from Tigray, the Ethiopian-Eritrean coalition invaded and carried out a campaign of brutal violence against the civilian population. The well-documented and widespread civilian massacres, sexual violence, looting and the systematic destruction of the health and agricultural systems will, in my opinion, be recognized as genocide.
After the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF) pushed the military alliance out of Central Tigray at the end of June 2021, the humanitarian siege began. The Ethiopian government refused to certify the IPC report, publicly denied that starvation was present in Tigray, and according to then-UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, worked to block the UN from declaring a famine. The outgoing UN Chief accused the Ethiopian government of deliberately obstructing aid, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described a de-facto blockade on Tigray, and the incoming Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths accused Ethiopia of blocking aid to Tigray. Griffiths’ remarks led to the unprecedented expulsion of senior UN humanitarian staff from the country.
According to the UN-OCHA updates, about 10% of the food aid that the World Food Programme estimated was needed to combat the impending famine was allowed into Tigray in the first months after the “unilateral ceasefire” announced by the government of Ethiopia on June 28, 2021. For six months, starting in November, only 2% of food aid was allowed into Tigray along with very little medicine of any kind, and no fuel for humanitarian operations in the region. By the end of the year stocks of food and fuel were depleted and all aid was being blocked from entering Tigray. The first humanitarian truck of 2022 entered Tigray on April 1.
Reason 3: I have worked as a professional researcher in a field that used to be called “countering violent extremism” and is now “peacebuilding” for the past 15 years and I have heard it all before.
Most of my work has focused on support for community-based programs in areas affected by conflict where at least some faction of the population despises and distrusts me and everything I represent. My work was not academic research and was rarely published, though some projects and contracts had outputs available on the internet. In 2016-17, for example, I was one of ten authors on the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People (2016) and co-authored two other reports about engaging religious leaders to counter violent extremism in Pakistan (2016) and Yemen (2017). Most of my research was highly nuanced and had little generalizable value.
Interestingly, my last assignment before I left the peacebuilding industry was based in Ethiopia. It was focused on religious tolerance, not on Tigray or ethnopolitical fault lines. The more relevant conflict to my work was in Oromia. COVID-19 broke out at around the halfway point of the project and I had to return to Washington. I could have continued the research. Recall that COVID-19 did not spike in Ethiopia the same way it did in Europe and then the US. No one cancelled interviews with me, but I take “do no harm” very seriously. My interviews would have taken me out east from Addis Ababa and the risk that the research could potentially cause outbreaks in areas with poor medical facilities was unacceptable. The project was delayed for a long time and eventually cancelled. I made sure the local partners got paid anyway because I am a professional.
I have studied war and terrorism. What is happening in Tigray does not meet the criteria for either. While I strongly believe that the violence against civilians committed during the occupation of Tigray meets the criteria for genocide, I must also acknowledge that the legal distinction between a “Crime Against Humanity” and genocide is not something that I have the expertise to make.
However, intentionally blocking the delivery of food and medicine to civilians in famine conditions is a textbook example of the third act of genocide recognized in Article 6(c) of the Rome Statute:
ROme Statute Article 6(c)
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
The failure of the international community to recognize and respond to genocide in the form of forced starvation is particularly alarming due to the ease with which it is accomplished. As Lowcock described in an interview with TGHAT Media, humanitarian operations are reliant on the cooperation of local governments. If the conditions for famine are present or can be created, all a government needs to do to commit genocide is to deny access to aid. This kind of siege does not even require military assets. It can be easily achieved by any number of measures, including refusing to allow the passage of aid trucks, blocking fuel supplies, imposing unreasonable security measures, and creating bureaucratic hurdles. If international pressure cannot Ethiopia to allow food, fuel, and medicine into a famine-stricken region then the bar for genocide has been made dangerously low.
I dedicate my time to raising awareness about the Tigray Genocide because it represents the greatest level of violence I have ever seen unleashed on millions of innocent civilians and has been met with the weakest international response. As an American, I am not responsible for the willingness of the Ethiopian government to starve and slaughter their own citizens, but I bear some responsibility for my own government’s failure to prioritize the lives of civilians in Track One diplomacy.
I have never had contact with the TPLF and have never been paid for my advocacy for the people of Tigray and will not accept any compensation. I am not trying to make any money from this human tragedy. If anyone is still confused about why I wake up every day and think about what I can do to help the people of Tigray survive the genocide and how I can help end it, read this essay again.
I will continue to advocate for the lives, human rights, and personal freedoms of Tigrayans until civilian security is restored in Tigray. Although, I might also stick around for reconstruction because I have a feeling that Tigray’s comeback will be colossal.