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Guernica in Tigray



By Kibrom Gebreselassie 

Guernica is a small Basque town located in Northern Spain, a market town during the Spanish Civil war of 1936-1939.  Adi Daero is a small Tigrayan town located in Northern Ethiopia. These two small towns, thousands of miles apart, have a common painful story which spans decades. 

Spain was entangled in a bloody civil war that had begun in July 1936 when the right-wing nationalists led by General Francisco Franco sought to overthrow Spain’s elected left-wing republican government. The internal political conflict soon attracted international actors rallying behind the warring parties-creating a lineup of opponents that foreshadowed the two camps that would battle each other in World War II. Some say World War II could have been averted in Guernica. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany supported Franco while the Soviet Union backed the Republicans. Volunteers from many countries flocked to assist the republican government from places as far as the United States (Abraham Lincoln Brigade). 

Nazi’s support of General Franco consisted of the Condor Legion, an adjunct of the Luftwaffe, that gave Germany the opportunity to develop and perfect tactics of aerial warfare that would fuel its blitzkrieg throughout Europe during the Second World War. Guernica was the ‘Guinea Pig’ to test and demonstrate a new style of aerial bombardment and to show friends and enemies alike the capabilities of The Mighty German Army under Hitler. Hermann Goering, the air force chief, testified at his trial after World War II: “The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to test, and a means for my men to gain experience.” Some of these experimental tactics were tested on that bright Spring Day with devastating results – the town of Guernica was entirely destroyed with a loss of life estimated at 1650, although the exact number is disputed. This operation resulted in Franco’s capture of Bilbao and his victory in northern Spain, even if Guernica was not holding any military importance of strategic value. The bombing shocked the world or we thought so. To invite a foreign army to bomb and destroy one’s own country and people is the most treasonous crime one can commit. 

But did the world take a lesson from this heinous crime committed against civilians? Let’s see history repeating itself eighty-six years later, this time in the Horn of Africa. In 2020 the Ethiopian government, which has postponed the elections unconstitutionally citing the COVID pandemic, vowed to take punitive measures if the Tigray Regional Government conducted elections. Despite the warning and threats from the Federal government, the elections were conducted in September of that year. Soon preparations were finalized by the Ethiopian government to overthrow the elected government in Tigray. The following November a full blown war erupted. The Ethiopian government has invited its new ally Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea were in a newfound love affair after their leaders signed a peace deal in Saudi, known as the Jeddah Accord, its details no one has seen to date. This deal was the raison d’être for the Nobel Peace Prize Award given to PM Abiy Ahmed in 2019. Eritrea’s only president in the entire post-independence history of that tiny Red Sea state, President for life dictator Isaias Afeworki neither shared nor was  properly recognized in the award. His prize will come soon in the form of human flesh and blood in the upcoming Ethiopia’s bloody ‘civil’ war. It is a misnomer to call this war a civil war as it has attracted multiple actors during the two long and bloody years. Eritrea, Republic of Somalia (under Formajo), UAE, Turkey, Iran, China and Russia were involved, in different degrees, from financing the war, providing lethal drones and political support to Ethiopia in the UN Security Council to sending troops to the war zone. As the countries that helped Franco and the republican government were clearly  seen to form the opposite warring parties in WWII, these countries might join to form one block that will fight in, God Forbid, a WWIII. 

Isaias was licking his wounds for two decades after the colossal, humiliating defeat during the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. He used the invitation by PM Abiy to participate in the war as an  opportunity to maim and create mayhem in the entire Tigray. His undisciplined army, unparalleled in modern times in terms of human rights abuses, commuting crimes against humanity and war crimes are reminiscent of Genghis Khan army of the medieval period when facing resistance by inhabitants. Soon after setting foot in the occupied towns and villages of Tigray they start the rampage, looting, burning and demolishing civilian infrastructures. In unison with Ethiopian federal army, Amhara militias and other irregulars, they killed innocent civilians at point blank, they raped and mutilated thousands of young girls and women. The war continued for two painful long years. It has claimed the lives of 500000-800000 Tigrayan people according to Tigray government estimates. The deaths were due to mass killings, man-made starvation, and lack of access to medicine and healthcare. A biblical scale starvation dawned in Tigray partly because of a tight siege and partly because the farmers were not allowed to plough and collect their harvests. The world did nothing except expressing its ‘deep Concern’ time and again.  All the crimes against humanity were committed with impunity. 

As the war intensified and the combined armies of Ethiopia, Eritrea and regional militias and other combatants failed to defeat the resilient but outnumbered army of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), they opted to try what previous fascists  tried in the pre-World War II years. In September 2022 the Eritrean army was invited to carpet bomb the small town of Adi Daero which had no military installations or camps. The bombing completely destroyed the town. The number of casualties is not yet reported, as there is no communications with the outside world and journalists are not allowed to enter  and report from Tigray. That bombing gave the invaders the chance to capture Shire town. After Shire many smaller towns fell into the hands of the combined armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, bringing the carnage, looting, gang rape and destruction which is the hallmark of these troops back to where is was one year ago.

An eye witness during the bombing of Guernica described the situation as follows. “It was market day in Guernica when the church bells of Santa Maria sounded the alarm that afternoon in 1937. People from the surrounding hillsides crowded the town square. Every Monday was a fair in Guernica,” says José Monasterio. “They attacked when there were a lot of people there. And they knew when their bombing would kill the most. When there are more people, more people would die.” 

Tigray is not new to such tragedies. In October 1943 Emperor Haileselassie invited the British Royal Air Force to bomb a market place in Mekelle to quell a rebellion (Kedamay Woyane).  shops in the form of tombs can be seen now in the market place to commemorate the victims. In June 1988 dictator Colonel Mengistu HaileMariam carpet-bombed the market town of Hawzen in a market day, killing 2500 in cold blood. Neither of these barbaric acts were able to crash the moral or resilience of the people. The bombardment of Adi Daero is another level of treason and war crime as it was done by yet another foreign actor, Eritrea. 

The tragedy of Guernica is immortalized by Pablo Picasso in his painting called Guernica. The paint is blue, black, and white, 3.5 meters tall and 7.8 meters wide, a mural-size canvas painted in oil. This painting is displayed in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. It is the most important painting of the modern time after the Mona Lisa. It is a single piece of paint with a strong anti war mission. A reproduction of the painting hangs in the United Nations Security Council in New York. The paint was put behind curtains when the U.S. leaders were announcing the war on Iraq to hide its antiwar meaning from the US people.  

UN secretary General Antonio Guterres wasn’t bothered at all by the presence of Guernica  in full view during media briefings or when passing repeatedly in front of it while the war on Tigray was ragging and claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent  people in Tigray under the very eyes of the UN. The message Picasso wanted to pass is lost to oblivion in the UNSC. The misery, suffering and cry of the Tigray people is inconsequential for some members of the UNSC that were blocking resolution after resolution that would have abated the catastrophic impact of the war. The people of Tigray have suffered a lot. Tigray is cut off from the rest of the world by a tight 360 degrees siege. There is a communications blackout, no food aid, no medicine, no banking, no electricity but a lot of bombings using the most advanced Turkish, Iran and Chinese made drones which were provided to the Ethiopian regime by its ally in crime, the UAE. 

Pic: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in front of the Guernica paint, UNSC. 

“If the world has learned anything about genocides, it has learned nothing.” 









About the Author:

Kibrom Gebreselassie Desta is MD, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery and Chief Executive Director of MU-CHS, Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital

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