By Dawit Kebede
Letay*, aged 37, lived in Kafta Humera, Western Tigray with her husband, Gebre*, and their two children until November 4, 2020. They enjoyed a stable life, thanks to the modest income they generated from their small business.
However, on November 4, 2020, an unforeseen calamity that altered their lives profoundly befell them. A war between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan forces erupted. After a few days, Amhara forces, who had aligned with federal troops, successfully took control of the town Letay lived in. Armed Amhara men barged in on them, brutally killed her husband in front of her and her children before subjecting her to a horrifying ordeal of gang rape. After their barbarity, the culprits warned her to leave the area immediately, or else she would face even more severe consequences, including the risk of losing her life.
Left with no choice, Letay embarked on a perilous journey on foot toward central Tigray, enduring days of hardship, and leaving behind the home she had lived in, along with their assets accumulated for decades. Today she has sought refuge in Mekelle’s ’70 Kare’ camp, a sanctuary established to aid thousands of displaced Tigrayans from Western Tigray, and she bears a heavy burden of dejection.
I’ve shared Letay’s story as a glimpse into the plight of Tigrayans who had been hounded out of their homes in Western Tigray. But it’s important to note that thousands of displaced Tigrayans share similar, and often even more harrowing, experiences. Anyone assessing the Tigray war cannot overlook the suffering of Tigrayans displaced from Western Tigray.
I will return to the core point of my essay, the Western Tigray ordeal, to uncover previously unheard facts. Let me first conduct a partial assessment of the two-year-long brutal war on Tigray and explore some of the hidden and explicit objectives of the actors involved in the conflict, along with undisclosed facts related to it. As we examine the objectives of each actor, it becomes evident that their goals not only differ but also often contradict with one another.
Actors with contradictory objectives align
The first actor, the federal government led by PM Abiy Ahmed, initially described the war as a ‘law enforcement operation’ in a statement on November 4, 2020, emphasizing its aim as being bringing regional political and military leaders to justice.
Although the reason given for the operation was an alleged attack on the Tigray-based Northern Command, it became evident that this alleged incident was merely the triggering cause, the casus belli. In actual fact, the federal government had been signalling its readiness for war, a month before the official outbreak. We witnessed military parades and commando shows in the capital’s main square on September 30,2020.
Another piece of concrete evidence that can bolster our assessment is the investigative story unveiled by The New York Times on December 15, 2021. According to the newspaper, PM Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afeworki held a series of secretive meetings, totalling at least 14 , prior to the outbreak of the war. Remarkably, most of these meetings were conducted one-to-one, with no aides or note-takers present.
In addition to these private meetings, they also convened in secret on three separate occasions in 2019 and 2020. On these occasions, Isaias made unannounced visits to Addis Ababa. Aviation authorities were instructed to maintain secrecy, and an unmarked car was dispatched to transport him to Abiy’s compound. These clandestine gatherings leave little doubt that they were aimed at planning the course of the war.
The second actor deeply involved in the war was the Eritrean regime. According to Sibhat Nega, the founder and former chairman of the TPLF, Eritrea had formulated a plan to wage war on Tigray in collaboration with the Addis Ababa government. Sibhat revealed this claim 20 months before the war erupted, citing a leaked document from the regime in Asmara. The document, titled “Political Laundry,” detailed strategies for dismantling the socio-political establishment of Tigray, revealing the regime’s meticulous preparations for such action. According to Sibhat, the document stated: ‘We will dismantle Tigray’s economy and political establishment and roll it back to where it was 40 years ago.’ Eritrea’s brutal actions in Tigray bear out Sibhat’s revelations.
One might ask, ‘Why did Isaias decide to take this course of action?’ The answer is clear: the regime sought to retaliate for the significant military losses it suffered 20 years ago during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Isaias believed that even though the war was between Ethiopia and Eritrea, TPLF leaders played a hegemonic role in the federal government at that time and bore the lion’s share of responsibility for the severe military losses he faced back then.
The third actors involved in the war are a cocktail of forces from the neighbouring Amhara region. These actors comprised three distinct forces: Amhara militias, Amhara special forces, and informal armed groups known as ‘Fano.’
It is to be recalled that one of the key objectives that motivated the Amhara forces to align with the federal forces in the war was their subtle intent to forcibly annex Western Tigray into the Amhara region. Despite historical facts to the contrary, they contended that this territory rightfully belonged to the Amhara region.
The axis of evil unleash horror
Anyone seeking to assess the magnitude of the large-scale atrocities committed by those three actors during the two-year-long war should refer to the recent report by the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). In its 21-page report, ICHREE conducted an extensive investigation into multiple incidents of mass killings involving the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), Eritrea’s Defense Forces (EDF), and forces from the neighboring Amhara region.
ICHREE highlighted four emblematic examples: Zalambessa, Adwa (Maryam Shewito), Bora, and Mariam Dengelat. Beyond these emblematic incidents, the Commission verified 44 other separate incidents of large-scale killings carried out by members of ENDF and EDF across various regions of Tigray, including North-western, Central, Eastern, North-eastern, South-eastern, and Southern Tigray, starting in November 2020.
The Commission boldly emphasized that all these incidents revealed a distinct pattern, characterized by undertones of androcide and primarily targeting fighting-age civilian males of Tigrayan ethnicity. ICHREE also concluded that there was credible information indicating dozens of other similar incidents of large-scale killings requiring further investigation.
Regarding the Eritrean regime’s intent for entering the war, it’s essential to scrutinize how their malevolent objective to regress the region’s resources to a state reminiscent of many decades ago was put into action. Their strategy to devastate Tigray prioritized key elements that had a profound impact on the region’s social well-being. Their first target was the women of Tigray, recognizing the pivotal roles women play in society. Next, they effectively obliterated the institutional memory of crucial establishments, such as schools and hospitals. This destructive approach began with the demolition of infrastructure and the destruction of archives and databases. Their subsequent target was the dismantling of the region’s water infrastructure, which was meant to provide clean water to those in need. Shockingly, they managed to destroy 75% of Tigray’s water infrastructure.
The actions of Eritrean troops inside Tigray were beyond imagination for any rational human being. Their abandon cruelty forces us to ponder how someone could arrive on this planet with the intent of destruction in their mind and leave behind such a legacy.
However, when these actors attempted to subdue Tigray through various means, they encountered significant challenges and faced substantial losses among their combatants.
A World Peace Foundation report estimates that tens of thousands of Tigrayan combatants lost their lives during the two-year-long war, making it the third highest casualty count among the parties involved in the Tigray conflict. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and forces from the neighboring Amhara region occupy the top two positions in terms of casualties, while Eritrean combatants rank fourth, with estimates ranging from 37,000 to 40,000 deaths.
It’s worth noting that in terms of high-ranking military officers’ fatalities, Eritrea experienced the loss of hundreds of such officers. However, the Eritrean regime reportedly concealed the true reasons behind these officers’ deaths, attributing them to COVID-19. Interestingly, during this period, Eritrea’s Ministry of Health officially reported a much lower COVID-19 death toll for the country, at only 27 cases. This raises questions about the accuracy of the information provided regarding both COVID-19 and the military officers’ deaths.
One crucial point to clarify is that many actors have misunderstood the casualty balance, erroneously assuming that Tigray has suffered significantly more casualties. However, this is not accurate. In fact, in terms of non-combatant deaths, Tigray has experienced unimaginable tragedy. This was revealed by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium. According to their research, between November 2020 and November 2022, as many as 600,000 people might have died due to the imposed siege, with many of them succumbing to starvation.
Western Tigray as Srebrenica፡ lessons drawn from the Bosnian War (1992–1995)
To gain insight into the unfolding tragedy in Western Tigray, one can draw comparisons with the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the Bosnian War (1992–95). A careful examination of both incidents reveals striking similarities, suggesting that those responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray may have studied and drawn lessons from the tactics employed by the army of Republika Srpska and Serb paramilitaries during the Bosnian War. These historical parallels shed light on the profound and destructive impact of such actions on affected populations.
The research disclosed by the UK-based ‘Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’ reveals a genocidal massacre that occurred in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. This tragic event took place in July 1995, when approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were brutally murdered by the Army of Republika Srpska, led by General Ratko Mladić.
The Srebrenica massacre stands as one of the most horrifying events of the Balkan War and is, to date, the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.
The Bosnian Serbs aimed to create a territorially contiguous political entity, Republika Srpska, and considered Srebrenica a key link that needed to be ‘ethnically cleansed’ to achieve this goal. Beginning in 1992, Serbian military and paramilitary forces initiated the process of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ which involved killing and displacing thousands of Bosniaks with an intent to establish ethnically homogeneous territories.
In 2017, General Ratko Mladić was found guilty of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal and subsequently received a life sentence. What we learn from the fate of Gen. Ratko Mladić is that justice will be inevitably served. As Lois McMaster Bujold, a renowned American speculative fiction writer, who has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel four times, aptly said, “The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them”.
Returning to the tragedy in Western Tigray, numerous global human rights organizations and reputable international media outlets have extensively reported on the events that unfolded there. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in their comprehensive joint report published on April 6, 2022, reached a disturbing conclusion. They found that new administrators in the Western Tigray zone, along with regional officials and security forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, were responsible for an alarming campaign of ethnic cleansing. This campaign, marked by crimes against humanity and war crimes, specifically targeted Tigrayan civilians in Western Tigray since the war began in November 2020.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his part bluntly described the gross human rights abuses carried out in Western Tigray as “ethnic cleansing” during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 10, 2021.
Furthermore, CNN conducted an investigation that unearthed evidence of torture, mass detentions, and executions of residents in the town of Humera in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
This investigative documentary was broadcasted on September 9, 2021. CNN’s report provides extensive documentation of the appalling crimes committed by Amhara forces and Eritrean troops in Western Tigray. These actions are in line with the disturbing objective of creating an ethnically homogeneous territory, a goal widely condemned in the context of the Tigray conflict.
The goal towards creating an ethnically homogeneous territory
The author of this article has obtained an exclusive access to a 31-page confidential document from a Western diplomatic source . The document extensively discusses the recent demographic composition of Amhara settlers in Western Tigray.
According to the document, from January to July 2023, following the Pretoria Agreement, an estimated 436,000 ethnic Amharas have been relocated to Western Tigray. They have been settled across eight woredas; namely, Kafta-Humera, Setit-Humera, Welkayt, Tsegede, Dansha, Mai-Gaba, Qorarit, and Mai-Kadra. Ethnic Tigrayans were forcibly removed to make way for the new ethnic Amhara incomers.
It’s important to highlight that the aforementioned figure does not account for the significant number of settlers who had arrived in the region during the two years leading up to January, nor does it include those who settled there from July 2023 to the present date.
As of now the demographic composition of the new Amhara settlers is as follows:
|District||Number of Ethnic Amharas|
Simultaneously, as ethnic Amharas were relocated and settled in the area, there were indiscriminate efforts to displace the remaining indigenous Tigrayans. A troubling tragedy that came to light a few weeks ago was the arbitrary detention of over 4,202 ethnic Tigrayans in five different locations across Western Tigray: 1,240 in Adebay; 132 in AdiGoshu; 2,030 in Humera; 300 in Rawyan; and 500 in Baeker.
While this grim reality persists on the ground, numerous fundamental questions arise:
How does this serious crime align with the Pretoria Agreement? Why is the international community turning a deaf ear to this under its watch? Why has the federal government remained silent? Is it tacitly endorsing this grand project? What measures is the Interim Administration of Tigray taking to alleviate this situation? Why is it seemingly reluctant to vigorously press the aforementioned actors to fulfill their commitments? Where is justice and accountability for those responsible for heinous crimes, including ethnic cleansing? Are we seriously considering ‘transitional justice’ as the sole mechanism to help the victims? And what is the scope of this approach? Are there any plans to bring Eritrean perpetrators to Addis Ababa’s Lideta Court, as part of this ‘transitional justice’ concept?
It has been more than six months since the establishment of the Interim Administration, yet tangible results remain elusive. Days and nights have passed without any discernible progress. This is precisely what Letay highlights, shedding light on the plight faced by her and hundreds of thousands of displaced compatriots.
When I asked her about her future dreams, she responded from within her torn plastic shelter at the sanctuary camp in Mekelle. Her response, though succinct, was profoundly moving: “What bright future do you think we have? We are simply counting endless days and nights, starving here. It seems we have been forgotten by our leaders too”.
The suffering of people like Letay and the countless displaced compatriots must come to an end. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the implementation of a status quo ante November 2020 in Western Tigray and other territories of Tigray currently under occupation. Additionally, the imperative issue of justice and accountability must not be overlooked. Similar to the case of General Ratko Mladić, justice must be served, and the Ratko Mladićs of Western Tigray must be held accountable.
All of these actions require swift, concerted, and meaningful efforts from concerned actors within the international community. It is evident that the gravity of the situation appears to exceed the capacity of the federal government of Ethiopia. The way it has been handled raises concerns that perhaps the handling has been intentional and reckless, making it imperative for external actors to step in and work towards a lasting resolution.
* Names have been changed.
Dawit Kebede is Managing Editor of Awramba Times and a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award