Emerging Horrors After the Outbreak of Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

In November, when the world’s attention was drawn to the Coronavirus pandemic and the US election, allegations concerning Ethiopia’s Tigray region emerged. During conflict between federal forces and the local government, the alarm was raised of potential human rights abuses occurring against civilians as thousands fled the region for neighboring Sudan. At the time, little was known about what was occurring in Tigray with all communication services down and aid agencies and journalists not allowed in. But now, nearly four months after the violence began, details are emerging of continuing violence and attacks on the people of Tigray. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Photo by Titlutin via Wikimedia Commons) 

Ethiopian Political History

Ethiopia, a landlocked country in East Africa, has a diverse population made up of over 80 different ethnic groups. From 1991 to 2018, Tigrayans dominated Ethiopian politics with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being the main ruling coalition in Ethiopia’s federal system. However, in 2018, they lost political power with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, a member of a differing ethnic group, as prime minister. During the first years of his administration, he liberalized and reformed the country, while also ending a long-standing dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Now, somewhat ironically, the man once given the most prestigious award for promoting peace is accused of war crimes.  

Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (Photo by AMISOM Public Information via Flickr) 

Fighting in Tigray 

Abiy’s appointment and establishment of a new political party, Prosperity, seemed as a possible way to unify the country and its many ethnic groups. However, he faced resistance, most notably from the TPLF, who refused to join his coalition as many of the new reforms dismantled the economic and political system they had championed while in power. Therefore, there were already established tensions between the two much earlier than this year. 

In Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, political leaders openly defied the central government by choosing to proceed with local elections in September, despite a federal decision to postpone all elections due to COVID-19. At the same time, in the end of August, Genocide Watch issued a genocide warning for Ethiopia because of the government’s “inaction to stop ethnically motivated violence” between its many ethnic groups, especially Tigrayans. This early warning sign clearly established the stakes of a potential confrontation between the region and federal government, yet neither side backed down. 

The Tigrary Crisis officially started November 4, 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy ordered the Ethiopian Defense Force (EDF) to militarily engage with the Tigray Regional Paramilitary Police and affiliated local militias after a reported attack by the TPLF on federal forces within Tigray. The resulting invasion saw violence and fighting arise throughout the region, much of which threatened civilians. Not only was this conflict occurring in densely-populated areas, it also caused a complete communications blackout in the region as landlines, mobile phones, and the Internet were shut down. With journalists not allowed in the region, very little was known about what was happening on the ground, even after November 28th, when federal forces took control of the capital Mekelle and declared victory. Throughout the violence, thousands of refugees fled the warzone for neighboring Sudan, creating a whole other crisis entirely, and it is only through their accounts and the few details that have emerged that we’re able to piece together what really happened in Ethiopia. 

Citizens in the Tigrayan city of Axum (Photo by A.Davey via Flickr)    

Reported Killings and Abuses 

In late November, Prime Minister Abiy rather arrogantly declared that no civilians had been killed by federal troops during their operation to defeat the TPLF. For a conflict that’s caused such a large humanitarian crisis, this seems unlikely. In fact, recent reports have disproved it. And, what’s even more concerning is the fact that Eritrean troops got involved in the conflict on the side of the federal government. Tigray is a border region between the two countries, and despite their current cooperation, Eritreans are still seen as enemies by Tigrayians and vice versa. Their presence signalled the potential goal of exacting revenge under the cover of supporting the government’s cause, which is exactly what happened with reported mass killings of civilians and militia members alike throughout Tigray. 

On February 26th, 2021, the human rights organization Amnesty International put out a report detailing a massacre by Eritrean troops who “systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the holy city of Axum on the 28th and 29th of November 2020, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids”. According to various sources, over 800 people died during this horrific event, which saw Eritreans kill almost entirely at random. Of course, with the communications blackout at the time, there was no way of knowing what had occurred in November. Now, through a combination of witness interviews and satellite images of mass burial sites, several organizations like Amnesty and foreign governments like the US have come to the same conclusion: that a massacre and potentially a crime against humanity occurred, caused by Eritrean soldiers. And, what’s even more alarming is that this isn’t a stand-alone event. Already, allegations of other mass killings during the crisis are emerging, like one at Maryam Dengelat, a historic monastery complex which saw Eritrean troops firing on hundreds of congregants celebrating mass. Overall, both sides share responsibility for the killing of civilians, but outside forces like the Eritreans have certainly exacerbated this. And, most importantly, although we have no way of knowing how many people have died as a result of this conflict, it is a number far larger than originally believed, and it may be on the rise. 

Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence on Conflict (Photo by UNIS Vienna via Flickr) 

 On top of this, throughout the Tigray region, there have been widespread allegations of other crimes including sexual violence. In a January press statement, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, expressed concerns over these allegations that include “disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence”. With the region so heavily locked down, it’s again difficult to determine the extent of these crimes, but an anonymous doctor and member of a women’s rights group in Mekelle both told the BBC that they had registered at least 200 girls under the age of 18 at different hospitals who said they were raped. Both Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been accused of causing this upsurge in sexual abuse, showing again the grave harms this operation has caused in the region. And, while the government has refused to acknowledge reported massacres, Ethiopia’s Minister for Women did confirm that rape occurred “conclusively and without a doubt”. This is a step in the right direction of the government being more transparent about what’s happening in Tigray but what’s needed now is greater repercussions for soldiers involved and greater support for victims. 

What’s Happening Today 

Prime Minister Abiy may have declared victory in late November, but this conflict is still very much ongoing. Many of the massacres and human rights violations reported on happened after this time and still there is a complete lack of information that makes judging the full extent of this conflict difficult. However, enough has come to light to make more and more foreign agencies and government officials call for the withdrawal of troops from Tigray, including the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. What is clear is that horrific atrocities against civilians occurred in Tigray, and if this continues it could be labeled genocide. It is now necessary for all parties involved to hold themselves accountable for their actions especially as more allegations come to light. Overall, Tigrayian citizens suffered the most during this crisis and much more is needed to ensure they feel safe and protected.