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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

Brutality in Tigray: Ethiopia’s Silent Genocide

May 2, 2023

A small group of Tigray protesters gather outside of the United Nations (UN) on March 29, 2021 in New York City. [Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

On March 20, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated the following concerning events in the Tigray region of Ethiopia: “After the [State] department’s careful review of the law and the facts, I’ve determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia”.[1] The conflict in Ethiopia is complex and far from a recent development. Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest nation, and it is divided into 11 regions with many of the regions, including Tigray, acting with quasi self-determination. Tension between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government of 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed erupted into a war that lasted exactly two years, from November 3, 2020, to November 3, 2022. During that time, the situation escalated from what Blinken referred to as “growing humanitarian disaster” in 2021 to a situation that has evoked the use of the term “genocide”.[2] The larger concern was the vast international apathy shown towards this crisis; as the world wrestled with lockdowns, vaccines, and other outgrowths of the Covid pandemic, Ethiopians shed blood in what can be considered a quiet genocide. However, new discussions are unveiling more details about the horrors that transpired during 730 days of war.

In a February 2022 report, Al Jazeera interviewed survivors of an alleged massacre in the Afar region of Tigray. Witnesses recalled soldiers aligned with the Abiy government moving throughout neighborhoods killing men, boys, and even pregnant women, with two million people forced to flee their homes.[3] Use of rape as a weapon of genocide against girls of various ages was reported, and thousands were forced into Internally Displaced Persons camps (IDPs). Rather than respond with a peaceful approach, representative of the medal he possesses, the Abiy administration cut off communication with the Tigray and Afar regions, implementing actions more in line with tyrannical rule than a man who once forcefully condemned war.[4] Both the TPLF and the federal government have accused each other of atrocities and the full scope of the ferocity of the killings remains to be learned.

Rebels surveyed the wreckage of a military plane downed by their forces south of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, in June 2021. [Image credit: Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times]

One of the causes of the uncertainty of the atrocities is the confusing sets of alliances that existed within this conflict. The federal troops of Ethiopia were joined by Eritrean forces-the same nation who fought Ethiopia for years concerning borders, and the peace agreement that ended that conflict earned Abiy the aforementioned Nobel Peace Prize, as well the Amhara Special Forces (ASF). Joining the TPLF was the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) from the Oromo district. As with other interstate conflicts, civilians are the most at risk. The ASF was particularly brutal according to a lengthy report filed by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Prisoners recalled regular beatings, sometimes on a daily basis, humiliation, gender-based violence and torture.[5] In a phone interview with a representative of HRW, a Tigrayan who only referred to himself as Atsbaha overheard ASF guards tell a prisoner in need of medical attention, "'You expect us to give you medicine when we want you to die?'"[6] It is obvious, through hundreds of interviews, that Tigrayan and Amhara citizens were subjected to horrific suffering in an act that constitutes attempted genocide. The federal government forces and their allies were attempting to eliminate as many Tigrayans as possible, and this action fits within the United Nations definition of genocide.[7]

In November 2022, the two sides reached a “cessation” of fighting that “was approved 100 percent,” according to Abiy Ahmed.[8] Interestingly, Eritrea was not mentioned in the agreement as this may pose a problem for the success of the peace deal. While monitoring the promised removal of forces within Tigray is essential, a larger question remains regarding the prosecution of those who committed acts of human rights abuse that constitute genocide. There are countless of anecdotal accounts and mass graves proving tens of thousands of killings, arrests, forced disappearances, and sexual assaults were carried out by government and Eritrean forces; however, will an emphasis on the surprising peace agreement mute the investigation into those responsible, and will the ICC issue any arrest warrants? While Antony Blinken placed responsibility on all sides in the Tigray war, it is undeniable that those in Tigray suffered extensively. The attempted liquidation of the Tigrayan people must not be overshadowed by the brokering of an unsteady peace; accusing all sides of nightmarish action minimizes what was done to countless civilians. The events in Ethiopia cannot be allowed to become another forgotten genocide.


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