Over the past months, millions of Ethiopians have been forced to flee the northernmost region of the country – Tigray. Many people were subjected to rape and thousands were killed by violence and starvation. With the second wave of COVID looming large, thousands of Tigrayans are fleeing to Sudan as a result of the crisis. This escalating conflict has further-reaching implications, which require immediate international assistance.
Tigray, a subregion of Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea, is home to seven million people of the same ethnicity. Despite accounting for 6% of the country’s total population, this group is not adequately represented in the federal government based in Addis Ababa. The Tigrayan people are governed and represented by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At its inception, the TPLF had sought self-determination for Tigray, a goal it later abandoned. With time, it became one of the most important parties in national politics and helped form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that led Ethiopia’s government for almost three decades. Despite its strong political hold, the Tigray government, with multiple militia forces and a powerful army, was described as “repressive and regressive”.
In 2018, as the head of the EPRDF – Abiy Ahmed became the new Prime Minister of Tigray – replacing the previous leadership. Ahmed disbanded the party a year later saying that he wanted to put the historic issues of ethnic division behind them. During his tenure, Ahmed brought radical changes to the Ethiopian political system. His departure from the ruling coalition and the establishment of the Prosperity Party in Tigray was seen as a plot to weaken the federation. As a result of this move, the TPLF refused to cooperate and took refuge in Tigray, where they enjoyed widespread support. Abiy Ahmed, on the other hand, allowed exiled opponents to return to the country, releasing some who had been incarcerated for life. As he represented a mixed ethnicity, being a son of a Christian and a Muslim, many regarded him as a “unifier”.
In the aftermath of being marginalised at the national level, the TPLF was accused by Ahmed’s government of orchestrating ethnic tensions across Ethiopia. The long-repressive country underwent a wave of political reforms, and a shocking peace deal was announced with its fierce rival, Eritrea. A dispute broke out between the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional forces from Tigray and continues to this day.
Earlier this summer, Prime Minister Ahmed promised to hold the first democratic elections in the country, only to postpone it due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The TPLF remarked that extending his term would be unconstitutional. The group held its regional elections, claiming a decisive win. Ahmed’s government subsequently declared the Tigray elections invalid. The prime minister refused to acknowledge the results and threatened to veto them. He alleged that the Tigrayans attacked a national military base, which sparked renewed hostilities.
Both sides described each other as illegitimate in the days leading up to the TPLF’s attack on the Sero military base. In response, the government sent the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) backed by soldiers from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray. The ENDF advanced rapidly, capturing the regional capital of Mekele and many other Tigrayan cities. Ethiopia responded by launching what it termed a “law enforcement operation”. This was used as justification for invasion on a larger scale.
How Is Eritrea Involved?
After a brutal war, Eritrea, which used to be a part of Ethiopia, gained independence in 1991. The two sides went to war again in 1998 over disputed territorial claims that ended inconclusively in 2000 and claimed approximately 100,000 lives.
Shortly after Prime Minister Ahmed took office, he and Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s first president, negotiated a historic peace accord. Having resolved a long-standing conflict, Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. An NPR article noted that there is no doubt that Ahmed has found a staunch ally in Afwerki. Eritrean forces are supporting Ethiopia in the Tigray conflict. The article further noted that Eritrean forces also attacked a church in the Tigrayan town of Dengelat. The two men, however, denied sending troops to Ethiopia during the alleged invasion. Eritrea’s involvement has caused a severe humanitarian crisis, forcing the citizens of Tigray to flee to Sudan.
Unfolding The Humanitarian Crisis
It has been difficult to fully assess the situation in Tigray, primarily due to communication and electricity blackouts outside of large cities and limited access to parts of the country. According to Vox, there have been reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including evidence of ethnic cleansing against the Tigrayans. Amnesty International says hundreds of people have likely been murdered by machetes and knives in the town of Mai-Kadra, however, the culprit has not yet been identified.
Ethiopian forces have allegedly shelled Tigray cities indiscriminately, killing thousands of people so far. In January 2021, Reuters reported that according to a local official, more than two million people have been displaced by fighting, far exceeding previous estimates.
Since last November, more than 60,000 people have fled to neighboring Sudan, and that number is expected to rise. Humanitarian organizations have not been able to access parts of Tigray, which may have led to thousands of people being internally displaced. According to a list compiled by Jan Nyssen, a geography professor at the University of Ghent, and his team, over 1,900 Tigrayans have been killed in approximately 150 mass killings since fighting started in the country.
According to Amnesty, Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in the city of Axum on November 28 and 29 and injured 19 others indiscriminately in Adwa on April 12. Amnesty International also confirmed that the ENDF troops carried out extrajudicial executions in Mahibere Dego, near Axum, on January 15 2021. The international media have published several reports revealing new massacres. These accusations have included claims that tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the Amhara Special Police and Fano militia in western Tigray.
Further, rape and other gender-based violence have been reported in Tigray at an alarming rate. United Nations and non-governmental agencies working in the region released a statement saying they were “alarmed by reports of increasing violence against women and girls – including harrowing accounts of sexual violence” and that “the response remains wholly inadequate to the scale of need.” In the report, the US Agency for International Development describes the use of rape as a weapon of war. A Tigrayan woman said her rapist claimed to be “cleansing the bloodlines” of other women.
There have been allegations that Eritrean forces have looted, pillaged, and destroyed everything from banks to crops to hospitals. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s regional office director for Southern Africa, said, “It is unconscionable that women and girls in Tigray are facing sexual violence while the world looks on. Meanwhile, hospitals and humanitarian providers have had supplies decimated in the conflict and are ill-equipped to assist”. Authorities in the US, UK, and the UN have all warned of a large-scale famine in Tigray as a result of the conflict. Read more about the Indian Army Chief’s comments on the Ladakh squabble with China
As a result of reports of extrajudicial killings and sexual violence in Tigray, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has requested access to the region.
The office of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has verified atrocities committed by the Eritrean military in Tigray as well as shelling in city centers in Mekele, Humera, and Adigrat regions.
The US has completely restricted economic and security assistance to Ethiopia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials accused of atrocities. Several aspects of the situation in Tigray have been dubbed “a deepening humanitarian crisis” by the Biden administration. They have repeatedly stated their call for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers and regional troops. In addition, the administration has asked the African Union to assist in resolving the crisis.
According to the BBC, the UK government has called the situation in northern Ethiopia “catastrophic” and warned that famine could occur within months. During a visit to the region, UK’s special envoy on famine prevention Nick Dyer made an assessment. He mentioned reports of killings and rapes, alleging that atrocities continue to occur. According to a recent article in the Telegraph, numerous people suffered horrific burns as a result of exposure to white phosphorus. Using the chemical is legal while on a battlefield, but is considered to be a war crime when used against civilians. Among the victims reported by the newspaper was a 13-year-old girl who suffered burns after her home came under attack. The BBC reported that Eritrea’s foreign ministry described the allegation that chemical weapons had been used against the people of Tigray, as malicious and beyond irresponsible.
The past six months have seen heinous atrocities in Tigray, driving its ethnic population to the brink of starvation. In light of Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict and the influx of refugees into Sudan, the situation threatens to become both a wider conflict and a deeper humanitarian crisis in an area of the world that has suffered more than its fair share of misery in recent years. In exchange for the illusion of state sovereignty, peacemakers are now perpetrators of serious crimes. The powerful elite continues to engage in politics while tens of thousands of people are killed, every single day.