Girmay M., Ethiopia Insight.
The war in Tigray has been characterized in various ways. Until recently, the Ethiopian government referred to it as a “law enforcement operation.” International actors, meanwhile, often presented it as a “civil war.”
However, the view among Tigrayan activists is that calling it a “law enforcement operation” is cruel and ludicrous government propaganda, while the term “civil war” is a serious understatement. Instead, the consensus is that this has been a “genocidal war” waged on Tigray.
Although reaching a designation of genocide is a tricky task that must be done by a body of international legal experts, a close reading of accepted international definitions and characteristics of genocide indicates that the war in Tigray is indeed genocidal.
In what can be used as a broad frame of reference, the 1948 United Nations convention defined genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” These include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, and deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction on the group.
It is also accepted that genocide typically has eight stages. Although they don’t always come in this order, they are: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, polarization, organization, preparation, extermination, and denial.
The mid-2010 protests that pressured the ruling coalition to put forward a reform agenda were mainly directed at the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant party in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Accordingly, to varying degrees, anti-Tigrayan sentiments were expressed during the protests in Amhara and Oromia regions.
These sentiments intensified and were given some tacit approval after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018. Abiy and his administration portrayed TPLF as the sole culprit for past human rights abuses, corruption, and state terror.
In various federal institutions, Tigrayans were singled out—some were banned, some fired, and some were detained. Many business-owning Tigrayans across the country also faced challenges.
Documentaries by state-owned media accused Tigrayans of being the ones committing acts of torture in Ethiopia’s prisons.
Tigrayans were presented as the sole benefactors of the previous regime. Words like “looters” and “Yeken Jib” (daytime hyena) were used to describe Tigrayans, regardless of their association with the TPLF.
The ‘us versus them’ mentality of many Ethiopians vis-à-vis Tigrayans was palpable. A pervasive view has been that TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, are standing in the way of peace and unity in Ethiopia. Accordingly, portraying Tigrayans as a group of bandawoch (traitors) who have never been loyal to Ethiopia was common.
There has been a similar campaign against Tigrayans for many years in Eritrea, such as blaming them for the abuses committed by Ethiopian troops during the 1998-2000 border war and the bad relations between the two countries. Tigrayans are labeled “Agame”, a derogatory term, and the phrase “Libi Tigray” speaks to the supposedly treacherous heart of Tigrayans.
Slowly, such rhetoric contributed to the dehumanization of Tigrayans. To a large extent, it is this campaign that explains the abhorrent cruelty in Tigray committed by Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces.
According to the federal government, the pretext for waging war on Tigray was the attack on the federal army’s Northern Command by Tigrayan forces on 3 November 2020. However, military and political developments prior to the war indicate that the invasion of Tigray was planned well in advance.
Since Abiy took power, his administration has left no stone unturned to quash Tigrayan dissent. Furthermore, the increasing irredentist ambitions in Amhara strained the relationship between Amhara and Tigray. On top of this, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afeworki used the 2019 ‘peace’ deal with Ethiopia to exact his revenge against the TPLF and conduct “political cleansing” in Tigray.
This combination of factors meant that Tigray was encircled. And, after 2018, transport to and from Tigray became limited and increasingly risky due to extortion, looting, and attacks, mainly by Amhara elements.
Fast forward to 2020, the constitutional dispute over the election postponement and the TPLF’s decision to defiantly hold a regional election on 9 September was the final act in the path to conflict between the federal and Tigrayan governments.
In October 2020, the central government suspended most aid to Tigray, including anti-locust air sprays, and said it would redirect the budget. Diplomats, journalists, and investors were often prevented from entering the region. Around the same time, the military mobilization by the central government and allies around Tigray put the region’s TPLF government on the defensive.
Preparation and mobilization by federal troops and allies began prior to 3 November. As admitted by Abere Adamu, the late Chief of the Amhara Regional State Police Commission, Amhara forces were already prepared and standing by at strategic locations close to Southern and Western Tigray before the war began. To the north, Eritrean forces were also fully prepared. As for Abiy, he had already told top party officials in mid-October that he is about to invade Tigray and oust the regional leaders.
We later learned that the preparation and organization also involved other foreign nations aside from Eritrea. Contingents of Somalia’s army and UAE drones were used during the initial stages. Later on, drones from Turkey and Iran were employed.
Amid the war, genocidal rhetoric has been abundant and was backed up by concrete actions, such as the targeting of Tigrayans for arrest based on their ethnicity.
Although not all supporters of the war may share these sentiments, there was a clear intention by some to exterminate a substantial number of Tigrayan civilians to subjugate the population and eliminate any possibility of further rebellion.
Behind closed doors, high-level Ethiopian officials reportedly told Pekka Haavisto, former special envoy of the European Union, that they plan to “wipe out” Tigrayans and put them “back 100 years.”
In one of his numerous hateful speeches, Daniel Kibret, a member of parliament and an advisor to the Prime Minister, said that TPLF and its supporters “should be erased and disappeared from historical records.” He then went on to liken them to Satan, stating that: “Satan was the last of his kind, and they must also remain the last of their kind.”
At times, the Prime Minister has also made similar speeches. In comments that received widespread international criticism, he has used words like “cancer”, “weeds”, and “diseases” to describe TPLF and its sympathizers.
Although the usual response to such accusations from federal government sympathizers is that these comments are directed at TPLF and not Tigrayans, what has happened on the ground—including to Tigrayans outside of Tigray—indicates otherwise.
In particular, as Tigray’s forces were capturing Amhara cities in their march towards Addis Abeba, many prominent figures were openly saying Tigrayan civilians are targets. For example, Amhara opposition leaders such as Yesuf Ibrahim were saying Tigrayan “traitors” should no longer be tolerated while journalists such as ESAT’s Messay Mekonnen said the government should put Tigrayans in internment camps.
These calls then materialized, as hundreds of thousands of innocent Tigrayans across the country were singled out for their identity and detained in camps amid a new wave of ethnically targeted arrests that began in October 2021 and accelerated under the State of Emergency enacted early the following month.
The fact that countless Tigrayan civilians were murdered, raped, starved, and ethnically cleansed demonstrates that it is Tigrayans, not just the TPLF, who were being targeted for extermination.
Since the war on Tigray started, Ethiopian federal forces and their allies have been accused of conducting many massacres of civilians, including in Axum, Maryam Dengelat, Bora, Abi Addi, Hawzen, Mahbere Dego, Idaga Hamus, Cheli, and Abala, among others.
A research project at the University of Ghent has identified the sites of over one hundred massacres in Tigray. The level of cruelty exhibited during the mass killings, gang rapes, property looting and destruction, and torture is unspeakable.
Shockingly, some Eritrean prisoners of war have confirmed that they were ordered to kill all Tigrayans above the age of ten and also to prevent people from burying victims. Indeed, in various massacre sites, teens were killed while family members of murdered victims were prevented from burying their loved ones.
What’s arguably more shocking than the atrocities is the level of impunity that exists. Of those who engaged in atrocities, only a few low-level soldiers have been prosecuted by the government.
Attesting to this complete lack of accountability, perpetrators feel comfortable filming themselves committing the atrocities. The Mahbere Dego massacre was one incident in which members of the Ethiopian army filmed themselves killing several unarmed Tigrayan men at a cliff edge. Recently, a video of men in Ethiopian military and regional security uniforms burning Tigrayans alive emerged.
There is also evidence that rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war against Tigrayans, and was not merely the result of a few undisciplined soldiers.
Tigrayan victims of rape by Ethiopian forces and their allies recalled the rapists using phrases like “Tigrayans have no history”, “Tigrayans are beasts”, and even “we are raping you to cleanse your Tigrayan bloodline.” Some went as far as inserting hot metal rods and nails into the genitals of Tigrayan victims with the intention of making sure that Tigrayan wombs never give birth to a “Woyane.”
Perhaps most shockingly, the genocidal campaign includes the medieval siege on Tigray and reports of starvation crimes that have been committed.
Some analysts have described this as a purposeful campaign to starve the civilian population as a strategy to destroy the Tigray forces and punish Tigrayans for supporting them.
During the occupation of Tigray from December 2020 to June 2021, farmers were reportedly inhibited from planting their crops and had their livestock looted, along with other essential items.
Since the invading forces were expelled, there has been a renewed humanitarian blockade imposed on the region. Only a trickle of aid has been allowed in, a policy that has exacerbated famine conditions. This means that the close to 40 percent of people in Tigray who are facing an extreme lack of food and the 83 percent who are food insecure will continue to suffer.
Deaths will keep climbing due to a lack of medication and other health equipment. It is important to note that Tigray’s health infrastructure has completely collapsed as a result of the war and the widespread looting and destruction.
In addition, basic services such as telecommunications, banking, and electricity have been almost completely cut off across Tigray for over a year, causing immense suffering. The government is capable of both fully lifting the humanitarian blockade and restoring basic services. Its unwillingness to do so shows the genocidal intent behind its war campaign.
Also, in what Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, rightly called an act of ethnic cleansing, around one million Tigrayans have been displaced from Western Tigray by Amhara forces. Amhara authorities and allied forces have reportedly taken over entire communities such as Humera and rounded Tigrayans up or violently forced them out.
After a year and a half, we are now getting some insight into the total death toll in Tigray. Recently, researchers at the University of Ghent estimated that as many as 500,000 people may have died from war and famine in Tigray. Somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 were victims of direct killing, over 150,000 died as a result of starvation, and over 100,000 deaths were caused by the lack of health care.
The genocidal campaign in Tigray has included an element of denial, as is commonplace during other such campaigns that have historically occurred.
Initially, the Prime Minister denied the death of civilians in Tigray. He even went as far as saying, in front of Parliament, that “not even a single civilian was killed.” Then, there was the denial for close to six months about the intervention of Eritrean troops and subsequent human rights violations they were engaged in.
Widespread displacement, rape, and mass killings were all either denied, whitewashed, or justified. In parliament, Abiy mocked the rapes in Tigray by saying they are not that bad when compared to the 3 November attack Tigrayan forces committed against the Ethiopian army.
There were denials and justifications even when the crimes were caught on videotape, such as in Mahbere Dego. Today, the famine in Tigray and the government-imposed siege is constantly being denied.
In their totality, the crimes outlined here are indicative of a genocidal mindset that is behind the manner in which the war on Tigray has been conducted by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Hatred of and a desire to destroy a political party, the TPLF, have been used to justify inhumane policies that threaten the existence of Tigrayans as a people.
Girmay M. (Ph.D.) doesn’t identify himself for safety reasons.