“Dying by blood or by hunger”: The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, explained
A humanitarian and political crisis, with no clear resolution.
(vox)–The bodies of the two brothers were left for more than a day. Their families knew they were there, but the soldiers wouldn’t let them collect the bodies. The soldiers left behind witnesses, though: two boys, barely teens, tied to a tree nearby, after the soldiers forced them to spend the night on the ground, between the bodies of the murdered men.
The brothers were Kahsay and Tesfay, who both cared for young children and elderly parents in a small village in the northeastern corner of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, in an area home to the Irob, a small ethnic minority.
Their homeland, on the border with Eritrea, has known unrest for decades, from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 and the years of tension that followed until a shaky peace deal was finally reached in 2018.
Nothing compares to what they’re seeing now.
The situation has since turned into a protracted conflict with disturbing humanitarian implications. Tigrayan defense forces are fighting against the Ethiopian National Defense Force, who have partnered with troops from neighboring Eritrea and other militias within Ethiopia, specifically Amhara forces.
Telecommunications blackouts and limited access to parts of Tigray have made it difficult to fully assess what is unfolding there. But in recent months, credible reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity have started to trickle out, including evidence of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans.
An internal United States government report, which the New York Times reviewed in February, assessed that the Ethiopian military and their allies were “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”
There have been massacres and mass executions. Jan Nyssen, a geography professor at the University of Ghent, and a team of researchers have compiled a list of 1,900 Tigrayans killed in approximately 150 mass killings since the fighting began.
“This is ongoing,” Nyssen told me earlier this month. “In the last month, we recorded 20 massacres, and it continues almost at the same speed.” There is a common pattern, he said: When the Eritrean or Ethiopian forces lose a battle, “they take revenge on civilians in the surrounding areas.”
Rape has been used as a weapon of war; a USAID report includes testimony from a woman who recalled her rapist saying he was “cleansing the blood lines” of Tigrayan women. Eritrean forces have been accused of mass looting, pillaging, and wanton destruction of everything from banks to crops to hospitals.
Most of the alleged atrocities point to Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces, though Tigray People’s Liberation Front-linked groups have also been linked to at least one mass killing. The Eritrean government has denied involvement, and only just last week admitted to its presence in Tigray.
In March, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged that reports “indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region.” He said those responsible should be held accountable, though he also blamed the “propaganda of exaggeration.”
The security situation is fueling other crises. More than 60,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan since the fighting began in November, and humanitarian groups — many of which remain cut off from parts of Tigray — say the security situation has likely displaced thousands of people internally.
The United Nations estimates that of Tigray’s 6 million people, 4.5 million are in need of food aid. A recent report from the World Peace Foundation warns of the risk of famine and mass starvation as people are displaced and crops, livestock, and the tools needed to make and collect food are destroyed.
One witness in Tigray, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety, told me that Eritrean soldiers will kill an ox and eat just one leg, leaving the rest of the carcass to rot. “The people are either dying by blood or by hunger,” he said by phone from Mekele, Tigray’s capital, earlier this month.
Violence and ethnic tensions are flaring up in other parts of Ethiopia. Sudanese and Ethiopian troops have clashed in a disputed border territory, a sign of how Tigray’s unrest is spilling over into an already volatile neighborhood where Ethiopia had been viewed, at least by some international partners, as a stabilizing force.
The war in Tigray has no clear end, and the reports of killing and rape and looting are still happening. “Everybody is just waiting, just waiting — not to live, but waiting for what will happen tomorrow, or in the night,” the man in Mekele said.
“We never know what will happen,” he added. “You never know what will happen to anybody.”
A conflict that had been brewing finally breaks out
Tensions between Abiy’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had been coursing for some time, and experts say anyone paying attention was warning of the possibility of war before it happened.
In 2018, Ethiopia’s government got a major shake-up. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a Marxist-Leninist party, had ruled the country for nearly three decades, having emerged victorious from a brutal civil war in 1991.
The party was a coalition representing four different regions or nationalities: the TPLF (made up of Tigrayans); the Amhara Democratic Party (representing the Amhara ethnic group); the Oromo Democratic Party (representing the Oromo ethnic group); and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, which represented a few ethnic groups.
But the Tigrayan wing of the party dominated.
The Tigrayan-led government presided over rapid economic growth, but not all of it was equal, and many Ethiopians felt left behind. In 2015 and 2016, after decades in power, the government faced popular protests over human rights abuses, corruption, and inequality.
Some, including members of the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, were particularly angry about the TPLF’s control of the most important positions in politics and the military, despite representing just 6 percent of the country’s population.
In 2018, Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned, and other members of the ruling EPRDF coalition united against the Tigrayan wing. They elected Abiy Ahmed, a relative newcomer from the Oromo, as the leader.
Abiy began to establish himself as a democratizer, releasing political prisoners and promising free and fair elections. He also pursued peace with neighboring Eritrea. The two countries had gone to war in 1998 over a disputed border in Badme (also in the Tigray region), and though they signed a peace deal in 2000, it had basically become a stalemate, with occasional skirmishes erupting for 20 years.
All of this made Abiy a star in Africa and around the world. In 2019, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the border war and “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation.”
At home, things were a bit more complicated. Abiy had promised to reform the EPRDF, but in late 2019 he created a new Prosperity Party (PP) meant to deemphasize the role of ethnic groups in the name of unity.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front opposed this move and what it saw as Abiy’s attempt to consolidate federal power at the expense of regional and ethnic autonomy. The TPLF declined to join the PP, and though the party still retained control of Tigray’s regional government, members generally saw Abiy as taking steps detrimental to their interests and their region — and to the vision of Ethiopia that the TPLF had championed since the 1990s.
“At the root of the war in Tigray is this ideological difference between TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the future of the country,” Tsega Etefa, an associate professor of history and Africana and Latin American studies at Colgate University, wrote in an email.
Experts said Abiy rode the wave of anti-TPLF grievance to try to consolidate his own power, especially as it became a lot harder to deliver on some of the political promises he’d made when he took over.
“In a bid to deflect the growing criticism of him, now that he was formally in charge, he began increasingly confronting Tigrayans and blaming them for everything that had gone wrong,” Harry Verhoeven, of the Oxford University China-Africa Network, told me.
Abiy portrayed Tigrayans as “the Ethiopian equivalent of the ‘deep state,’ if you like,” Verhoeven added.
Experts noted this kind of rhetoric had the effect of blurring the lines between the TPLF leadership — which had earned legitimate criticisms after decades in power — and the Tigrayan people themselves.
Tensions persisted into 2020, which was supposed to be an election year, until Abiy (with Parliament’s approval) postponed elections, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy’s critics, including those in the TPLF, accused him of an anti-democratic power grab.
The Tigray region held elections anyway in September in an act of defiance. Abiy’s government deemed those elections illegal.
Ethiopia’s Parliament then voted to cut funds from the regional Tigrayan government, a move the TPLF said violated the law and was “tantamount to a declaration of war.” In late October, the TPLF blocked an Ethiopian general from taking up a post in Tigray. The International Crisis Group warned that this standoff “could trigger a damaging conflict that may even rip the Ethiopian state asunder.”
Just a few days later, Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking its military base. “The last red line had been crossed,” he said, as Ethiopian troops entered Tigray and he declared a six-month state of emergency. Reports of airstrikes accompanied the federal government’s push into the region.
The federal government’s communications blackout, combined with competing accounts from both the government and Tigray officials, made it hard to fully account for the situation.
By the end of the month, Abiy had declared the Ethiopian government “fully in control” of the region’s capital, Mekele.
Six months later, the war grinds on.
Why Eritrea is embroiled in Ethiopia’s war
Tigrayan defense forces have since regrouped and are now fighting a guerrilla insurgency against Ethiopian federal troops and those backing them up — namely, Eritrean troops and Amhara militia fighters from the region south of Tigray.
The Eritrean government — led by President Isaias Afwerki, the country’s longtime brutal dictator — and Abiy repeatedly denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, despite mounting evidence of their involvement.
It took until the end of March 2021 for Abiy to publicly acknowledge that Eritrean troops were present in Tigray. Shortly after, the Ethiopian government said Eritrean troops were withdrawing, though the TPLF had said there were no signs of any exit.
A top United Nations officials also said last week that there was no sign Eritrea was leaving. In response, Eritrea did, officially, confirm its presence in Tigray in an April 16 letter to the UN Security Council. In it, Eritrea said it had “agreed — at the highest levels — to embark on the withdrawal of the Eritrean forces and the simultaneous redeployment of Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary.”
But both advocates and experts are skeptical that Eritrea will exit quietly, or quickly.