Grandmothers carrying babies, mothers, children, men young and old with nothing but the clothes on their backs are fleeing fighting in northern Ethiopia and making their way to Sudan, where emergency camps await them; according to the UNHCR 5,000 a day are making the journey.
Ethiopians are killing one another in the Tigray region of the country where an armed conflict is raging between the Ethiopian military and forces loyal to the regional government, the TPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front), a group that some in the country describe as terrorists.
The TPLF formed the dominant force within the ruling coalition (the EPRDF), and ran Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1991 until 2018. Brutal and centralized, human rights were trampled on, free speech outlawed, state terrorism routine; the TPLF were vicious, ruled by fear and are hated still by many Ethiopians, inside and outside the country.
Sustained protests led to their overthrow in 2018 when the new Prime Minister took office. Although the EPRDF coalition remained, the approach changed dramatically under PM Abiy Ahmed and his team; a sense of optimism swept across the country and many Ethiopians living abroad returned to help rebuild their homeland. The TPLF were marginalized, vilified in some quarters and a number of the key figures arrested for crimes committed when in power, more arrest warrants are outstanding.
Bordering Eritrea in the North and Sudan to the West, Tigray is a small region (accounting for only 6% of the population), which has built up an extremely strong, armed unit (police/militia), with, according to some sources, around 250,000 men in uniform, including 20,000 commandos.
And the people cry out
On November 4th they attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Forces Base located in the Tigray region, reportedly killed a number of soldiers and stole artillery and military equipment. The Ethiopian government’s response was to initiate military operations; actions described by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as law enforcement and by others, including the TPLF, as an act of war.
Some form of conflict had been brewing for some time, the criminal raid on the military base being the final straw in a series of provocations; most notably holding banned regional elections in September (which the TPLF won). As a result, the government claims the TPLF is not a legitimate regional government. For their part, due to general elections being postponed because of the coronavirus (although there have been very few cases in Ethiopia) and the government remaining in office, the TPLF claim the government is not legitimate either.
Many have been calling for talks between the parties, directly or via mediators, and an immediate unconditional ceasefire, but neither of these common-sense suggestions seems likely. As Prime Minister Ahmed shouts that this conflict can only be resolved militarily, and declares a ‘final push’, the voices of the TPLF express their determination to defend their land; ‘Tigray is now a hell to its enemies….the people of Tigray will never kneel.’ And so it goes on, humanity’s lunacy.
There is no communication from within Tigray, the UN and other humanitarian agencies have been denied access and the government is controlling the narrative.
The situation is extremely serious, unless handled with great care it could quickly escalate into a wider armed conflict dragging in neighboring states, and triggering a major humanitarian incident, the seeds of which have already been planted. With no supplies being allowed into the region food is running low in Tigray, as is money, and an estimated 30,000 people have fled their homes and made their way to Sudan were they are being accommodated in basic camps. Before the fighting began the International Organization for Migration (IOM) revealed that there were more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia; around 100,000 of whom are in Tigray.
Beyond the pettiness of governments, the duplicity and self-interest of geopolitics, it is the people who suffer the greatest loss and pain in a conflict, and so it will be in Ethiopia.
Death destruction and trauma are the hallmarks of war and armed conflict; lives are lost, mostly civilian non-combatants lives, homes demolished, people displaced, fear created, poverty and hunger exacerbated. This is what war is, it is an abomination and it should be avoided at all costs; where disputes arise alternatives should be found, fully explored, compromise reached and violence rejected. And in a country like Ethiopia where most people are poor, their lives hard, a country that ranks 173rd out of 189 countries in the UN Human Development Index, war should never be contemplated. The government has fighter jets and tanks, but people are hungry and homeless, health care is inadequate at best, education poor, and now there’s a war; it is lunacy, isn’t it?
Violence has been the resounding tone of human history, tribal conflicts abound, fights over land and power, resources and dominion over others. Currently there are around 30 violent conflicts taking place in the world including the Ethiopian one: data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event data Project (ACLED) shows the areas where clashes between state forces and others have occurred. Most incidents in red are in the global south, but if you factor in national homicides and general violence, it’s a worldwide image of carnage.
Talk of ‘peace’ and ‘brotherhood’ is commonplace, but the killing and fighting goes on and on; hollow words then. Even in Ethiopia, where religion – Christianity and Islam, both of which espouse peace – dominate the lives of most people. Look at Syria, or Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya; beautiful countries all, wonderful people, and yet conflicts persist, death and destruction continues daily. And now Ethiopia, where the fear must be that even if the TPLF are ‘defeated’ they will go underground and an armed insurgency will take hold – something that is in a sense even harder to combat or limit.
It is time for humanity to grow up and recognize that we are brothers and sisters of one humanity – this is not some religious platitude, or new age drivel, it is a fact in nature. I spent two years working in Ethiopia running aid projects and feel a close connection to the country; it is a wonderful land, the people are warm and kind, but social divisions rooted in ancient tribal groupings are deep, historic grievances unresolved. The path out of conflict into peace is the same in Ethiopia as it is for the world as a whole, it is made up of principles of goodness that are innate, but buried; it requires the negation of behavior and modes of living that divide and ferment suspicion and resentment.
Unity, cooperation, tolerance and sharing, these are the key qualities of the time and the antidotes to hate and division; we could add forgiveness, understanding and respect. All flow from the same foundation – love. Not sentimentalized, corrupted love, but love as the cohesive force binding all life together; that impelling agent for good.
It matters not what the political justifications are for violence; of course if attacked a nation, region, family, individual will defend themselves, but to attack – with ‘overwhelming force’ and justify the killing as necessary, as the Ethiopian PM is doing – is to feed that fog which obscures our inherent humanity, the nature and residing quality of which is love. It is this purifying quality, which needs to become the guiding force for our actions, in Ethiopia and throughout the world.