No internet or phone service. No banking services, power or running water. No transportation. Widespread killings, rapes, and abductions. Hunger so extreme that people are forced to eat leaves to survive, according to the UN.
Imagine a whole region of some six million people cut off from the rest of the world. No Internet or phone services. No banking services. No electricity or running water. No transportation. No commerce with the rest of the world except for contraband trade. All factories idle, looted, or destroyed. All hospitals a shell of themselves because they were destroyed or running low on supplies. This is the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.
As incredible as it sounds, the region has been under siege for three months now. It was overrun by the combined armies of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. These forces ousted the regional government of Tigray to settle a political dispute.
In a rare move in world politics, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited the Eritrean army, a foreign power, to help settle an internal Ethiopian matter. Although the Prime Minister still denies the Eritrean presence, the evidence is overwhelming. Among other things, his commander on the ground, General Belay Seyoum, has already acknowledged it. The US government has also confirmed and demanded their immediate withdrawal.
In addition to the Eritreans, there are also reports of Somalia’s troops fighting in Tigray. Hundreds of them are believed to have died according to these reports. There is even video footage of Somalia mothers demanding to know the whereabouts of their kids.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also brought militias from various parts of the country into the Tigray front, especially from Amhara region.
Cutting all services
Prior to the operation, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed cut off all forms of communication and federal services to Tigray. The blockade remains in place for all of Tigray region except in Mekelle city, which started receiving limited services recently. Despite pleas from the UN, EU, and other world bodies, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has refused humanitarian agencies from getting access to most of the region. As a result, the full scope of this tragedy is yet to be known.
Reports are trickling in of mass hunger and gross human rights violations. Many people cannot buy basic supplies because they do not have money as banks remain closed. Those who have some cash cannot buy necessities because prices have skyrocketed due to the limited supplies. After three months of no access to their own funds, most residents are now believed to have spent whatever money they had. Some are starving at home, too proud to beg outside. According to the UN, the situation is so extreme that people are forced to eat leaves to survive.
Rapes and abductions
There are reports of widespread abductions and rapes of women in several cities, some in front of their families. Women cannot go out to get water or food for fear of being taken away and gang raped. Even some occupying Ethiopian army commanders cannot contain their anger at the lawlessness. According to reports, the Eritrean army is believed to be the main perpetrator of these atrocities, some of which are so horrific to even put in words here. You can hear cries from Mekelle city residents over the internet. They are pleading to world bodies to do something about the tragedy unfolding.
Reports abound of youth being gunned down in many cities across Tigray. For example, hundreds of unarmed people were reportedly killed in Aksum city in late November 2020. They were trying to defend the Church of St Mary of Zion from looting by advancing Ethiopian federal forces and Amhara militia. The church is believed to house the ‘Ark of the Covenant,’ according to Ethiopian Christian believers. The city of Aksum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to several reports, the Eritrean president may have used this war to kill and forcefully return Eritrean refugees housed in UN camps in Tigray. The UN lost access to the camps soon after the war started. “These are concrete indications of major violations of international law,” Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement. Also, on 14 January, the UNHCR released a statement saying it is “extremely troubled” by the situation.
Violence under Abiy
Since he came to power about three years ago, PM Abiy Ahmed has presided over some of the deadliest events in Ethiopian history. Incidents of ethnic-based attacks and displacements have skyrocketed during his tenure. Hardly a week goes by without reports of mass killings in one region or the other. Ethiopia is now closer to all-out anarchy and instability more than ever.
Recently, hundreds of people were murdered in Benishangul-Gumuz region over months of back and forth ethnic-based attacks. In 2019, some two million innocent citizens were displaced in southern Ethiopia due to cross-region attacks, primarily from Oromia, the Prime Minister’s home state.
Under his watch, universities became deadly grounds for students; some thrown from heights. Eighteen university students, mostly girls from Amhara state, were abducted in December 2019 in Oromia while going to their homes. Their whereabouts remain unknown. What is remarkable is that, Abiy Ahmed’s government has been busy suppressing, denying, or otherwise spinning the news of these tragedies, instead of seeking remedies to the people affected.
Under his reign, Ethiopia saw some very high-profile killings as well. Last year, the former Army Chief of Staff, General Seare Mekonnen, and former Amhara region administrator, Ambachew Mekonnen, were both gunned down on the same day while on duty.
Despite his rhetoric of unity and inclusiveness, PM Abiy Ahmed has transformed the Ethiopian federal civil and military institutions into mostly Oromo-dominated institutions. In 2018, the Prime Minister freed political prisoners and welcomed exiles. However, the prisons are full again by new and old political opponents. Many of those who returned have gone back home. Sadly, there is less freedom of expression in Ethiopia today than the day Abiy Ahmed assumed power.
We do not know where this unusual alliance between Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki ends.
Isaias’s long reign of terror
The world already knows the history of Isaias Afwerki. He rules the tiny East African nation with an iron fist with no checks and balances, as so many world bodies have reported. Eritreans at home and abroad know no basic freedom. “It is just slavery,” said one Eritrean. They have endured forced and indefinite conscription for so long.
It is especially “a living hell for girls,” as one puts it, who are the victims of sexual assaults and harassment in addition to everything else. The severity is such that many young girls choose to get impregnated by just about anybody to escape the hardship. More than 10 percent of the Eritrean population is in refugee camps, mostly young.
Isaias Afwerki has been the chief troublemaker in the region since he came to power in 1991. He has gone into conflict with all his neighbors in the first few years of his reign. Although subdued by decades of international embargo, he is now back into the scene he knows so well.
There are already signs that the turmoil could go well beyond the borders of the two countries.
As we write, Ethiopia and Sudan appear to be on the verge of an all-out war over a small patch of border land. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies are believed to be heading to the Sudanese border. Tensions were already running high due to the unresolved issues regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Sudan had sided with Egypt opposing the GERD project on multiple issues. Therefore, Egypt may join the fray as well should war break out any time soon.
International powers and human rights organizations have a duty to intervene in this madness that threatens to engulf the entire Horn of Africa, home to more than 15 percent of the African population.
The world must hold both Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki accountable for crimes against humanity. They must be stopped before it is too late. We cannot plead ignorance after the fact. This is happening in real time.
At stake are not only the abuses and the killings, but also Ethiopia’s survival as a state. Unless stopped, these two leaders have the capacity to destroy the peace and security of millions of lives in the Horn of Africa.