Most Tigrayans are orthodox Christians which means Christmas comes on January 7 2021. About 20% of the population is Muslim. As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, the civilian populations in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are running into refugee camps across the northern boarders into Sudan.
The region’s democratically elected government led by the TPLF was overthrown in late November 2020 by central government forces and other regional forces allegedly from neighboring Eritrea. There have been no flights to the region for several months, internet and telecommunication have been shut down; electricity has been cut amidst a curfew characterized by widespread shooting and looting.
The Ethiopian central government has placed a bounty on the heads of the deposed TPLF leaders. But the real culprits caught up in this civil war between the Ethiopian central government and the regional TPLF government are the civilian populations.
Though the central government has now installed a new regional government, there are reports of massive war crimes including the killings of women and children; and forced abductions of refugees for military conscription by Eritrean forces within the Tigray region.
Eritrean forces as well as Ethiopian central government forces have since taken charge of security in the region.
Prime minister Abiy Ahmed and his Ethiopian central government are reluctant to allow the UN and other humanitarian aid groups to enter the region with full access to investigate the true situation regarding war crimes.
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According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, although two UN humanitarian assessment missions managed to enter the region last Monday, restrictions in the region had made it impossible to investigate allegations of artillery strikes on populated areas, extra-judicial killings and widespread looting by the new armed forces taking over the region.
Last month, the UN said it had received ‘’consistent reports’’ of artillery strikes on civilian homes and a hospital in the town of Humera.
The outbreak of war on November 4 between the Ethiopian federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the longstanding democratically elected regional ruling party has brought untold hardships, suffering and death to the civilian populations.
The TPLF was ousted from the state capital Mekelle in late November despite still continuing to put up resistance against invading federal forces.
In December, Ethiopian state television quoted Tigrayan elders in an exchange with newly arrived Ethiopian federal government soldiers in the region as saying, ‘’Residents had been “slaughtered like chicken”, their corpses abandoned to be “eaten by hyenas”.
They also commented on rampant looting and vandalism: “All government assets have been destroyed and looted,” said one of them.
Tigrayan elders revealed implicitly that those responsible for the civilian carnage were not Ethiopian federal troops, but outsiders.
“You need to solve this problem immediately,” said an elder addressing the generals and newly appointed Tigray president, Mulu Nega.
“How can institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who do not have Ethiopian values in them?”
These so-called hooligans have reportedly killed thousands including civilians, and nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan since the war began on November 4, 2020.
Heavy fighting has involved tanks and fighter jets that are flattening villages and emptying towns of their inhabitants.
Eyewitnesses, aid workers and diplomats have reported that thousands of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea are also involved in the war in Tigray region.
This suggests that the Ethiopian government’s so-called “law enforcement operation” in the region is gradually evolving into a regional conflict.
Tigray’s TPLF is a common enemy of both Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki. The TPLF run Ethiopia’s federal government for nearly three decades before Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 through popular nationwide mass protests.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody civil war between 1998 and 2000, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
The Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed general elections in September this year under the guise of fighting the corona virus pandemic.
In protest, the TPLF went ahead to organize its own regional elections in September, sparking great controversy in the country.
On November 4 2020, the federal government launched a military offensive in Tigray after a federal military base was allegedly attacked and looted.
Though the federal government blamed the TPLF for the attack, the regional government pointed accusing fingers at invading Eritrean forces.
The deposed President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael earlier this month accused Eritrean forces of mass looting and shooting.
He alleged that Tigrayan forces were fighting Eritrean divisions on several fronts, claiming responsibility for one of three recent missile strikes on Eritrea.
The TPLF argued it had acted in self-defense because the airport in Asmara, the capital, had been used to launch attacks against the TPLF.
Refugees crossing into Sudan have also told reporters and aid workers that Eritrean artillery shells had hit towns in western Tigray.
But these claims are impossible to independently confirm due largely to restriction on access for outsiders, including international media, and the communications blackout to the region.
Though phone lines were restored in parts of Tigray recently, there is still no internet service in the region.
Ethiopia’s army has continued to declare daily victories since overthrowing the TPLF but the people of the region including refugees continue to suffer unabated violence.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has denied all allegations of war crimes and Eritrean involvement in the Tigray conflict.
He told the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, on 9 December that he could ‘’guarantee no Eritrean troops had entered Ethiopian territory’’. But that guarantee is not supported by the facts on the ground.
Meanwhile, the federal government does not deny that Ethiopian troops who escaped to Eritrea at the start of the war got help from Eritreans who fed, clothed and armed them before they returned to the fight in Tigray.
“The Eritrean people are not only our brothers,” Abiy told parliament last month. “They have also shown us practically that they are friends who stood by our side on a tough day.”
Reports of Eritrean forces involvement in the Tigray conflict have been corroborated by diplomatic sources.
According to international news agency Reuters which interviewed several unidentified diplomats in the region including a US official, the US government believed Eritrean soldiers had crossed into Ethiopian territory in mid-November via three northern border towns: Zalambessa, Rama and Badme.
A spokesperson for the US state department confirmed the Reuters report, marking a departure from the previous praise for Eritrean “restraint”.
“We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray and view this as a grave development,” said the spokesperson. “We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately.”
In the language of the US state department, this most likely means they have intercepts, satellites or even human intelligence as well.
A top EU diplomat in the Tigray region told the press, “From everything we’ve been told it is incontrovertible they are involved. It’s absolutely clear.”
Mesfin Hagos is a former Eritrean defense minister who is now an opposition figure in the country. He revealed recently in an article for online publication, that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had deployed four mechanized divisions, seven infantry divisions and a commando brigade to fight in Tigray. He cited sources in the defense ministry among others.
Wallelegn is a Tigrayan working in Shire. He was present when the war began but he later managed to escape to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. He told the press that the “Eritreans were really leading the Ethiopian forces in the area”.
“Their uniform is different and they are relatively old and skinny compared with the Ethiopian defense forces,” he added.
“In the early days of their arrival to Shire they were looting, randomly shooting, mainly youngsters, and burning factories.”
He also said, “At first the Ethiopian forces were emotional, and were not doing much to stop the attacks. But later on they started to take charge.”
There are around 100,000 refugees from Eritrea camped in Tigray. Many of them fled indefinite national service and military conscription back in Eritrea. But when the war began they were caught up in the middle and cut off from relief supplies.
Humanitarian workers have told the media that many refugees in Hitsats camp fled as soon as Eritrean troops arrived in the vicinity on 19 November.
They also claim that the approaching Eritrean troops crossing the border from the north armed some refugees and turned them into fighters before looting property, slaughtering livestock and burning crops.
A UN official confirmed to the media that there has been killing of three security guards employed by the UN at Hitsats camp who tried to prevent the abduction of refugees, and the forced conscription of refugees to fight alongside the Eritrean army.
On 11 December, the head of the UN refugee agency said it had received an “overwhelming” number of reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted or forcibly returned to Eritrea over the past month.
On the same day Ethiopian authorities sent Eritrean refugees in Addis Ababa back to Tigray against their will with the excuse that it was “safely returning” refugees to camps where they would have access to “service delivery systems”.
Many observers saw this move as an a ploy by the Ethiopian authorities to take away their protection and expose the refugees to abduction and forced conscription by the Eritrean authorities.
Could this forced busing of refugees to unsafe camps in Tigray be a friendly arrangement between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias? Everything is possible but difficult to confirm at this point.
According to one refugee based in Adi Harush camp, South of Hitsats, both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops have mounted surveillance on the camp in recent days in hunt for individuals.
Strangely, Eritrean state media has made no mention of the conflict in Ethiopia since it began on November 4.
President Afwerki, a close friend of Abiy Ahmed, has not made any public comments in response to the missiles fired at Asmara airport last month.
Not even the Eritrean minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, whose office building narrowly escaped a rocket strike on 13 November, has commented on the conflict or the country’s involvement in the Tigray war.
Osman Saleh Mohammed is Eritrea’s foreign minister who acknowledged the war but denied any involvement. “We are not part of the conflict,” he told reporters last month.
The Ethiopian federal government has meanwhile insisted that the conflict remains exclusively an internal one and accuses the TPLF of manufacturing fake Eritrean uniforms to falsely implicate their neighbors.
Meron Estefanos of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights says, not all allegations involving Eritrean forces are plausible. She told the press that while some refugees and prominent opposition figures living in Ethiopia had certainly been forcibly returned to Eritrea, estimates of several thousand abductees are improbable.
The TPLF was initially part of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an ethnic federalist political coalition in Ethiopia. The EPRDF was a coalition of four political parties including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
The EPRDF overthrew the Communist People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and run Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2019.
But in November 2019, Prime Minister who was also the EPDRF chairman Abiy Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF. He then merged most of the constituent parties of the coalition (except the TPLF) into a new party called the Prosperity Party (PP), which was officially founded on 1 December 2019.
Since the falling out with the grand coalition, the TPLF has maintained its Tigray regional grip on power until they were recently ousted from the regional capital.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has felt undermined by the TPLF leaders who constantly defy federal government orders and directives in the running of the northern region.
As the Tigray conflict is clearly becoming a regional one, the Nobel peace prize winning Prime Minister appears to have outdone his international recognition as a peace-loving leader. The untold suffering of the civilian population in the region is too much a price to pay for any form of reform but not in the books of the Ethiopian Prime Minister who has waged war against his own people in the name of sweeping political reforms.
Story By: Sacut Amenga-Etego