Abiy Ahmed: Destroyer of Heritage Sites, Lover of Parks
At the inauguration of Ethiopia’s tree-planting program, unelected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told policy makers that the country’s Green Legacy effort is as equally important as other events occurring in the country, alluding to the genocide taking place in Tigray.
The Green Legacy initiative was launched to prevent and combat the consequences of environmental degradation. It aims to address adversities such as natural disasters and food insecurity; paradoxically, the Ethiopian federal government is causing food insecurity in the Tigray regional state by conspiring with Eritrean forces to burn Tigrayan farmland, obstruct critical aid routes, and withhold and loot food aid. Such acts are part of a genocidal war with the goal of destroying Tigray in every aspect. Another main component of the Tigray genocide is the destruction of religious heritage sites. Abiy’s administration has enabled such destruction while flooding official government social media accounts with ostentatious photo ops in newly developed parks and recreation centers.
Photos of these new parks posted on Twitter are typically accompanied by hashtags such as #EthiopiaPrevails and #UnityForEthiopia, two fabricated campaigns created to divert attention from the Tigray genocide. The Ethiopian federal government has encouraged the Ethiopian diaspora to participate in these strategies, using glorified parks and recreation centers to overshadow the atrocities and war crimes being committed in Tigray at the hands of the government and its allies.
Unsurprisingly, Abiy has mentioned environmental initiatives via his official Twitter accounts nearly 30 times since the war on Tigray was declared in early November 2020. Mentions of land disturbance and attacks on religious sites in Tigray seem limited to one.
Actively bombing and burning areas of Tigray exacerbates environmental degradation and counteracts all green initiatives. Addressing the atrocities occurring upon places of worship does not follow the #EthiopiaPrevails agenda, so these events are silenced or manipulated to obscure facts. A consortium of Tigrayan religious institutions has, however, recently released a document identifying the names of several hundred murdered religious leaders and a dozen damaged or destroyed places of worship that have been targeted in the Tigray genocide.
Tigray is home to numerous sacred heritage sites. It is believed that the early seventh-century followers of Islam’s Prophet Muhammed were given refuge in the Axumite Kingdom, a place known for freedom of religion and peaceful religious coexistence, after fleeing persecution around Mecca. Al-Negashi mosque in Tigray is one of the oldest, most sacred places of worship for Muslims around the world. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) launched a project in 2015 to renovate the Islamic heritage site and had hopes for it to become a major destination for religious tourism prior to recent destruction. Sheikh Adem Abdulkadir, who was president of Tigray State’s Supreme Council Islamic Affairs at the time, stated, “The history of Nejashi – and the ancient mosque of Nejashi – means a great deal to Ethiopia and the world.” Unfortunately, the mosque was not deemed valuable enough to avoid being bombed and looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. This attack resulted in civilian deaths as well as heavy damage to the mosque and tombs of prominent Islamic figures.
Since the start of the genocidal war, there has been an ongoing pattern of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces targeting religious sites in Tigray for desecration, looting, and massacres. Cherkos Church in Zalambessa, Debro Damo monastery, and Mariam Dengelat Church are among the several places of worship that were violently targeted. The massacre at Saint Mariam Tsion church in Axum is one of the deadliest events of the Tigray genocide thus far.
Amnesty International published an extensive 25-page report detailing the series of deadly attacks that terrorized Axum civilians in late November 2020. Satellite imagery of disturbed earth surrounding churches such as Arba’etu Ensessa and Abune Aregawi are consistent with witness testimonies in identifying mass grave sites. For some families, burying their loved ones was not an immediate option. As reported by Amnesty, Eritrean troops shot at those who sought to remove bodies from the streets. “Everyone was afraid soldiers would kill people who helped bury the dead,” a witness of the tragic massacres in Axum recalled. The inhumane practice of prohibited mourning is eerily reminiscent of the Ethiopian Red Terror when people were forbidden to mourn slain family members, and sometimes ordered to pay a bullet fee if they wished to retrieve the body. In Axum, bodies were left on the ground for days in an effort to psychologically terrorize civilians.
Despite being the target of oppressive violence throughout history, Tigrayans have maintained their strong sense of religion. Tigray holds significant roots in both Christianity and Islam, and the people cherish their religious heritage. Sacred religious sites in Tigray are not only important to Tigrayans, but to people around the world, and the international community must call for their preservation.
Along with indiscriminately killing civilians at places of worship and religious site destruction, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have reportedly looted several highly valuable century-old religious artifacts. Academics from the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies at Hamburg University warn that “…[looted religious artifacts will] be taken out of Ethiopia to be sold at antiquities markets in other countries.”
The destruction and looting of sacred churches, monasteries, and mosques is a form of cultural genocide that violates the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute (Article 7(1)(h)). The expropriation of sacred materials and the violent attacks on heritage sites are intentional attempts to psychologically demoralize and humiliate the people of Tigray. While the humanitarian crisis should take priority over protection of religious sites, deliberate attacks on places of worship contribute to the systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans.
As the Abiy administration flaunts newly renovated parks around the country, Tigrayan land is increasingly converted into mass burial sites. While it is unquestionable that a more environmentally-conscious Ethiopia is vital to conserving the nation’s rich geographical diversity, such efforts should never take priority over human lives. Attempts from the Ethiopian federal government to ameliorate the destabilization in Tigray are minimal, while questionably-timed promotion of green initiatives frequent official government social media accounts.
It is clear that ending the cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans is not the prime concern of the Ethiopian federal government. The state-sponsored media has been dangerously downplaying genocide, stating that Tigray only comprises a small percentage of the country’s population. Such a statement implies that the world should not show much concern about the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans. This evasion of responsibility to protect citizens, like prioritizing parks over people, contributes to the frequent dehumanization of Tigrayans. The world must condemn the violations of international law committed by the Ethiopian federal government, Amhara militias, and Eritrean troops, including attacks on religious heritage sites.
As stated by Dr. Eric Meyers, a professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, “Destroying a country’s most beloved, noble or beautiful sites enables invaders to amplify the damage they inflict. It’s like shooting someone in their core, where it hurts the most.”
Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2021