The Tragedy of Western Tigray: A Continuous Cycle of Crimes and the Deliberate Destruction of Evidence

Western Tigray, located in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, has been a scene of horrific crimes since the onset of the war on Tigray on November 4, 2020. A joint investigation conducted by Amnesty International (AI) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) concludes that Tigrayans living in Western Tigray have experienced a “relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing by security forces from the neighboring Amhara region and their allies.” The report underscores that the “campaign of killing, rape, mass detentions, and forcible transfers amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The April 2022 joint AI-HRW report urges the Ethiopian government to call on its forces and Ethiopia’s Amhara regional security forces and militia to end these atrocities, allow humanitarian agencies full access to the area, including detention facilities, and support credible efforts to ensure those responsible for these grave crimes are held accountable. 

As of April 2023, one year following the publication of the joint report, no such progress has been made. Western Tigray remains illegally occupied by Amhara forces and under siege with extremely limited access to humanitarian organizations. Reports of renewed displacements from Western Tigray have also emerged as a new influx of 47,000 IDPs has been recorded. They were forced to leave as result of “harassment, ethnic profiling and direct threats.” 

At the time of the AI-HRW joint report, instead of heeding the urgent calls by international human rights organizations, the Amhara regional government, backed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean federal governments, deliberately destroyed evidence of the crimes committed. These acts of obstruction include executing Tigrayan witnesses, excavating mass graves, and burning human remains.

Tragically, the Amhara region’s University of Gondar (UoG) spearheaded these efforts despite being an academic institution that, in principle, should stand on the side of truth, justice, and peaceful public discourse. Completely abandoning its responsibilities and the principles on which it was founded, the UoG has enabled the destruction of evidence in several ways, including by providing chemicals for the burning of remains and training people to use the chemicals, according to a May 2022 BBC report.

In parallel, the UoG has also been engaged in misinformation efforts. For example, when the AI–HRW joint report was to be released, the university claimed to have discovered mass graves from decades ago alleging historical atrocities against ethnic Amharas committed by Tigrayan forces. However, some scholars have pushed back against UoG’s claims, revealing that there are no institutions or individuals within Ethiopia with the capacity, equipment, or training to conduct the forensic research necessary to come to such a conclusion.

The breach of UoG’s academic ethics goes beyond the destruction of evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. The university has also been a direct enabler of the genocidal war on Tigray. A statement by the Global Society of Tigray Scholars and Professionals exposes the university’s role in the war. The school sent faculty members to combat training, made financial contributions to the war on Tigray from faculty and staff salaries, and used UoG’s platform to promote war propaganda and hate speech.

The actions of UoG have contributed to the crimes committed against Tigrayans in Western Tigray and across Ethiopia over the past 25+ months. Ethnic cleansing and genocide have forcibly displaced at least 1.2 million Tigrayans from Western Tigray to other parts of Tigray. Over 70,000 Tigrayan refugees have fled to Sudan. Further, thousands of Tigrayans who remained in Western Tigray are presently held in detention facilities. 

Tragically, the worst is expected for the thousands of Tigrayans that have been held in detention facilities in Western Tigray. Many in these detention facilities have been killed by Amhara regional forces and militias. The killings have taken place directly by executions and indirectly via deliberate starvation of detainees. A May 2022 news report reveals that thousands died of starvation in detention facilities in the town of Humera in Western Tigray. More than 260 in the same detention facilities experienced severe health problems, including swollen bodies, and were on the verge of death. Today, any news from Western Tigray is few and far between. Very little information emerges from the darkness about the fate of Tigrayans. What we know is that the campaign of ethnic cleansing has been successful, as Amhara settlers are brought in, new identification cards are issued, and names on land titles are changed.  

As illustrated in this article, enough evidence about the crimes committed in Western Tigray has existed long enough for the international community to act. In March 2021, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that acts of ethnic cleansing were being committed in Western Tigray. Yet, the acknowledgement was not followed by any action, and rhetoric regarding crimes committed were walked back. Ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray simply continued. It took two years for Blinken to mention these crimes against humanity again. In his March 21, 2023 remarks about the crimes committed in Ethiopia, Blinken specifically mentioned Western Tigray, stating, “the crime against humanity of deportation, or forcible transfer, and … ethnic cleansing [have taken place] through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray.” 

As part of releasing their findings on atrocities committed in Ethiopia, the U.S government, as much of the international community, has backed Ethiopia’s transitional justice process and speaks of moving forward. However, crimes continue to be committed, and evidence continues to be destroyed in the absence of any investigation, forensic or otherwise. The lack of international pressure has allowed ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans to spread to southern Tigray. The international community should not continue to watch passively as a tragedy of this magnitude unfolds.

The United States, the European Union, and other international actors must act now and pressure the Ethiopian government to stop the ethnic cleansing; immediately release all detainees held in mass detention facilities in Western Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia; allow humanitarian aid to flow into Tigray in an unhindered and uninterrupted manner, especially in the inaccessible Western Tigray; meaningfully reconnect all of Tigray and restore services; and hold those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide accountable in a victim-centered manner.

Assefaw Gebremedhin – Omna Tigray External Contributor, April 2023


An Attack on Education is an Attack on Life Itself

As efforts to reopen schools in Tigray are underway, one thinks about the students whose lives have been drastically changed, interrupted, or even lost due to the ongoing Tigray Genocide

Out of an estimated 2.3 million school-aged children in Tigray, 1.7 million have been out of school for the last three academic years. Nearly 90% of schools around the region have been damaged due to the genocide facilitated by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces. The education system in Tigray has been systematically attacked since the genocide began in November 2020, and research shows that years of progress within the region’s education system have been reversed. The Ethiopian federal government and its allied military forces have bombed, looted, and occupied schools, sometimes using these sites to commit other crimes, including weaponized rape. Widespread and systematic Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) has been a main tool of the genocide. One Mekelle resident told Human Rights Watch, “I saw different women taken inside [a school]. Sometimes they would stay two, three, or five days, and we would see them go in and out of the school. They appeared beaten and were crying as they would leave… No one could ask the women what happened to them, and the atmosphere made it difficult to do so.” A report by the Tigray Education Bureau revealed that teachers and students have been targeted and killed since the conflict began, and primary school enrollment rates declined from 90% in 2020 to just 21% in 2021. Additionally, many teachers joined the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), deciding that their fate might be better on the battlefield.

In any conflict, students who are out of school are more susceptible to abduction, murder, CRSV, exploitation, and recruitment by armed forces. Girls with families facing economic hardships due to the conflict may sometimes be forced into child marriage. School-aged children might take on dangerous, life-risking work to support their families instead of attending classes. Additionally, students may be less likely to return to school after what they have endured and the associated trauma, especially after long periods of time. Students in Tigray have been denied the international human right to education — so it is not unsurprising that Ethiopia has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a commitment to supporting and protecting education systems and the right to education during conflict.

Regarding the attacks on Tigray’s education system, Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa director Laetitia Bader said, “Occupying and damaging schools ends up affecting the lives of Tigray’s future generations, adding to the losses that communities in Tigray have faced […].” It is clear that an attack on education is an attack on the future and on life itself. The systematic destruction of the education system in Tigray has deliberate, long-lasting impacts. A pause in education can fuel the cycle of poverty, widening gaps in the future health and socioeconomic differences of the population.

Pictured Above: Pre/post-crisis education status indicators reported by the Tigray Education Bureau in December 2021.

Even after just one month of missing school, let alone several years, students may find it difficult to return to the classroom. “When you see family members, parents, siblings, rape, killing, injury, a child during the formative years see all this violence or are even the subject of this violence, will logically become traumatized and that’s why mental health and psychosocial services are another very existential, lifesaving component of education,” said Yasmine Sherif, Director of the UN-funded nonprofit Education Cannot Wait. In cases like the Syrian conflict, many students have expressed that they will not be returning to school. One 16-year-old Syrian boy told Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian agency, “I won’t go back to school. I have lost my will now after missing it for two years.” He expressed that he would be behind on coursework and that for him and his generation, “the future is not clear.” For Tigrayans who have been subjected to genocide, a similar sentiment is likely shared. 

When reinstating the education system in Tigray, there must be a guarantee of stability, the provision of basic services, and the reconstruction of infrastructure within the region. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has created guidelines that outline important tactics such as assisting victims of attacks and deterring future attacks, particularly by investigating past attacks and holding perpetrators accountable. It must be ensured that Tigrayans are provided with the proper resources and support to facilitate the reopening of schools with mental health and psychosocial curriculum across the region, implementing all efforts to mitigate the detrimental impacts on future generations.

Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, March 2023


Exploring Justice & Accountability for Tigray

I’ll first start with the pretext that I am not a lawyer by any means, nor do I have a complex understanding of international law or policies regarding human rights violations. But, I consider myself a decent listener and have learned quite a bit from speaking to people who work in these spaces. The following reflects these thoughts mixed in with some of my own.

As we already know, the war on Tigray has been marked with unimaginable atrocities– at least 600,000 people dead from violence, starvation, and other impacts of the siege; 120,000+ women and men survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV); 900,000+ in famine. These numbers are not just statistics. You take one individual, one story, and keep adding one more until you get to the hundreds of thousands–the millions–who have endured significant suffering over the past two years. The magnitude is heavy. 

To work towards peace in Tigray and ensure that these atrocities do not recur, every individual must get the justice they deserve. In the diaspora, we have been quick to jump towards designating the atrocities a genocide and pursuing criminal accountability through the International Criminal Court (ICC). I am guilty of this as well. In an ideal world, this would be the best outcome. In the current U.S.-dominated, “we’ll support you if you support our interests” world, it is nearly impossible unless interests radically shift. 

Genocide has become an extremely politicized term that is hardly ever employed, and the U.S. is among the few countries more likely to use it. It is clear, however, that the U.S. does not intend to release a public designation of genocide as they think it would hamper progress toward peace and cultivate a hostile relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S. As a matter of fact, in a recent interview, Molly Phee, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, mentioned not wanting a broken Ethiopia or a broken Ethiopia-US partnership. On the ICC front, a case can only be referred to the ICC by:

1) A state who is party to the Rome Statute,

2) The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), or 

3) The ICC Prosecutor. 

Ethiopia is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, and the UNSC remains obstructed by competing world powers. Even if there were no obstructions, I doubt they would actively pursue this choice for the same reason given regarding U.S. geo-political maneuvering above. So that leaves the question—what does justice and accountability realistically look like for Tigray? 

I. Keeping Tigrayan Interests at the Core

First, if we zoom out a bit, it is important we do the work to understand what justice actually means for victims. For some, justice means going back to their homes and regaining control over their lives, i.e. the right to return. For others, justice means active participation and holistic engagement of directly impacted communities in efforts to change policies, systems, and practices in place to ensure nonrecurrence. Of course, justice can also mean criminal accountability–some may prefer holding a court in Tigray to hold perpetrators accountable; others may prefer international courts. Pursuing any of these paths toward justice requires that we better understand the sentiment in Tigray, that of refugees, and that of the diaspora as a collective. We can also do a better job of educating Tigrayans on the various pathways to justice, so that they may know the extent of options they can pursue.

II. Human Rights Investigations

Calling for an independent investigation is a justified and reasonable ask. Yet, since the establishment of the United Nations-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), there has been significant pushback and, quite honestly, hate that has led to the hostile conditions in which the Commission’s experts are currently operating. By not allowing the ICHREE access to Ethiopia, the quality of the investigation is at risk. The U.S. has taken a positive step forward by tying eligibility, among other points, for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to ICHREE access to conflict-affected areas. Other states should consider mirroring these actions in ways that make sense to them and supporting the mandate to the fullest extent, including providing sufficient human and financial resources to drive a quality investigation.

The African Commission for Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has also been investigating the atrocities committed in Tigray and similarly faces challenges in access to Ethiopia. On top of this constraint, they are likely being silenced by the Abiy regime and the African Union (AU). If not already being done, it is critical that the ACHPR provide more frequent briefings on their investigation to the AU Peace and Security Council. More on the reason why further down below.

It is important to note, however, that both the ICHREE-led and ACHPR-led investigations are human rights investigations, not criminal investigations, meaning these do not result in perpetrators being held accountable in a court of law. Instead, these investigations will provide a view into the atrocities committed in Tigray and across other war-affected areas in Ethiopia and recommendations that may be used (by warring parties, other countries across the continent, and friends of Tigray/Ethiopia) as a foundation to propel human rights. 

III. Criminal Accountability: Ethiopian Transitional Justice Mechanism

In terms of criminal accountability, the primary options being floated around are 1) an Ethiopian transitional justice mechanism and 2) an ad-hoc international criminal tribunal. The first was agreed upon in the Pretoria agreement signed by the Ethiopian and Tigray governments on November 2, 2022. We have all the right reasons to be worried. Trusting a state who has been at the forefront of atrocities against civilians to now lead efforts in justice and accountability is like adding salt to a wound. Having those involved in committing the crimes responsible for ensuring accountability to victims is far from just, feasible or adequate. A state-led effort would create conditions where survivors reasonably fear retribution and intimidation and lack trust in the process. A vast majority of Tigrayans would probably opt out of this option. Or, if they do participate, there is a high risk the imbalanced power relations would impact a comprehensive narration of survivor testimonies. If an Ethiopian transitional justice mechanism is truly the only option we have, then some questions need to be answered: 

  • How do we build some level of international and Tigrayan community-based oversight and accountability measures to ensure a truly just and fair process?
  • How do we ensure the easy route of only prosecuting lower-level officials/leaders is not intentionally taken?
  • How will victims be protected throughout and after the process?
  • What are the best practices to employ, recognizing the process for justice and accountability should happen soon but also that we are navigating in a society whose social fabric very much still hangs by a thin thread? 

IV. Criminal Accountability: Ad Hoc International Criminal Tribunal

From my limited understanding, an ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal would essentially be a court held in a country interested in supporting justice and accountability efforts–Kenya and South Africa could potentially be options here. This option would allow for more impartiality, but there are constraints. The AU Peace and Security Council and the UNSC have the power to establish this tribunal. We know the difficulties with the UNSC, but the AU Peace and Security Council is somewhat more unpredictable. Will they strengthen and further the work of the ACHPR in their investigation into Tigray, or will they idly stand by to prevent further conflict between warring parties? 

If, in fact, a tribunal of this sort was established, another point to consider is that the perpetrators of these crimes are still in power–in powerful leadership positions to be clear. For comparison, the UNSC established an international criminal tribunal in 1994 to persecute people responsible for the Rwandan genocide. It was held in Arusha, Tanzania, and had jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and other violations of the Geneva Conventions. The main leaders of this genocide, however, were no longer in power and largely fled to other countries, where they were later detained and brought to court. For Tigray, with some of the main perpetrators of the war still in high-ranking government positions in Addis Ababa, and considering the influence that comes with Ethiopia being the location of the founding of the Organization of African Unity (that later became the AU), it is likely the Ethiopian leaders may use their influence to lessen the degree of justice.

It is also unclear where exactly the Government of Tigray stands on justice and accountability post-signing of the Pretoria agreement. We do not know what was verbally agreed to as part of the agreement, meaning if the full degree of justice and accountability was swept under the rug in the name of achieving peace. Therefore, the question is not whether they’re still interested in pursuing it, but whether they are still pursuing it with the same scale and scope that the people of Tigray deserve, given the concessions made. Or are they now limited and bound by the agreement? Clarity is incredibly important here–not because they dictate what we in the diaspora push for, but because we need to understand if they will be a barrier to this already difficult journey ahead of us. As we still explore the best justice and accountability mechanisms for Tigray, I can, at the very least, commit to centering Tigrayan interests. It is imperative that the institutions that claim to support and protect human rights are held responsible in these efforts. Poor governance ultimately leads to insecurity. To drive long-term security and stability in the Horn of Africa, it is therefore in the best interest of regional and international actors that we see a just, transparent justice and accountability process all around.

Bserat– Omna Tigray Contributor, January 2023



The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have deliberately attacked, destroyed, and looted Tigrayan heritage sites since waging a genocidal war in November 2020. The Tigrayan Orthodox Church is among the victims.  

The invading forces recognize the importance of the Tigrayan Orthodox Church to the Tigrayan community. For generations, the church has been an anchor of Tigrayan resistance, social cohesion, and culture. Every Orthodox Church priest in Tigray will tell you that Tigrayans have existed since Genesis, surviving earthly calamities, environmental changes, and countless wars while maintaining their religious values and heritages.  

The Tigrayan Orthodox Church, known by many followers of the religion as the home of the Ark of the Covenant, was a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) since its establishment. Although the Tigrayan Orthodox Church had a rocky relationship with the EOTC over the years,  their relationship took a dramatic turn when the Ethiopian government waged its genocidal war on Tigray.

During the war, the Tigrayan Orthodox Church continued to be a home for the displaced, an outlet, and a center for healing for those whose lives were turned upside down. In contrast, the EOTC isolated its patriarch of Tigrayan descent and even publicly supported the war on Tigray. Further, deacons and clerics of the EOTC have been actively engaged in the legitimization of the invasion and attack on Tigray.

As part of the cultural genocide, Tigray was abandoned and looted of its religious artifacts and heritage –– its Orthodox churches were bombed, and its congregations were murdered inside the churches, one among many being the horrifying massacre at Mariam Dangilat, which received more coverage by the international media. The invading forces spared no one in Tigray – church leaders, deacons, monks, and nuns became victims of multiple forms of militarized violence: weaponized famine, civilian massacres, sexual and gender-based violence, and extrajudicial arrest and detainment. Tigrayan Orthodox Church leaders outside of Tigray were arrested. 

The Tigrayan Orthodox Church fought with prayer and resilience, declaring multiple fasting and prayer days. Tigrayans from all over the world joined in remembrance of the fallen and prayed for these dark days to end. The Church eventually announced its intent to be independent from the EOTC. Tigrayans in the diaspora supported this move, as they had witnessed the EOTC’s support of the genocidal war across the world and built their own churches free of genocidal rhetoric spoken in the Ethiopian churches. The Tigrayan church has been the only church that organized and mobilized the community against the war. In contrast, the Ethiopian church has continued its relentless support of a government that is starving and has bombed its population. In October 2022, nearly two years after the start of the genocidal war, the Eritrean Orthodox church took a stand against the war and issued a call for fasting.

Matthew 7:7-Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you

ምህለላ ኣዴታት – “The Fasting and Prayers of Mothers”

War is fundamentally against the very nature of motherhood, and the women of Tigray have faced the brunt of the unimaginable trauma inflicted on the people of Tigray. The invading forces have deliberately targeted the girls and women of Tigray through weaponized rape that aimed to “cleanse them of their Tigrayan blood line.” They went as far as proclaiming that a “Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” Despite the impact of the war crimes committed, they have relied on their faith to resist their subjugation and express solidarity with one another. 

Invading forces attacked Tigrayans with airstrikes across Tigray – killing and wounding civilians  in markets, residential homes, and kindergartens. Civilians in Tigray are condemned to death inside their homes. Yet, the women of Tigray, like all women, carry with them generations of wisdom, trust, resilience, and faith. Torn by the pain of seeing their homes destroyed, their sons killed, their sisters and daughters facing gender-based violence, and disconnected from their families, countless Tigrayan women in Tigray and the diaspora have relied on each other and their Church.

በእንተ እግዝእትነ ማርያም መሓረነ ክርስቶስ “Be Ente Mariam Maharene Kirstos” In the name of St. Mary of Zion, God please forgive us”

So, you may ask, how do Tigrayan mothers pray during a period when the world has turned its back on their children, their brothers, their sisters, and their home?

“Mihlela” is one way mothers of Tigray communicate with the higher being. The prayer is often in Geez, the language of their ancestors, and in Tigrigna. 

They pray in circles, close to one another, with one palm of the hand against the top of their other hand. Then, they send their message to their God, asking to be delivered from evil. They express their pain and their sadness, wailing and crying out for protection of what remains and for the lives lost. After hours of pleading, they ask for forgiveness and hope–manifesting peace and brighter days.

Kilimina Eye Alaminana”, “I will plead to her, plead with me” Video 1. Shows the women asking for all mothers to join their prayers Tigrayan Orthodox
“Awgihyo Awgihyo Nimen Delikyo” or  “Please brighten up our days, who else could you be saving it for?”

You can hear the pain in their voices as they praise and plead for the lord and St. Mary to relieve their families from this pain and agony.

In tears they pray “Please God spare the children of Tigray, please God spare the innocents they are yours to protect.”
Our lady Mary of Zion, please protect your children just as you have protected them in the past.
Yikir bela yikir kiblena /Forgive so we can be forgiven

“The word of the heavenly king cannot be prevented by the earthly king. But an earthly king can be prevented by the word of the heavenly king” Stephen the Gundagundo

Photo contributor-SebHalyot

Betty – Omna Tigray External Contributor, December 2022


Preserving Tigrayan Identity

“Genocide destroys the group by destroying what unifies individuals into one group, that is, by destroying their social identity. Social identity is destroyed by destroying features that constitute it—for example, shared language, cultural customs, relationships, and cultural artifacts.” – Rasa Davidavičiūtė

For the last two years, Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, has been attacked in a genocidal war. During this war, Tigrayans have been targeted by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in an extensive list of war crimes and brutal, outrageous human rights violations. Alongside these crimes, invading forces have attacked Tigrayan culture, heritage, language, and identity. One part of genocide is cultural warfare, and Tigrayans in the diaspora must pair their activism with practices that promote and preserve the Tigrayan identity.

In Tigray, a grandmother, her children, and her children’s children represent three consecutive generations of people who have been subjected to war, violence, bombs, and starvation. In June 2021, European Special Envoy Pekka Haavisto revealed the genocidal intent of Ethiopian leaders who said, in his presence, that “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” The atrocities occurring against Tigrayans are evidence of this intent to get rid of Tigrayans and their identity once and for all. From statements such as “A Tigrayan womb should never give birth,” which are accompanied by sexual assault that leaves women infertile, to being banned from and beaten for speaking Tigrigna, the Tigrayan identity is being attacked in every aspect. Therefore, Tigrayans around the world must ensure they are actively advocating to end the genocide while participating in ways to preserve Tigrayan customs, history, language, and traditions.

The survival of the Tigrayan identity, culture, and people is undoubtedly impacted by the actions of Tigrayans in the diaspora. While fighting tirelessly to end the genocidal war, a responsibility exists to preserve the culture and cultivate a future where the Tigrayan identity will not be compromised. The value of community should never be underestimated. It is not untrue that individuals are capable of accomplishing high achievements, but only a community with shared histories, struggles, and goals can fortify an identity and pass on culture to future generations. For this reason, it is necessary to build sustainable communities that are thriving academically, in business and health, financially, mentally, and socially. Being strategic in networking both within and outside of the community and globally promoting Tigray’s name is imperative to the development and security of Tigray itself.

For decades, Tigrayans in the diaspora have facilitated spaces to celebrate and preserve their heritage through cultural shows and festivals. Long-lasting organizations like the Tigrai Development Association (TDA) and various alumni groups have made significant strides in uniting Tigrayans internationally while also supporting efforts for Tigray’s growth. Additionally, the diaspora has been pivotal in transforming education throughout Tigray, building schools and libraries to help the next generation. These are important to mention, as the institution of Tigrayan intellectualism and scholarship has been systematically attacked throughout the genocide, compromising students’ and academics’ livelihoods and the human right to education.

Initiatives throughout history made by Tigrayans in the diaspora have been crucial in preserving Tigray’s culture, identity, and heritage. Now more than ever, Tigrayans are fervently campaigning to end the genocidal war while finding new ways to protect the Tigrayan identity. Communities across the globe are taking advocacy and cultural preservation to new heights. Examples of this include the establishment of the Tigrayan Orthodox Church, the creation of global networks, and the growing number of community organizations and advocacy groups.

Fostering environments where mental health is genuinely valued and the trust and comfort of the people are ensured is vital to the existence of strong communities. Some individuals just need a place to heal, somewhere to tell people what they are going through. One of the most effortless roles for every single Tigrayan in the diaspora is to show up and support one another. There are serious and grave issues causing diasporan Tigrayans to lose their lives, and this must be addressed in conjunction with fighting against genocide.

Throughout the genocidal war, there have been relentless attacks on Tigray’s heritage. Deliberate attacks on heritage, such as bombing historical sites and looting ancient artifacts, are a form of cultural erasure and are recognized as war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Such attacks are attempts at eradicating the Tigrayan people and identity, and endeavors from the diaspora must be made to mitigate such cultural destruction. Culture nights and fashion shows, art displays, Tigray merchandise, Tigrigna classes, cooking channels, celebrating holidays, and attending academic conferences surrounding Tigray are examples of cultural preservation and strengthening the Tigrayan identity. Additionally, constructing healthy outlets such as soccer teams, basketball tournaments, women’s associations, and support groups promotes beneficial community-building opportunities. Supplying local communities with resources for civic engagement empowers Tigrayans to hold public institutions accountable for their responsibilities to their constituents.

There is a duty, especially in times of genocide, to uphold and preserve the Tigrayan identity and culture. Continue to engage, facilitate, and support each other. Get involved in your local community. Everyone has a skill, idea, or network that can contribute to the growth and development of Tigray in some way. Show up for the people of Tigray, who are tormented by the shadow of death each day. All resources must be utilized to save our families, friends, and  home. As an extension of your family, you are an extension of Tigray.

Tigrayans reserve the right to exist proudly and unapologetically and will continue to do so as they have throughout history.

Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, October 2022


Why is Tigray forgotten? A call for a journalism that cares

It is undeniable that the war on Tigray has been grossly underreported in global media and received less international attention than other conflicts and disasters. Since the start of the genocide in November 2020, Tigray has had to fight not only for the humanitarian aid it desperately needs but for the recognition of the brutal atrocities that have caused the need for the aid. 

Valuable energy from humanitarian international organizations has to be dedicated to spreading awareness about the genocidal war that has killed as many as 500,000 civilians and led millions more to be at risk of starvation. According to Amnesty International, sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls has been “a defining element of the conflict”, and “shocking in its scale and level of brutality”. Even throughout periods of purported “peace” over the past 22 months, the Ethiopian government has implemented a siege against the Tigrayan people, leaving millions without food, electricity, medicine, and external aid. While such crimes are being committed, a dearth of attention is paid to Tigray; this article will explore some of the possible explanations and propose a solution.

The first and most apparent reason is racism. World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhadom Ghebreyesus suggested recently that the reason Tigray is not getting the attention it desperately needs is due to the skin color of the people, following up on his comments from April 2022 questioning whether ‘black and white lives’ are given equal attention in emergencies worldwide. The war in Ukraine has been widely reported since its start, highlighting how much attention can be paid to other war-ravaged countries. The United Kingdom (UK), usually strict on immigration, proudly launched a refugee scheme with UK citizens being encouraged to welcome Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Early on in the reporting around Ukraine, many journalists and politicians being interviewed inadvertently exposed astonishingly racist attitudes. There is no doubt in Dr. Tedros’ claims, therefore.

Racist attitudes alone, however, cannot explain the deafening silence. Strikingly, perhaps the greatest global awareness at one time of one country’s plight was of famine in Ethiopia itself, particularly in Tigray. In 1985, approximately 1.9 billion viewers in 150 countries – nearly 40 percent of the world’s population – tuned in to watch a Live Aid concert in support of those suffering, after Michael Buerk’s 1984 BBC documentary had shocked the United Kingdom and inspired Bob Geldof. Today, in contrast, the average UK citizen is completely unaware of the situation in Tigray, though were such a documentary made now, it would be as horrifying or worse. It is not being made, however, so those who would care remain unaware.

But why is the world so unaware? Most significantly, there is an enforced blackout. Along with cutting off electricity, the Ethiopian government has shut down the internet and other telecommunication services in Tigray. Many in the Tigrayan diaspora have not heard from family members in months and have no way of knowing whether they are still alive. Direct action has also been taken against news outlets and journalists. In June 2022, 18 journalists were arrested in 10 days for disseminating ‘propaganda,’ with two facing potential death sentences; others have been expelled from the country or even killed. The Ethiopian Media Authority has also written letters to CNN, the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press, accusing them of “sowing seeds of animosity”, and threatening to revoke their licenses to operate in Ethiopia. 

The communication blackout means that it is difficult to verify and corroborate footage and information that does somehow make it out of the region. In an era of fake news, it is possible that news outlets are wary of being guilty of propagating false information, and rather than using disclaimers, choose not to publish the information at all. Recent footage of a kindergarten hit by an airstrike largely speaks for itself, and was widely reported as a result; in response, Ethiopian federal government officials claimed that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s elected regional party, was “dumping fake body bags in civilian areas in order to claim that the Air Force attacked civilians”.

Information emerging from Tigray will always be patchy due to the communication blackout and the siege on Tigray, but with such obvious atrocities as airstrikes on kindergartens and residential areas across the region, it is time to rethink neutrality in reporting on the conflict. Cautious language when not necessary affects the reader and adds a layer of separation. Here, a BBC ‘reality check’ feature cites the main reason for aid blockage as fighting on the roads, and quotes the Ethiopian government and the TPLF each denying responsibility. So, is Amnesty International misinformed in its campaign pleading with Abiy Ahmed to allow full humanitarian access into Tigray? A statement from the Tigray government in response to the kindergarten airstrike accused “some members of the international community” of “coddl[ing] this sadistic regime” in its ‘both sides’ approach. Arguably, certain news organizations are guilty of the same.

So what is the alternative? Journalist Martin Bell proposed a ‘journalism of attachment’, in contrast to impartial ‘bystander journalism’, which is inadequate in some scenarios: “I was not willing to be neutral between the armed and the unarmed, between the aggressor and the victim, so I devised what I call the ‘journalism of attachment’, which is not a partisan journalism, it’s not making arguments, it’s a journalism that cares as well as knows.” Such an approach is not immune to criticism, but a journalism that cares, even if it doesn’t know everything, is very much needed in this particular case. 

For example, journalists can recognise the atrocities conducted against the Tigrayan people as war crimes, and possibly genocide, without needing to argue in favour of the TPLF. It is a focus on the civilians first that is at the center of a journalism of attachment, and without press on the ground, more effort should be made in attempting to identify footage emerging from the region. As for the perpetrators, the point of war crimes is that they are never justified: if Abiy Ahmed endorses atrocities, such as starvation as a weapon, no context is required in order to condemn such actions. Undeniably, extreme technology blackouts, media suppression, and racist attitudes in Western governments and the international press have left Tigray in literal and metaphorical darkness. A new ‘journalism that cares’ needs to be practiced that prioritizes the Tigrayan people over abstract discussions. On top of this, Dr. Tedros’ words must not be forgotten, and Western media must recognise the worth of every life and express this in their reporting. If it can do this, it has the power to inspire citizens globally to care, and to put pressure on their governments to act.

Octavia Sheepshanks – Omna Tigray External Contributor, September 2022


How the African Union Failed Tigray

Creation of the African Union

On May 25, 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by 32 African nations. In 2002, the OAU evolved into the African Union (AU) with a more ambitious agenda of promoting peace and democracy on the continent. Relying on soft power, the member states normalized using diplomacy to avoid conflicts or resolve them. 

Ethiopia played a key role in creating the African Union, leading the organization’s headquarters to be established in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital – Addis Ababa. A generation later, Ethiopia is terrorizing its citizens, ethnic Tigrayans, while jeopardizing the institution’s founding principles and AU’s Agenda 2063 that seeks “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

The Genocidal War on Tigray 

On November 4, 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began his “law enforcement operation” by declaring war on Tigray.  Abiy claimed that the war would bring Tigrayan elected leaders under the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to justice, but it quickly became clear that Abiy’s mission was to destroy Tigray and its people through a state-sanctioned genocidal war conducted by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Eritrean army, Amhara Special Forces, Fano Militia, and other foreign forces.

Three weeks after waging war on Tigray, on November 22, 2020, the Ethiopian government warned Tigrayans that they would be shown “no mercy” if they did not distance themselves from Tigray’s elected leaders. Soon after that statement, the ENDF, Eritrean army, and Amhara militia joined forces to capture Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle, indiscriminately bombing civilians on their way to the capital. 

From the outset, this genocidal war has been an internationalized one, with foreign forces heavily involved, including Eritrean and Somali forces joining the war on Tigray from the onset, Tigrayan civilians fleeing to Sudan in the thousands.  The fighting has destabilized Ethiopia and the strategic Horn of Africa as a whole, yet the African Union remains incapable and unwilling to bring about any significant change. 

The Failure of Mediation 

A globally-renowned and funded institution of the African Union is the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). It is composed of five segments that collaboratively seek to resolve and manage conflicts: the Peace and Security Council, the Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System, the Standby Forces, and the Peace Fund. European Union (EU) members, Nordic countries, and the United States are among the most consistent donors to the APSA. With the current conflict in Ethiopia and the African Union’s neglect of the genocidal war on Tigray, the APSA’s performance has become questionable. 

Days after Abiy officially waged war on Tigray on November 4, 2022, the Government of Tigray pleaded to world leaders, including AU’s Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, to help Ethiopia find a  peaceful solution. About two weeks into the conflict, the African Union proposed sending a special envoy to mediate talks between the federal government and Tigray’s regional government.

Shortly after, they sent three former African heads of states to Addis Ababa to seek a peaceful resolution: Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former Liberian President, and Kgalema Motlanth, former President of South Africa.  However, their negotiation efforts proved ineffective, with Abiy unwilling to compromise to stop the genocidal war on Tigray. 

In fact, just a few days before the trio arrived in the capital, Abiy ordered “the final phase of rule of law enforcement operations,” which entirely rejected the mediation efforts and challenged the foundational principles of the African Union. 

Later in August 2021, the African Union reattempted its previously unsuccessful mediation efforts through another special envoy, the former Nigerian President, Olesegun Obasanjo. “There is no military solution to the conflict and battlefield victory cannot guarantee political stability in Ethiopia,” he said. “This will allow an opportunity for dialogue to continue to progress. Such talks cannot deliver in an environment of escalated military hostilities.” Similar to its previous attempts, the actions of the African Union remained entirely uninfluential, indicating how impotent the African Union is as an institution.

Interference: The AU’s Diplomatic Responsibility to Intervene in Tigray

Although Abiy has expressed his appreciation for AU envoys’ “elderly concern,” he has resisted international mediation by labeling it as “interference” in domestic matters. Abiy knew he could rely on article 4(g) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which specifies “non-interference by any member state in the internal affairs of another.” 

However, there has been a clear path for AU intervention through Article 4(h), which gives the African Union the right “to intervene in a member state, in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes and genocide,” both of which have been proven to be present in the Tigray conflict by credible sources, despite the lack of an official genocide designation. The United Nations, foreign diplomats, international journalists, and international humanitarian organizations around the world have confirmed war crimes and acts amounting to genocide being committed in Tigray since the war began. Genocide Watch has placed Ethiopia at Stage 9 of Genocide.

In a UN Security Council meeting in November 2021, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo,  stated: “In a country of over 110 million people, over 90 different ethnic groups and 80 languages, no one can predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring.”

This statement highlights the importance of meaningful action from those considered both capable and responsible for intervening and stopping the conflict, namely the African Union in this case, in maintaining peace throughout the country. If action is not taken, conflict, instability, and insecurity will spread more than it already has.  

Why Hasn’t the African Union Done More?

Because Ethiopia hosts the AU headquarters, it has had an outsized influence on the day-to-day affairs of the institution. Other African countries have long suspected that Ethiopia does not hold itself to the principles and mission of the African Union. As a senior AU diplomat remarked, “Abiy thinks that the [African Union] is for others, not for Ethiopia.” 

The Ethiopian government has even purged Tigrayan officers from the AU and UN peacekeeping missions and demanded the AU Commission dismiss its Tigrayan head of security soon after the war on Tigray began–all without any kind of justified reproach. 

The dire situation, aside from reflecting the egocentric and discriminative values of the Ethiopian regime, also serves as a reflection of the African Union’s overall involvement and performance with regards to the conflict. The recognition and blatant acceptance of Ethiopia’s rejection of mediation makes a mockery of the AU’s principles of peacemaking.

Because of its lack of influence, the African Union has gone as far as asking foreign nations for assistance on the matter. In the previously mentioned UN Security Council meeting that took place in November 2021, the AU’s special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo asked the council to “press the Federal Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to engage in political dialogue without preconditions and to call for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, as well as a cessation of hostilities.” He also added that the world needs to support the “African Union-led peacemaking efforts.” Although Obasanjo expressed concern and his will to voice it is understandable, it also serves as proof of the power imbalance between the African Union and the Abiy-led government.

The African Union’s continued attempt to mediate for the past two years should not be discredited, but it is not sufficient in the face of an active genocide. The institution does not appear to be reacting to a war that has caused chaos in the Horn of Africa and destabilized the country. The lack of urgency to respond to one of the deadliest conflicts in the region has only undermined the role of the institution. 

With ineffective efforts to stop the genocidal war, the African Union has failed Tigray.  The institution remains unqualified to bring about any significant change as the severe atrocities continue to escalate, with the complete siege of Tigray and occupation of Western and parts of northern Tigray by Amhara and Eritrean forces. Instead of adhering to the principles of its foundation, the organization has become a place where leaders like Abiy can use their charm and regional influence to commit unimaginable crimes on African lives.

Luna – Omna Tigray Contributor, April 2022


Africa in the Back Seat: The Tigray Genocide

The United States and the West have rallied behind Ukraine. The U.S. pledged to resettle 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, while millions of other refugees from Ukraine are welcomed with open arms across Europe; and not too long ago, the U.S. pledged 50 billion dollars to support the Ukrainian war efforts. Such a pledge is beyond a good gesture, but one which to the rest of the world seems blatantly hypocritical, as there are wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocide occurring in less geopolitically important areas, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost. An example of such a dire crisis is the genocidal war on Tigray, taking place in the northernmost region of Ethiopia.

A fraction of the attention and support provided to Ukraine would make a world of difference to Tigrayans forcibly displaced and those living under siege and occupation during a genocide. African lives, however, simply do not matter. 

An Overview of the Genocide on Tigray – Living Hell for Tigrayans

In November of 2020, after the Tigray war started, the Ethiopian government unleashed countless atrocities in a full-fledged invasion with the help of the Eritrean government and military aid from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Invading forces were indiscriminate in committing their heinous crimes–as the young, elderly, women, and men became subjected to atrocities amounting to acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide overnight. 

The Ethiopian government declared to the world that the mission was a “law and order operation” and that it would not take more than three weeks to take down the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). However, in the first month, more than two million civilians were internally displaced and over 65,000 civilians fled to the neighboring nation Sudan wearing only the clothes they had on. No city, town or village was spared from the fighter planes and drone bombardments. Fire rained day and night. Mass executions were a common practice among invading forces. Soldiers recorded civilian executions and the desecration of their bodies–horrific events that received some coverage in Western media.

These massacres of innocent civilians were made a spectacle by firing, not just one bullet, but rounds using machine guns usually reserved for combatants. People across Tigray would randomly get searched, and if their phone had a picture of TPLF leaders or the Tigray flag, then they would be executed on the spot. A curfew was instituted in all the cities and anyone who was seen walking outside after 6:00pm would be shot without hesitation. Not even ambulances were allowed to operate after 6:00pm. Life under genocidal occupation was a living nightmare. 

Who could forget the Axum massacre? Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers went door to door and street by street to kill. They killed close to a thousand innocent civilians in a single day. Eritrean soldiers were particularly brutal. They soon took over the big cities, and were merciless throughout the ensuing months. Young girls were preyed upon. Eritrean soldiers raped young girls forcing their parents to bear witness. Many of these young girls were also taken to military camps and raped and tortured for days without any food or water. Tigrayans lamented that these men had no fear of God. They killed people inside church compounds, and they even fired shots at churches to disrespect the houses of God.

I can count five people from my neighborhood who were killed. If I can count five people, God knows how many others were murdered. My neighbor and family friend was killed along with his son and his sister outside a church of St. Mary where he came to pay homage. It is hard to imagine how human beings can be this cruel. 

Since the invasion took place with a deliberate plan to cut Tigrayans’ communication with the rest of the world, it is difficult for the international community to grasp the magnitude of the horror and for foreign media to report the atrocities. 

Eritreans soldiers stole anything valuable; they spared no house or family. They pillaged cities and towns. They looted jewelry, money, medicine, cars and even cattle. They were so cruel and spiteful that they destroyed whatever they could not carry. They looted factories and many were burned to the ground. While rape and hunger were used as a weapon of war, 85 percent of infrastructures and health facilities were destroyed in just a few months. Aid workers were killed and their medical supplies taken to Eritrea. 

Upon being forced out of most parts of Tigray in June 2021, the Ethiopian government adjusted its strategy to successfully commit genocide. It shifted from invasion, genocidal war, brutal occupation and siege to a complete siege in which telecommunications, banking services, and electricity remained shut off and humanitarian aid was prohibited from entering the region. The Ethiopian government and its allies are effectively constricting a whole region.

Hence, the siege is a key part of the campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide with the goal of eliminating an entire population, including by using hunger as a weapon. We now have close to 7 million people in immediate danger of dying from hunger and disease. At least thousands have already lost their lives to starvation. 

Currently, the Tigray region is completely surrounded by the Federal government’s army, Eritreans troops, Amhara and Afar region special forces, effectively preventing any food aid and medicine from being supplied to the Tigray region. The blockade and depriving innocent civilians of life-sustaining supplies is part of the coordinated efforts of all belligerents to facilitate the extinction of Tigrayan people.

The humanitarian blockade has sewn the fate of an already destroyed healthcare system. The effects of the siege are felt most by the vulnerable, children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those suffering from chronic illnesses. People living with HIV/AIDs, type I diabetes, tuberculosis, and cancer are left to die.

Complicit in Genocide

The world is simply watching this strangulation of a people already scarred by the countless atrocities unleashed on them. The world is watching idly as genocide is taking place, while certain global powers have facilitated the extermination of 7 million people. The international community will not be able to fall back on ignorance or plead not guilty. 

Genocide is happening and they know it. Most recently, in June 2022, the former chief of the World Food Programme stated a famine declaration in Tigray was obstructed by the Ethiopian government, despite there being ample evidence of it. But there is an argument to be made that world powers have known all along. The blood of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans is as much on their hands as it is on those that actually swung the machete, slit the throats, shot the machine gun, or even lit the fire and burnt Tigrayans alive. 

The level of cruelty Tigrayans are subjected to is difficult to process. What is even harder to comprehend is the level of cruelty and inhumanity the international community is willing to ignore, as long as it suits their interest. 

Case in point are the words and actions of the Amhara militias and Fano. Nowadays words such as “burn them alive,” “cook them and we will be blessed,”  and “make their death particularly agonizing and show them no mercy,” are the trending slogans across Ethiopia. There has never been anyone in the history of Ethiopia who fantasized about cooking and eating human flesh. Yet, here we are in the 21st century. Forces and militias allied to the Ethiopian government burning Tigrayans alive and stoning them to death.  

So why is the Western world so reluctant to call this a genocide, when they called the Russian-committed atrocities in Ukraine genocide after just a month of the invasion? Simply put, it is all a geopolitical game in which the lives of millions of Tigrayans are just collateral damage. NATO members themselves are actively involved in the atrocities committed against Tigray, as they kept a loose leash on their members who provided weapons and military assistance to the Ethiopian government.

Tigrayans will always remember that the Turkish government, a NATO member, aided and abetted the genocidal government of Ethiopia. The involvement of the UAE in the genocidal war on Tigray is also one that is for the books. The United States and the UAE collectively work towards a common goal of establishing stability and security in the Middle East. Sadly, the UAE is not as concerned about stability and security in the Horn of Africa, as it has taken an active role in providing financial and military assistance to the Ethiopian government in the past two years. As strong economic and security allies to several Western countries, Turkey and the UAE have thus far avoided strong international condemnation for their acts during the war on Tigray.

War crimes and crimes against humanity are not new concepts to the international community, but getting international attention and interventions appears to only apply to countries with the right merit. How the world has reacted towards the war on Ukraine is a true demonstration of the injustice and hypocrisy behind international politics. 

When Russia waged war on Ukraine, the world immediately rallied behind Ukraine. Countries openly welcomed Ukrainian refugees and provided different forms of aid to help Ukrainians manage the humanitarian crisis that unfolded. There is no shortage of media coverage of the war in Ukraine, with reporting that was different from how the international media covered other conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa. Ukrainian refugees were described as refugees usually are, at least when they are from countries in the Middle East and Africa. They were described as Europeans with blue eyes and blond hair that did not deserve what was happening to them. Meanwhile, the genocidal war in Tigray has continued for over 19 months. The Tigray state president has already announced that 350,000 Tigrayans are unaccounted for, 2 million internally displaced, and over 70,000 are refugees in the neighboring nation Sudan. Unfortunately, the leaders of international community are yet to decide whether genocide is being committed or not.  

While the United States pledged to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, thousands of refugees who fled from Tigray to Sudan are stuck in precarious conditions; their daily existence is at the mercy of the rainy season. 

Just in May of 2021, a severe storm was responsible for the destruction of 200 tents in Al-Tenideba, a Sudanese camp holding 40,000 refugees from Tigray. Since the camp is built on “black cotton” soil, people are forced to sleep on wet, sticky, and muddy grounds. International media, the UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières have reported such wretched conditions. Many doctors have reported on serious medical problems at these camps, such as communicable disease and malnutrition-related complications. 


We praise the international community for standing against Russia, standing by Ukrainians, creating international coalitions to help. We want to believe that this is for the right reason, not because they are Europeans, or white, with blond hair and blue eyes. We want to believe that NATO’s involvement is to support freedom and freewill or perhaps NATO’s ambition to expand its territories. 

For many people from third world countries, the truth is far from that reality, especially knowing that we fail to give equal attention to human catastrophes. As an African, I want to support Ukrainians; their lives matter, but so do the lives of Tigrayans. Only time will tell if things will change, but time is not what Tigrayans have right now as a new war is around the corner once again. With every minute passing, the odds of saving one Tigrayan becomes slimmer. I am afraid it is déjà vu, just how we failed Rwanda; perhaps the worst is yet to come. 

The world must stand with Tigray, as much as it has stood with Ukraine.

Zanta Tigray – Omna Tigray External Contributor, July 2022

Navigating Menstruation as a Displaced Person during the Genocidal War on Tigray

Although women and girls make up about 50% of the world’s refugee population, they face disproportionate levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), discrimination, oppression, and trauma in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps. These threats exist due to customs favorable to the patriarchal structure in the camps. Unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, infections, and sexual exploitation are among the many burdens carried by Tigrayan women and girl refugees in Sudan, who have fled a genocide that has been ongoing since November 2020.

This vulnerable population faced extreme trauma escaping the genocide, only to be met with harsh conditions in underserved refugee camps. Lack of food and medicine and a need for cash have led to sexually exploitative relationships in exchange for basic necessities — a new and now common practice since the start of the genocidal war. “It was mentioned very clearly [by women engaging in survival sex] that this is the only way for them to get food and their needs,” said Abeer Abdulsalam, head of the gender-based violence unit at the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sudan.

One often overlooked burden women and girls at displacement camps carry is menstruation. Many women and girls fleeing the Tigray genocide are of menstruating age, which can have heavy financial, social, and health costs.

“In a normal setting, women and girls suffer from inequality, violence, and face many other challenges. Just think of women crossing the border pregnant or a girl having her period with only the clothes they are wearing … in a camp with minimum privacy, dignity, and security.” — Massimo Diana, UNFPA representative in Sudan.

“The first day I arrived in this camp, I began menstruating,” one 26-year-old Tigrayan refugee told UNFPA. “One day, I stayed wearing stained, bloody clothes. Then I sold my only valuable – my Android phone – to buy underwear, cotton and soap to deal with menstruation.”

Refugees and IDPs living in camps have limited access to clean water and hygiene products, sometimes leading menstruating women and girls to use unhygienic alternatives like sharing products or reusing disposable products. These practices can increase the likelihood of infections and the spread of disease within the camps. A Global One study found that the majority of girls and women in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon do not have access to clean underwear, and often resort to using old rags and pieces of moss mattresses while on their periods. A 2019 survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that, on average, only 55% of women’s menstrual needs were met with adequate hygiene products and only 37% for underwear.

“I have no income, nothing. Most of the days, I struggle with meeting the most basic needs of my children, like daily food. When you don’t have the means to change clothes or you don’t have money to even buy soap, something as natural as one’s menstrual period becomes a real challenge,” says a young mother of two children who stays at one of the IDP camps in Mekelle, Tigray.

Additionally, due to the pandemic, more than 70% of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) professionals have noted that the distribution of supplies to many refugee and IDP camps has been blocked and impeded. Along with greater risks of infections, the lack of menstrual hygiene management materials and support could lead to discomfort and negative coping habits that potentially impact the well-being of refugees. Some women and girls go to extreme measures to hide their periods, sometimes by burying their pads and tampons multiple feet underground in a secluded location, leaving them vulnerable to attacks, kidnappings, and sexual violence. Some pads are disposed of in the toilet, causing desludging issues in camps where the restroom facilities are already substandard. 

Furthermore, without sanitary products, women and girls are unable to freely move or stand in line for basic necessities such as food and water. Waits for toilets, especially in overcrowded camps, are often lengthy, adding stress during menstruation while trying to prevent a leak or accident in line. Toilets are usually not separated by gender at these camps, leaving women and girls vulnerable to SGBV and invasions of privacy.

One 14-year-old girl named Worke, displaced due to the Tigray genocide, told Plan International that she and her friends have had humiliating experiences related to their periods at the camp. “If a menstruating girl sits on a bench and leaves a blood mark on it, no one will sit on it again.” 

Stigmas and embarrassment surrounding menstruation only increase its already-heavy burden on displaced women and girls. These stigmas can cause further harm, preventing women and girls from seeking help or assistance from aid agencies.

Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says, “In the context where conditions are already so challenging, and the conditions are so poor, it is just magnified when a woman or girl is faced with having her period.”

Unfortunately, because the majority of decision-makers are men, menstruation in camps for displaced people is not prioritized. However, it is a dire issue that can pose a detrimental health and socio-psychological burden to women and girls around the world. Those working with displaced populations should focus on increasing resources and breaking stigmas surrounding menstruation.
Some Tigrayan refugees were able to receive dignity kits, which include new sanitary products: “I am grateful. I am learning how to protect myself and my children while being displaced. I am learning that I have rights and I have a voice. Thanks to the dignity kits of UNFPA, women and girls will not have to hide in their rooms every time they have their periods. We can live freely and healthily.”

Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2022


Op-Ed: A Telecommunications Blackout Amid Genocide: 21st Century’s Worst Crisis

A few days ago, I woke up and checked my phone as I always do. There was a hundredth BBC headline about the war in Ukraine across my screen – with reports coming directly from the ground in Ukraine. My first thought was if only international news reporters or local journalists in Tigray were able to broadcast the atrocities and news from the war front uninhibited. My second thought was even if such reporting were possible, the world probably would not give it the attention it deserves. 

On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government, with support from Ethiopia’s Amhara regional government and the Eritrean government, waged a genocidal war on Tigray. As military forces encircled Tigray, the Ethiopian government preemptively cut off telecommunication and internet services. Since the night of November 3rd, connectivity in Tigray has been sporadic and intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst. Most of Tigray has remained silenced for over a year. 

Amid this telecommunications and internet blackout, the total destruction of Tigray and Tigrayans has ensued. Atrocities committed range from mass forced displacement, weaponized sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, looting and destruction of private property, deliberate destruction of essential public infrastructure, targeting of Tigray’s health system, agricultural destruction, and massacres, to a man-made famine and ethnic cleansing.

This blackout has been supplemented by the Ethiopian government prohibiting international journalists from reporting from the region and harassing, detaining, and torturing local journalists, infringing on freedom of press. This reality means that information flow out of Tigray has been a slow trickle.

Yet, these challenges notwithstanding, the reports of atrocities amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide have emerged out of Tigray these last 19 months. They did so through first-hand accounts from Tigrayan refugees in Sudan fleeing from persecution; accounts that were first reported by journalists, then documented in reports from human rights organizations. These reports have been corroborated by videos of atrocities recorded by the perpetrators themselves and posted to social media, and by accounts from former members of the Abiy Administration, such as Filsan Ahmed. What we know is simply the tip of the iceberg. The communications blackout and the Ethiopian government’s attack on freedom of press and journalists amid ethnic cleansing and genocide make the crisis in Tigray the worst of its kind in the 21st century. 

To conduct the genocidal war on Tigray unconstrained by domestic and international law, the Abiy administration leveraged its control of Ethiopia’s telecommunication infrastructure to control information and the war narrative, while ensuring the atrocities committed in Tigray do not make the light of day. If the Ethiopian government had nothing to hide, it would restore communication and internet services in Tigray. It would also facilitate independent investigations into the atrocities committed in Ethiopia. Yet, as it stands today, Tigray is as isolated as ever, severed from the rest of the world.

This crisis is characterized by an extreme lack of humanitarian access and aid, and the telecommunications blackout has played a key role in the man-made production of the humanitarian disaster in Tigray. The blockade of internet and telephone services greatly inhibits humanitarian operations that would serve millions in dire need. Adding insult to injury, the Tigrayan diaspora has not been able to reach their families in Tigray in months and, for some, since the genocidal war began. They do not know if their family members are dead or alive. They wake up to missed calls fearing they may have missed their last opportunity to talk to their family members. 

Despite the challenges the telecommunications blackout has imposed on Tigray, including communicating the horrific events taking place in the region, the international community knows enough to recognize how dire the situation is. The limited information available indicates the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where an estimated half a million Tigrayan lives have been lost in under 500 days. Yet, unlike other conflicts and humanitarian crises in the 21st century that receive a certain level of coverage on social media, by international news agencies, and from humanitarian organizations, Tigray is mostly left out of the conversation. We see this especially when Black lives, African lives, are the ones being lost. As the Director-General of the World Health Organization has pointed out, “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way. Some are more equal than others.”  

While the Ethiopian government declared a “humanitarian truce” on March 24, 2022, over two months later, Tigray widely remains without banking access, electricity, clean water, food, and telecommunication and internet services. As of the writing of this article, the worst humanitarian crisis of its time continues unabated without the coverage and response it so evidently deserves.

SCS – Omna Tigray Contributor, May 2022