Crimes Against Humanity in Tigray: Unveiling Atrocities and Pursuing Accountability

The genocidal  war on Tigray, declared on November 4, 2020, has revealed the grim reality of the worst forms of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and human rights violations. This article seeks to discuss the atrocities committed, the actors involved, and the need for international justice mechanisms–specifically the United Nations-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). Beyond the Ethiopian context, the renewal of the ICHREE mandate is an opportunity for the international community to uphold shared moral and legal values concerning war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, and international justice and accountability.     

Defining War Crimes

War crimes refer to acts committed during armed conflict that violate established humanitarian norms and principles. These crimes encompass a range of actions, including deliberate targeting of civilians or civilian objects, torture, rape, forced displacement, and the use of prohibited weapons. The gravity of war crimes is reflected in their classification as a prosecutable offence under international criminal law. Numerous legal instruments have been developed to address war crimes, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Defining Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity refer to a category of offences that are universally condemned and deemed as the most severe violations of human rights. These heinous acts, committed either in times of peace or armed conflict, encompass a range of actions such as murder, torture, enslavement, persecution, and enforced disappearances. What sets crimes against humanity apart from other crimes is their systematic nature and scale, often targeting a specific civilian population based on their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or social status. Perpetrators exhibit an alarming disregard for human life and dignity while inflicting widespread suffering on a massive scale. The gravity of these crimes necessitated the establishment of legal mechanisms to hold individuals accountable for such acts; the earliest recognition came with the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Today, international courts like the International Criminal Court strive to prosecute those responsible for these horrific acts, aiming to achieve justice for victims and deter future perpetrators.

Defining Genocide

The United Nations Genocide Convention, adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1948, represents a landmark in international human rights law. It defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by killing its members; causing serious bodily or mental harm; imposing measures to prevent births; forcibly transferring children from the group; or deliberately inflicting conditions that will lead to their physical destruction. 

The Convention not only provides a legal framework for states to prevent and punish genocide but also obliges them to take necessary measures to protect individuals and communities at risk. Since its adoption, it has been ratified by over 150 countries and has played a critical role in raising awareness about the gravity of such crimes against humanity. 

The International Commission of Human Rights on Ethiopia (ICHREE)

As a mechanism to investigate reported atrocity crimes, determine the types of crimes committed, and lay the groundwork for justice and accountability for crimes committed in Ethiopia, an international and independent probe, ICHREE, was established at a special session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in December 2021. ICHREE, based in Entebbe, Uganda and led by a Chair and two other high-level experts appointed by the HRC President, was given the task of conducting a thorough and impartial investigation into human rights violations that have occurred in Ethiopia since November 3, 2020. This investigation has looked into violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international refugee law, with a focus on any potential gender-related aspects of these violations. The Commission’s goal has been to establish the facts and circumstances of these abuses, collect and preserve evidence, identify those responsible, and make this information accessible for accountability efforts.

Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes in Tigray

The ongoing war on Tigray has witnessed numerous atrocity crimes deemed war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the civilian population by human rights groups and ICHREE. Reports from multiple sources indicate that these crimes include extrajudicial killings, widespread sexual violence, forced displacement, and targeted attacks. The Ethiopian government’s military intervention, followed by a complete siege and de facto humanitarian blockade, has resulted in a dire humanitarian situation with severe food shortages and lack of access to medical care for the affected population. Moreover, there has been widespread systematic looting and destruction of infrastructure by both state security forces and armed militias

Crimes against humanity and war crimes in Tigray have resulted in the deliberate destruction of infrastructure and cultural heritage sites. Important facilities like hospitals, schools, markets, and religious institutions have been targeted, causing a loss of vital services and erasing the local cultural identity. Over 80% of healthcare facilities and over 99% of ambulances have been looted, vandalised, or destroyed, worsening the already dire humanitarian conditions. Additionally, 75% of state and private universities have been destroyed, and numerous sacred and religious institutions have been desecrated. 

Despite numerous obstructions to their work, in both their first report and second report, ICHREE was able to establish that the Federal Government and its allied regional forces and militias committed crimes amounting to crimes against humanity given systematic and widespread nature of the atrocity crimes committed. The crimes against humanity committed described by the Commission include mass killings, sexual violence, starvation, inhumane acts, severe deprivation of liberty, and prosecution in the form of mass detention and torture. Further, in their 2023 report, ICHREE made sure to highlight ongoing crimes and the risk for future atrocities. 

Mass Killings and Ethnic Targeting

The Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Amhara Forces, and Eritrean Defense Forces have been implicated in mass killings and targeted violence against the Tigrayan people. The investigation identified multiple incidents of mass killings in different areas, specifically targeting Tigrayan civilian males. These crimes occurred during a siege where essential services and supplies were intentionally disrupted. Additionally, the Ethiopian government restricted humanitarian access, exacerbating the crisis and limiting medical assistance for survivors. 

The report further emphasises that the war on Tigray saw deliberate disruption of essential services by Ethiopian and Eritrean defence forces, including looting, pillaging, and destruction of civilian property. Humanitarian access was restricted, leaving survivors with limited access to medical and psychological support. Tigrayans faced arbitrary arrests and detentions, expulsion from certain areas, and were held in detention camps where they experienced poor conditions and violence. The government’s use of derogatory language and anti-TPLF narratives also contributed to discrimination and hostility against the Tigrayan population, spreading through social media. 

Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Crimes

ICHREE’s second report identifies crimes against humanity in Tigray involving the use of violence and gender-based crimes as tools of warfare. Women and girls have been subjected to sexual slavery, physical abuse, and other forms of violence. Multiple armed groups have been responsible for these acts, often collaborating with each other. Tigrayan women, predominantly those of reproductive age, have been targeted during home invasions and while searching for necessities. Survivors of these atrocities range in age, including pregnant women, and have experienced assaults in front of their children or family members. Further, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights have documented these crimes against humanity, highlighting their gender-based nature and severe impact on the Tigrayan community.

Violence against women during armed conflict is considered a serious violation of international human rights law. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols condemn such violence, categorizing them as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. International human rights instruments are supposed to protect women and girls from violence during armed conflict, and states have an obligation to provide appropriate treatment for survivors. Individual acts of violence can be prosecuted as criminal acts, and if they are part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians, they can be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Commanders and superiors can also be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates through the concept of command responsibility. Perpetrators of violence against women and girls in armed conflict should be held accountable.

Establishing Genocidal Intent

Examining the legal framework, specifically the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, we could ascertain if the atrocities in Tigray meet the criteria for genocide. The United Nations’ Genocide Convention serves as a powerful tool for promoting global unity against acts of genocide and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Factors such as targeted killings, acts aimed at preventing births, severe mental or physical harm, and forcibly transferring children support the argument that genocide is taking place in Tigray Language accompanying atrocity crimes committed, especially presented as justification for sexual violence, speaks to intent, as does hate speech and language employed by Ethiopian federal and regional government officials. 

The investigations the Commision has been able to conduct only cover a fractions of the crimes committed in Tigray and therefore cannot portray the multi-faceted attack that was unleashed on the  people of Tigray. Among the facets yet to be investigated is the cultural and societal destruction, which are against international law based on the 1954 Hague Convention and  Geneva Convention.  Extending ICHREE’s mandate with the necessary resources would allow for the extent and scale of crimes committed in Tigray to be properly further investigated so as to have a more complete picture and more comprehensively establish the facts of the war on Tigray. 

Challenges in Implementing Transitional Justice in Tigray

The application of the Ethiopian government’s plan for transitional justice in Tigray would face significant challenges. The involvement of the Ethiopian government, whose genocidal leadership remains in power, and international actors in the war on Tigray necessitate an international justice mechanism. A domestic transitional justice process would not have the jurisdiction to hold international belligerents and perpetrators, mainly Eritrean forces, to account for crimes committed. Further, ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes obstructs evidence collection, truth-seeking, and holding perpetrators accountable. Limited resources and political polarisation hinder the implementation of comprehensive transitional justice. The lack of a legal framework and institutional capacity further complicates the process. Further, continued crimes and resistance to a victim-centred approach to justice and accountability from the Ethiopian government perpetuates impunity and erodes trust in the state. 

Without accountability for perpetrators, victims and their families are discouraged from participating in  processes. When individuals face harm or injustice, it is crucial that they have confidence that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions. Without this assurance, victims may feel helpless and unable to trust the legal system. The lack of accountability can also perpetuate a cycle of violence or wrongdoing, as potential wrongdoers observe the absence of consequences and continue their harmful behavior. In turn, this discourages victims and their families from coming forward or reporting crimes, causing a decline in public safety overall. Accountability establishes faith in the justice system and serves as a powerful deterrent against future crimes by sending a clear message that misconduct will not go unpunished. Ultimately, without accountability, victims and their families are left feeling unsupported and marginalized, compounding their trauma while undermining societal stability and equal access to justice.

Need for International Justice

Rather, what could be labeled an ongoing silent genocide in Tigray stands as a harrowing testament to the urgency for international justice and accountability in the face of grave human rights violations and atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. Crimes that could amount to genocide  demand the attention of the international community to ensure justice for the victims and prevent further human rights abuses. 

Ensuring accountability for those responsible for the war on Tigray is a vital step toward healing and fostering future peace. Establishing a credible and impartial investigative and accountability mechanism would guarantee that those responsible for the atrocities face justice. Such a mechanism should be empowered to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals involved in heinous crimes, irrespective of their positions or affiliations. This approach would send a clear message that impunity for gross human rights abuses will not be tolerated and definitely necessitates international justice.

The lack of accountability for atrocities committed during the war on Tigray poses a severe threat to global human rights and security. Impunity not only emboldens perpetrators to continue committing crimes but also erodes faith in the international justice system. By actively seeking justice for the victims, the international community can send a strong message that such acts will be met with swift and decisive action. Robust international accountability further acts as a deterrent against future human rights abuses by discouraging potential perpetrators.

The ongoing gross human rights violations require the international community to fulfil its legal and moral obligations. States are bound by international human rights treaties and conventions, ensuring the protection of individuals from egregious violations. In cases such as the war on Tigray, where the local judicial system lacks capacity and political will, international intervention becomes indispensable. Upholding international obligations by intervening and establishing justice mechanisms demonstrates a commitment to the principles of justice and human rights.

International justice mechanisms play a vital role in facilitating reconciliation processes in post-conflict societies. In the aftermath of the war on Tigray, fostering reconciliation is crucial to repairing fractured relationships and rebuilding trust. The pursuit of international justice can contribute to establishing the truth, acknowledging victims’ suffering, and fostering dialogue between communities. The myriad reasons driving the pursuit of international justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity underscore the significance of this endeavour. From uplifting and healing victims to deterring future violations and promoting global peace and reconciliation, international justice serves as the foundation upon which societies can address the egregious actions committed during times of armed conflict. By seeking international justice for Tigray and elsewhere where similar violations of international law take place, we strive towards a world characterised by accountability, respect for international humanitarian law, and a resolute dedication to moral and legal principles. For this reason, the UNHRC must extend the mandate of ICHREE. The extension of the mandate of ICHREE is indispensable to ensure accountability and international justice for the gross violations of human rights including war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray.

Batseba Seifu – Omna Tigray External Contributor, October 2023

 

Justice for Zewdu, Protection for Semhal

Zewdu Haftu, a promising young woman of 32 years of age, was brutally attacked by unidentified assailants on a bustling street at 6 p.m. on August 19, 2023, in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. The attack, involving a vehicle without plates, led to her untimely and gruesome death. Zewdu, known for her kind heart and friendly disposition, was a beloved member of her community in Mekelle. Her sudden and shocking death has left her family and friends stunned, questioning how such a terrible act could happen to someone as genuine and well-liked as Zewdu.

Semhal Gebregziabiher, her friend who was walking with her at the time, witnessed Zewdu’s brutal murder. Semhal pleaded with people passing by to help find an ambulance to transport her friend to Ayder Hospital, ultimately succeeding. When the police came to Ayder Hospital, they took Semhal’s testimony and told her she would need to go to the police station to sign paperwork. Instead, the police arrested her immediately upon arrival. Not long after, Semhal had to be rushed to the hospital to get medical assistance for the physical and mental trauma she was experiencing because of the tragic incident. She was admitted to Ayder Hospital, where she received in-patient medical treatment while still in police custody for weeks. Semhal was diagnosed with physical illnesses and mental conditions resulting from the traumatic incident. Yet, on August 30, the police abruptly removed Semhal from the hospital and took her back to the police station without consulting the hospital or her doctors.      

Semhal, who had been in police custody for the past two weeks since the incident on August 19, finally made her first court appearance on September 1, 2023. Despite Semhal’s lawyer visiting her in jail and discussing the case with the investigative officers earlier that morning, she was abruptly taken to court without legal representation immediately after her lawyer left. Presenting their case in court, the police falsely claimed that Semhal was only brought to the station two days prior to her appearance in court, disregarding her previous multiple interrogations while she was in their custody and receiving medical care at Ayder Hospital. They insisted on the judge granting them a standard two-week interrogation period. With her lawyer absent from court, the judge granted the police an additional seven days for further investigations, and the court session was adjourned. 

In her second court appearance, on Friday, September 8, 2023, the judge granted the police the authority to detain Semhal for 17 days, surpassing the maximum allowable period of 14 days in a flagrant disregard for norms and court proceedings. 

Where is our moral and justice status?

The impact of these tragedies on our community cannot be understated. It raises concerns about our collective sense of morality and justice. 

First, it is truly disheartening to witness these perpetrators’ utter disregard for human life, as they callously subjected Zewdu to such a cruel and fatal act. It is absolutely appalling to realize that this heinous act occurred in broad daylight. Moreover, three weeks have passed without any word from our officials, highlighting a shocking lack of concern and speaking volumes about the state of our justice system and the urgent need for reform. The lack of accountability and the failure to address this tragedy in a timely manner only further erode our faith in the very institutions that are meant to protect us.

This deplorable incident serves as a stark reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink. The brazenness with which these men carried out their malicious acts is nothing short of horrifying. It is a chilling testament to the disregard for human life that exists, and it is a call to action for our society as a whole. In a world where justice should prevail, it is simply unacceptable that those responsible for such a heinous crime have not been swiftly brought to justice. 

Second, authorities holding Semhal in violation of her legal and human rights highlights a significant failure in our justice system. The judge granting the police the authority to detain Semhal for 17 days violates Article 59(1) of the criminal procedure code by exceeding the maximum allowable period of remand of 14 days. This means that Semhal will be unjustly held in police custody for over a month, from August 19th until September 26th, without authorities presenting credible evidence or legitimate grounds for her detainment. She was also denied her right to visitation and medical treatment.

It is essential to remember that every individual has the right to a fair trial and due process regardless of their situation. Denying someone these rights is not only unjust but also a violation of the principles of human rights and the rule of law. This begs the question: why is Semhal being held without the necessary legal procedures? Is it a case of abuse of power? The blatant disregard for Semhal’s rights and the deliberate attempt to deny her legal representation is also deeply concerning. The authorities must be held accountable for their actions, and justice must prevail.     

In recounting the events leading to and following the death of Zewdu, it becomes evident that this is not just an isolated incident or an individual tragedy. Rather, Zewdu and Semhal represent countless women in Tigray who face similar circumstances. Their story compels us to confront the uncomfortable truth about a multitude of harrowing injustices taking place in Tigray. 

Finally, the fact that these men dragged Zewdu behind their vehicle, which conspicuously did not have plates, demonstrates the current state of lawlessness in Tigray. There are reports of individuals bribing to drive without a car plate for status. This audacious act undermines the very foundation of the legal system, perpetuating a culture where those with money, connections, and power believe they are above the law. This flagrant violation serves as a stark reminder of the critical role a robust legal system plays in upholding societal order and safeguarding the well-being of its citizens. It is imperative that the authorities swiftly and decisively take action against individuals who exhibit such perilous behavior to deter others from contemplating engaging in similar acts of recklessness and lawlessness. 

In conclusion, we must demand answers, action, and justice for Zewdu and countless survivors of gender-based violence in Tigray and ensure there is due process for Semhal and consequences for any wrongdoing in her questioning and arrest. This matter cannot be swept under the rug or forgotten. It is a matter that demands our unwavering attention and a resolute commitment to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable for their despicable actions. Let us not allow this tragedy to fade into the background, overshadowed by the noise of everyday life. Let us stand together, united in our pursuit of justice, and let our voices be heard.

As deeply concerned community members, I strongly implore our broader community and authorities to persist in their efforts to investigate, locate, and apprehend the perpetrator or perpetrators. We must all demand justice for Zewdu’s untimely demise, urging authorities to efficiently conduct a thorough investigation into this heartbreaking incident. We must also urge any witnesses to step forward and provide crucial information, ensuring that justice is served. Her family and friends, mourning the loss of a young life robbed of its potential by heinous assailants, need justice for closure. However, justice can only be served if proper procedures are followed, chief among them being the right to due process; hence, I also demand for the protection of Semhal’s legal and human rights. We cannot rest until justice is served and until the memory of Zewdu is honored by a society that refuses to tolerate such callous acts of violence.

Omna Tigray External Contributor, September 2023

 

Addressing Food Aid Theft: Exploring Effective Solutions

On August 18, 2023, BBC News reported that at least 1,400 individuals had tragically perished due to starvation in Tigray since April 2023. This devastating loss occurred as a result of international humanitarian organizations’ suspension of food aid. In March, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) and the United States’ leading aid agency (USAID) decided to cease providing food assistance to Tigray after discovering large-scale theft. USAID subsequently announced the suspension of food aid to the rest of Ethiopia in June.

Following this suspension, Tigrayan authorities conducted an investigation and discovered that nearly 500 individuals were involved in the theft, as revealed by an official in an interview with the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC obtained evidence of food items bearing the emblems of aid agencies, including the WFP and USAID, being sold in markets across Tigray, including the capital city of Mekelle. In June, a leaked memo from an independent donor group, cited by various media outlets, alleged that federal and regional government entities orchestrated a coordinated and criminal scheme. This scheme purportedly involved military units across the country benefiting from the misappropriation of food aid.

According to The New Humanitarian, out of the 6 million people residing in Tigray, a staggering 5.4 million are still dependent on food aid. The delivery freeze that has been in effect since mid-March has left the majority of Tigrayans without any assistance.

A courageous relief worker, who wishes to remain anonymous to speak candidly, has shed light on the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray as reported by The New Humanitarian. Astonishingly, the current situation is even more dire than during the war, when access to aid was severely restricted. The suspension of food aid has resulted in an alarming number of people starving and, tragically, losing their lives. These firsthand accounts paint a harrowing picture of the suffering endured by the people of Tigray.

On the other hand, food aid theft poses a significant challenge that hampers the successful distribution and implementation of these programs. In an attempt to relieve this situation, this essay aims to delve into the issue of food aid theft, discussing its underlying causes and potential solutions. We can explore viable strategies to mitigate this problem and maximize the impact of food assistance efforts rather than punishing the vulnerable.

Understanding the Nature of Food Aid Theft

Food aid theft refers to the intentional misappropriation or diversion of food intended for vulnerable populations. It can occur at various stages, including transport, storage, and distribution. This illicit activity deprives individuals of nutrition essential to their survival and undermines the overall effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian assistance programs.

Root Causes of Food Aid Theft

To comprehensively address the theft of food aid, it is essential to identify its root causes. The invasion of Tigray by Ethiopian, Amhara (Fano) and Eritrean forces exacerbated the vulnerability of Tigrayans, making them susceptible to internal and external theft.

On June 19, 2023, Capital Ethiopia reported that a shocking revelation emerged from an investigation conducted by the Tigrayan authorities. It was disclosed that both regional and federal government officials, along with Eritrean soldiers, were complicit in the theft of food aid in Tigray.

General Fiseha Kidanu, head of peace and security in Tigray’s interim regional administration, revealed the shocking findings of the investigation during an interview with Tigrai TV. He confirmed that more than 860 kilograms of wheat and 215,000 liters of food oil had been stolen. Investigators also identified 186 suspects implicated in this heinous scheme, and 7 were detained.

Strengthening Governance and Accountability

Efforts to curb food aid theft should prioritize strengthening governance and accountability mechanisms. Implementing transparent procurement processes, involving local stakeholders, and clearly documenting the distribution and utilization of food aid can foster accountability and combat corruption.

Strengthening governance and accountability to combat food aid theft in Tigray is a pressing and imperative task that demands swift action. This necessitates tightening regulations, implementing rigorous oversight mechanisms, and holding perpetrators accountable without exception. Fortifying governance structures, empowering independent auditing bodies, and employing stringent screening procedures for aid distributors are essential. Involving local communities in monitoring and reporting irregularities is also paramount to instilling transparency and fostering responsibility.

Technological Innovations and Tracking Systems

Applying advanced technological solutions, such as track-and-trace systems and biometric identification tools, can enhance the monitoring and tracking of food aid. These innovative approaches enable real- time monitoring of food shipments, ensuring timely detection of any unauthorized handling or diversion.

However, there are major challenges in this regard. One of the key challenges in utilizing technological innovations and tracking systems to prevent food aid theft in Tigray is the lack of reliable infrastructure. The region, which has experienced prolonged genocide, has suffered from a severe deterioration of basic services such as electricity and telecommunications. This poses significant obstacles in establishing an effective digital tracking system for food aid distribution. In addition, limited internet connectivity hampers real-time monitoring and data analysis, hindering authorities’ ability to swiftly respond to potential instances of theft. Overcoming these challenges requires investment in infrastructure and tailored educational programs that foster understanding and acceptance of technological solutions.

Furthermore, the potential weaponization of biometric data with regards to aid recipients’ ethnic identity in the wake of Tigrayans being subjected to ethnicity-based attacks must be considered. Therefore, if such a mechanism were to be implemented, privacy and security of aid recipients would need to be guaranteed by international aid organizations and accountability mechanisms in place were such an abuse to occur.

Community Engagement and Empowerment

Engaging local communities in the planning, implementing, and monitoring of food aid programs can cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility. This involvement empowers communities to identify and report instances of theft, bridging the trust deficit often associated with external actors or authorities.

Community engagement and empowerment play a pivotal role in effectively preventing food aid theft in Tigray. It is imperative that community members be involved and mobilized, as they are the ones who have firsthand knowledge of the local dynamics and can identify potential instances of theft. Empowering the community through education and awareness programs enables them to actively participate in monitoring food distribution, therefore deterring any attempts at theft by creating a sense of accountability amongst all stakeholders. Additionally, fostering a strong sense of ownership within the community helps establish a collective responsibility toward safeguarding the aid meant for those in need. By engaging with communities and providing them with the tools and knowledge necessary to actively combat food aid theft, international aid organizations can ensure greater transparency and accountability, ultimately ensuring that food aid reaches its intended recipients.

Capacity Building and Training

Investing in capacity building and training programs for individuals involved in food assistance initiatives is crucial. Equipping local staff and volunteers with the necessary skills and knowledge enhances their ability to detect and respond to potential theft and fosters professionalism, integrity, and ethical conduct.
Regional and International Cooperation Addressing food aid theft requires both regional and international cooperation. Collaborative efforts among governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies can promote information sharing, joint monitoring, and coordinated responses at local, national, and regional levels.

Accountability and Legal Frameworks

Robust legal frameworks are also necessary to address food aid theft. Locally driven community-based restorative justice emerges as a potentially effective solution for addressing the issue of food aid theft. This approach recognizes that food aid theft affects individuals who rely on these resources, damages trust within the community, and undermines the very purpose of providing food assistance.

Restorative justice enables communities to actively participate in finding solutions by fostering dialogue, understanding, and accountability. It advocates for locally led initiatives that focus on preventing future food aid theft rather than solely punishing the offenders. By harnessing local knowledge, resources, and expertise, such an approach encourages collective responsibility and creates opportunities for rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reintegration. Through facilitated conversations between affected stakeholders and those responsible for food aid thefts, restorative justice aligns with principles of fairness, inclusivity, and social harmony—ultimately promoting long-term sustainable change that addresses underlying causes while restoring faith in community support systems.

Through well-established institutions, such as community-based forums and assemblies, Tigray has successfully integrated traditional conflict resolution mechanisms into the modern justice system. These institutions focus not only on punishing offenders but also on nurturing dialogue among all affected parties, encouraging empathy and understanding to repair broken relationships. Furthermore, they prioritize the participation of marginalized groups such as survivors or victims, and women, empowering them as active agents in seeking truth, justice, and effective reparations. Utilizing these systems in thwarting food aid theft is imperative. However, every effort must be made to ensure that democratic principles and freedom prevail in these procedures.

Targeted Interventions and Risk Assessment

Tailoring interventions that account for the unique context and risks associated with the Tigray region can significantly impact the prevention of food aid theft. The invasion and siege of Tigray, coupled with a staggering lack of accountability, has devastated the region’s infrastructure and heightened the extent of corruption and food aid theft. But, further comprehensive risk assessments would allow stakeholders to identify vulnerabilities and implement appropriate safeguards accordingly.

Food aid theft remains a serious challenge that compromises the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance programs, further burdening vulnerable populations. By embracing these proposed solutions, including strengthening governance and accountability, leveraging technology, and promoting community involvement, we can enhance the impact of food aid initiatives and contribute to sustainable development. But taking food away from the vulnerable is never the solution.

Batseba Seifu – Omna Tigray External Contributor, August 2023

 

Time for Action: Women March in Cities Across Tigray

In a powerful display of courage, resilience, and determination, women in Tigray came together during the first week of July 2023 to participate in a historical march for justice, accountability, and solidarity. Against the backdrop of the existential challenges the people of Tigray have faced and continue to face, this women’s march serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit and unwavering determination of the women of Tigray, who refuse to be silenced. Despite the multifaceted challenges they face, the women of Tigray have shown steadfast strength in shining a light on the atrocities and hardships they continue to experience. The demonstrations were held in the capital Mekelle as well as Adiguden (Northeastern Tigray), Adigrat (Eastern Tigray), Maichew (Southern Tigray), Axum (Central Tigray), and Shire (Northwestern Tigray). The protestors highlighted the challenges they continue to face because of the genocidal war on Tigray, among them international aid organizations’ decision to suspend aid delivery to Tigray in early May 2023. The demonstrations were organized and led by women of diverse backgrounds with different faiths, ages, and occupations, highlighting the widespread devastation wrought by the genocidal war on Tigray. 

The gendered impact of the genocidal war on Tigray  

Since the onset of the genocidal war on Tigray, women and girls have borne the brunt of the atrocities perpetrated by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces. One of the defining features of the war has been the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, which has disproportionately and devastatingly affected the region’s women and girls. The most conservative estimates suggest that tens of thousands of women and girls in Tigray have been subjected to brutal and genocidal Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) since November 2020, including rape, gang rape, kidnapping, mutilation, forced impregnation, and forced sterilization. These attacks were brutal and systematic, and targeted Tigrayan women because of their ethnic identity. Often carried out in full view of children, family members, or even community members, these attacks were designed to terrorize, subjugate, and traumatize Tigrayan society. In addition to the trauma and violence of the attacks themselves, the deadly and illegal siege imposed on Tigray by the Ethiopian government prevented survivors from accessing the medical and psycho-social help they desperately need, leaving them vulnerable to numerous life-threatening challenges including unwanted pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), and psychological trauma. 

Moreover, women in Tigray have endured the violence of war in similar ways to their male counterparts. Women have been killed and injured in airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling throughout the war. While extrajudicial executions and massacres largely targeted men, in many instances, women were also targeted in these brutal attacks. The women who did survive these atrocious attacks often had to flee their homes with their children in tow. Accordingly, women make up a large proportion of the 2.2 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Tigray. 

The current humanitarian conditions in Tigray 

In November 2022, representatives of the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), designed to end the fighting and improve the humanitarian conditions in Tigray. However, in the 8 months since the signing of the CoHA, there has been limited effort to implement its central tenets. Most notably, while the CoHA stipulates the need for the removal of occupying forces from all parts of Tigray, large parts of the region remain occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces. Eritrean forces are occupying territories in the Northern and Northeastern parts of the region, while Amhara forces continue to occupy Western Tigray. Despite the CoHA, humanitarian conditions in Tigray have continued to deteriorate, most directly because of the suspension of humanitarian aid to the region in May 2023. This suspension by aid organizations such as the World Food Program and USAID was announced shortly after it was uncovered that humanitarian aid was being diverted and sold on the market. While it is vital that those responsible for such action must be held accountable, the suspension, which has now been in effect for more than two months, is leading to devastating outcomes for people in Tigray. Recent reporting has revealed that hundreds of people have already died due to starvation since the announcement of the suspension.

The July 2023 protests

It is within this dire humanitarian context that large numbers of women held demonstrations across Tigray in July 2023. The women drew attention to the catastrophic conditions they are facing amid the devastation of the war and the current humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the suspension of aid. They additionally drew attention to the implementation gaps of the CoHA, calling for its full and immediate implementation. 

Among the issues highlighted by demonstrators, the most prominent one is the issue of justice for the tens of thousands of survivors of CRSV in Tigray. By raising an issue that is often not spoken about in public, the women of Tigray are challenging societal norms and pushing for progressive change and equity. The demonstrators additionally called for thorough investigations into all human rights violations and crimes committed against the people of Tigray.

Another urgent issue raised by demonstrators is the call for the resumption of aid deliveries to the region, which have been suspended for over two months now. Drawing on their lived experiences as mothers, guardians, and caretakers, the women highlighted the devastating effects the suspension of aid is having on themselves, their families, and their communities. The suspension of aid disproportionately affects women and children. Pregnant women, lactating mothers, and IDPs (the majority of whom are women) and children  are especially vulnerable to severe malnutrition and starvation-related deaths. 

The women of Tigray also called for the full implementation of the November 2022 CoHA. The protestors noted that many elements of the CoHA have yet to be implemented and demanded the urgent and full implementation of this agreement. This requires the immediate removal of all occupying forces from all parts of Tigray and the restoration of the pre-war boundaries between Tigray and neighboring regions, which would allow the over 2 million IDPs in Tigray to return to their homes. 

How you can help 

Women have long played a vital role in social mobilizations and resistance movements in Tigray. While it has often gone unrecognized, the women of Tigray are torchbearers of change and advocates for political, social, and economic equality and justice. The July 2023 demonstrations illustrate this spirit of courage, determination, and strength. By coming together to call for the resumption of humanitarian aid, demand the full implementation of the CoHA, and amplify calls for accountability, the women of Tigray are once again showing their unwavering commitment to principles of justice and equality. 

We must stand behind and follow the lead of the women in Tigray, who are articulating their challenges and demanding swift action. To support these efforts, call on international agencies such as WFP and USAID to resume supplying lifesaving aid to Tigray. Additionally, call on your elected officials to hold all parties accountable to the terms of the CoHA and to support justice and accountability mechanisms. Finally, you can amplify the messages of the women of Tigray on social media using #Justice4TigrayWomen. It is our collective responsibility to support their cause and ensure that the women of Tigray receive the justice and support they deserve.

Omna Tigray Contributor, July 2023

 

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

 

MIHLELA

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