Coming to Terms with my Tigrayan Identity: A Journey of Self-Hood

Coming to Terms with my Tigrayan Identity: A Journey of Self-Hood

Right before Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waged war on Tigray, my mother had found a weatherbeaten, heavily creased, brown album while cleaning our basement. The pages half torn, the gold embellishments faded—a true testament of its neglect and old age. It had been with resignation that my father had accepted that the pictures he collected from his early childhood and his time in Sudan were lost forever; so one can only imagine our complete shock when we opened the album to find those pictures fully intact. Pictures of a young man with an easy grin, a whisper of a mustache, and a head full of unruly curls.

“He looks just like you,” my mother marveled. As we slowly flipped through the album pages, we saw photographs of my young father dancing, sitting encircled by his friends feeding him gursha, and standing under the scorching hot Khartoum sun.

When my father arrived from work that day, he sat in disbelief as we showed him the pictures he thought were lost forever. Excitedly, he pointed to his friends, calling out their names, and elaborately gesturing, finally bringing to life the stories of his youth. Stories we had never heard before.

At the very end of the album, we came across a picture of him when he was 16 years old—an image that bore the most likeness to me. It was like staring into a mirror. His eyes welled with tears, the remnants of his youth resurfacing, struck with the sudden realization that the boy that stared back at him was long gone.

When the Derg regime, a military dictatorship, took over the Ethiopian government in 1974, my father’s childhood was cut short. The Derg launched a brutal military offensive against innocent Tigrayan civilians, plunging the region into a famine that claimed the lives of one million Tigrayans. Like many other youths in Tigray, my father was forced to grow up quickly. He made the heart-wrenching decision to leave his family behind and cross the border into Sudan in hopes that he would be safe from the clutches of the Derg.

Today in Tigray, history is repeating itself; however, the acts of barbarism that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces and militias have committed since November are unprecedented, wreaking havoc in the entire region. On numerous occasions, Abiy and Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki have denied the crimes they have committed and continue to commit in Tigray. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that this time around, genocide is being executed at their command. Scores of Ethiopian and Eritrean civilians have utilized the rhetoric of Abiy and Isaias to bolster their argument that the genocide is indeed a hoax. The sheer confidence and self-righteous attitude that numerous Eritreans and Ethiopians harbor in support of the totalitarian regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia leave me dumbfounded. How can one stand by governments that continue to commit heinous crimes with mounting evidence that the international community has confirmed?

Since the start of the genocidal war, I have often looked back to my father’s worn-out album to gain some semblance of understanding as to what he endured during the Derg era. I found consolation in seeing him happy despite his dire circumstances but felt angered that he was robbed of his youth. Robbed of his dreams and opportunities. The most heartbreaking reality is that Tigrayans are reliving a very similar experience to my father’s today. With each turn of the album pages, I became more aware of the suffering of my people and my Tigrayan identity.

Growing up, I was quite naive about the history of Ethiopia. I only knew stories of gallant soldiers warding off Italian forces, and Ethiopia being one of the few African countries to defeat colonial rule successfully. I was proud to be Ethiopian —and I viewed the flag as a token of honor, representing centuries of rich history and diverse peoples. It was only when I started college as a history major and conducted research that I came across a side of Ethiopian history I had never even heard of—a side more nefarious in nature and rampant with slavery, genocide, and absolute monarchism.

The Oromos, who consist of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, were subject to centuries of enslavement, discrimination, and extrajudicial killing at the hands of Emperor Menelik II. Further, I was intrigued by the origins of the 1943 Woyane rebellion, a peasant-led revolt that resisted the autocratic rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor swiftly responded by enlisting the help of the British Air Force to conduct aerial bombardments in Tigray—killing thousands. These long-buried truths leaped out of the pages of the books I read, epitomizing how marginalized groups always stood in the periphery of historical retellings. These marginalized histories that countered the narratives of the Ethiopian empire instilled in me an insatiable appetite to seek justice for those who had been sidelined.

Tigray has always been persecuted by the greater Ethiopian state—a state that has now enacted a genocide against its own people. When Abiy waged a genocidal war on Tigray in November 2020, I promptly removed the Ethiopian flag from all my social media platforms. I felt no loyalty to a flag representing a country preparing to repeat its violent history of attacking Tigrayans. My eyes were forever changed as they became revolted at the flurry of red, green, and yellow. I knew my association with Ethiopia would never be the same again.

To my surprise, many Ethiopians have supported the war on Tigray, even after witnessing the atrocities caused by the war: foreign invasion, destruction of Tigrayan infrastructure, man-made famine, weaponized rape, and massacres across Tigray. What Ethiopians fail to realize when they shout, “We are one Ethiopia,” is that the Ethiopia they know would not exist without Tigray’s history and contribution. The deafening silence of those whom Tigrayans once called brothers and sisters has killed the concept of “One Ethiopia.”

My father’s album serves as a living reminder that in spite of the many trials and tribulations the Tigrayan people encounter, they continue to be the face of resilience. I know one day Tigray will be free from her oppressors and I will be comforted with the notion that I never doubted Tigray.

M.A. – Omna Tigray External Contributor, September 2021