Ethnic Cleansing in Western Tigray by Amhara Forces

Ethnic Cleansing in Western Tigray by Amhara Forces

Preceding Events, Admission of Crimes and the International Community’s Responsibility to Act

Source: Tigray: Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation

Six months into the war on Tigray, the international community has finally come to acknowledge the deliberately induced humanitarian crisis affecting millions of Tigrayans. In addition to over 5.2 million Tigrayans at risk of weaponized starvation, ethnic cleansing has ravaged Western Tigray, displacing countless civilians from their homes and livelihoods.  

The ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray was acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his briefing to the U.S. Congress in early March 2021. However, main bodies of the international community, most notably, the European Union (EU) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC), have still not explicitly recognized the crimes being committed in Western Tigray as acts of ethnic cleansing. The lack of recognition from these bodies has prolonged impunity, delayed accountability, and allowed for the continuation of human rights violations. 

A more complete background detailing the chronological sequence of events leading up to the war on Tigray and subsequent events are needed to provide a clear picture of the character and intent of the ongoing atrocities in Western Tigray. In particular, heightened rhetoric promoting ethnic cleansing before the war, public admission of war crimes committed by armed Amhara forces amid the war, and other critical instances provide ample justification for the international community to acknowledge and act on the ethnic cleansing taking place in Western Tigray.

Demonstration of Intent by Armed Amhara Force, Fano, Commander in 2018

Among the many examples of rhetoric promoting prejudicial actions shared throughout the years, there is a persistent theme calling for “Tigrayans to be expelled from Western Tigray.”

In 2018, analysis of video evidence regarding this intent was analyzed by journalist Zecharias Zelalem. In the video, a commander of an armed Amhara group, Mesafint Teka, publicly addresses the need to expel all Tigrayans from Western Tigray, which he refers to as “Amhara territory.” He is heard in the video saying:

“There are plenty of them [Tigrayans] in different places. Tigrayans should leave our area, our land, our borders, get out of our country! We can meet them head on [in battle]! … We will grasp Tigray in our fist.”

This intent would later manifest itself when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called upon these Amhara forces to participate in the offensive against Tigray that started in November 2020. 

Admission of Acts by Armed Amhara Force, Fano, Leaders

Months after the start of the war, another video interview of armed Amhara group leaders, including Gebeyehu Hiniye, Chalachew Niyew Kassa, and an unnamed third member was published. In this video, these leaders proudly admit to acts of ethnic cleansing and portray them as efforts to “take back the land.” Among these efforts include planting an Amhara flag, incorporating the area under the governance of the Amhara regional administration, handing out Amhara identification cards (IDs) to the local communities in Western Tigray, and “eliminating anybody who resisted.” 

In concluding their statement, the leaders claim that they have made sure the area “smells like Amhara,” metaphoric language intended to convey the Amharanization or de-Tigrayanization of the area. 

Above all, what is most revealing is that in this video Amhara force leaders blatantly admit to acts constituting ethnic cleansing; eliminating bodies, handing land to the Amhara administration, and issuing Amhara IDs; all with the ultimate goal of expanding their territory and power, stating “Amhara will soon rise to supremacy.”

Message to Eliminate Tigrayans

The “Amharanization” and violent expansionism described above is rooted in the disdain Amhara forces have for the people of Tigray. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, commonly known as Doctors Without Borders) shared images of vandalized health centers in Debre Abbay, located in North Western Tigray. One of the images showed an explicit Amharic message written on a wall. It read, “[F*ck] Tigrayans. We have now handed you over to Shabiya, [Eritrean forces]. Let them fry and eat you.” This hate speech reveals the extent of the abhorrence Amhara forces have for Tigrayans.

Systematic Destruction

The destruction captured by MSF is one of many systematic crimes committed against Tigray. As an extension of the satellite images shared in his previous analysis, Ted Galt compiled different satellite images, like the ones below, including images indicating the burning of vast croplands.

New Signage, Administrative Apparatus and Residents

As Amhara forces partook in systematic destruction, the Amhara region also staged a demonstration claiming that residents of Western Tigray were requesting to be urgently incorporated into the Amhara regional state. This set the stage for occupying the area after having massacred Tigrayans or having forced them out of their homes. The Amhara regional administration then engaged in replacing the Tigrayan governing administrative apparatus with its own, including changing “Welcome” signage in several major towns. Further, houses, hotels, and businesses became occupied by new residents claiming to be Amhara. 

Amhara Regional Administration Public Notice

Subsequently, the Amhara regional administration released a public notice inviting investors to buy and use the newly annexed Tigrayan farmlands. This invitation allows investors to purchase land without a project proposal for a year. Such lenient parameters were set to expedite conquest of the area as proposals would take time to develop.

Acknowledgement of Amahara Expansion by Tigray’s Interim Regional Administration

The acts of expansionism were also confirmed by Tigray’s Interim Regional Administration Deputy Abebe Gebrehiwot Yihdego in an interview with Tigrai Tv. In the interview, Abebe explains the displacement of civilians from Western Tigray and calls for the immediate halt of the forced displacement of civilians as the increase in the number of internally displaced peoples in Tigray’s eastern cities has exhausted the resources available to sustain basic needs. Furthermore, he mentions that not even Tigrayan monks in their 90s were spared from being forced out of monasteries in Western Tigray. Abebe also emphasizes that these forced displacements are not a consequence of war but purposefully orchestrated and urges the international community to help hold the perpetrators of this forced displacement accountable. 

The International Community’s Acknowledgment of Ethnic Cleansing

Although there have been repeated calls for action, the international community has yet to acknowledge the different dimensions of the violence in Tigray. The EU and the UNSC have been reluctant about acknowledging and appropriately labeling the crimes being committed to Tigrayans during this genocidal war in Tigray. This has, without a doubt, emboldened the perpetrators and enabled Amhara forces’ quest to ethnically cleanse Western Tigray. 

The litany of crimes committed by armed Amhara forces include perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence, violently and forcefully displacing residents, imposing Amhara identity, torturing and massacring civilians, imprisoning based on ethnicity, burning and destroying villages, vandalizing and looting healthcare facilities, and blocking civilians from crossing the border to seek refuge in Sudan

Testimonies, as recent as May 2021, from those internally displaced from Western Tigray confirm these crimes are still being committed. These testimonies indicate a rampant breach of the most basic human rights, including the rights to life, security of the person, equal protection under the law, own property and education as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. 

The mounting evidence of these violations of international human rights law is a clear indication of the need for the international community to swiftly intervene. International bodies must not only recognize the occurrence of these acts and label them appropriately, they must act on their responsibility to protect populations being subjected to ethnic cleansing.

An earlier piece by the same authors on ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray can be found here.   

Nerea Berhan and Saba Mah’derom – Omna Tigray External Contributors, May 2021