My Ethnicity Became a Crime During the Genocidal War on Tigray

My Ethnicity Became a Crime During the Genocidal War on Tigray

On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government and its allies, mainly the Eritrean and Amhara regional governments, declared a genocidal war on Tigray. These invading forces unleashed unimaginable suffering on the people of Tigray, committing countless atrocities amounting to genocide, such as massacres, extrajudicial killings, weaponized sexual violence, the wholesale destruction of essential infrastructure, including the healthcare system, the destruction of food sources, and the prevention of access to humanitarian aid. Tigrayans in Tigray have been living through the unfathomable, while those of us in the rest of Ethiopia live with pain, fear, and the constant threat of harassment solely because of our ethnic identity. The dynamics shifted a bit after the Tigray Defense Forces took over most of Tigray at the end of June 2021: the Ethiopian government imposed a siege on Tigray while intensifying its unlawful mass arrests and detention of Tigrayans across Ethiopia. The type of suffering changed, but the suffering continues nonetheless.

At the beginning of the war, few of us foresaw how much devastation would follow. I am still worried about my extended family, whom I haven’t heard from in over a year. I don’t know if they are still alive or have died due to the famine or the violence. They had begged for drones to help them fight a severe locust infestation in September 2020, but what they got instead were drones that dropped bombs on them mere weeks later. We’re witnessing the worst of humanity in Ethiopia’s government. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, what we are going through is nothing compared to what our family members in Tigray have gone through, but we are still suffering in silence. I live in fear of the other shoe dropping, of getting arrested at any moment. If I were arrested, I would probably be beaten and interrogated. So far, I have been spared from the trauma that some Tigrayans in Addis have experienced on multiple occasions. Their level of mistreatment is immeasurable. Yet, I still suffer from depression and anxiety and am haunted in my sleep. I live in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, unable to leave my house but ready to go into hiding at any moment.

Living under such circumstances in the past months made this the period of my life in which I have faced the most adversity and hardship. One can attempt to put into words how it feels when your federal government targets you and your entire Tigrayan ethnicity as retaliation for facing defeat in the genocidal war on Tigray, but no words can do these feelings justice. Despite the limitations of the written word and the safety that was inherent in my silence, I cannot remain silent. This past year has been an immense realization, a realization of the fragility of the freedom we hold so dear. I must share my story at a time in Ethiopian history when all logic and reasoning have been dismissed and the Ethiopian state is doing despicable things to Tigrayans. This is my story.

My Tigrayan ethnicity has allowed the Abiy Ahmed government to make my life unbearable in Addis Ababa, especially after the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF) took control of most of Tigray in June 2021 and began pushing to the capital. Prior to that, we had to deal with house raids and random searches, which pale in comparison to the mass arrests and detainment in concentration camps that has occured  since. As much as I have been devastated by what is happening to my family in Tigray and the country as a whole, up to this point, I have tried to stay safe by remaining silent to not raise questions about my political affiliation during all of this. However, my silence has not helped me avoid the ugly realities in Ethiopia today. 

Following random checks and searches, they arrested my father on November 5, 2021. They had previously raided our house twice before his ultimate arrest. The officers insisted that they had received a “tip” regarding the accumulation of weapons in a residential real estate compound where only families live. Both times of course, they found nothing. 

After the state of emergency was declared on November 2, 2021, the little regard remaining for human rights was thrown out the window. They started rounding people up based on their Tigrayan ethnicity. The extent to which this grave injustice was carried out cannot be overstated. Every Tigrayan I know has been detained or has family members who are detained. 

The day they arrested my father, they came to our neighborhood early in the morning – at about 5 am. They intended to search homes and arrest people before anyone left for work. A neighbor informed us that the police were only going door-to-door to search Tigrayan houses. It is difficult to predict what could come from these searches, so we panicked. My father, on the other hand, reassured us that they would not arrest people without reason. He was wrong. He underestimated their intentions, ignorance, and hate. He did not expect them to baselessly arrest an innocent 69-year-old man who had nothing to do with politics. 

My brother, on the other hand, was more skeptical. He knew they didn’t have good intentions and the possibility of his arrest as a young Tigrayan male in Addis Ababa, so he escaped to the neighbor’s house and hid there.  

My dad worked hard his entire life to provide us with a relatively comfortable life. But despite his hard work and being an exemplary citizen, they threw him into some warehouse that was previously used for storing cement and had been commandeered from a Tigrayan businessman. There was dust everywhere, and there were hundreds of Tigrayan prisoners crammed into a single warehouse. Hundreds of them had to share one bathroom. And every morning was spent standing in line for hours to get to that one bathroom. If that was not bad enough, everyday we were praying that they kept him there because the alternative would be worse. There are reports that Tigrayans arrested all across the city are being transported to places outside the city where the conditions are far worse, where those arrested are only being fed every three days. And families can’t even take food to them because the officials have prohibited it. Their cruelty is on another level. They intentionally transfer the prisoners to areas where there are food shortages, such as Afar, so they have an excuse to feed them less or not feed them at all. They are malicious and vindictive. They want Tigrayans to suffer as much as possible and lose their dignity and honor. 

My mother was the only one who was able to visit my father. He was held with several of our relatives, so at least he was not lonely. It is terribly sad that most of them are over 65 years old, like my father. What possible logic can justify jailing the elderly? Many are established business owners who have worked tirelessly for what they have accomplished and have never been involved in politics.

The height of home searches and terror for Tigrayans in Addis Ababa was reached during the State of Emergency in between November 2021 and February 2022. Although there has been an effort to gradually release previously arrested Tigrayan civilians in the past 2 months, Tigrayans still continue to be detained and arrested. Tigrayans live in fear of what could happen to them because of their identity. My non-Tigrayan friends who are able to move around have told me that there are ID checks everywhere in the capital city, with officers checking your ethnicity based on your name or your place of birth. 

I am disgusted by the fact that my friends and neighbors can move about freely and openly like nothing is happening, while I am forced to hide to avoid being arrested purely based on my identity. It is simply angering, depressing, and ugly. There aren’t enough words to express my disappointment and anger at what is happening in a city and country I once called home. It makes me question my entire life and purpose. What’s the purpose of everything if all the freedoms we have enjoyed and taken for granted our entire lives can be taken instantly? Now, I fear for my freedom and for my life. What is the point of everything if those in power can take it all in just an instant?

This experience has gravely shifted my perspective. I used to think that despite our differences, we were the same people – that we were united through the Ethiopian ideology despite our ethnic differences. But the Abiy administration has successfully divided us all. 

Einstein once said that the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing. And as the government demonized every Tigrayan in a media campaign like no other, Ethiopians were so quick to accept all Abiy’s lies. They are in complete denial about what is actually happening. They hold protests condemning Western countries and Western media outlets that have spoken against the war on Tigray and the atrocities being committed in Tigray. They have gone as far as saying Tigrayans’ suffering is “fake news.” They readily believe anything from government media, but they denounce every internationally reputable news organization such as CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and the like. They would sooner believe the whole world is conspiring against them by concocting lies than to admit the appalling injustice Tigrayans are facing at the hands of the government. 

It’s hard to imagine a future where everything goes back to normal. For now, the best we can hope for is for the international community to know what is happening to Tigrayans in Ethiopia and take appropriate remedial actions.

Omna Tigray External Contributor, April 2022