Op-Ed: A Telecommunications Blackout Amid Genocide: 21st Century’s Worst Crisis
A few days ago, I woke up and checked my phone as I always do. There was a hundredth BBC headline about the war in Ukraine across my screen – with reports coming directly from the ground in Ukraine. My first thought was if only international news reporters or local journalists in Tigray were able to broadcast the atrocities and news from the war front uninhibited. My second thought was even if such reporting were possible, the world probably would not give it the attention it deserves.
On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government, with support from Ethiopia’s Amhara regional government and the Eritrean government, waged a genocidal war on Tigray. As military forces encircled Tigray, the Ethiopian government preemptively cut off telecommunication and internet services. Since the night of November 3rd, connectivity in Tigray has been sporadic and intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst. Most of Tigray has remained silenced for over a year.
Amid this telecommunications and internet blackout, the total destruction of Tigray and Tigrayans has ensued. Atrocities committed range from mass forced displacement, weaponized sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, looting and destruction of private property, deliberate destruction of essential public infrastructure, targeting of Tigray’s health system, agricultural destruction, and massacres, to a man-made famine and ethnic cleansing.
This blackout has been supplemented by the Ethiopian government prohibiting international journalists from reporting from the region and harassing, detaining, and torturing local journalists, infringing on freedom of press. This reality means that information flow out of Tigray has been a slow trickle.
Yet, these challenges notwithstanding, the reports of atrocities amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide have emerged out of Tigray these last 19 months. They did so through first-hand accounts from Tigrayan refugees in Sudan fleeing from persecution; accounts that were first reported by journalists, then documented in reports from human rights organizations. These reports have been corroborated by videos of atrocities recorded by the perpetrators themselves and posted to social media, and by accounts from former members of the Abiy Administration, such as Filsan Ahmed. What we know is simply the tip of the iceberg. The communications blackout and the Ethiopian government’s attack on freedom of press and journalists amid ethnic cleansing and genocide make the crisis in Tigray the worst of its kind in the 21st century.
To conduct the genocidal war on Tigray unconstrained by domestic and international law, the Abiy administration leveraged its control of Ethiopia’s telecommunication infrastructure to control information and the war narrative, while ensuring the atrocities committed in Tigray do not make the light of day. If the Ethiopian government had nothing to hide, it would restore communication and internet services in Tigray. It would also facilitate independent investigations into the atrocities committed in Ethiopia. Yet, as it stands today, Tigray is as isolated as ever, severed from the rest of the world.
This crisis is characterized by an extreme lack of humanitarian access and aid, and the telecommunications blackout has played a key role in the man-made production of the humanitarian disaster in Tigray. The blockade of internet and telephone services greatly inhibits humanitarian operations that would serve millions in dire need. Adding insult to injury, the Tigrayan diaspora has not been able to reach their families in Tigray in months and, for some, since the genocidal war began. They do not know if their family members are dead or alive. They wake up to missed calls fearing they may have missed their last opportunity to talk to their family members.
Despite the challenges the telecommunications blackout has imposed on Tigray, including communicating the horrific events taking place in the region, the international community knows enough to recognize how dire the situation is. The limited information available indicates the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where an estimated half a million Tigrayan lives have been lost in under 500 days. Yet, unlike other conflicts and humanitarian crises in the 21st century that receive a certain level of coverage on social media, by international news agencies, and from humanitarian organizations, Tigray is mostly left out of the conversation. We see this especially when Black lives, African lives, are the ones being lost. As the Director-General of the World Health Organization has pointed out, “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way. Some are more equal than others.”
While the Ethiopian government declared a “humanitarian truce” on March 24, 2022, over two months later, Tigray widely remains without banking access, electricity, clean water, food, and telecommunication and internet services. As of the writing of this article, the worst humanitarian crisis of its time continues unabated without the coverage and response it so evidently deserves.
SCS – Omna Tigray Contributor, May 2022