The Mass Arrest of Tigrayans in Ethiopia
“Cruelty that parallels Auschwitz,” are the words used by Kibrom Berhe of National Congress of Great Tigray (Baytona Party) to describe the concentration camp-like conditions of detained Tigrayans in Ethiopia. Kibrom Berhe is one of the thousands of Tigrayans who have been targeted and systematically arrested in a wave of mass arrests since the genocidal war on Tigray began in November 2020. This genocidal war, falsely characterized by the Ethiopian federal government as a “law enforcement operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has paradoxically led to the wrongful arrest of several TPLF opposition leaders such as Kibrom Berhe, Dori Asgedom of Assimba Democratic Party, and Hailu Kebede of Salsay Woyane Tigray. The mass arrest of Tigrayans should ring international bells of concern, as arbitrary arrest and detention fall under the United Nations Commission of Experts definition of coercive practices used to commit ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Since November 2020, there have been numerous reports of ethnic profiling and arrests of an estimated tens of thousands of Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia, including children under 3 years of age. Military personnel reportedly call the Tigrayan detainees “cancers” and threaten to shoot them if they make any effort to escape. The Ethiopian federal government has made attempts to justify these arrests; in a leaked video verified by the Associated Press, a senior Ethiopian military official said of Tigrayans, “We had to clean out our insides. […] Even if there may be good people among them, we can’t differentiate the good from the bad. To save the country, we made it so they were excluded from doing work.”
Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and police forces have been ordered to hand over all government property and firearms; current and former federal soldiers with varying seniority have undergone “shocking” treatment and abuses. One soldier detained with 90 other Tigrayans in a warehouse was able to escape to a neighboring country, but he remains fearful for the lives of those left behind. Reports indicate that more than 17,000 Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian military have been detained and face torture and execution. According to an internal United Nations (UN) account, Tigrayan security forces deployed in UN and African peacekeeping missions may also face torture or execution. In reference to the Ethiopian security forces after the mass arrests of Tigrayans, ENDF Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew said the security forces are now “completely Ethiopian.”
Several human rights organizations have reported on the arrests, abuses, and ethnic profiling of Tigrayans in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, since the genocidal war began. In July 2021, Amnesty International made a statement “urging the Ethiopian government to end this wave of arbitrary arrests.” In August 2021, Human Rights Watch published an article detailing the abuses against Tigrayans in Addis Ababa. Tigrayans throughout the capital have experienced assault and detainment due to alleged suspicion of supporting, or being associated with, the TPLF. Authorities in Addis Ababa have illegally searched Tigrayan homes and shut down numerous Tigrayan-owned businesses; establishments playing music in the Tigrigna language have also been targeted. A recent video of an Ethiopian federal soldier assaulting a young Tigrayan for not speaking Amharic has surfaced. As a result, Tigrayans are apprehensive about being reprimanded or even killed for speaking their native tongue.
In addition to the ethnic profiling and mass arrests, the whereabouts of forcibly disappeared Tigrayans remain unknown. Some of these forcibly disappeared people include journalists who have gone missing or have been killed in connection to their reporting on the genocidal war in Tigray, as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Ethiopian federal government has violated Article One of the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.” Forcibly disappeared, missing Tigrayans are highly vulnerable and likely subjected to torture and living in excruciating circumstances. Additionally, these situations cause agonizing stress to the families of forcibly disappeared persons. Some Tigrayans have seen shocking footage of their missing family members in posts and broadcasts from state-sponsored and affiliated media, leaving them with sentiments of confusion and horror.
According to Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, “Ethiopian authorities must reveal the whereabouts of detainees to their families and lawyers. Not disclosing the fate or whereabouts of detainees is committing the crime of enforced disappearance. Authorities must also ensure that all detainees are protected against torture and other ill-treatment.”
Ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts in the form of mass arrest and forcible disappearance of Tigrayans in Ethiopia since November 2020 violate the international rules and standards of arrest. The immediate and unconditional release of all wrongfully detained Tigrayans is essential in mitigating the hostilities towards Tigrayans in Ethiopia. Human rights abuses and arbitrary arrests of Tigrayans by federal security forces and pro-government militias must end, and those whose whereabouts remain unknown must be accounted for.
Omna Tigray Contributor, September 2021