The Tragedy of Western Tigray: A Continuous Cycle of Crimes and the Deliberate Destruction of Evidence
Western Tigray, located in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, has been a scene of horrific crimes since the onset of the war on Tigray on November 4, 2020. A joint investigation conducted by Amnesty International (AI) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) concludes that Tigrayans living in Western Tigray have experienced a “relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing by security forces from the neighboring Amhara region and their allies.” The report underscores that the “campaign of killing, rape, mass detentions, and forcible transfers amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The April 2022 joint AI-HRW report urges the Ethiopian government to call on its forces and Ethiopia’s Amhara regional security forces and militia to end these atrocities, allow humanitarian agencies full access to the area, including detention facilities, and support credible efforts to ensure those responsible for these grave crimes are held accountable.
As of April 2023, one year following the publication of the joint report, no such progress has been made. Western Tigray remains illegally occupied by Amhara forces and under siege with extremely limited access to humanitarian organizations. Reports of renewed displacements from Western Tigray have also emerged as a new influx of 47,000 IDPs has been recorded. They were forced to leave as result of “harassment, ethnic profiling and direct threats.”
At the time of the AI-HRW joint report, instead of heeding the urgent calls by international human rights organizations, the Amhara regional government, backed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean federal governments, deliberately destroyed evidence of the crimes committed. These acts of obstruction include executing Tigrayan witnesses, excavating mass graves, and burning human remains.
Tragically, the Amhara region’s University of Gondar (UoG) spearheaded these efforts despite being an academic institution that, in principle, should stand on the side of truth, justice, and peaceful public discourse. Completely abandoning its responsibilities and the principles on which it was founded, the UoG has enabled the destruction of evidence in several ways, including by providing chemicals for the burning of remains and training people to use the chemicals, according to a May 2022 BBC report.
In parallel, the UoG has also been engaged in misinformation efforts. For example, when the AI–HRW joint report was to be released, the university claimed to have discovered mass graves from decades ago alleging historical atrocities against ethnic Amharas committed by Tigrayan forces. However, some scholars have pushed back against UoG’s claims, revealing that there are no institutions or individuals within Ethiopia with the capacity, equipment, or training to conduct the forensic research necessary to come to such a conclusion.
The breach of UoG’s academic ethics goes beyond the destruction of evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. The university has also been a direct enabler of the genocidal war on Tigray. A statement by the Global Society of Tigray Scholars and Professionals exposes the university’s role in the war. The school sent faculty members to combat training, made financial contributions to the war on Tigray from faculty and staff salaries, and used UoG’s platform to promote war propaganda and hate speech.
The actions of UoG have contributed to the crimes committed against Tigrayans in Western Tigray and across Ethiopia over the past 25+ months. Ethnic cleansing and genocide have forcibly displaced at least 1.2 million Tigrayans from Western Tigray to other parts of Tigray. Over 70,000 Tigrayan refugees have fled to Sudan. Further, thousands of Tigrayans who remained in Western Tigray are presently held in detention facilities.
Tragically, the worst is expected for the thousands of Tigrayans that have been held in detention facilities in Western Tigray. Many in these detention facilities have been killed by Amhara regional forces and militias. The killings have taken place directly by executions and indirectly via deliberate starvation of detainees. A May 2022 news report reveals that thousands died of starvation in detention facilities in the town of Humera in Western Tigray. More than 260 in the same detention facilities experienced severe health problems, including swollen bodies, and were on the verge of death. Today, any news from Western Tigray is few and far between. Very little information emerges from the darkness about the fate of Tigrayans. What we know is that the campaign of ethnic cleansing has been successful, as Amhara settlers are brought in, new identification cards are issued, and names on land titles are changed.
As illustrated in this article, enough evidence about the crimes committed in Western Tigray has existed long enough for the international community to act. In March 2021, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that acts of ethnic cleansing were being committed in Western Tigray. Yet, the acknowledgement was not followed by any action, and rhetoric regarding crimes committed were walked back. Ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray simply continued. It took two years for Blinken to mention these crimes against humanity again. In his March 21, 2023 remarks about the crimes committed in Ethiopia, Blinken specifically mentioned Western Tigray, stating, “the crime against humanity of deportation, or forcible transfer, and … ethnic cleansing [have taken place] through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray.”
As part of releasing their findings on atrocities committed in Ethiopia, the U.S government, as much of the international community, has backed Ethiopia’s transitional justice process and speaks of moving forward. However, crimes continue to be committed, and evidence continues to be destroyed in the absence of any investigation, forensic or otherwise. The lack of international pressure has allowed ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans to spread to southern Tigray. The international community should not continue to watch passively as a tragedy of this magnitude unfolds.
The United States, the European Union, and other international actors must act now and pressure the Ethiopian government to stop the ethnic cleansing; immediately release all detainees held in mass detention facilities in Western Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia; allow humanitarian aid to flow into Tigray in an unhindered and uninterrupted manner, especially in the inaccessible Western Tigray; meaningfully reconnect all of Tigray and restore services; and hold those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide accountable in a victim-centered manner.
Assefaw Gebremedhin – Omna Tigray External Contributor, April 2023