Togoga Massacre and Ethiopia’s History of Aerial Bombardments

Togoga Massacre and Ethiopia’s History of Aerial Bombardments

June 22 is usually a day when Tigrayans commemorate their martyrs lost to Tigray’s fight for self-determination. The day itself has its origins in a somber day in 1988 when Mengistu Hailemariam, the Chairman of the ruling Derg military dictatorship, attempted to win his war against the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) by indiscriminately bombing civilians for a full day at a market in Hawzien. Aerial bombardments of civilians were a last resort in winning wars as Mengistu’s regime was losing on the ground. On that particular day in Hawzien about 2,500 civilians were killed. 

Thirty-two years later, on June 22, 2021, amid another war in Tigray, but this time a genocidal one on the people of Tigray, a market in Togoga in central Tigray, near Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle, was bombed. As was the case with the Hawzien massacre, high civilian casualties through bombardments are being used as a strategy to win a war being lost on the ground. The bombing of a marketplace on market day could only have the objective of killing as many civilians as possible. And to do so on a day meant to commemorate those lost in the Hawzien marketplace bombing is intended to cause the most psychological and physical harm, all in hopes of instilling fear and defeat. 

Initial reports place casualties at least 64 people killed and 180 injured, all civilians—despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed administration’s claim of having conducted precise airstrikes against “rebel fighters.” Evidence was clear that civilian casualties, among them women and children, were significant; and according to market goers present at the time of the attack, they did not see armed forces in the area

What’s worse is that all but two ambulances transporting victims of the attacks were allowed through to Mekelle, the only place where victims could receive treatment. The area’s health post was looted in February 2021 by Eritrean troops, so treatment, even initial trauma responses from medics, in the town itself would have been impossible. By not allowing ambulances through, the invading armed forces essentially sentenced those injured to death, many dying waiting for ambulances to be let through. In the words of Hailu Kebede, foreign affairs head of an opposition Tigrayan party Salsay Woyane: “Wounded civilians from the Togoga Massacre, […], have died overnight, as the invaders refused to allow ambulances to travel to the area. Their level of cruelty, their determination to see Tigrayans falling like leaves is unparalleled.”

Targeting civilians and withholding aid from civilians has been a hallmark of the acts constituting genocide being committed on the people of Tigray since November 2020. The intent of using these aerial bombardments as a tool of genocide is unique to this current war on Tigray, but as mentioned previously, using it to try to win wars being lost is not. The Ethiopian government’s history of bombing Tigrayan civilians as a weapon of war is evident. The first recorded occurrence was not in 1988 with the Hawzien Massacre, but during the time of Haile Selassie in 1943. 

Tigray’s steadfast defense of its territory, right to self-determination, and freedom is a long standing one. Amid worsening conditions in Tigray, Tigrayans launched their first Woyane (meaning uprising or revolt) against  Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule in 1943. As an initial response, the Emperor’s army, supported by the British armed forces, fought in the mountains of Tigray, suffering significant losses. This was the first time aerial bombardments were used as a last-ditch effort to subdue the people of Tigray. The Royal British Navy, with the permission of  Emperor Haile Salassie, bombed several places in Tigray, including Mekelle, Hintalo, and Corbetta. Thousands of civilians lost their lives. In Mekelle alone, on October 4, 1943, fifty four bombs were dropped. On this occasion, the aerial bombardments worked in quelling the first Woyane, and they were followed by further pacification of the region. 

Hence such a tactic has had mixed results for invading forces in Tigray: a positive outcome for Emperor Selassie and a negative one for the Derg, which found itself overthrown by the TPLF and allied forces three years after the bombardments in Tigray and Eritrea. For its part, the Abiy administration has employed aerial bombardments on several occasions during the genocidal war on Tigray. His forces did so at the beginning of the war, bombing Mekelle and other areas on November 27, 2020. Invading forces have once again resorted to aerial bombardments as illustrated by the Togoga massacre, as reports of the Tigray Defense Forces making considerable gains on the ground and the government and allied forces suffering significant casualties have emerged. 

Abiy has made clear throughout his genocidal war on Tigray, and especially with the bombing of the Togoga marketplace, that targeting  civilians is a part of his playbook to win this war and destroy Tigray. The watchful gaze of the international community has not affected his actions, nor will any condemnations. 

Abiy himself has made clear, using football as an analogy, that when your opponent is better than you, and you cannot hide from the referee, you just have to commit fouls, and more likely than not, the referee will not call it. This is what he expects when conducting ethnic cleansing and acts constituting genocide in Tigray.

As the Tigray Defense Force has taken over Mekelle and other Tigrayan cities, the international community must remain especially vigilant to any further last resort efforts from the Ethiopian government, especially aerial bombardment.

As the Tigray Defense Force has taken over Mekelle and other Tigrayan cities, the international community must remain especially vigilant to any further last resort efforts from the Ethiopian government, especially aerial bombardment.

SCS – Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2021