By Jean Damascene Hakuzimana • Photos | Joseph Shaw
On March 5, the Tigray Community of Maine held a demonstration in front of Portland City Hall to bring attention to the four-month-old crisis of their people back home in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where nearly three million people are reported to be in need of humanitarian assistance. According to numerous reports, people in Tigray are hungry – many starving – and refugees have fled to Sudan.
About 80 people attended the protest, some from as far away as Boston. Daniel Gebremariam, a Mainer from the Tigray region, said he feels an obligation to make Tigray’s voice heard. He expressed concern that the fighting between groups in Ethiopia could sow discord between communities of Ethiopians abroad. “I want to feel like an Ethiopian, and look at my fellow Ethiopians as brothers despite our different ethnicities,” said Gebremariam. He said he feels like a fool for not believing that Ethiopian brothers could attack each other in a bloody fight, like the one currently going on between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF have been fighting since November 2020. Amnesty International has documented massacres in the Tigray region and has called for a thorough investigation, citing potential war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sarah Jackson, deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes at Amnesty International, said, “The U.N. High Commissioner’s statement underscores the gravity of the alleged crimes being committed by all sides in the Tigray conflict, and the urgency of the U.N. acting now. It must dispatch an international, impartial investigation to monitor and report on the situation and to collect and preserve evidence of crimes committed by all parties. There is no time to lose – work on this must begin now, before evidence could be destroyed and memories begin to fade.”
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the situation as ethnic cleansing during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing, and Ethiopia’s foreign minister replied via Twitter, calling Blinken’s accusations “unfounded and spurious against the Ethiopian government.” However, Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia are all widely accused of killings. Thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes over the past four months. Reports of sexual and gender-based violence are widespread.
“My 15-year-old sister is alone and under siege in Tigray, and Mom and I are worried about her situation,” said Gebremariam, who explained that the internet is down, and phone service is only available some of the time. He said that when they have managed to reach his sister, she described the situation on the ground as unbelievably chaotic, with all residents instructed to keep the doors to their house open day and night, so that armed forces – among them Eritreans – can enter to check inside at any time.
Hagos Tsadik, another Mainer from Tigray, said that his family resides in a small town close to Eritrea, not far from the Tigray capital of Mekelle. He described the situation as volatile, with government forces, Eritrean forces, and the Amhara militia hunting day after day for anyone identified as Tigray.
Not everyone believes the trouble in Tigray is serious. Reached in Addis Ababa, Chemere Zewdie said, “Well, the current situation in the Tigray region is not as it is heard outside there. Even yesterday when I talked to my friend in Mekelle on the phone, I realized that what is being spread outside Tigray is completely different from what is on ground.” He believes that there is a huge propaganda campaign sensationalizing this crisis.
It has been widely reported that troops from the Eritrean army crossed the border to help Ethiopian defense forces crush Tigray. Gebremariam said that Eritrea has been waiting a long time to get revenge on Tigray, after decades of enmity and territorial conflict between Eritrea and what was formerly a Tigray-ruled Ethiopia. Tigray and Eritrea were once allies who fought to oust the authoritarian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. When they succeeded, in 1991, Eritrea moved quickly to secede and form their own country, while Tigrayans and other ethnic groups formed a Federal Government of Ethiopia.
Prior to the current conflict and the tensions leading to it, Gebremariam said he was thrilled that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was on the path of normalizing relations with Eritrea. “It was a great initiative to open borders between countries so that trade can resume between brother populations.” However, when his sister said that Eritrean troops were in Tigray killing, looting, and raping, his assessment changed.
A Tigray-led federal government of Ethiopia ruled the country for decades, until President Meres Zenawi from Tigray died in 2012 – and this despite Tigray being a minority ethnic group comprising only 6% of the country’s population. After Meres Zenawi’s death, the Tigray elites started losing their grip on power, but retained key positions in the army and government. Protests against human rights abuses, the killing of protesters by government forces, all paved the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from Oromo to accede to power in 2018. Days later, Abiy Ahmed began feuding with Tigray’s leaders, who snubbed him and refused to join the new coalition Abiy was forming.
Gebremariam called on Prime Minister Abiy to listen to all Ethiopians and end the conflict. He blamed the federal government, which he said is in the role of father to the country, but is being cruel to some of his kids, instead of bringing them to the same table and listening to them in order to craft a fair solution to end the conflict. “The solution should not be top-down, but rather the other way round,” he concluded.
U.S. Senator Chris Coons traveled to Ethiopia at the request of President Joe Biden and met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on March 20 and March 21. Although Abiy refused Coons’ call for a ceasefire, he did admit for the first time that Eritrean soldiers had entered the Tigray region. He also conceded that there had been human rights abuses, which he said would be punished. Washington is said to be concerned that the whole region of the Horn of Africa could be destabilized if violence spreads.