It’s been just over two years since a bloody war broke out in northern Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region. In early November of last year, a tenuous truce came into effect to see if the warring parties, the Ethiopian government under Abiy Ahmed Ali and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) could broker a long-lasting peace deal. It’s unclear which of these rival political groups fired the first shot. Some say Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF) fired first in retaliation for no longer being the country’s ruling party. Others say Ethiopian government forces deliberately attacked the TPLF first with the support of neighboring Eritrea. That’s why it remains unclear how this quagmire might end.
What’s shocking is that ordinary civilians, mostly Tigrayans, have been systematically starved, raped, displaced, killed, interned in concentration camps, and disappeared by Ethiopian and invading Eritrean troops in what looks like a brazen act of ethnic cleansing. According to a report by Amnesty International, in retaliation, the TPLF has also committed atrocities against innocent people living in the neighboring Amhara region. El Pais estimates that up to 600,000 people have died so far due to the dire situation in Tigray and bordering regions, a figure that’s quite staggering for the 21st century. These figures could be a lot higher. In addition, scores of churches, mosques, and monasteries have been shelled, bombed, ransacked, and looted in Tigray. Worshipers, including priests, have been killed in cold blood while praying and seeking refuge inside these holy sites. Ancient artifacts and scriptures supposedly stolen by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are even said to be up for sale on eBay. This historic region is home to the powerful Axumite Kingdom (1st to 7th century CE); it’s also where Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was born. Yet a senseless war threatens to decimate Tigray’s rich cultural heritage, which includes the world-renowned Obelisk of Axum and the Ark of the Covenant, some of the country’s holiest sites that can be traced as far back as the 6th century.
Aside from the horrors of war and genocide, since November 2020, there’s also been a war of words raging on Twitter. A government-imposed media blackout over all of Tigray has made it impossible to tell fact from fiction. Foreign journalists haven’t been able to gain access to the region, which has been cut off from the outside world, making it easier for disinformation to spread online. Broadly speaking, Tigrayan activists living abroad such as Meaza Gidey Gebremedhin have been exposing mass atrocities committed against local civilians under the hashtag #TigrayGenocide. A broad pro-Ethiopia voice, including Abiy himself, has been denying these claims using the #NoMore hashtag, with some people going as far as to designate the TPLF as a terrorist organization that’s killing its own people and threatening to tear Ethiopia apart. There’s also been a great deal of vitriol by Ethiopian citizens and politicians alike using hate speech to call for the extermination of Tigrayans. This hasn’t only prolonged the suffering of people in Tigray and the rest of the country. It also makes it difficult for those living in exile like myself to know what’s really going on. I am torn between the despair of Tigrayans and the denial of many Ethiopians and Eritreans, including some of my own friends and family. This often makes me question my own judgment, and fearful for the safety of loved ones living throughout the region if I even dare to form an opinion on the subject.
So, what’s really going on? Well, it depends on who you ask. Everyone has a different story. Is it genocide? Is it a civil war? Is the government fighting the threat of terrorism by the TPLF? Is the TPLF inflating the horrors of war? Is there even a war going on right now? This cacophony has also been fueled by the government’s denial that it has been waging a war on Tigray alongside Eritrean troops, blaming instead the TPLF for the conflict. During its nearly 30-year rule (1991 and 2018), the TPLF was notoriously repressive, making bitter enemies among the Amhara and Tigrigna elite of Eritrea. Abiy’s government is now trying covering up this national tragedy with rosy social media messaging.
Abiy is a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian who preaches the prosperity gospel. He believes that it was always his divine right to rule Ethiopia by unifying a country of over 117 million people and more than 80 ethnic groups under the philosophy of “Medemer” (an Amharic word which translates as “addition,” or “diverse unity”). Although he’s trying to salvage a dead imperial past where state and church are inseparable, Abiy’s policies are eroding the essence of Abyssinian and Tewahdo identity, which ironically means “being made one”. This makes it plausible for far-right religious zealots such as Daniel Kibret, and Amhara militias such as Fano to see the death of Tigrayan life and heritage as a win for Amhara identity, which they claim was suppressed under TPLF rule. And so, it comes as no surprise when Tigrayan troops seized UNESCO world heritage sites in Lalibela or if they reject what it means to be Ethiopian under the myth of Medemer. Writing for the journal Foreign Policy, Andrew DeCort argues that “a revival rooted in the country’s imperial history has coincided with civil war and the spread of genocidal rhetoric”. This false revival could also be leading to cultural genocide and make belief that a singular national identity can prevail despite the country’s ancient treasures being destroyed as Tigray descends into darkness. This didn’t deter the prime minister from posting picture-perfect images of cultural harmony throughout Ethiopia and lush green nature projects under the hashtag #GreenLegacy, depicting the country as a place of fertility and harmony. Meanwhile, the shelling and looting of many religious sites in remote parts of Tigray, including the Debre Damo monastery on January 11, 2021, and the church of Medhanie Alem Gu’etelo on January 5, 2021, in which four priests and a total of 28 civilians were shot dead by Eritrean troops, has been reported largely by foreign media, including Eritrea Hub.
The scale of all the destruction of holy sites and scriptures in Tigray is colossal. Although they deny it, a lot of the looting and shelling were done by Eritrean troops. And nor have Islamic places of worship been spared. On December 18, 2021, the Al Nejashi mosque, arguably Africa’s first mosque, was bombed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in Wukro town, just 500 miles outside Addis Ababa. Books, manuscripts, and shrines for the remains of the Prophet Mohamed’s followers were looted. In addition, the BBC reported that the mosque’s dome, the minaret, and tombs of Islamic figures were damaged. Hearing people destroy their own shared history and then denying it is so jarring. What’s really alarming is reports by the Times, as recently as February 2022, that there’s been an uptick in artifacts that may have been looted from Tigray being sold on eBay for as little as a few hundred dollars. We’re talking precious scrolls, manuscripts and bibles. Are the spoils of war now up for grabs online? Hagos Abrha Abay, a Philologist who was in Tigray at the start of the war told the Times that “there have been more popping up almost every day over the last six months.” eBay took some of these unverified items off its site after being quizzed by the British newspaper. If these illicit online sales continue, it will come as yet another blow, not only for the people of Tigray but also cultural heritage in Eritrea and Ethiopia, which is priceless. It can’t be reduced to stolen goods sold on the internet for a pittance.
Cacophony is almost always confusing. It helps us deflect, and deny what’s really going on around us. Trying to write a portrait of war in Tigray has made me realize that in a place such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, the truth is always arbitrary. It has zero political currency. Truth is the enemy of propaganda, it’s dangerous. It’s what makes people say, with conviction, that bombing a place of worship was meant to wipe out TPLF terrorists instead of admitting that killing civilians is a war crime. It also turns neighbors into enemies, detaching us from reason, and distorting memories of a place we once called home. I am no TPLF sympathizer, but I sense that Abiy and Isaias are determined to erase traces of Tigrayan life, art, politics, culture from living memory. All in the name of power and a false national identity. They may even distort how we remember this war, how many Tigrayans were systematically wiped off the face of the earth. I just hope that memories of this national tragedy don’t come back to haunt us and that Tigrayans don’t seek revenge. After all, they have always been quintessentially Ethiopian, yet their sense of belonging has been ravaged at the heart of a country where Tewahdo faith and Abyssinian identity took shape, long before the Axumite Empire even existed.
The cacophony of Abiy’s Medemer only stands to stifle what it means to belong in a country where patriotism is becoming more divisive and deadly. Whatever happens to Tigray’s place on the political map, I just hope its cultural heritage will be restored and protected in what looks like a wobbly peace deal that may only stand to benefit those currently in power. Back in October 2022, NASA showed how Tigray had faded from space with no electricity. But its rich heritage needs to shine deep within each and every one of us as a bold reminder of a long-forgotten gem within Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
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