A conflict in Ethiopia between the Ethiopian central government, the central government’s allies in neighboring nation Eritrea, and Tigray Defense Forces centralized in the Tigray region has cost thousands of lives and displaced at least a million people since it began in 2020. Despite the increasing brutality in Tigray, the genocide has been largely overlooked by the outside world, especially in comparison to the media’s ample coverage of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Despite this, international attention and concern are growing with news of atrocities and a worsening refugee crisis.
The series of events that led up to the conflict is complex–since 1994, Ethiopia has had a ‘federal system’ of government–meaning different ethnic groups control political affairs across ten major regions of the country. One of these parties governing Tigray’s region is called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF helped Ethiopia become more prosperous and stable, but critics of the party launched serious allegations of human rights abuses. This discontent morphed into a protest that evolved into an individual named Abiy Ahmed being appointed prime minister. By many accounts, Ahmed helped liberalize politics and remove leaders accused of corruption from power. Despite the popularity of his policymaking, these moves came with a cost: Tigray’s leaders saw his reforms as an attempt to centralize power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system.
This conflict came to a head on September 2nd, 2020, when the TPFL defied the central government and held its own regional election. In response, the central government ended funding and then eventually cut ties with the Tigray region in October 2020. In a statement released by Ahmed’s office following the ‘illegal’ election, Ahmed wrote, “The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation.” From this point on, the conflict has escalated into one of the worst humanitarian conflicts of the 21st century. It’s also important to note that Ahmed ended a long-standing territorial dispute with Ethiopia’s neighboring country Eritrea–this is why the central government has been able to rely on Eritrea’s support and military throughout the conflict.
On November 2nd, 2022, Ethiopia and the Tigrayan rebel forces agreed to a ceasefire of hostilities going into effect the day after. However, Eritrea was not a party to the agreement and their feelings towards the terms of the ceasefire remain uncertain. Since the crisis started, journalists and humanitarian aid organizations have been barred from entering the country. Innocent Tigrayans not directly involved in the conflict have taken the biggest toll as a result–over 600,000 people have died–prompting the New York Times to describe it in November 2022 as “one of the world’s bloodiest contemporary conflicts.”
The following is an interview with an SMCC student from Tigray who is working, in conjunction with others, to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. The interview took place on Sunday, November 13th, 2022, and was recorded via a Zoom interview with The SMCC Beacon.
Disclaimer: Some portions of the following interview have been edited for clarity. The interviewee has also opted to use a pseudonym (Jacob Williams) for privacy purposes.
Elora Griswold (EG): If you had to summarize, what is going on in Tigray and why should people pay attention?
Jacob Williams (JW): How would I classify what’s going on in Tigray? It’s definitely a genocide. People should pay attention because it’s arguably the worst war currently ongoing. The genocide has 8,000% of a death toll compared to the death toll in Ukraine. And compared to Ukraine, there is minuscule to absolutely no media coverage at all covering the crisis. I think it’s important to learn about what’s going on in Tigray because we’re all one race, and we should all care for one another, especially if it’s the worst war going on. And it just doesn’t seem right that all the international attention is directed towards Ukraine when there’s a much worse situation going on in the world.
EG: Can you give a year that the crisis started and then what’s going on as of right now in 2022?
JW: So the war began in 2020. It was essentially a cold war leading up that caused it. And since then, it’s just been spiraling downwards. The people are taking the biggest toll. From November until around June time, the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were the primary dominance in the war. Then it shifted. Tigrayan troops started holding their ground and pushing Ethiopian and Eritrean troops out, and ever since then, the primary dominance in the war has ebbed and flowed. I should mention, like I said, that the people are taking the biggest toll. It seems as if that’s been hidden, and there should be more emphasis on the human impact. There’s been an estimated 500,000-600,000 dead–all innocent civilians–which was estimated by Ghent University in Belgium. The way in which they died varies from direct killings to starvation, to heinous acts overall.
JW: The two sides have had talks recently, and they came to an agreement in which they put forth a ceasefire. The actual terms of it are a little bit complicated. They had agreed to a ceasefire under the conditions of disarmament of Tigrayan forces. The other condition is that all other forces must withdraw from Tigray. So, they call it a ceasefire, but it has some strict conditions. The war isn’t over until troops withdraw from Tigray. That’s where we’re currently at. We’re just waiting to see what happens.
EG: Is the media partially to blame for the lack of international awareness around atrocities being committed in this conflict?
JW: It is the media’s fault. But at the same time, journalists aren’t allowed into Tigray. The Ethiopian government has imposed a blockade on Tigray. So, there’s no journalists allowed, no humanitarian aid, or anything like that. But at the same time, the coverage shouldn’t be nonexistent from international media outlets for something that’s the worst crisis in the world.
EG: What have you been doing to raise awareness? Generally, what have people from Tigray been doing to raise awareness?
JW: Well, what the Tigrayan diaspora has been doing is spreading awareness through social media and organizing protests as much as they can. Also urging local officials to put pressure on Ethiopia to end the siege, allow humanitarian access in, and all that. It’s mostly been an online campaign to stop the war. It’s hard. I mean, we do try and push local officials. There are some officials that have been supportive. In Maine, I believe, Susan Collins and Angus King support the bills that are in place or being developed to reduce the effects of this war. So really, the primary instrument of advocacy is social media.
EG: Can you name bills that are in place or are being developed to reduce the effects of the conflict?
EG: Is there anything SMCC students, faculty, and the community, in general, could be doing to raise awareness or help with the situation?
JW: People can raise awareness through social media and try to stay in touch with the situation. There’s good organizations that can be found through social media. There are Instagram pages that are focused solely on advocacy against the Tigray genocide. One of them’s called Stand With Tigray (@standwithtigray) and the other one’s called Omna Tigray (@omnatigray). Those are really great and informative pages where you can get frequent updates on the situation in Tigray.
JW: There’s not a specific recipe to like advocacy–you have to use the right equipment at the right times. And currently, we’re in this time of what people are calling peace agreements–even though they’re not fulfilled yet–so they’re not complete peace agreements. We have to be very careful with what we use as advocacy and make sure that we equip ourselves with the correct advocacy. You have to use your best judgment in staying up to date and keeping in touch with the current situation to figure out what is the best way of advocacy. Most of the time is going to be advocating for an end to the genocide via social media, but sometimes urging your local officials is required.
EG: Is there anything else you wanted to add that people should know about?
JW: There is one thing I’d like to speak my voice on. I think I should say how I’m feeling being an insider to the war–what it’s like to have family back home there. Pretty much all of my family lives there today. And it’s really unfortunate because we don’t know if my family members are alive or not or how they might have died–whether it be through the massacre, or starvation, or lack of medical equipment. I just want to say that there are people that are actually being affected by this war. It’s not just a number or statistic, like ‘600,000 dead’–but 600,000 individuals. I just hope that the world would listen up and show some care for what’s going on. That’s my message.
EG: That’s a powerful message. I hope that some people will read this and start paying more attention.
JW: Yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate you facilitating this and being an instrument for it.
Elora welcomes students and faculty to reach out with suggestions for articles– you can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @elora.abigail.
Categories: Local Politics