Source: Bloomberg


Few Americans know much about Ethiopia. Yet it is the second largest country in Africa in terms of population, has been an independent country for centuries, and the capital, Addis Ababa, serves as the headquarters of the African Union. When I was military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we had a strong partnership with the African Union, focused on combating piracy off the eastern coast of the continent.

Unfortunately, the nation of 115 million is now in the grips of a vicious rebellion that resembles the fighting in the Balkans of the 1990s — racial and ethnic divisions, atrocities on both sides including ethnic cleansing and gang rapes, armies fighting over territorial control, millions of refugees.

A few years ago, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling a long-running war with Eritrea, it looked like Ethiopia had a bright future. But over the past year, thousands have been killed in a revolt in Tigray Province and by the government's efforts to suppress it. It is not yet a full civil war, one engulfing the entire population. But the combined military forces of the rebel groups are within a few of hundred miles of Addis Ababa, and the prime minister has called on all males to prepare for combat.

What are the U.S. interests in this conflict, and what should Washington be doing about it?

First, Ethiopia matters because of its size and potential. It occupies a huge landmass — more than 1.5 times the size of Texas — in the heart of the Horn of Africa. While landlocked, it is the economic and political center of the strategically important northeast coast of Africa. Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, hosting the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa as well as the African Union and large missions from other nations on the continent.

Second, Ethiopia is central to overall politics and security on the continent. I discussed this with a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Reuben Brigity, who said: "Ethiopia's stability affects the entire region, from oil-rich South Sudan to the commercial hub of Kenya. Instability in Ethiopia will impact myriad U.S. interests in the region and beyond — from counterterrorism and trade to countering China and promoting democracy."

East Africa and the Sahel region have become breeding grounds for terrorist groups, and President Donald Trump's administration withdrew most U.S. troops from training and security missions there.

Third, we are seeing a huge humanitarian crisis unfolding. The United Nations projects mass refugee movements, greater atrocities and a high level of hunger if a full civil war breaks out. Dr. Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said, "Nobody is winning this reckless war which is engulfing increasing parts of the country."

Finally, there is a large, activist Ethiopian population in the U.S.; many of those immigrants remain closely connected with family and friends in their homeland. Hence the large demonstrations lately in the Washington metropolitan area, which hosts an Ethiopian population estimated at 75,000 to 200,000 people.

For all these reasons, the U.S. has a strong national interest in helping with the crisis. The problem — much like in the Balkans in the 1990s — is the longstanding antipathies in the country. The heart of the opposition to the federal government is the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which has cobbled together a coalition of other disenfranchised minorities and is marching on the capital. Large numbers of the Oromo and the Amhara peoples, along with smaller ethnic groups, have joined the antigovernment coalition.

The first step is negotiating a cease-fire leading to talks between the sides. International mediation efforts, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo under the aegis of the African Union, are attempting to create the conditions for pause in the fighting. U.S. diplomatic efforts are being led by special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, a highly regarded diplomat I've known for a decade — he's a fellow graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, where I served as dean — and he's a good choice for the job.

Washington needs to give Feltman freedom to use carrots and sticks: continuing to sanction the Ethiopian government for its human rights violations, while proffering aid and other assistance to the civilian population as an incentive for a cease-fire. Ethiopia should be considered for a new initiative by President Joe Biden's administration and Johnson & Johnson to rush doses of COVID-19 vaccine into conflict zones.

The U.S. should also be willing to participate in a UN-led peacekeeping effort to separate the warring parties, and use its logistical capabilities to ensure that aid can flow to every area. The military's U.S. Africa Command has deep knowledge of the region and the Ethiopians, and could help in structuring such a peacekeeping force.

Sending troops to East Africa may not play well in U.S. domestic politics. But three decades ago, the world stood by and watched a brutal civil war unfold in the small African nation of Rwanda. That was shameful. Ethiopia is far larger and more geopolitically important than Rwanda, and Africa is now the fastest-growing continent — it may flourish, or it could collapse into political chaos, starvation and terrorism. As the U.S. and its allies forge a strategy to engage the continent as whole, helping end Ethiopia's misery now makes a lot of sense.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."

Martin Plaut | November 12, 2021 at 7:52 am | Tags: Tigray war, US Troops | Categories: Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Horn of Africa | URL:


Date: 12/11/2021

It is easy to forget just how critical the role of President Isaias Afwerki has been in the war on Tigray.

This is not surprising: he says nothing and allows no independent journalist to report from Eritrea. We have little clear understanding of how many troops Eritrea has in the war, and only sad references to the deaths of young men and women in large numbers.

Yet his role has been critical – with Eritrean troops still holding large parts of Tigray’s northern border and western Tigray along the border with Sudan.

Key points to remember:

  1. There was a lengthy buildup to the Tigray war, which has been clearly documented, as the relationship between President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy grew. You can find a timeline of this here.
  2. President Isaias hated Tigray for years: his motivation is little understood, but has been traced here.
  3. President Isaias laid out his war aims to his senior military leaders and political colleagues prior to the war. You can find this here.
  4. He planned for a possible federation with Ethiopia. You can find this here.

Ignoring this buildup to the war and the Eritrean war aims skews the understanding of how and why the war began.



The only path through tragedy is via negotiations between the government and rebels. That is the least likely scenario.

Source: Financial Times

By David Pilling

Rarely can the prospects of any nation have imploded so spectacularly as those of Ethiopia.

Not long ago, the country of 110m people, Africa’s second most populous, was considered a rare economic success, its two decades of double-digit growth and impressive development gains erasing a former reputation for bad government and famine.

The ascension to power three years ago of Abiy Ahmed, a would-be moderniser, was seen as a chance to go one better. He could liberalise the economy and spread democratic icing on a resolutely authoritarian cake. Yet since last November, tragedy has unfolded with an Afghan-like velocity.

On the one-year anniversary of war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Tigrayan forces are intimating they could march on Addis Ababa, the capital, and eject Abiy from power. The TPLF, which ran the country for 27 years until 2018, is no Taliban, however brutally it governed and whatever its detractors say. But like the Taliban, banished from government and criminalised, it could now bludgeon its way back to power.

The fighting has unleashed obscene violence. This week, a joint investigation by the UN and an Ethiopian state-appointed human rights commission found that all sides — the government’s forces, its Eritrean allies, the TPLF and sundry militias — had “committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Ethnically charged hate speech is at levels reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda.

The war between Addis and the TPLF has spawned another between Tigray and Amhara, neighbouring regions with ancient rivalries and modern land-and-power-related disputes.

Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has at times sounded unhinged. “The pit which is dug will be very deep, it will be where the enemy is buried, not where Ethiopia disintegrates,” he said in a speech this week, according to a Reuters translation. “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones.”

A slightly milder version on his Facebook account was removed for violating rules on incitement to violence.

It is hard to see a path out of tragedy. “There are two options,” Tewodros Hailemariam, a senior member of the National Movement of Amhara, told the BBC. “Either the TPLF is defeated and the Ethiopian central government is saved or . . . the TPLF rules and controls Addis Ababa and there will be civil war in the entire nation.”

How has Ethiopia reached this blood-soaked impasse?

Most of the regions into which Ethiopia is divided — including Tigray, Amhara and Oromia — regard themselves as nations with their own languages, cultures and competing versions of history.

Transfer of control involves profound shifts in the balance of power between constituent nations of the “Ethiopian empire” and is rarely less than traumatic. Haile Selassie, who oversaw a feudal system, was deposed and later executed after a student-inspired, Marxist-led uprising in 1974.

The regime that followed, the Derg, dismantled feudal land structures but imposed a “red terror” that culminated in man-made famine. After decades of perceived Amhara domination, it was a rebel army from Tigray that led the 1991 overthrow of the Derg.

The TPLF, though it represented a region with only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, held power until 2018.

Abiy is from Oromia, the most populous region with more than one-third of Ethiopia’s population, but which has traditionally stayed on the margins of government.

His election followed years of protests against Tigray’s outsized influence on politics. He promoted national unity. To some, that promised modern, ethnic-neutral democracy; to others, it spelt a return to the suppression of ethnic rights.

Abiy not only failed to placate the fears of a TPLF jettisoned from power, which he blamed for terrorist acts aimed at destabilising his government. He even alienated his own Oromo base, which feared he would roll back regional autonomy in pursuit of his national vision.

That perception has spelt disaster. The Oromo Liberation Army has joined forces with the TPLF and they could conceivably march on Addis together.

Now he finds himself cornered. Anything other than total victory spells his political end. The TPLF is in a similar position. Short of recapturing national power, an organisation now branded by Abiy as a “criminal clique” faces life in the wilderness. T

he only plausible way out is to talk. Tragically, that appears to be the least likely outcome.


A United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces has been launched at a press conference in Washington.

The nine member group signed the founding document at the National Press Club.

Speaking after the signing they made clear that the main objective was to oust the Abiy government – by negotiations or by force.

A joint military command will be established to bring this about and co-operation will be extended to other areas.

Mr Okok from the Gambella Peoples Liberation army said that his people had been treated like “slaves” by Ethiopian regimes down the years. “There has been systematic racism – like apartheid – in our country,” he said.

Now was the time for a decentralised government, which would recognised the rights of all the peoples, and allow them to enjoy their resources without exploitation by the centre.

He said the new Front would defend article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution which guaranteed the right to self-determination, up to and including secession.

Mr Okok thanked the Tigrayans for starting the armed resistance and said that by doing so they were fighting for all minorities – including the Gambella, South Omo and Benishangul peoples.


A bill has been drawn up which goes beyond previous congressional resolutions – it would (if passed) have the force of law.

Among many other provisions, it would mandate some of what the Biden administration has already ordered or threatened to do. It will end security assistance to Ethiopia.
The  Bill specifically calls for the Secretary of the Treasury to use American votes in international financial organisations: “(1) to use the voice and vote of the United States in those institutions to oppose any loan or extension of financial or technical assistance to the Governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
Below is what the proposers have said about it.
You can find the full bill here


WASHINGTON – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) were joined today by State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) in marking one year since the beginning of the conflict in Ethiopia with the introduction of their Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act of 2021, bipartisan legislation to bolster the United States’ diplomatic, development, and legal response to support democracy, human rights, peace, and stability in Ethiopia. In addition to suspending American security assistance to the Government of Ethiopia and authorizing American support for conflict resolution and civil society peacebuilding efforts, the bipartisan legislation mandates the imposition of targeted sanctions against individual actors who are found to undermine attempts to resolve, who profit from, or who provide material support to any entity that is party to the civil war.

“I am proud to be joined by my colleagues in introducing the Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act of 2021 to enhance our nation’s efforts to pursue meaningful accountability for the bloodshed and tragedy in Tigray,” Chairman Menendez said. “The United States and broader international community cannot turn away from the people of Ethiopia as staggering reports of extrajudicial killings, murdered aid workers, and use of mass rape and sexual violence as weapons of war continue to pour out of the region. I am committed to continue working with my colleagues to secure this legislation’s passage and demonstrate that the United States will match our words of support with unflinching, definitive and robust action. A year in, we must confront this raging conflict head-on and hold perpetrators of heinous abuses responsible.”

“This legislation sends a strong bipartisan message that Congress will not stand by as the war in northern Ethiopia continues without action from all sides to stop the fighting and engage in dialogue,” said Ranking Member Risch. “This is a regional crisis that requires a coordinated and intensive international response, to include holding accountable those responsible for the ongoing fighting, humanitarian crisis, and mass disinformation campaign being waged inside and outside Ethiopia. We must look at this legislation and other options to directly address disinformation – funding and stoking conflict, no matter where you are, should carry consequences.”

“Last November, I called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to urge him to reconsider his military campaign in Tigray and to choose dialogue and reconciliation. In March, I traveled to Ethiopia on behalf of President Biden to deliver the same message. One year into this brutal and tragic conflict, Ethiopia is facing a full blown humanitarian catastrophe and spreading civil war,” said Senator Coons. “I am joining my colleagues to introduce this bipartisan legislation to punish actors that continue to fuel violence, violate human rights, and undermine a democratic, peaceful, and unified Ethiopia.”

The legislation builds upon the Biden administration’s recent Executive Order and newly announced plans to end Ethiopia’s eligibility for trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in January of 2022 absent the Ethiopian government’s urgent action to stop parties’ direct or complicit involvement in the perpetration of human rights violations and other unconscionable abuses.


Abiy’s hunger plan is an international crime to be exposed, sanctioned, and punished, not appeased. The aid should flow now, no matter what. That is the law, and the UN should uphold it.

Implementing the right to life for the starving means that the UN must deal with the realities on the ground. That means speaking directly with the Tigrayans, the Oromo Liberation Army, and whoever controls territory and people, to allow the aid to flow. If that means overruling the wishes of Abiy, so be it.

Source: Al Jazeera

Tigray is starving, it is time for the UN to act

The aid should flow to Tigray now, no matter what. That is the law, and the United Nations should uphold it.

Last month, PBS Newshour asked former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, “Is the Ethiopian government trying to starve Tigray?” Able to speak candidly after his retirement, he answered, “Yes. There’s not just an attempt to starve six million people but an attempt to cover up what’s going on.”

Today, the realities are changing fast. With the Ethiopian army defeated, and the victorious Tigrayan forces and their Oromo allies closing in on the capital, Addis Ababa, the UN has one last chance to do the right thing. The absolute minimum is to act to stop the deepening starvation in Tigray and the widening humanitarian crisis across other parts of Ethiopia. With the economic crisis spiralling, hunger is even knocking on the door of Addis Ababa.

Starvation has been the Ethiopian government’s weapon of choice. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s famine plan for Tigray was simple and relentless. For eight months, his soldiers – and their Eritrean allies – pillaged and ransacked Tigray. They stole and burned food, stopped farmers from ploughing the land, looted and vandalised clinics and hospitals, ripped up water pipes and damaged water pumps, terrorised women and girls with rape and threats of rape, and helped themselves to much of the relief food delivered from outside.

Abiy imposed starvation in a systematic and rigorous way. It is not clear whether he wanted to weaken the Tigrayans’ capacity or resolve, to punish them, or to destroy them altogether. Whatever the motive, it redoubled the Tigrayans’ fierce determination to prevail, because their very survival was at stake.

In June, when the Tigrayan resistance drove out the occupying soldiers, Abiy imposed a comprehensive and unlawful blockade: food and medicine cannot get in, information about the starvation cannot get out. The banks are closed; salaries are not paid and humanitarian agencies do not have money to operate. The UN estimates that 100 truckloads of food are needed every day to feed five million people in need, including at least 400,000 suffering famine. About 13 percent of that amount has actually been allowed through.

Tigrayan children are wasting away, one-fifth of them severely undernourished. Four out of five pregnant or nursing mothers are acutely malnourished. Nurses are fainting of hunger on the job.

A comprehensive news blackout has been imposed to stop images and information from seeping out. But the truth is inescapable. And Abiy seems to have forgotten a lesson from history: previous Ethiopian leaders lost their legitimacy when their people starved.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime collapsed in the aftermath of a famine in 1973, which he tried to conceal. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam denied the existence of famine in 1984, and did his best to block relief aid to rebel-held areas in the name of protecting national sovereignty. The result was that the international donors supported a clandestine cross-border aid effort, and in due course adopted a series of norms culminating in the “responsibility to protect”.

War creates hunger – and hunger also drives war. The UN Security Council expressed this fear when it adopted resolution 2417 in May 2018: “Recognising the need to break the vicious cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity.”

Humanitarian failure escalated Ethiopia’s war. With the international humanitarians deferring to the Ethiopian government, the Tigrayan resistance took matters into their own hands.

After seizing control of their home region, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) took the offensive, sending units beyond the boundaries of their region, saying they are determined to break the starvation siege by any means necessary. As their troops have penetrated deep into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, they have requisitioned food and medical supplies. In the coming days, they are set to control the road from Djibouti, which is the main access route for humanitarian supplies as well as the main commercial route to Addis Ababa.

But Abiy refuses to accept that starvation is a weapon that fatally injures its user. In response to a deeply flawed report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Abiy falsely claimed that he was exonerated of weaponising hunger. In fact, the joint investigation only mentioned a handful of starvation crimes and has nothing to say about the unlawful siege on Tigray imposed since June. Abiy is sending his air force to bomb the Tigrayan city of Mekelle and he is buying drones. And he has still not agreed to unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray.

Abiy’s hunger plan is an international crime to be exposed, sanctioned, and punished, not appeased. The aid should flow now, no matter what. That is the law, and the UN should uphold it.

Implementing the right to life for the starving means that the UN must deal with the realities on the ground. That means speaking directly with the Tigrayans, the Oromo Liberation Army, and whoever controls territory and people, to allow the aid to flow. If that means overruling the wishes of Abiy, so be it.


People close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, asserted that the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, underplayed some allegations that fighters from the country’s Amhara region were responsible for abuses in Tigray and pressed instead to highlight abuses by Tigray forces.

FILE - Haftom Gebretsadik, a 17-year-old from Freweini, Ethiopia, near Hawzen, who had his right hand amputated and lost fingers on his left after an artillery round struck his home in March, sits on his bed at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 6, 2021. A year after war began there, the findings of the only human rights investigation allowed in Ethiopia's blockaded Tigray region will be released Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
FILE – Haftom Gebretsadik, a 17-year-old from Freweini, Ethiopia, near Hawzen, who had his right hand amputated and lost fingers on his left after an artillery round struck his home in March, sits on his bed at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 6, 2021. A year after war began there, the findings of the only human rights investigation allowed in Ethiopia’s blockaded Tigray region will be released Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The findings of the only human rights investigation allowed in Ethiopia’s blockaded Tigray region will be released Wednesday, a year after war began there. But people with knowledge of the probe say it has been limited by authorities who recently expelled a U.N. staffer helping to lead it.

And yet, with groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International barred from Tigray, along with foreign media, the report may be the world’s only official source of information on atrocities in the war, which began in November 2020 after a political falling-out between the Tigray forces that long dominated the national government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s current government. The conflict has been marked by gang rapes, mass expulsions, deliberate starvation and thousands of deaths.

The joint investigation by the U.N. human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, or EHRC, is a rare collaboration that immediately raised concerns among ethnic Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers about impartiality and government influence.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said it wouldn’t have been able to enter Tigray without the partnership with the rights commission. Although past joint investigations occurred in Afghanistan and Uganda, the U.N. said, “the current one is unique in terms of magnitude and context.”

But Ethiopia’s government has given no basis for expelling U.N. human rights officer Sonny Onyegbula last month, the U.N. added, and without an explanation “we cannot accept the allegation that our staff member … was ‘meddling in the internal affairs’ of Ethiopia.”

Because of those circumstances, and the fact that the U.N. left the investigation to its less experienced regional office in Ethiopia, the new report is “automatically suspect,” said David Crane, founder of the Global Accountability Network and founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal.

“What you need when you go into an atrocity zone is a clean slate so outside investigators can look into it neutrally, dispassionately,” Crane said. “You want to do these things where you don’t build doubt, distrust from the beginning,” including among people interviewed.

The investigation might be the international community’s only chance to collect facts on the ground, he said, but because of its setup, it may disappear “in the sands of time.”

People close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, asserted that the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, underplayed some allegations that fighters from the country’s Amhara region were responsible for abuses in Tigray and pressed instead to highlight abuses by Tigray forces.

That’s even though witnesses have said the perpetrators of most abuses were soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopian forces and Amhara regional forces.

In response to AP’s questions, Bekele asserted his commission’s independence, saying it is “primarily accountable to the people it is created to serve.” Attempts to influence the investigation, he added, can come from ”many directions” in such a polarized environment.

Bekele said he and the commission have consistently cited “serious indications that all parties involved in the conflict have committed atrocities.”

Observers say a major shortcoming of the investigation is its failure to visit the scene of many alleged massacres in Tigray, including the deadliest known one in the city of Axum, where witnesses told the AP that several hundred people were killed.

Bekele said the investigation lacked the support of the Tigray authorities now administering the region after Tigray forces retook much of the area in June, about midway through the joint team’s work.

The U.N. human rights office, however, said the government’s subsequent severing of flights and communications from Tigray during the planned investigation period made it difficult to access key locations, both “logistically and from a security point of view.”

Even the interim Tigray authorities hand-picked by Ethiopia’s government to run the region earlier in the war rejected the joint investigation, its former chief of staff, Gebremeskel Kassa, told the AP.

“We informed the international community we wanted an investigation into human rights but not with the EHRC because we believe this is a tool of the government,” he said.

The U.N. has said Ethiopia’s government had no say in the report’s publication, though it was given the chance to read the report in advance and to point out “anything it believes to be incorrect.”

Late last week, Ethiopia’s government and a diaspora group released the results of their own investigations focusing on alleged abuses by Tigray forces after they entered the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar four months ago in what they called an effort to pressure the government to end its blockade on Tigray.

The ministry of justice said it found 483 non-combatants were killed and 109 raped in parts of Amhara and Afar that were recaptured by federal forces in recent weeks. It also found “widespread and systematic looting” of schools, clinics, churches, mosques and aid groups’ offices.

A separate report by the Amhara Association of America said it found that 112 people were raped in several districts covered by the ministry’s findings. The diaspora group drew on data from offices of women’s and children’s affairs as well as interviews with witnesses, doctors and officials.

The diaspora group asserted that the Tigray forces “committed the rapes as revenge against ethnic Amharas, whom they blame as responsible for abuses in their home region.”

The spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, said the allegations aren’t worth “the paper they’re written on.” Accusations of rapes and killings by Tigray forces are “absolutely untrue, at least on a level these organizations are alleging,” he said.

Source=In Ethiopia’s war, Eritrea's army exacted deadly vengeance on old foes (

Dual Agenda

In Ethiopia’s civil war, Eritrea's army exacted deadly vengeance on old foes

An Eritrean refugee is silhouetted behind a curtain in Addis Ababa on June 25. He is among thousands who have fled refugee camps. REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie

When Eritrea sent troops into the Tigray region, the secretive nation seized a double opportunity: It detained thousands of Eritrean refugees as it battled Ethiopia’s former rulers. Spearheading the bloody campaign: a colonel nicknamed ‘Son of Bread’

Filed Nov. 1, 2021, 11 a.m. GMT


Over two decades, Eritreans poured across the border into Ethiopia, fleeing forced military service, torture, and prison in one of Africa’s most repressive states. By last November, around 20,000 of them were living at two refugee camps here in Ethiopia’s Tigray province, finding haven in their more prosperous neighbour.

That month, rebellion broke out in Tigray, pitting the region’s rulers against Ethiopia’s central government. The Eritrean military sent in tanks and troops to aid its ally, Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed – and to settle old scores.

Within days, truckloads of soldiers from the 35th Division of the Eritrean Army arrived at the two refugee camps, Hitsats and Shimelba. The soldiers had lists of names.

In Hitsats, where undulating hills wrapped around the camp’s white tents and corrugated iron shacks, soldiers called refugee leaders to a meeting. The 20 or more who complied were detained, said more than a dozen witnesses, one demonstrating how the men’s elbows were pinioned behind their backs. They were held for two days at a church building in the camp, then loaded onto trucks by Eritrean soldiers and driven away, the witnesses said. Reuters has confirmed the names of 17 of the men. Their families haven't heard from them since.");">
Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia’s Tigray region used to be home to thousands of Eritrean refugees. Natalia Paszkiewicz/Handout via REUTERS
Refugees in Hitsats built small windowless homes. Some set up small restaurants or kept animals. Natalia Paszkiewicz/Handout via REUTERS

Similar scenes played out in Shimelba, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Eritrean border. “They were looking for members of the opposition. They had a list,” said a Shimelba refugee leader.

The Eritrean soldiers detained around 40 people there, some of them women, said the refugee leader. Like most others interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition that his name be withheld to protect his family in Eritrea and for his own safety in Ethiopia.

The arrival of the Eritrean troops marked the beginning of a months-long ordeal for thousands of Eritrean refugees – first hunted by the Eritrean military, then attacked by Tigrayan fighters who accused the refugees of conspiring with the enemy.

Reuters spoke to more than 60 refugees. These interviews revealed the role of the Eritrean Army division and commander who led the campaign to force the refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrean soldiers then destroyed the camps.

The refugees told of a systematic military operation: At a border town, Eritrean soldiers set up a COVID-19 quarantine centre, staffed by Eritrean doctors; soldiers then bussed thousands of refugees into Eritrea. Some went at gunpoint; others said they went voluntarily, swapping the perils of Tigray for the uncertainties of their homeland. The refugees also told for the first time how, once in Eritrea, some of their number were jailed or forced into military service.

When war broke out in Tigray last year between Ethiopia’s central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean refugees were caught in the fighting. Above, Eritrean refugees protest in Addis Ababa in July against attacks on refugees in the Hitsats and Shimelba camps. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“(The Eritrean soldiers) were looking for members of the opposition. They had a list.”

An Eritrean refugee leader at Shimelba camp

A former top-ranking Eritrean military officer, now in exile, told Reuters he has seen Eritrean government documents that show more than 9,000 refugees returned to Eritrea. Reuters was unable to obtain these documents. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Reuters in a statement its teams have interviewed several hundred refugees who say they escaped after a forced return to Eritrea. The agency estimates 7,600 refugees are still missing. Some have likely moved to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, UNHCR said.

The refugees interviewed by Reuters spoke of killings, gang rapes and looting both by Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan fighters. Some incidents in late 2020 and early 2021 are documented in a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Refugees told Reuters attacks by Tigrayans have continued, including lynchings in June in the northern town of Shire.

Debretsion Gebremichael is the leader of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls most of Tigray. The TPLF is locked in a battle with the Ethiopian government which has designated the TPLF a terrorist organization. Picture taken July 7, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

Eritrea has denied that refugees were forcibly returned. It has also rejected accusations that its forces killed Tigrayan civilians and forced some into sexual slavery, as first revealed by Reuters. In August, the United States imposed sanctions on the chief of staff of the Eritrean military, Filipos Woldeyohannes, saying forces he commands committed atrocities, including massacres and sexual assaults. Eritrea dismissed the charges at the time as “utterly baseless.”

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy has said he has assurances from Eritrea that it will hold to account any soldiers found guilty of abuses. His spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, did not respond to Reuters questions about whether any Eritrean soldiers had been charged. Eritrea’s government and military did not respond to detailed questions for this article.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the head of the party that controls most of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), said his organization had no knowledge of attacks by Tigrayan fighters on Eritrean refugees. Tigrayan soldiers were ordered not to enter the refugee camps, he told Reuters. TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said it was possible there were “vigilante groups acting in the heat of the moment.” Getachew did not respond to questions about whether the TPLF was investigating alleged crimes.

The refugees’ plight shows how Tigray has become the crucible of a power struggle between Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF, a guerilla movement-turned-political party that once dominated the country. The civil war has drawn in the authoritarian government of neighbouring Eritrea. Led by President Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea views the TPLF as its arch enemy and Tigray as a haven for refugee dissidents. For the first five months of the conflict, Eritrea denied its soldiers were inside Tigray. The Eritrean army continues to operate in northern Ethiopia, according to witnesses.

Ethiopia – home to 109 million people – is Africa’s second-most-populous nation and has been a key Western ally in an unstable region. For years it was Africa’s fastest-growing economy, and when Abiy took power as prime minister in 2018, he was hailed as a democratic reformer.

But the country is now in crisis. The war in Tigray has cost thousands of lives, triggered a famine and displaced more than 2 million people. Tiny Eritrea, a land of just 3.5 million people, plays an outsized role in the chaos.

Old enemies

Enmity between Eritrea and the TPLF runs deep. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades and fought a border war with Eritrea in 1998-2000. Abiy made peace with Eritrea months after becoming prime minister. The deal earned him the Nobel Peace Prize – and, in Eritrean President Isaias, a powerful ally against the TPLF.

Hitsats and Shimelba were two of four camps for Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Poor but peaceful, they were run by Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and UNHCR. Some residents built tiny, windowless huts from stones or wattle and daub. Others set up small restaurants or kept animals to earn a few pennies.

Since agreeing a peace accord in 2018, Eritrea and Ethiopia have become allies. Above, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (right) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attend a ceremony to mark the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa in July, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

UNHCR says Eritrea generated the world’s third-largest number of refugees per capita in 2020, behind Syria and South Sudan. About 15% of its people – more than 520,000 – have fled. Around 150,000 of these refugees have made their way to Ethiopia; 96,000 lived in Tigray. Eritrea insists those who have left are economic migrants.  

Many of the Eritrean refugees in Hitsats and Shimelba recounted brutal treatment in their homeland. With no free media and no elections, Eritrea has been described by some Western media and think tanks as “the North Korea of Africa.” Men and unmarried women over the age of 18 are conscripted into indefinite military or government service. Some told Reuters they had been forced into it years earlier. One refugee, a grey-haired military deserter who retains a soldier’s posture, told Reuters his family left Eritrea after soldiers came to his home and smashed his 14-year-old son in the face, demanding to know the father’s whereabouts. The boy still has a scar. Medical scans, seen by Reuters, show a skull fracture.

“The government will forgive you”

Soldiers from the 35th Division of the Eritrean Army reached Hitsats on Nov. 19, according to refugees at the camp and people living in the vicinity. The camps lay in an area where the Ethiopian Army had no presence at the time, local residents said.

The soldiers were led by an officer who introduced himself as Wedi Kecha, said two refugees, who previously served under him in the Eritrean Army and knew him by sight. Two campaigners for the rights of Eritrean refugees – British-based Elsa Chyrum and an activist in the United States – told Reuters that refugees they spoke to also identified Wedi Kecha as the commander. The former top-ranking Eritrean military officer confirmed to Reuters that Wedi Kecha leads the 35th Division.

Wedi Kecha didn’t respond to questions sent by Reuters via the Eritrean military. The Eritrean Army didn’t comment about Wedi Kecha’s role.

The soldiers gathered the refugees outside a church hall in the camp on Nov. 21. “Wedi Kecha introduced himself as the commander of the 35th Division,” said one of the refugees present, who served under Wedi Kecha in the Eritrean Army in the 1990s and spent two years stationed at the same base as him within the last decade. Wedi Kecha, this refugee said, “means ‘Son of Bread.’ It’s a nickname he has had since childhood.”

Wedi Kecha’s real name, according to this refugee and the former top-ranking Eritrean military officer, is Colonel Berhane Tesfamariam. Wedi Kecha fought in Eritrea’s war of independence from Ethiopia, which ended in 1991, the former top officer said. He is believed to be in his 60s. According to the refugee, Wedi Kecha was an excellent footballer in his younger days and used to play as a midfielder for a team that competed at a national level.

Wedi Kecha told the crowd that his soldiers had come to protect the refugees. He invited the refugees to return to Eritrea, telling them,  “the government will forgive you.”

Soldiers from the 35th Division also came to Shimelba, according to refugees there. At a meeting on a football pitch at the camp on Nov. 18, leaders were addressed by an officer – described by one refugee as elderly, tall and strong, and identified by another as Wedi Kecha. The officer told the refugees that the soldiers were there to protect them. It was safe to return to Eritrea, he said, but if the refugees chose to stay, no one would help them.

“No one said a word. The commander said, ‘Go and sleep and think about what I said.’ And that was the end of the meeting,” recalled one refugee, a medical student, who was present. Two weeks later, the Eritrean soldiers started arresting refugees.

“They came at night to homes and picked up people whose names they knew,” said the medical student. “They had a list. There was no explanation.”

Many refugees at the two camps accused Eritrean troops of looting, killings and rapes. Eritrean soldiers looted Hitsats camp so thoroughly they even dismantled the water tanks, two international aid workers told Reuters. In Shimelba, a witness said they stole UNHCR’s solar panels. UNHCR said both camps were destroyed.

On Dec. 9, Eritrean soldiers shot dead four refugees and two Tigrayan civilians at Shimelba and dumped the bodies in a trench, said two witnesses – an aid worker and a refugee. Among the victims was a young Tigrayan whose mother and sister begged for his life, the aid worker said. Refugees recovered the bodies and buried them.

A female refugee at the same camp said her friend was raped twice on the same day by groups of Eritrean soldiers. Other refugees said that they witnessed Eritrean soldiers take away female refugees. When the four women returned, they said they’d been raped. Reuters was unable to verify these accounts.

Rage of the Tigrayan militias

For years, local Tigrayan families made the Eritrean refugees welcome in Ethiopia; they speak the same language and there was some intermarriage. That changed after Eritrea entered the war. Some Tigrayans began to call the refugees “shabiya” – a slang term for Eritrean troops – and accused them of colluding with the Eritrean Army.

Soon, Eritrean troops were killing Tigrayans, and Tigrayans were killing Eritrean refugees.

Human Rights Watch said in its report that on Nov. 19 Eritrean soldiers ransacked the town of Hitsats, which adjoins the camp, and killed many Tigrayan civilians.

A Tigrayan former guard for Ethiopian refugee agency ARRA told Reuters that Eritrean soldiers shot dead 17 members of his family that day. Among the dead were his sons aged 16 and 23. A second relative confirmed the account. Only the guard’s elderly mother survived. She covered the bodies with bed sheets until she ran out of linen, the guard said. Eritrea’s government did not respond to questions about the conduct of Eritrean troops.

On Nov. 23, local Tigrayan militiamen attacked Hitsats camp and shot dead eight Eritrean refugees outside the facility’s Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, according to two dozen witnesses.

One of the dead was 29-year-old Tesfa Alem Habte, an aspiring geologist who loved science and football, said a relative.

“He had a good, bright future,” the relative said. Tesfa Alem’s name means “Hope of the World." Before Tesfa Alem left Eritrea, he used to organize donations of school books and other supplies to poor rural villages, the relative said.

In November last year, Tigrayan militiamen attacked Hitsats camp and shot dead eight Eritrean refugees near this church, according to two dozen witnesses. Picture taken in August, 2021.
Tesfa Alem Habte, above, was one of the victims of the attack. His name means “Hope of the World.”

“The Tigray militia forced us to move. Every time we left someone behind, we heard a gunshot. At some point I stopped counting them.”

An Eritrean refugee from Hitsats camp

A refugee shared photographs of Tesfa Alem and two other victims of the Nov. 23 attack, their bodies prepared for burial, swathed in floral sheets. Tesfa Alem’s family confirmed he is pictured there. Another source provided photos of the burial place. Yellow wildflowers adorned Tesfa Alem's grave.

Five refugees said they recognized local Tigrayans among the attackers. Four of them accused some Tigrayan staff of ARRA, the Ethiopian refugee agency, of assisting the militiamen by guiding them through the camp. ARRA didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Reuters couldn’t determine whose orders the Tigrayan militiamen were acting on when they attacked Hitsats camp. Debretsion, head of the TPLF, denied that forces directly commanded by the TPLF were involved in attacks on refugees. He said reports of abuses should be investigated.

Many different forces in Tigray are fighting the central government, complicating efforts to pinpoint perpetrators of the violence.

There is a main, umbrella force that calls itself the Tigray Defense Force and answers to TPLF leaders, including Debretsion. It is made up of a combination of Tigrayan deserters from the Ethiopian army, former members of the regional police and volunteers. 

Many informal, volunteer town and village militias have also joined the fight. The command structure of these militias is often opaque, and it is unclear how much direct control the TPLF had over them at the time.

The proportion of Eritrea’s population that has fled

In the first week of December, Eritrean forces withdrew from Hitsats without explanation. Tigrayan militiamen arrived the next day, shooting as they came.  Four refugees said uniformed Tigrayan forces were stationed in the town of Hitsats, and a local militia, commanded by a former policeman, was in the camp through December. Uniformed Tigrayan soldiers regularly came to the camp, and the local militia appeared to obey their orders, they added.

Refugees who fled Hitsats said they too came under attack by Tigrayans.

On the morning of Dec. 6, a group of around 70 refugees was walking through a ravine near the village of Zelazele, about 16 km (10 miles) north of the camp. Five witnesses said gunfire suddenly erupted, and a grenade was thrown at the group. The attackers weren’t wearing uniforms, suggesting they belonged to a volunteer village militia. Three witnesses said between 18 and 30 refugees were killed.

The militiamen, some armed with axes and sticks, detained the survivors, then ordered them to return to the camp. Some elderly people and women with young children were too tired to walk.

“They begged us to leave them behind,” said one refugee. “The Tigray militia forced us to move.” Stragglers were shown no mercy. “Every time we left someone behind, we heard a gunshot. At some point I stopped counting them.”

Around the same time, Tigrayan militiamen intercepted a second similar-sized group of refugees from Hitsats on the outskirts of a village called Ziban Gedena, according to a survivor. This man said he saw a group of armed men force the refugees into a pit at night. Then a grenade was thrown in.

“Flesh flew up in the air,” he said. The militiamen began shooting.

Natalia Paszkiewicz, who previously worked for an aid group in Hitsats and undertook postdoctoral research there, told Reuters she had interviewed several refugees who said they witnessed such an attack. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the incident. TPLF officials didn’t respond to questions about specific allegations.

Despair at the border

By January, Eritrean refugees who stayed in the camps said they were starving. No rations had been delivered since October because of the fighting. People were eating the bitter leaves of the moringa trees, usually used to make tea.

Eritrean soldiers returned to Hitsats in early January and ordered the refugees to leave. They then set parts of the camp alight, dozens of refugees said. Eritrean soldiers set fire to Shimelba camp at around the same time, according to refugees who were there. These accounts were supported by satellite imagery and analysis by UK-based security research organisation Vigil Monitor. The imagery, which was seen by Reuters, shows the destruction of the camps, the presence of military vehicles and signs of shelling. Both camps are now closed.

Satellite images show Hitsats refugee camp before (left) and after its destruction (right) in early January. Planet Labs Inc./Handout via REUTERS
More satellite images show Shimelba refugee camp before (left) and with damage to the camp health centre (right) around the same time in January. Planet Labs Inc. handout via REUTERS

The Eritrean soldiers ordered thousands of refugees to walk westward for four days to the town of Shiraro, near the border with Eritrea. One refugee showed Reuters a video of a woman in labour on the back of a donkey cart. Refugees said some people died on the way.

In Shiraro, the Eritrean military encouraged and sometimes forced refugees to board trucks back to their homeland, a dozen refugees said. Some went in desperation. Others said they didn’t know where the trucks were going, but climbed on rather than starve. One refugee, called Dersu, said he spent three days in Shiraro in mid-January. Every day, he said he saw five trucks leaving for Eritrea, each carrying around 300 people.

In another border town, Badme, Eritrean soldiers set up a temporary COVID-19 centre to test and quarantine the refugees. Four refugees who were in Badme said thousands of Eritreans were held there, guarded by soldiers. Eritrean government doctors conducted the COVID-19 tests.

Reuters spoke to four refugees who returned to Eritrea and later managed to escape back into Ethiopia. Among them was a 22-year-old former college student, who said he was shot in the stomach during the attack by Tigrayan militiamen on Hitsats. The young man said Eritrean soldiers put him and around a dozen other wounded and their relatives into a truck and told them they would be taken to a hospital in Ethiopia. Instead, they were driven across the border to the Eritrean town of Barentu and placed under armed guard in a hospital.

Their relatives were put into COVID-19 quarantine and interrogated by intelligence officers, who asked about their political affiliations and why they left Eritrea. Eventually, the young man and his brother paid a smuggler to take them back across the border into Ethiopia. Portions of his story – including being held under guard in hospital and his relatives being imprisoned – were echoed by the family of another refugee who described similar treatment.

A 27-year-old Eritrean, named Desta, said Eritrean soldiers forced him aboard a truck that took him to Badme and the COVID-19 quarantine facility, where men slept outdoors and there was little food. Desta gathered some sorghum planted by residents who had fled, but had no way to grind it into flour. So he ate the seed heads whole. When Desta tried to escape, he said, Eritrean soldiers caught him and beat him.

Bussed back to Eritrea, Desta ended up on the streets of a small town near the border, looking for work. “Then the local authorities announced that everyone who came back from Ethiopia would be conscripted,” he said. Desta knew the brutality of army life: He said he was an orphan who’d been forced to join Eritrea’s military at the age of 15. He fled to Ethiopia for a second time, despite the dangers awaiting there.  

As the war swung in the TPLF’s favour in late June, Tigrayan forces took back the town of Shire. Jubilant Tigrayan residents poured into the streets. Mobs then began attacking Eritrean refugees in their midst, five refugees told Reuters. They described crowds hunting down Eritrean men and women and battering at least a dozen to death with stones torn up from the pavement.

UNHCR told Reuters it is aware of the arrest of hundreds of Eritreans, including refugees, in Shire around that time. It could not confirm reports of killings, but said the United Nations’ human rights body, OHCHR, is investigating. OHCHR didn’t comment.

The refugees said uniformed Tigrayan soldiers arrested at least two of their leaders – Atakilti Abrehaley and Mulugeta Yemane. Neither man has been seen since.

Dual Agenda

By Ayenat Mersie, Giulia Paravicini and Katharine Houreld

Graphics: Aditi Bhandari

Photo editing: Simon Newman

Art direction: Catherine Tai

Edited by Janet McBride and Alexandra Zavis

War in Tigray: a grim anniversary

Tuesday, 02 November 2021 14:52 Written by


Source: Oxford House Research

Posted on 27th October 2021 by Martin Plaut 150w, 300w, 768w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" style="box-sizing: border-box; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; border: 0px; font-family: inherit; font-size: 17px; font-style: normal; font-weight: 400; line-height: 1; margin: 0px; padding: 0px; text-align: left; height: auto; max-width: 100%; border-radius: inherit;">

On 9 November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (b. 1976; PM. April 2018 – present) tweeted:

Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and the result of not understanding our context deeply. Our rule of law enforcement operation, as a sovereign state with the capacity to manage its own internal affairs, will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity.

How wrong government leaders can be. This is my third Oxford House ‘Briefing’ on the brutal war in the N. Ethiopian region of Tigray. I wish I could say that the situation has improved. The conflict is fast approaching its first, grim, anniversary, 4 November 2021.

It is not easy to report – or to believe – what has happened across Ethiopia generally, and in Tigray particularly, since the most recent civil war began. Tigray is effectively off-limits to national and international journalists. Mark Lowcock, former head of the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs Agency (OCHA) commented recently, the Ethiopian government has deployed its own troops and Eritrean forces to blockade Tigray, in a cynical attempt to starve the Tigrayan’s into submission. The international community should be aware of the intensifying tragedy in Tigray and act to broker some kind of peace deal. Claims the Ethiopian government can ‘manage its own internal affairs’ now ring hollow. Since my last Briefing in late-July huge amounts of blood have been shed on all sides in the conflict. Unlike many other areas of conflict in Africa and elsewhere in the world today, historic tribal, ethnic, geographic, and political factors in this war are largely unrelated to religion: Tigrayans, Amhara and highland Eritreans are mostly Orthodox or Coptic Christians. Despite sustained pressure from Ethiopian and Eritrean forces – packed with co-opted Ethiopian ethnic militia – Tigrayan troops continue to hold out and hold their own. Faith may have strengthened resolve on both sides: it has sadly done little to inspire mercy, compassion and peace.

As outlined below, four distinct phases in the conflict are now discernible. In the early stage of the conflict, Tigrayan forces effectively obliterated the Ethiopian army, but it has been reconstituted with ethnic militia and has launched repeated attacks to confront and crush the ‘rebel’ region. On October 13, the Ethiopians began a fresh offensive. There has been intense fighting since then. The rough roads and steep mountains south of Tigray are now lined with bodies: mostly young, poorly trained, Ethiopian troops inhumanely thrust into the fray at the behest of the government. Here is a recent tweet from the respected Horn of Africa analyst, Rashid Abdi:

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops/militia killed in weeks of intense fighting with TDF in Amhara state. Road from Woldia down to Kombolcha ‘highway of death’ – with hundreds of corpses on roadsides, most in Ethiopian army uniform.

This photograph was taken by one of the very few foreign journalists in the region. NPR’s Eyder Peralta is in the town of Kombolcha. He reports seeing truckloads of young Amhara transported to the front in Dessie. As the photograph shows, they are equipped with little more than hoes and axes and machetes. Throwing half-trained, ill-equipped youths into the heart of this brutal war is, surely, a mark of the Ethiopian government’s desperation: they have few other reserves now to call on.

So, what do we know about what’s really going on?

Here is a recent Tigrayan statement (21 October 2021):

TDF [Tigrayan Defence Force] has taken control of Chifra town on 16/10/21 after heavy fighting. Chifra town is an extremely significant strategic town linking Alewha, Mile and Bati. A 7-day battle took place leading to the capture of Chifra. The ENDF’s [Ethiopian National Defence Forces] last stronghold was on the mountain near the town. Capturing Chifra is a game changer in breaking the siege the enemy has imposed on Tigray. The people of Tigray are on the verge of breaking free from the strangulation.

The Ethiopian government has said very little about the recent fighting. Their Eritrean – allies – who have played a central role in the conflict – have remained silent. The UN reports the blockade of Tigray by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces is causing deep distress: ‘More than 5.2 million people across Tigray – more than 90 per cent of the region’s population – need life-saving assistance, including nearly 400,000 people facing famine-like conditions.’ No wonder Tigrayan troops are fighting so fiercely to break the siege.

(ABC News)

I mentioned four phases in the conflict. Here they are:

Phase I (November 4 to November 28, 2020), viz. from the outbreak of the war until the capture of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle and announcement by Prime Minister Abiy that the city had fallen to government forces.

Phase II (November 28 to June 18, 2021). During this period, the Tigrayans regrouped and reconstituted themselves as an army in the valleys and hills on N. Ethiopia. On June 18, they took the initiative and launched the offensive known as ‘Operation Alula Aba Nega’ or, simply, ‘Operation Alula’. In a ten-day period (June 18-28), they swept down and recaptured Mekelle. At the time, the Economist reported:

At sunset on June 28th – seven months to the day after Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, declared victory over the ruling party in Tigray as his troops occupied Mekelle – Tigrayans came onto the streets to celebrate the flight of federal troops. Officials appointed by Abiy’s government to run the region were whisked out of town as if from a crime scene. ‘There are celebrations in every house in Mekelle’, said Haile Kiros, a teacher in the city, before phone lines were cut.

Phase III (June 18 to October 13, 2021). The recapture of Mekelle, and expulsion of Ethiopian forces from the town, did not end the war. Tigray remained blockaded by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops, with little humanitarian aid reaching the region. There was and is an important additional dimension to this: large parts of western Tigray have for decades been claimed by the Tigrayans’ neighbours, the Amhara. Despite the setback in Mekelle, large tracts of land remained in the hands of Amhara, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops determined to frustrate Tigrayan attempts to open a route to Sudan, where aid and other supplies could be obtained.

Ethiopia Map – 7 September 2021

In response to the intense pressure they were under, Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) went on the offensive in two directions: eastwards to seize control of major routes in the Afar region and southwards to key targets in the Amhara region. These military initiatives were only partially successful: in Afar they confronted a major mobilisation of Ethiopian troops, in Amhara they made significant advances, but failed to cut the road from Gondar to Bahir Dar or capture the strategic town of Dessie.

Phase IV (13 October 2021–present). In response to the Tigrayan push to the south PM Abiy has recently mobilised a large number of ethnic militia alongside new recruits and conscripts. At mass rallies across Ethiopia, young men (and some women) have been called on to volunteer – or been forcefully and reluctantly conscripted – to fight for their country. As a result, Ethiopia’s previously decimated army has been rebuilt, giving both sides substantial numbers of troops at their disposal. Though ill-equipped on the ground, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are supported from the air by planes and drones.

The table below (from a confidential Ethiopian source) provides a ‘best estimate’ of the rival alliances in early September 2021. Numbers do not convey, of course, disparities in ability, training, or equipment.

In this most recent phase in the conflict, the reconstructed Ethiopian military (and its associate militia) have been in the forefront; not, it seems, their Eritrean allies. The use of vast numbers of raw recruits is reminiscent of the disastrous ‘Red Star’ campaign the socialist Ethiopian Derg launched in March 1982 against the secessionist Eritrean liberation movement (EPLF). Time will tell if the Ethiopian government’s most recent counter-insurgency initiative will be any more successful. It is not looking good. According to the Tigrayan army Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Tadesse Werede Tesfay (b. 1958), a native of Mekelle, around Wello (in particular) the Ethiopians adopted a new strategy and threw ‘human waves’ of poorly trained soldiers against Tigrayan lines. Amhara reports confirm the devastating losses incurred. TDF claims that they have recently ‘destroyed’ (viz. killed, wounded, or scattered) 130,000 Ethiopian troops are not implausible. In key areas, such as around Gashena-Geregera, where the ENDF tried to cut off Tigrayan units, they have been repeatedly ambushed and suffered heavy losses. We will almost certainly never know the full extent of brutality and loss in this tragically ignored civil war.

The Ethiopian military have not been without some successes. In response to the Tigrayan push southwards, the ENDF launched airstrikes over a number days against Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital, killing civilians and flattening industrial sites. How much this will compromise the TDF’s military capability remains unclear. Meanwhile, fierce battles have also been fought around Chifra on the Tigrayan-Afar border. Amhara sources claim large numbers of troops have been involved. It is possible the Tigrayans are trying to establish a route to the outside world via Djibouti. The capture of Chifra would be a significant step in this direction. Certainly, if Tigrayan claims of making significant inroads southwards are borne out, and they can consolidate their position, the war may be entering another decisive phase.

Tigray-Amhara border region

So, what of the Eritreans? As noted already, they seem to be playing a relatively minor role in the current fighting. Some reports suggest Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (b. 1946; Pres. 1991-present) has maintained his forces along Ethiopia’s northern border (which runs along N. Tigray). This suggests that areas historically allocated to Eritrea by the International Boundary Commission remain in Eritrean hands, but perhaps not much more than that. There are even suggestions Eritrea has dug (five) lines of trenches in anticipation of a Tigrayan offensive against Asmara when the fighting in the South comes to an end. Certainly, Eritrean forces are already stationed in western Tigray to prevent the Tigrayans establishing a much-needed supply line to Sudan.

Phase IV of the war in Tigray is, it seems, far from over. The TDF have inflicted heavy losses on their Ethiopian opponents but remain vulnerable from the air and in key areas on the ground. How the war unfolds is hard to predict. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim (9 November 2020) – and justification to the international community – that military action was simply a matter of ‘law enforcement’ that would swiftly resolve a passing crisis, now sounds – to say the least – very wide of the mark. Human lives have been lost yet again to bolster a brutal regime.

Martin Plaut, Guest Author

Sudanese Front Against the Coup latest

Tuesday, 02 November 2021 14:49 Written by


The Sudanese Front Against the Coup
(The Sudanese Front Against the Coup is an open coalition of democratic politicians, grassroots activists in resistance committees, professional unions, media professionals, and members of civil society who together aim to resist the October 25, 2021 coup in Sudan.)
October 28, 2021

Situation update 2

On October 26, a few hours after the leader of the putschists, General Al-Burhan, admitted in a press conference, the kidnapping of the legitimate Prime Minister, Dr. Abdullah Hamdok, and forcing him to stay in the guest house next to the putschist’s house, the Prime Minister was returned to his residence under heavy security, headed by the second commander of the Rapid Support Forces, Abdel Rahim Daglo.

The manifestations of the military siege and tight security control around the Prime Minister’s house continue, in what appears to be an attempt to continue hijacking his political will and preventing him from communicating with the Sudanese national political movement.

The kidnapping of the prime minister’s political will was the main reason for his arrest, after he refused to submit to the blackmail of the putschists by supporting their coup.

Also, the leader of the putschists, General Al-Burhan, stated in his press conference on October 26, his intention to form a civilian government consisting of people who were satisfied with them by the military component, and also stated that they would not allow any political activity that does not conform to the political orientations of the military component. He also announced the dissolution of trade unions and professional associations to curb mass resistance to the coup, as happens in every traditional coup.

On the other hand, the campaign of arrests continued to include the leader in the Umma Party (Al-Siddiq Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi), the trade unionist (Ismail Al-Taj), and the journalist (Fayez Al-Silik), who was arrested immediately after an interview with Al-Jazeera on October 26. The Minister of Health (Omar al-Najib), Minister of Irrigation (Yasser Abbas) and (Dr. Hassan Nasrallah), the advisor to the Prime Minister for Federal Governance Affairs, who were on an official negotiating mission related to the eastern Sudan crisis, were also arrested.

The various states of Sudan have also witnessed the arrest of large numbers of activists and members of the resistance committees, which are currently being counted, and the numbers that have been registered so far: 39 detainees in Gedaref State (most of them are volunteers with the Dismantling Committee), 15 in Gezira State, and an unconfined number exceeding 47 detainees in South Darfur State. In Khartoum state, a number of politicians’ houses were raided separately by the Rapid Support Forces and Military Intelligence, without success in arresting them so far. It seems that there are multiple and separate lists of arrests under the supervision of each of the coup partners.

So far, no detainees have been released except for the prime minister and his wife, who have been transferred to their residence. There is frequent information that a number of detainees have been subjected to ill-treatment amid the absence of any information about their place of detention, specifically Minister of Cabinet Affairs Khaled Omar, Minister of Culture and Information Hamza Balloul and former Minister of Industry Madani Abbas Madani.

Peaceful resistance to the coup continued, and the various Khartoum neighborhoods witnessed: (Jabra, Al-Imtiadad, South Belt, Berri, Halfaya Al-Malouk, Khartoum East, Seteen Street, Hillat Hamad, Bahri Al-Amlak, Shambat, Al-Sababi, Al-Jarif West, Al-Jarif East, Al-Sababi Extension, Bait al-Mal, Althoura, banat) witnessed continuous demonstrations from the resistance committees. Also, most of the streets of Khartoum continue to be closed by protective gears to prevent the security and rapid support vehicles from attacking the demonstrators. The states of Al-Jazeera, Alqadarif, Kassala, South Darfur, Sennar, Northern State, South Kordofan, North Kordofan, also witnessed mass demonstrations against the coup.

Meanwhile, several professional organizations announced a political strike, complete civil disobedience, and preparations for a massive, million-strong demonstration on October 30 calling for the return of the civilian government. Doctors, Bank of Sudan employees, customs officials, workers at Khartoum Airport and workers in the oil production areas went on strike immediately after the announcement of Al-Burhan’s coup.

The coup authority continues to cut off telecommunications and internet services to prevent the exchange of photos and video recordings documenting their violations.
Although many countries and regional organizations have taken clear positions in rejecting the coup.

However, the United Nations Security Council failed to take a strong action against what happened since the dawn of the 25th as a result of the Russian position in support of the putschists. We find this accompanied by the non-issuance of a condemnation by the Emirates and Egypt of the coup against the path of democratic transformation in Sudan, confirming the information contained in our previous report about the regional and international hands in pushing the coup efforts.

We in the Sudanese Front Against the Coup remind these forces of the danger of this absurdity and that the Sudanese people will never forget those who contribute to tampering with their ambitions and dreams of stability and democracy to serve their self-interest.

Accordingly, the Sudanese Front Against the Coup affirms the following:

1- The putschists still taking vigorous steps to impose a new fait accompli that is rejected by the Sudanese people, by continuing to arrest members of the legitimate civilian government. The release of Dr. Abdullah Hamdouk, without allowing him to return to his office and exercise his duties, and to hold a full meeting of the legitimate cabinet with the aim of leading the country out of this political crisis, is meaningless.

2- The current political situation in Sudan has two camps. The putschists camp, which includes the military component, the Rapid Support Forces, the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibril, the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minawi, the Social Justice Alliance party, which was recently made by the military, and the Tamazuj movement, whose establishment was supervised by the Military Intelligence, which are the forces that turned against the legitimate government and are trying to stop the path of civil democratic transformation in Sudan in order to create a new totalitarian dictatorship.

The other camp includes all the forces of freedom and change, the Sudanese national political movement, resistance committees, professional organizations and civil society that seek to complete the revolution’s path towards a democratic civil state in Sudan. Al-Burhan represents the first coup camp as he appeared to read the coup statement and repeat its demands, while we find the legitimate Prime Minister, Dr. Abdullah Hamdok and his currently detained cabinet are representatives of the second side. This is the new reality of today in Sudan.

3- Any attempt to appoint a new government in Sudan without considering the choices of the Sudanese political movement, and the attempt to seek the help of the forces of the remnants and remnants of the former regime to tamper with the transition equation will meet strong resistance from the Sudanese street. And trying to continue responding to the Sudanese street with violence will be a new crime to be added to the crime of the massacre at the sit-in on June 3, 2019 and the rest of the crimes committed by the Military Council.

To view previous reports of the Front:

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