Since the eruption of hostilities in November 2020 between federal and regional forces in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern state bordering Eritrea, two major dimensions of the crisis have been at odds with each other. There is the armed conflict and its immeasurable human cost and trauma, and there is the reporting on this conflict. I have witnessed the arguments back and forth from Ethiopians outside Ethiopia, my primary lens of observation, that focus on who is at fault, whose agenda the reporting fulfills, and scrutiny over the extent and impact of the humanitarian conditions on the ground. The story about the story has taken precedence over the undeniable fact that people are suffering and dying and side-steps the heart of the issue: we are watching a country at war with itself.
As an Ethiopian-American, I felt at times mentally and emotionally paralyzed. It is a complicated story of political fragmentation, with seemingly endless competing narratives based on scattered information. I reached a personal impasse where offering coherent interpretation and analysis felt an impossibility. The recent news of a ceasefire only offers temporary relief for the innocent and vulnerable and more fodder for conflicting narratives that prevent clear heads out of this conflict.
*Please note that this essay was authored two days before the reported re-taking of the regional capital Mekelle by the Tigray Defence Forces, which has led the federal government to declare a ceasefire.
On November 4, 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia began a military operation in the region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. In the eight months of on-going conflict, involving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front/Tigray Defence Forces on the one side and the Ethiopian federal army supported by the Eritrean Defence Forces on the other, innumerable reports have emerged about indiscriminate artillery strikes on residential areas and civilians; the systematic raping of women and girls; the intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of ethnic Tigrayans; and the looting and destruction of property, hospitals, and religious sites and treasures by federal and ally militant elements. Humanitarian agencies consistently report that a man-made famine is unfolding in Tigray due to restrictions to farming and the systematic looting of agricultural materials by federal and Eritrean soldiers. A June report by the crisis group ACAPS (“Tigray crisis – Impact of conflict on food security, agriculture and livelihoods”) noted that the region is now classified in IPC phase 4, which means that it is facing Emergency Outcomes, with 350,000 people being in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). Moreover, since the start of the conflict hundreds of thousands have fled their communities, with some villages/towns being entirely emptied, seeking refuge in the regional capital Mekelle or camps in surrounding regions and at the border with Sudan. In April 2021, CARE reported that the conflict had led to the displacement of “over 417,152 people predominantly women and children” (“Tigray Conflict Rapid Gender Analysis”).
The current situation is personally agonizing, as I previous conducted long-term anthropological research in Tigray, and I have been working since 2016 to understand local communities’ experiences of domestic violence and to help to address the problem from within the local religio-cultural framework of the predominantly Orthodox Täwahǝdo population of Tigray. In November 2020, I relocated to Ethiopia with the intention of travelling back to Tigray’s Aksum city to pilot an intervention working with clergy and secular stakeholders and providers in the surrounding villages. The war erupted just as we prepared to start the project, terminating all our communication with partner institutions in Mekelle and Aksum and making it impossible to know the conditions of our colleagues and the communities there (communication has been partially restored since).
Much has been written about the conflict, and due to the ethnic tensions and grievances that underpin it, there have been conflicting narratives around it. In this essay I am not concerned with reinforcing any of these narratives, but rather to share my personal understanding of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis as witnessed from my current location in Addis Ababa and communicated to me by colleagues in Tigray in order to stress the need for urgent and definitive responses.