This statement captures the reality that almost all facets of the ongoing war on Tigray trigger memories of the horrors of the past for Tigrayans.
The most recent parallel the man-made famine in Tigray in the 1980s captured and shared to dramatic effect by photographers, such as Stan Grossfeld, is recognizable even to outsiders who recognize the terrible similarity with what is happening now. It is awareness of this historical context that enabled Senator Leahy, president pro tempore of the US Senate, to be one of the first amongst the international community to clearly identify what is happening in Tigray as a genocide.
This genocidal war continues to fuel an ever-worsening humanitarian and human rights crisis characterized by gross human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity including genocidal rape and the weaponization of starvation. Worst of all, the recalcitrance of the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes in spite of considerable international pressure for a ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian access, reveals that unless direct action is taken there is little chance that these atrocities will stop.
In this context, the striking parallels between the current War on Tigray and past tactics employed by previous Ethiopian regimes – most notably Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the Derg regime (1974-1987) led by Mengistu Hailemariam – in attempts to subjugate Tigrayans, deserve a much closer look to highlight the long-standing intentions and motivations fueling the current emergency.
Emperor Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie, best known for the history and songs that have romanticized him as an African statesman, is also responsible for the deaths of millions across the country. In Tigray, his imperial regime committed indiscriminate air bombings of civilians, annexed Tigrayan territory, and deliberately hid famine even as the Emperor hosted luxurious parties and fed his pet dogs delicacies.
Air bombing Mekelle (capital of Tigray)
During Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, Tigray remained marginalized from the country with no significant political or economic representation. This gave rise to the first “Woyane” movement that carried out armed resistance against the monarchical rule of the Emperor. Instead of attending to the people’s demand for democracy and equality, the Emperor resorted to bombing market sites in Mekelle and surrounding areas with the help of the British Royal Air Force. This resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Tigrayans in 1943. These attacks targeted the civilian population as a possible deterrent for anyone seeking to join the Woyane armed struggle against the central monarchy.
Annexation of Tigrayan Territories
Following the defeat of the first uprising, the Emperor systematically incorporated southern territories from Tigray to Wollo province (currently part of the Amhara region) to weaken the region and hinder potential recruitments for possible future revolts. It is to be remembered that Emperor Menelik, who ruled Ethiopia before Haile Selassie from 1889 to 1913, also utilized the same tactics. Under his rule, he had incorporated parts of Tigray’s western provinces to be included under the Gondar province. The motive under both administrations was to deprive Tigray of its rich socio-economic resource to sustain resistance against the oppressive rule of the Emperors that continued to undermine the rights of different ethnic groups.
During the 1958 Tigray famine, Emperor Haile Selassie was unwilling to send emergency food aid to the starving population. An estimated 100,000 Tigrayans perished as a result. His decision was in line with the increases in farmland taxation for Tigrayans and other economic restrictions that left Tigray in a state of poverty for decades to come. In 1973 the Emperor once again hid a famine that devastated areas of Tigray and Wollo. The famine in 1973 killed an estimated 200,000 people. Once the news about the massive famine broke out to the rest of the world, the government officials quietly asked for aid that was inadequate to alleviate the famine. This was done to hush the news so that the Emperor’s image is not tarnished. Despite their denial and active efforts to spread propaganda regarding the 1954 and 1973 famines, the Emperor and his administration are without question responsible for the thousands of lives lost.
Mengistu, leader of the Communist military junta known colloquially as the Derg, used the slogan “drain the sea to catch the fish” in his attempt to subjugate Tigray. More than a slogan this aim was widely implemented in widespread campaigns of extrajudicial killings to deter people from joining the armed struggle, weaponizing hunger and forcibly removing Tigrayans from Tigray.
The 1984 famine, which has become associated with Ethiopia in the popular imagination of the rest of the world, was devastating due to government policies that blocked access to foreign bodies like the United Nations preventing them from providing aid. In order to hide the severity of the famine, international actors were denied access to the affected community. The famine ended up taking the lives of more than one million Tigrayans in what was one of the most horrific humanitarian disasters in recent history.
Sexual Violence, Indiscriminate Shelling and Chemical Attack
The Derg also committed weaponized sexual violence, indiscriminate shelling, and chemical attack on civilians and their residential areas. Victims of sexual violence include children as young as 13 years old. Indiscriminate shelling also targeted schools, markets, and residences all occupied by civilians. In addition, civilians bore the brunt of the horrific use of chemical weaponry.
The terrible conditions of the 1984 famine were later used as an excuse by the military junta to forcefully resettle thousands of Tigrayans to areas outside of Tigray that were less affected by the famine. The resettlement program, which was non-voluntary and executed with poor planning and coordination failed to take into account needs for basic humanitarian services to relocated populations and as a result, took the lives of 50,000 Tigrayans while leaving many more displaced from their homeland. This resettlement program referred to at the time as a “vast human tragedy of historical proportions” was of course an act of demographic engineering intended to quash the resistance to the brutal regime by depopulating Tigray.
Mengistu found guilty of genocide
After the fall of the communist military junta in 1991, its leader President Mengistu was tried in absentia for genocide and found guilty in 2007. The High Court judgment stated:
Blocking Passage for Refugees
One final point that bears mentioning here, considering that Eritrean forces are actively engaged in the current Tigrayan crisis is the role played by Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – which later became the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) the party ruling Eritrea today under much of the same leadership – in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Tigray in the 80s. More specifically, in 1985, following a political disagreement between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and EPLF officials led to the latter blocking the road connecting Sudan with Tigray. Refugees were forced to take a “long and dangerous route” on top of suffering from starvation. This cost thousands of lives as they reached Sudan through tougher terrains.
History repeats itself in Tigray
At the start of the current conflict, those that lived through the previous campaigns against Tigray and resultant famines recalled the horrors of the past and feared a repetition was likely. As feared, those that fled to Sudan in the previous famines are now again in tears remembering what they went through decades ago and how much worse the current circumstances are.
All the crimes that were committed in the past, forceful annexation, weaponized starvation and rape, banned chemical attacks, forced resettlement, blockage of passage for refugees, massacres, and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas are being committed on Tigray since the declaration of the offensive by Abiy Ahmed Ali on the 4th of November 2020. Although this analysis focuses on the events post the start of the war, it should also be noted that roads from Amhara to Tigray were blocked since 2018 preventing the transportation of grains portending the tactics being used to weaponize hunger now.
Today the reality on the ground is very dire. The United Nations (UN) has reported 350,000 people are experiencing famine in Tigray and 30,000 children are at risk of dying from starvation. Aid is available but restricted by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara regional forces. All the while, Ethiopian diplomats are engaged in telling the world access has been granted and that aid is being delivered. The population of Tigray has more than doubled since the time of President Mengistu Hailemariam. Food supply to more than 7 million Tigrayans has been deliberately looted, destroyed and farmers are prevented from farming. Meanwhile, unfettered access to aid agencies has yet to be granted. The UN revealed that 99% (130 out of 131 documented incidents) of the humanitarian aid blockage is happening by the Ethiopian troops and its allies. Multiple testimonies from the Tigrayan families reveal that famine is occurring on a large scale. The only thing standing in the way of the international community from knowing the full scale is the unavailability of data. Alex De Waal said, “no data, no famine” which has been effectively concealed using both communication blackout and blockage of roads connecting many parts of rural Tigray by invading forces.
The same crimes that got Mengistu Hailemariam convicted of genocide are being committed by Abiy. It is also critical to note that the retired officials of the Derg regime have been assigned key positions within the military leadership of the current Ethiopian defense force. Thus, not only do the atrocities reported so far indicate the genocidal intent of this war, but most importantly the involvement of the military officials that were part of the Derg regime found guilty of genocide must also be used as evidence to show this genocidal intent. Once the crimes are categorized, the international community will have the responsibility to intervene and stop the atrocities in Tigray before the only conceivable future is one with another “Never Again” campaign in it.