On September 1, 2022, I woke up to the terrible news that the war on Tigray had started again in several directions. The combined armies of Ethiopia, regional forces from Amhara and the Eritrean invading army had launched a massive invasion of Tigray in the northwestern direction. The triangular area from Badme town in the north of Adigoshu in the southwestern direction across the River Tekeze, and north-west toward Humera and a straight line towards Badame is the last sanctuary of one of the ancient people in the Horn of Africa — The Kunama. They are one of the three ethnic groups ( The Tigrayans, the Irob, and the Kunama) that live in Tigray. The last two live in the borderland with Eritrea and are in the middle of the flames. While familiar to a few historians and anthropologists, little has been known about the people of Kunama who are currently caught in the middle of the deadliest war on the planet. The current offensive along that corridor beyond its military objective threatens the very existence of an ancient ethnic group little known to the world.
I began researching the history and culture of the Kunama in 2017. I conducted anthropological fieldwork in the villages and towns of the northwestern zone of Tigray as recently as August 2020, six weeks before the deadliest war started. Medabe, a small village, about 5 Kilometers outside Sheraro is where I stayed for six months with a family that hosted me. From there, I could walk to the villages and towns nearby: Erdi-Woyane, Adi-Tsetser, Mentebteb, Adi-Goshu, Shimbilina, Adi-Hageray and Badme. The last time I visited Kunama land was in August 2020, just a few weeks before the war. With a total population of about 100, 000 and nearly 7000 of them settled on the Ethiopia side in Northwestern Tigray, one of the epicenters of the genocidal war, the suffering of these innocent, indigenous people of the Horn of Africa is beyond measure.
When the war started on November 4, 2020, a few had predicted that it would be the deadliest and long war. One particular scholar announced the defeat of TPLF prematurely and published a distorted analysis of the Tigray war and continued to do so. Others calculated democracy on the number of people of a country and ‘popularity’ of its phony leader and downplayed the voice of millions of Tigrayans. On the contrary, grounded on a fieldwork, one particular publication described the first five months of the war and highlited on the ‘intent’ of the invading forces-conquer land, plunder assets and subjugate the Tigrayans into submission. The majority of Ethiopianists who studied the histories, cultures and traditions of Ethiopia and its peoples are however, silent; and this silence is mostly out of a shock–how can such a country go so wrong? But, how long can we be silent? It is with this intention that I must write.
Who are the Kuanma?
Figure 1 Community leaders from Shimbilina Village, 2019
The Kunama belong to the Nilotic people of the Lower Nile region. Currently, they live in southwestern Eritrea and northwestern Ethiopia along the Gash-setit river and the plains south of river Mereb in northwestern Tigray National Regional State of Ethiopia. The Kunama are the northerner most Nilotes and quite isolated from their counterparts in the upper Nile region. The majority of the Kunama live in Eritrea across the border in the vast plains along the Gash and setit rivers. The Badame plains in northwestern Tigray and across the Tekaze in the west host many small settlements where the Kunama of Tigray live. Given the remoteness and harsh climate, this land has been inaccessible to most researchers.
The Kunama are one of the last Nilotic peoples to survive the aggressive expansion of imperial Ethiopia since the 14th century (Dore, 2007). The shape and nature of Ethiopia were made of bones and blood of innocent peoples, civilizations and ancient communities (Asafa, 2010; Donham & James, 1986). These communities are often described as ‘the periphery’ in the Ethiopian historiography (the great ‘tradition’ rather) and ‘ሻንቅላ’፣ meaning ‘black’ by the general population. Throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and as early as late 20th centuries, with the help of foreign firearms (Markakis, 2012) from Europe and America, the Ethiopian empire expanded in all directions. Millions were domestic slaves, and sold out to the Arab world and beyond (Pankhurst, 1977). Slavery, for example, is one of the topics Ethiopian historians or anthropologists would never touch except a few. These campaigns were mainly toward the Nilotic peoples but also the Cushitic people in the south and western Ethiopia. Over the course of history, Like many peoples in the Horn of Africa (the Tigrayans, the Irob, the Afar, the Somali and the Nuer), the Kunama are divided between two countries.
With the exception of a few reports, those who are on the Eritrean side had been absent until the 1990’s. The Eritrean government blamed them for collaborating with the then socialist government of Ethiopia and slowed down the gorilla war in southwestern Eritrea (Markakis, 2012, p.122-123.) For this, they were seriously punished. In the 1960s, for example, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a faction of the EPLF, burned several Kunama villages and eliminated many clan leaders. According to Alexander (2001, pp. 587–589), a Kunama anthropologist, the hostile attitude of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), now People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), towards the Kunama people was reflected in the policies of the Eritrean government. Accordingly, the Kunama were far from accessing social services and owning businesses. In addition, denial of access to ancestral lands and a general lack of attention to the indigenous Kunama people as well as the lack of self-rule are mentioned as forms of subjugation with a long-term impact on the existence of the Eritrean Kunama as a political community. The government had created a magma of terror across the Kunama land and never was their voice heard. In the late 1990s, a sign of the survival of the Kunama on the Eritrea side was witnessed with the opening of a refugee camp in Shimelba built-in collaboration with UNHCR in 2004.
According to an interview I conducted with a Kunama elderly, before the establishment of the Shimbilina camp, the Eritrean Kunama had been hosted by the Ethiopian Kunama in an area called Wa’ala Nihibi in 2003. In 2019, I visited the refugee camp and witnessed the gloomy past but also the uncertain future of the Kunama. The Shimelba refugee camp was established in 2004 exclusively for the Kunama population (see Fig.2). However, the overflow of Eritrean refugees forced the camp authorities to host about 1000 Tigrinya-speaking refugees. Given the secrecy of the Eritrean government, one cannot know how many Eritrean Kunama had left their homeland and how many perished on the border. By 2018, there were 5,953 registered refugees and 7900 people by 2019. From there, the story of the Kunama refugees is being written, even in the United States of America, home across lands.
Figure 2 Shemelba Eritrean refugee Camp, Tigray, 2019
Before the war
The Kunama of Eritrea were already reduced to sub-servant communities and lost their historical, cultural and political identities (Naty, 2001). In the late 1960 and 1970’s they were targeted by the Eritrean government, then a rebel group (Markakis, 2012, pp. 122–123). During the Ethio- Eritrean war of 1998-2000 they were caught in the middle and many were displaced. Clan leaders and influential Kunama politicians were missing and never seen again. The only source of information about the fate of Eritrean Kuanam was from NGOs and a few Kuanma who have left their homeland for the USA and Canada. The Kunama on the Ethiopian side were in a relatively better position. Under the Ethiopian federal arrangement, they had a right to self-governance where they organized a local parliament under Tahtay Adyabo district.
Tabya (the lowest administrative unit in Tigray) Lemlem combined all Kunama villages east of river Tekeze and was the hub of all Kunama people including adjacent villages and settlements on the Eritrean side. The entire land that covers the vast Badme plain and mountains east and north of Shimbilina village and along both sides of the river are several important ritual sites. The Kunama believe that these lands are where their ancestors are buried. Important cultural and social practices long forgotten were revived. The Kunama practice ancestral worship; and are organized into clans of which four of the oldest are settled in Tahtay Adyabo. In June 2020, I attended a meeting in Erdi-Woyane village called by the Kunama council of leaders. The elders expressed their fear of the political development in Addis Ababa and Asmera. As they openly debated the issues, the question of Eritrean Kunama refugees hosted in the Shemelba refugee camp was discussed.
A danger of extinction
Many have written on the humanitarian, military, economic and diplomatic impact of the war. While this war is primarily targeting ethnic Tigryans and is openly preached, little is known about its impact on other minorities. One can mention the Qemant and Agew people in the Amhara National Regional State, and the Irob and Kunama people in the Tigray National Regional State. The people in the Omo Valley, the Wolayta, the Hadiya, the Gurage, and Sidama to mention a few. In his essay, I will write about the Kunama, from whom I have been learning.
Since November 4, 2020, Kunama land has been a battleground for many months and it is an occupied territory. According to an eyewitness, the Sheraro area and adjacent villages (many of them Kunama villages), have been targeted by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) starting from day one. For over a week, the Kunama villages scattered in the Badme plains up to Adi-Hagery were indiscriminately burned. Another eyewitness, who was a teacher in Humera and who fled to Sheraro and then to Addis, whom I met in Addis Ababa in March 2021, recalls that she and other Kunamas fled into the forest adjacent to the Tekeze river. According to her, after the ENDF entered the town of Sheraro, they killed civilians indiscriminately. She and her relatives and close kins stayed in the forest for 35 days after which she walked to Mekelle and then to Addis Ababa in February 2021. With an eight-year-old child, she was on the run for almost five months.
The story of destruction by the Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers is a consistently repeated story from many people who have left Sheraro and other villages and cities in Irob (another community in a very desperate situation in Tigray). She says, in Medabe and Ademyti villages, the Eritrean soldiers burned the houses and chased the people out. At some point, they had started giving Eritrean identity cards to the Kunama who were desperate and returned to the villages. They grabbed the territory, terrorized the people and tried to legalize it.
The Kunama live in a very harsh environment and are never food secured. They often save the best of their grains (pearl millet), for the critical months of June to August. After the Eritreans looted and burned whatever grains they couldn’t carry and slaughtered the oxen and the camels, the Kunama had nothing to establish their lives with. They destroyed community water sources and vandalized the water pumps, cut electric lines and used the wooden electric poles for firewood. They looted every household and warehouse they could find. According to her, she spoke to her father on an Eritrean number operated by an Eritrean soldier in Sheraro. She was charged 100 Ethiopian Birr a minute on the Ethiopian side and 50 Eritrean nakfa a minute on the receiving end.
The tragedy continued. Neither the law nor the norm worked for the Eritrean refugees in Tigray. The Tigrinya-speaking Eritrean refugees were always wanted by the government of Eritrea and were subjected to the most inhuman forms of punishment. The Kunama people of Eritrea are regarded as second-class citizens that are not worthy of attention. According to a young Eritrean of Kunama origin whom I interviewed in Shemelba refugee camp in 2019, ‘the Kunama speaking people were already categorized as second class subjects, whose existence in the Eritrean state is a liability than an asset’. For the Eritrean establishment, every Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia is an enemy. The poor refugees’ whereabouts are still unknown (see Fig 4.). As one report puts it, they had nowhere to run. According to a European diplomat I contacted in 2021, most of the Kunama refugees were deported (as a form of punishment) to Eritrea across the border. They were tortured and hundreds were massacred. According to the statement, they were suddenly rounded up by the Eritrean Military in the camp. Many had also left the camp early on; especially the Tigrinya-speaking refugees in Shemelba, about 1500 of them. In 2021, Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps in Tigray were destroyed by the Eritrean Army.
The Tigray genocidal war had broken every law of man and God. The suffering it inflicted on the People of Tigray is beyond measure. Assuming that this war will end with Tigray is a very dangerous narrative that was set long ago. Several ethnic groups are sandwiched in this apocalyptic war. This war threatens the Kunama who are the last Nilotic people to survive in the region, but they are not the only ones in danger of perishing. We hear stories about the Oromo, The Amhara and the Tigrayans; the situation of the other 73 ethnic groups, with a population ranging from five million to a few thousand, and indigenous to the Horn of Africa (Markakis, 2012), is hermetically sealed for a propaganda purpose. As historians and anthropologists, we have the responsibility to voice out the desperate calls of the very people we have learned from. While the country is torn apart by many conflicts which are already significant enough to displace millions of communities, in the eyes of the Tigray Genocide, everything has become insignificant in comparison. A tragedy! If you are for Ethiopia, as most would say, Ethiopia was its peoples, nations and nationalities; now, a godforsaken land of psychopaths, a playground of a senile seasoned dictator from a foreign land.
As I conclude this piece, I think about the pain of the Kunama woman, a single mother from Tigray whom I met in Addis Ababa last year. I hope she survived the Nazi-like concentration camps for Tigrayans at the headquarters of the African Union the way I did; I hope her son is safe. I hope she will survive the second wave of ethnic profiling, looting, intimidation and mass arrests in Addis Ababa that has just started. I often wonder about the Eritrean refugee, a Kunama philosopher, my interviewee, whose life is hopelessly paused in Sudan. Most of all, I am the thousands of Kunama, the most generous, peaceful and just people. They are in the blazes of fascist people and dictators’ apocalyptic campaigns to erase them from history. Unnoticed in the globalized world, they are victims of the global order. Victims of Ethiopia’s dubious diplomatic campaign against its own people; and the world’s failure to question it. We all are. This is a genocidal war. But make no mistake, its primary target is Tigray in its entirety. The reasons are stupidity and jealousy, it is not political; it’s a pure destruction and elimination of the ‘different’, Ethiopia is made of differences. One cannot survive without the other.
Naty, A. (2001). Memories of the Kunama of Eritrea Towards Italian Colonalism.Africa: Rivista Trimestrale Di Studi e Documentazione Dell’Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 56(4), 573–589. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40761568
Asafa, J. (2010). Oromo peoplehood: Historical and cultural overview. Sociology Publications and Other Works, 1–29.
Donham, D., & James, W. (Eds.). (1986). The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia: Essays in History and Social Anthropology (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Dore, G. (2007). “Chi non ha una parente Andinna?”. Donne e possessione come archivio storico ed esperienza dell’alterità tra i Kunama d’Eritrea. Ethnorêma, 3/2007, 45–88.
Markakis, J. (2012). National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa. Shama Books.
Pankhurst, R. (1977). THE HISTORY OF BAREYA, ŠANQELLA AND OTHER ETHIOPIAN SLAVES FROM THE BORDERLANDS OF THE SUDAN. Sudan Notes and Records, 58, 1–43. JSTOR.