There seems to be a total disregard for the basics and the propensity to collective amnesia. But Ethiopia’s dreadful tradition of outsourcing airstrikes and other capabilities is, at least, an 80 year old story. And it dates back to 1943, the year Tigrayans revolted against Emperor Haileselassie’s government protesting centralization, heavy taxation, etc. Unable to contain or crush this popular insurgency known as the Woyane Rebellion, Haileselassie sought and secured the assistance of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) then based in Aden, Yemen. First, showering towns with leaflets that called for total rebel surrender, the RAF’s Bristol Blenheim bombers, targeted many villages and towns including the region’s capital Mekelle. The aerial terror was so indiscriminate and brutal that in the aftermath of the bombings, at Mekelle’s Monday Market, locals remember an assortment of human and animal flesh spread all over. Elsewhere, peasants were massacred, cattle stolen, houses torched.
During her visit to Ethiopia in 1965, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, on whose watch this massacre in Tigray came to pass, made it to Asmara and Axum; but avoided Mekelle, the town her RAF bombed and ravaged 22 years earlier. Today, one could see the rippling, domelike structures at the center of Mekelle’s marketplace, the heart of the aerial bombing in the city, as constant reminders of British-induced calamities. The structures were built in the late 1960s by Ras Mengesha Seyoum, then Governor of Tigray (now in his late nineties, lives in Addis Ababa), much reduced in size following the Woyane revolt than when his father, Ras Seyoum Mengesha, was at the helm. Having succeeded in brutally silencing this six-month revolt, some leaders of the rebellion were banished to impregnable locations in southern Ethiopia. And Haileselassie not only went ahead in, among others, punishing Tigrayans by imposing heavy taxes, but also curved out a good chunk of their region (west and south) and handed them to neighboring regions on a silver platter. The current claim to some parts of Southern and Western Tigray thus has such a truncated history.
But only seven years before the Woyane uprising, the Tigrayans had fought the Italians tooth and nail in Maichew, also one of the hotbeds of the rebellion. After the March 31/1936 Maichew defeat, Haileselassie left these intrepid fighters behind and headed to Europe. Some of those too must have heroically fought at the Battle of Adwa of 1896; just 47 years earlier. But fate was sealed. Italy, as Ethiopian elites like to argue, not just occupied but indeed colonized Ethiopia for five years until 1941. It would have remained colonized had it not been for Italy’ issues with the rest of the world where the allied powers made up their mind and many African countries too started regaining their independence soon after.
Those 1943 aerial bombings definitely led by example setting off a chain of similar others over a period of time that continue to this day. They made those acts of cruelty on one’s own people as well as inviting outside actors do the job on one’s behalf looked just normal.
Forward to the 1970s.
We know that the Cubans were involved in the Ethio-Somali war of 1977-78 by having boots on the ground. The South Yemenis went a bit further by deploying their tank commanders and combat pilots to Eritrea in the so-called counter-insurgency war. The Libyans flew supply missions. The Russians (Soviet Union) provided solid support to the Ethiopian air and ground operations by availing some 1,400 military advisors, many of whom were stationed inside Eritrea. Soviet and Cuban officers were taken prisoner by the insurgent Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) where, in March 1988, at the Battle of Afabet, it claims to have captured three Soviet military personnel. One was killed.
In the 1980s, the Dergue, the Ethiopian military regime, employed its air force to try to crush a local rebellion in Tigray. Countless instances are documented but the most tragic on record was the bombing of Hawzien in 1988 that killed 2500 souls; also on market day. Like the RAF, it targeted civilians!
According to numerous sources, although the Ethiopians unsuccessfully tried to dodge it, the current airstrikes on several towns and villages in Tigray are clearly executed by the Eritreans too. Even after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in Pretoria, South Africa, between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) this week, the Tigrayan cities of Adigrat and Maichew have been bombed. It is now public knowledge that the Eritreans have full control of Ethiopian air force that has since relocated several of its fighter jets to Asmara making Tigrayan towns convenient targets. The series of indiscriminate shelling, the Eritreans believe, have served a purpose in their countless military engagements. At least, this far, they have escaped without serious questioning. Predictably, the international community seems to have nothing to do with it.
By bringing several foreign actors to help squash a legitimate dissent with an overwhelming support in Tigray, Abiy has even become deft in his execution of the war. Besides Eritrea, we see a cluster of others who have already stepped in. Today, the Emiratis (condemned for their war in Yemen), Turks (heavily criticized for their role alongside the Azerbaijanis in their war with Armenians), Iranians (just admitted for arming the Russians with drones-) and possibly the Chinese too have generously provided him with drones that have continued to be significant catalysts in the war. In almost all cases, the operators are foreigners; and civilians and their infrastructures their targets. That, I believe, is a lesson learned from the dirty pages of 20th century Ethiopian history that is replete with impunity; and, in this case, from that of the British RAF that Her late Majesty espoused. Tigray must be a NO-FLY ZONE now. And it is high time that Great Britain lends a hand in putting that idea in motion as we still see bombers including drones flying all over Tigray doing what they do best even after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. Given the current behavior of the Ethiopian government, there seems to be no hope for ending the war on/in Tigray.
Jihon (pen name) is an experienced Ethiopian journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org