Note: this is a translation of Libération’s « L’Ethiopie n’est plus un pays pour moi » : la confiance brisée des Tigréens d’Addis-Abeba (“Ethiopia is no longer a country for me”: the broken trust of the Tigrayans in Addis Ababa) published in , 15 March 2023.
Despite the return of peace, the citizens of Tigray, rounded up by tens of thousands during the war, remain traumatized by the arbitrary detentions and dispossession to which they have been subjected.
by Célian Macé, Special Envoy at Addis Ababa
The Tigray War is officially over. In Addis Ababa, the unstable scaffolding of hundreds of building construction sites, which had been at a standstill for two years, began to wobble again under the weight of workers. The old blue and white Lada taxis rush down the slopes of Africa’s highest capital. Admittedly, prices have exploded (Ethiopia has experienced an average inflation of 34% over the past year) and tens of thousands of displaced people, fleeing violence or poverty, have swelled the city’s population of 3.5 million inhabitants. Beggars are everywhere, complain the rich Addissians. But the bourgeoisie is once again crowding into the glitzy malls of the Bole district. Jacarandas are in bloom. Lovers roam in slow motion the new Unity Park, poorly concealed by skinny shrubs surrounded by garlands of light.
“Everyone acts as if nothing happened. Back to normal, a man snaps his fingers. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s not possible.” On the roof of a downtown building, he crushes his cigarette, throws the cigarette butt into the emptiness of the fifth floor. “I did three months in prison during the war.” He was an employee of a large government agency. “For them, I was a Tigrayan before all, that was enough to make me a culprit.”
In November 2020, federal troops were launched to storm the northern region of Tigray, controlled by the powerful Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The party, which entered into rebellion, dominated Ethiopian political life for thirty years and refused the tutelage of the central government since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power five years ago. The civil war was appallingly deadly. It officially ended on November 2, with the signing of a peace agreement in Pretoria, South Africa. “They released me as they arrested me, without explanation,” the man said, snapping his fingers again. He looks at the city at his feet, lights another cigarette.
In the capital, tens of thousands have been imprisoned, like him, for no other reason than their ethnic origin – their “nationality”, as it is called in Ethiopia. For them, despite the apparent return to some form of everyday normalcy, something broke. “It will never be like before. It’s no longer a country for me or my family,” says Angesom (1), 34. I understood that neither money nor friends could protect me.” Before the war, the father of two, who had lived in Addis Ababa for twenty years, imported specialized tools. His small business was doing well, but he was not rich. “I’m not interested in politics at all, I’m very far from all that,” he swears. At the beginning of the war, I did not imagine for a second being targeted, the Prime Minister had said that only the TPLF and its accomplices were targeted, not all Tigrayans.”
But as Tigrayan resistance is organized in the north and fighting rages, the government’s rhetoric hardens. “The enemy is there among us, good citizens must report them to the police,” said the government-controlled media,” explains a journalist of the capital. Abiy Ahmed used the terms ‘hyenas’ or ‘cancer’ to refer to TPLF, but they were quickly applied to all Tigrayans, and he himself played on this ambiguity.” One word in particular, junta, (in reference to the Tigrayan party), becomes a popular code name for the region’s nationals.
“In the office, in the neighborhood, people started looking at me strangely, the faces tense, I felt the change very quickly,” says Angesom. No one dared to speak in Tigrinya in the street or in public spaces.” On November 21, 2020, he was arrested at the wheel of his car. “It wasn’t a street check, they were looking for me.” The entrepreneur is convinced that he has been denounced by neighbors. He spent four months in detention, without ever seeing a lawyer or a judge. How many have been arrested without any procedure? No official figures have been released. Several tens of thousands for sure according to the UN, perhaps more than 100,000.
“All the prisons in the capital were packed,” says Agust (1), a cleric who spent 55 days locked up. For my part, I was in an unofficial building, a kind of hangar, with 400 other people, all Tigrayans. We had to queue for five hours to go to the bathroom. In two months, no one asked me any questions.” The man in a leather jacket, slender, receives in the dark and naked office of a Catholic parish. The account of his detention still makes him boilled with indignation. He says he is tormented by the “collective injustice” that has befallen his community. “The war has created a mental fault line between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ he said. But the end of hatred cannot be decreed like the end of war, by the signing of an agreement.”
The resentments against the Tigrayan minority – which accounts for 6% of Ethiopia’s 100 million people – predates the civil war. The thirty-year undivided rule of the TPLF, which controlled all levers of Ethiopian power, has left its mark on the collective memory. The rapid enrichment of part of the Tigrayan elite, thanks to its political connections, has aroused contempt and jealousy. “We had become the scapegoat for all Ethiopia’s problems, Agust continues. Unemployment was the fault of the Tigrayans who took the jobs. The poor health of the economy was the fault of corrupt Tigrayans. The failures of the administration, it was all the fault of the Tigrayans who had infiltrated it…”
The war was an opportunity for “collective revenge,” he said. Angesom lived it in his flesh. After two months in prison at a crowded police station in Addis Ababa, he was transferred to the Mizan Aman detention camp, 580 kilometres southwest of the capital, along with 4,000 prisoners. “There, I was beaten just once, I was lucky. Some died as a result of the beatings. Twenty-seven people died, I saw three with my own eyes,” he says. It was hellishly hot. We only had one small bread a day and not enough water. Those who drank water from the river that runs alongside the camp fell ill. They were not treated.”
Angesom lost 20 kilos during his detention. At the end of February 2021, buses picked up the prisoners and brought them back to Addis Ababa. “I was able to warn my wife during the journey, a policeman lent me a phone. For four months, she didn’t know where I was. She didn’t even know if I was alive. She was waiting for me at the bus station. We were all skinny, everyone was crying.” Since then, Angesom has slept badly. His importer licence was cancelled. His company’s accounts are still frozen.
He moved to a neighborhood where no one knows him, so he no longer has to be around his former neighbors. But he can’t sell his house, which is also frozen. “Everyone who had a business was robbed. The richest left the country via Dubai. Some were able to buy their businesses, by paying bribes or using nominees.” It took Angesom a long time to get rid of the fear of another arrest. Since the Pretoria peace agreement, he says he has been doing better. During our conversation, in a popular restaurant downtown, however, he suddenly changes the subject, calls the waiter to ask for the bill. The table neighbors seemed suspicious to him, he explains once out on the street.
Angesom cut all ties with his non-Tigrayan friends. Except one, who helped his wife during his captivity. A lawyer who himself spent two months in prison summed it up: “Our trust in the Ethiopian state and in the society is in tatters. We can force ourselves to have cordial relations, but it will not go any further.” He, too, stopped seeing his former friends and colleagues. “Some of them, whom I had invited under my roof in Mekele [Tigray’s regional capital], openly welcomed the bombing of the city. I told them, ‘But my mother, who housed and fed you, is there!’ If she is there, it is because she is a junta and she deserves, they replied.”
For Agust, despite the end of the war and official calls for reconciliation made by Abiy Ahmed, “the scars are still there”. To “heal”, it will require “public apology” and “justice for the crimes committed”, he believes. Two things he admits he doesn’t expect anytime soon. 17,000 Tigrayan soldiers, arrested at the beginning of the conflict for fear of mutiny, are still in prison, according to the lawyer. “If no one is held accountable, it will all happen again one day,” Agust predicts. He walked a few steps out of the parish to sip coffee in the street, according to Ethiopian custom. Sitting on a plastic stool, he watches the waiter roast the coffee beans in silence. “My 13-year-old daughter found out she was Tigrayan with the war. Yet she grew up in Addis, in a multicultural environment, he says. But when I was in prison, her classmates told her I was a junta. She asked around, and understood what it meant. Since then, she no longer wants to go to school. An entire generation is growing up with that in their heads.”
Earlier, Liberation published a five-page coverage on Post-Pretoria Tigray.