In Tigray, civilians continue to suffer amid regional conflict

The conflict in Ethiopia is capturing international attention. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government are fighting for power and for over a year now, the TPLF has pushed to keep their federal arrangement with the Ethiopia government to run Tigray. However, the Ethiopian Prime Minister continues to push for the creation of a united government. 

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed believes that, “the TPLF officials are undermining this authority,” over Ethiopia and wishes to obtain complete control over the country. Over the past year of conflict, thousands of Ethiopians have died and over two million Ethiopians have been forced to relocate. Because of the conflict, most of the country is now suffering from famine, mass rapes and civilian massacres

Ahmed was once part of the TPLF government himself, but turned against the group after being elected into power in 2018. In response to Ahmed’s new role and stances, the TPLF retreated back to the northern, mountainous region of Ethiopia. They reemerged in September 2020.

The purpose of their reemergence was to run the region’s parliamentary elections themselves after Ahmed had postponed them due to the coronavirus pandemic. After this so-called act of defiance by the TPLF, the Ethiopian government stopped funding the northern region where the group resided. In response, the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian military base in Tigray in an attempt to take their weapons, defending the attack as a preemptive strike. The TPLF based their reasoning behind the strike on sightings of the Ethiopian military in neighboring regions. This military presence insinuated to the group that the government was planning an attack against them. This may or may not be the case, but just hours after the TPLF attacked the military base, the prime minister ordered an attack against the Tigrayan leadership. 

To complicate these tense interactions further, the Ethiopian military itself is divided on fighting this war. The Ethiopian military was primarily run by Tigrayan officers, causing rivalry inside the Tigray region. The prime minister did not have the full support of his own military in Tigray because of these divisions. Because of this lack of support, Ahmed realized that to win this battle he would need more manpower. He called on the neighboring country of Eritrea, Ethiopia’s former rival, to fight the TPLF alongside the Ethiopian forces.

The involvement of these outside forces has caused a lot of trouble in Tigray because the Eritrean forces have been accused of attacking civilians in the region. Without looking at the adverse effects of this decision, this strategy served its purpose. The TPLF fled from the attacking Eritrean and Ethiopian troops and they then occupied the capital of Tigray and many other towns in the region. 

The conflict in Ethiopia has taken a turn for the worse since these initial attacks. The fighting has continued with neither side ever backing down for long. In June the TPLF found themselves on the offensive again, forcing the Ethiopian military to retreat from Tigray and capturing several thousand of their soldiers during the fight. Just a few months later, the TPLF advanced on Addis Ababa. This caused the Ethiopian government some anxiety, as Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia. The city is also located in the center of the country, and the TPLF is based in the north. 

At the start of November 2021, the Ethiopian federal government declared a nationwide state of emergency due to the advancement of the TPLF in Addis Ababa. This declaration caused instability and fear in Ethiopia. The Prime Minister went as far as to tell the people of Ethiopia to be armed and ready to block the advances of the rebels. The New York Times reported that, “foreigners fled the country and the government detained thousands of civilians from the Tigrayan ethnic group.” 

Other countries began expressing their fears about the conflict. The United States issued a travel advisory for its citizens. The United States also made the decision to place economic sanctions on Eritrea, and even went as far as to threaten to sanction both the Ethiopian government and the Tigray forces if there is no movement towards peace. The U.S. military and Ethiopia had a close strategic relationship before this conflict, making these threats all the more powerful. In the end, the TPLF was stopped just under one hundred miles away from the capital by the Ethiopian military and some allies.

These allies were Ethiopian civilians, called upon by their Prime Minister. As well as drones from the the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey. While these drone strikes stopped the TPLF’s march on the capital, they also struck many innocent civilians by hitting several refugee camps in Tigray. 

While there is international pressure to put an end to the fighting, while there is conflict, the humanitarian crisis is only getting worse. Children are dying from malnutrition, and food and relief workers are unable to get to the hardest-hit areas because of the Ethiopian government’s blockade around Tigray. In total, it is estimated that 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in need of food. Beyond this, the United States believes that there is ethnic cleansing occurring in the region as tens of thousands are being driven out of their homes in western Tigray by the Ethiopian military.  

Tigray is being ravaged by the Eritrean military as well. The UN special adviser on genocide reported an “escalation of ethnic violence” against the Tigrayan people by Eritrean forces. Human Rights Watch also reported a massacre by the Eritrean forces in Tigray. The Eritrean forces executed several hundred Tigrayans, mainly boys and men, in one day alone. The motivation here is uncertain, but it can be thought that this execution was done so that there would be less able-bodied men to fight back. This may not be fully the case, however, as sexual violence has also become a prevalent issue in the region. There are hundreds of allegations of rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by both militaries, but the majority of the claims are against the Eritrean forces.

The Ethiopian people, and more specifically the Tigrayan people, continue to be heavily affected by this war and by Eritrea’s forces. While it is important that the conflict come to an end — especially in light of the innocent people who have been displaced, assaulted or executed — the region continues to face instability looking forward.

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