Viewpoint

The un-civil war in Ethiopia: an Eritrean perspective

 Ethiopians must wake up and learn from bitter past experience.

The 2018 peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia meant a breath of new life for Eritreans.

It was not an ordinary peace where two adversaries agreed to settle their differences. It had much deeper significance for Eritreans. Eritreans had been at war for the previous six decades.

Generations were born in war, lived in war, and breathed war. When the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared peace in April 2018, and came to Eritrea to deliver peace in person, they received him like a hero of a son they had been waiting for too long. Tears were flowing down the cheeks of so many. Peace had finally arrived!

For the Eritrean people, this was a new beginning; a period of planning their lives as a normal society. It brought hope and strong desire to see an end to their children being snatched from them at a tender age.

For the youth, the peace gave hope that they can look forward to a normal life where they can aspire for a career; make a family, live a stable life, heralding a life of no flight from their country; an end to living in inhospitable refugee camps; dying in the Sahara and Sinai deserts and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

People in Eritrea anticipated this peace to bring respite from the endless wars and suffering that President Isaias Afwerki had put them through. They hoped for change at home and for their country to integrate back into the region as a strong voice for peace, security, and stability.

In September 2018, as part of the declaration of peace between the two leaders, the border with Ethiopia was opened. Eritreans felt even more hopeful as they started to travel to Ethiopia, mainly to neighbouring Tigray. What they found astounded them. They saw development; they saw structures and construction rising up; factories working; universities functioning; wealth generating.

It was under these circumstances that Eritreans started hoping Abiy’s brand of reform would influence and encourage Isaias to initiate and implement similar changes and release political prisoners that have been incarcerated for over 18 (now 20) years, their whereabouts still unknown; the journalists and many known and unknowns that have disappeared since; the young that were kept in a modern day slavery-like bondage; cease the sexual abuses and violence practiced in Sawa military training camp.

Eritrea would once again be a normal country.

Alas! This was not to be. Instead of building democracy, Eritrea exported dictatorship; instead of reconciling with former enemies, Eritrea sought new ways to vanquish them. The Eritrean president attempted to carve a new grouping of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea as an axis of autocracies.

Even though the peace agreement was, formally speaking, the fulfilment of the Organization of African Unity’s Algiers Agreement, Isaias snubbed the African Union and flew instead to Abu Dhabi and then to Jeddah to celebrate the deal with Arab states. Instead of rejoining and strengthening the regional bloc, IGAD, he continues to undermine it, with the aim of making it irrelevant and die.

True to his nature, Isaias, without warning, closed everything down, sealing off all border crossings. If an Eritrean wants to visit relatives in Tigray, they would now have to travel to Addis first and from there to Mekelle or anywhere in Tigray. If a Tigrayan wanted to visit Eritrea, the route is through Addis.

People living in the border areas had to once again resort to smuggling themselves, with all its attendant risks, to see relatives on the other side. Keeping people separated and impoverished seems to suit the design of the Eritrean president.

It is now over two-and-half years since the declaration of peace. In Eritrea, however, no reform occurred, and there is no sign that it ever will. As a matter of fact,  more people were put in prison, disappearing into the gulag.

Why was Abiy tagging along as a junior partner in this destructive plot?  Eritreans felt doubly betrayed. The people gave their heart to Abiy. Mothers blessed him. Fathers felt proud of him. We all believed he was a man of peace; a serious reformer; a person of integrity, with unshakeable principles and inexhaustible energy to eliminate conflicts from the face of Ethiopia and its neighbours; and with deep commitment to regional integration.

Instead, Abiy sends his army against one of the regions of his own country, claiming to be provoked by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What is most unkind to Eritreans is his “invitation” of President Isaias to be part of the invasion of Tigray; an invitation that is causing our youth to perish by the thousands while causing immense suffering to the people of Tigray. Eritreans are deeply wounded.

The war presently waged over Tigray has it parallels with those fought by Emperor Haile Selassie and the Derg, especially the latter that was viciously waged against Eritrea. This war that went on for 30 years was virtually hidden from ordinary Ethiopians and the world at large, until Eritreans were ingenious and strong enough to bring the international media to witness it.

Successive Ethiopian governments dubbed it a war against a small number of outlaws (‘terrorists’ was not yet a catchphrase) that were instigated, armed and supported by the Arabs. This was repeated in the most demonizing way by the Ethiopian elite. They reiterated, propagated, believed, and lived with it, oblivious of what this meant to their own country; for, at that time, Eritrea was officially a part of Ethiopia.

The elite never looked back at themselves and asked why such a vicious war, a war where Ethiopian peasants were perishing by the tens and later hundreds of thousands, had to continue. Once more, Ethiopian leaders are waging war against their own—the people of Tigray. Once more, the great majority of Ethiopian elite seem to find it convenient to believe their government’s propaganda, many times with exaggeration.

As Eritreans were branded Arab agents bent on destroying Ethiopia, Tigrayans are maligned in a similar manner, but more systematically. Under the guise of exposing crimes committed by the TPLF, by no less than the prime minister, hatred against Tigrayans is being cultivated by the political elite, consistently fanned and normalized.

Such sanitized and institutionalized ingraining of hatred against any group can only have a calamitous end. And in Ethiopia today, it has reached a point where Ethiopians in social media express their feelings that Tigrayans were the source of all that ails their country, and getting rid of them, even physically removing them from the face of the earth, is the right thing to do.

This has the implication of preparing the people for an impending ethnic cleansing—which many average Ethiopians seem to implicitly applaud at least in various social media platforms. As a result, war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed as we speak, leaving deep wounds to render reconciliation difficult if not impossible.

Africa Watch reported during the time of the Eritrean armed struggle for independence that the Derg was using starvation as a weapon of war. It restricted food supplies from reaching those in desperate need, exposing the entire population to hunger. It put the population in constant fear by making sure water and fuel were scarce and under firm government control.

International organizations also reported that between December 1974 and January 1975, the Derg junta was strangulating young Eritreans by piano wires and strewing their bodies in the streets of Asmara. They also reported that the Derg was practicing systematic, brutal and cold-blooded murder with wide-spread torture, looting, raping, indiscriminate killing of civilians. Eritrea lived under a reign of terror. Tigray is now living under a similar reign of terror.

Indeed, President Mengistu Haile Mariam demolished dwelling places of peaceful Eritrean peasants, burnt their crops, including using napalm, and slaughtered their livestock. It was a war by starvation deliberately waged.

The Ethiopian government then imposed a total blockade on Eritrea while it was destroying it and subjecting its people to hunger; the present war over Tigray reminds me of the 30 years of war in Eritrea that was virtually hidden from the Ethiopian people. Like Tigray now, back then we were officially and formally a part of Ethiopia too.

Tigray has been turned into an active war zone, literally invaded by its own government with the active support of foreign forces; all communications severed for weeks; hunger and disease left to take their own hideous course.

In Tigray today, the flow of food aid is heavily restricted by Abiy’s government while United Nations and others’ reports of acute hunger, including news of starvation, are growing louder by the day. Warnings of widespread famine in Tigray are ringing all over.

It reminds me of Mengistu’s infamous statement that exposed his callousness to the loss of human beings, metaphorically draining the sea to kill the fish. The sea being the Eritrean people that gave sustenance to the cause of freedom, and the fish the Eritrean freedom fighters.

In the case of present day Tigray, in order to weaken the TPLF, Abiy’s government has to subdue the civilians, including subjecting them to famine and death.

History is repeating itself after 40 years.

It is not only accounts of deliberate famine brought by its own federal government that are coming out of Tigray. Accounts of horrifying atrocities committed on ordinary Tigrayans have begun to come out: children, mothers, the old and young are shot on sight, rape is rampant, extensive destruction of property, including health facilities and schools.

Abiy and Isaias’s troops are said to be sparing nothing and nobody.

Different sources consistently indicate that Eritrean troops are acting maliciously, not only in the destruction of lives and property but also in looting, packing up war bounties and taking them to Eritrea. This fills us with agony and helplessness as these are young people brought from all over the country, from all the towns and villages of Eritrea, snatched from their parents and communities at a very young age and given military training to kill and destroy. They are now committing horrendous crimes. They have been indoctrinated with hatred of TPLF since birth. They are also victims, not just perpetrators.

Abiy’s action over Tigray also reminds me of the GI who said during the Vietnam war, “to save the village we must destroy it”. This happened in Eritrea under the Derg and it is now happening in Tigray under Abiy. Destroy Tigray to save it; save it from the TPLF?

Abiy worked in the intelligence units of the Ethiopian army for some time. During the height of this war he said he was able to see his enemies in one of his several TV screens from his palace/office. It is like children playing video games conducting war operations; it is impersonal; it is unreal; it is ok to continue playing it; shockingly Abiy thinks it is the same—just a game.

Abiy, however, plays his game by sending the army, deploying the tanks, flying the war planes to drop bombs, and like video games player, Abiy believes not a single civilian was killed. He believed in this war game so much that he proudly announced it in Parliament—no shame. No feeling.

An ‘enemy’ must perish, cost what it may to Ethiopia. In real-life war, lives are lost, people’s health compromised, property destroyed, and the civilians, mostly women and children, pay a heavy price.

Abiy invited Eritrea to help him defeat TPLF and destroy Tigray in the process. Mengistu invited the Soviets, with Cuba and South Yemen playing their parts, not only to supply him with weapons, which they did abundantly, but also to plan his offensives, lead battles, and supervise operations.

Though similar in form, in fact, this war has assumed the actualization of Isaias’s plan to destroy the TPLF, and that has been in the works before the night of 3 November, when the TPLF government and sympathetic military officers disarmed the Northern Command in a “preemptive” move.

It has been the Eritreans doing the bulk of the fighting with a reported 60,000 troops, organized in more than ten divisions and brigades as reported by the former Chief of Staff and Minister of Defense of Eritrea.

Eritrea was totally abandoned by the OAU/AU, the United Nations and the international community when it was fighting for its right to determine its destiny. We paid a very heavy price as a result of that.

Today, it is worse for Tigray. The Chair of the AU Commission, a person mandated to work for peace and stability, to silence the guns across the continent, not only supports but applauds the war. According to him, the Ethiopian government’s war on Tigray was an act of restoring the “constitutional order” of Ethiopia.

It is not that the Tigray leaders helped the situation. They got into a tug-of-war with Abiy that did not serve the best interest of the people of Tigray. They also totally failed to see the calculations and the conspiracy that was gathering strength against them by Isaias and Abiy.

Abiy’s smiles, conciliatory remarks, and charisma have cheated us, but Isaias’s smiles, chest-pounding and endorsement of Abiy as the great leader did not. We now know what we always suspected—it was only to serve his purpose; not his country’s. His personal goals alone. He hated the TPLF so much that he suspended developing his own country to a later date; to a date when TPLF will be gone.

Now, it is gone. Would he turn his attention to his country’s wellbeing or continue to pursue the TPLF in the mountains, plains, and towns of Tigray at all costs? For he has made defeating TPLF his raison d’etre.

What if TPLF is the closest and most honest ideological representation of the people’s aspiration? What then? More so, what if TPLF is no longer a political organization which can make mistakes and be criticised but an untouchable symbol of self-determination and even independence? What if it becomes the cause for which generations of young Tegaru may avenge? What then for Isaisas, but also Abiy?”

Should Tigray be made to suffer and even disappear?

Abiy has spent quite a lot of time conferring with Isaias; this reminds me of the time when Isaias and Meles Zenawi were so close that they got the name of ‘new breed of African leaders’. They would meet informally in Asmara, Addis Ababa, and quite often in Mekelle. Their informality was taken as a way of expediting cooperation built on trust. It was not to be.

The same seems to be going on between Abiy and Isaias; Abiy running to Asmara to discuss with, even get instructions, from Isaias almost certainly to learn how to stay in power at any cost, including destroying his own country, creating havoc in the region.

Wars bring out the worst in people. The wars waged in/on Eritrea had the unfortunate result of creating a monster of a leader. A monster with no conscience; no human feeling; a monster who takes the children of others, a whole generation of a nation, to war with no compunction.

I hope it won’t be the same in Ethiopia and I very much hope Ethiopians will ultimately wake up and learn from past experiences—their own and that of their neighbor’s.

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Main photo: An Ethiopian tank near Zalambessa during the war with Eritrea, June 2000, Petterik Wiggers.

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About the author

Paulos Tesfagiorgis

Paulos, a lawyer and human rights activist, was the head of the Eritrean Relief Association and senior member of Eritrea’s independence struggle. He later lectured in law at Asmara University and co-drafted Eritrea’s unimplemented 1997 constitution.

16 Comments

  • Unbiased and well articulated article. I am happy that you wrote it by connecting the past and present history, the sayings and the strategies that the killers are using.
    I only need to add one thing that you didn’t mention about the suffering of Tigrayans from Derg in the same way and time that Eritreans suffered. Tigray was in the same history during the Derg regime and history is repeating it self. Sadly, even during Haileselassie.

  • Dear audience,

    I am a total outsider from Europe, trying to make sense of this conflict because I’ve actually been to Tigray some ten years ago. Inevitably my view is incomplete. In particular, I am trying to understand what is the inter-ethnic or inter-religious background to this conflict, assuming that it must exist (maybe I’m wrong). I read in Wikipedia that Tigrinya orthodox christians make up the largest group in Eritrea, while muslim Tigre people are the second-largest group. So how can it be that orthodox Tigrinya from Eritrea are killing the orthodox Tigrinya from Tigray!? Or is it the muslim Tigre people killing the Tigrinya in Tigray? If so, how can this be done in spite of the Tigrinya majority in Eritrea? Can someone please explain this to me? Please excuse me for showing lack of understanding, I hope my possibly dumb view did not offend anyone, which would be the last thing I want.

    • Yes its mostly Orthodox Eritreans against Orthodox Tigrayans but its not a religious conflict. Its mostly an ethnic one. Tplf has been using the cover of its ethnic group to clash against both its Amhara and Eritrean neighbors.

      • I wouldn’t even say that it is an ethnic conflict, since Tigrayans and “Tigrinyas” (who dominate Eritrea) speak the same language and share a common culture and some significant history. It is more of a political conflict in which the political and military elite on both sides, but especially Isaias Afwerki, are almost entirely to blame. It is a conflict that lacks legitimacy and support from both populations. This lack of legitimacy is what makes it so dangerous for the Tigrayan people, as it has been for the Vietnamese in US war. Even worse, the notoriously paranoid leader of Eritrea may believe the only way out of this conflict that doesn’t involve his downfall to be the total elimination of Tigray and its people. I am deeply frightened for Tigray and unable to see any future for my country of origin that is Eritrea. As long as Isaias lives there is no hope for the Horn of Africa.

  • “…when the TPLF government and sympathetic military officers disarmed the Northern Command in a “preemptive” move.” Total and complete bullshit.
    You should write ficition, that way you can make money with your bullshit….then again who is to say that you’re not making money now

  • Is this really an “Eritrean” perspective? Because Mr. Paulos Tesfagiorgis is in fact of Tigrayan descent. As such, his perspective differs starkly from that of most Eritreans. The article largely omits the TPLF and what little mention is made of them, completely glosses over their 27 year long tyrranical reign which only recently ended. This current conflict much like all the previous wars and conflicts involving Ethiopia and Eritrea in the last 30 years was after all instigated by none other than the TPLF. It takes a great deal of bias and intellectual acrobatics to blatantly side-step that fact.

    • About TPLF you say 27 year long tyrannical reign, but it is Isaias’s Eritrea that is referred to as the North Korea of Africa. So on your part, you chose not to mention that inconvenient fact.

    • And who elected you as the voice of Eritreans? As far as I know, there has never in the history of Eritrea been anything that remotely resembles an election. I am Eritrean, father and mother, and I appreciate the differentiated view of Tesfagiorgis.

      The lack of good judgement stemming from the authoritarian restriction of Eritrean minds has brought us to this point. I don’t care what you and the likes of you accuse the TPLF of doing, as long as you wield your accusations like a sword over Tigray, causing unbearable suffering to innocent people.

      I know how you think because I see it in parts of my family. I know your moral justification is rooted in an archaic understanding of justice: a never ending cycle of human catastrophy. You seeks to restore order by repaying suffering with even more suffering. Unless we free ourself from this imperial and patriarchal notion of justice, we will always relapse into barbarism.

  • One of the most enduring lies is that TPLF was solely responsible for Eritrea’s sanctions and isolation for so many years, when in fact all of Ethiopia was in support of that policy as retribution for cessation. But it is a convenient lie used for the current alignment that has degenerated into war crimes and atrocities.

  • Dear writer,

    You seem to regret the fact that Eritrea was abandoned by the international community for so long. Who was responsible for that? Who locked Eritrea in international restrictions to the chain of poverty? You might say Isayas, but it was actually TPLF. Isayas was acting out of defense in response to TPLF and their usual evil strategies.

    So when Abiy and Isayas became partners to destroy this group, the objective is to open the doors once again. Yes the current war went far beyond the war zone, and into the civilian population. We all hope that it will be concluded as TPLF is mostly dealt with. Regional integration is the objective and you should be on the side of the leaders making it happen.

  • Why would you forgot to mention the massacre that took place by TPLF on south command military base and Mikadra on close to 1000 innocent civilians which the cause of the conflict has begun in the first place?

  • The best article since the TIgray war begun! The comparisons used were impeccable. Thank you Mr. Tesfagiorgis.

  • Although I mostly disagree, your article is eloquently put. What’s stunning and mesmerizing is that, you, as an Eritrean, mentioned diddly squat of the atrocities the TPLF as an Ethiopian gov’t unleashed on Eritrea in 1998 and sadly, the very many years that followed – complemented by unnecessary sanctions that tested every Eritrean’s resolve to the limit.
    Why is that??!! Selemtai??!! I truly find it extremely difficult to reconcile your tenor with E.R.A and your article.

    Respectfully,

    Million Ephrem.

  • Don’t try to hide behind the Dergue. The Dergue looks good right seeing how destructive EPLF and TPLF have been to their respective peoples.

    The Dergue did not do one third of the things they are accused of. Asmara was in better shape under the Dergue than it is now. Under the Dergue, Eritrean youths were getting free university education, Eritrean businesses were booming in both Asmara and Addis Ababa. That is not to say Eritreans did not suffer during the war, especially the lowlanders who lived in the Barka region. Eritreans fought honorably for the most part, and their victory was hard won.

    The problem is Eritrea is too small for Isiais. He found himself a leader of a tiny country of just 3 million with 9 tribes of which a third are Muslims He has locked the youth in the military because he realized the various tribes will be at each other’s throat if left to themselves. However, thanks to Isias, Eritrea now has a youth population trained to use arms-this does not bode well for peace.

    TPLF was waiting for the Eritrean state to fail so they can pick up the pieces, rescue their Tigrigna speaking brethren from the Muslim tribes, and rule Eritrea indirectly. Isiais understood this about them very well, and hated them vehemently . Isiais struck first though with help from Ethiopians.

    Maybe Isiais is longing for unity-some kind of confederation- with Ethiopia as guarantee against Muslim or Tigray domination of Eritrea.

    Wasn’t that what the old Eritrean Unionists had wanted?

  • Bereket Simon the ethnic Eritrean official and Hilawi Yoseph the fully ethnic Tigrayan official were fully ruling the Amara region’ s government for decades until three years ago.

    Half of the current Amara regional Liyu Hayil officers of the Amara region are either Eritreans or Tigrayans who intentionally failed to defend the Amara civilians while these officers were stationed nearby , doing nothing while the terror attacks slaughtered civilians and churches .

    The Amara regional Liyu Hayil intentionally failed to defend the civilians in cities such as Debre Berhan, Ataye, Kemsse and so on in the Amara region since the PM Abiy Ahmed took power.So there is no way to thrust these officers in Wolqait and Raya now.

    አቃቢ ሕግ በነእስክንድር ነጋ የድብቅ ምስክሮች ጉዳይ የከፍተኛ ፍርድ ቤትን ውሳኔ በጠቅላይ ፍርድ ቤት አሳገደው

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