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Because of the war, many Tigrayans no longer identify with Ethiopia

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Over the last two years, the devastating war in Tigray has caused me to reconsider my identity and question my place in Ethiopia. 

Like many Tigrayans, I was a firm believer in my Ethiopian identity prior to the war, partly because many generations of Tigrayans have made significant contributions to Ethiopia. Tigray’s history was so intertwined with Ethiopia’s that it was considered taboo for a Tigrayan to question their Ethiopian identity.

Oromos have struggled with this same question for decades. When Oromo politician Jawar Mohammed championed the “I am Oromo first” slogan, it did not sit well with many Tigrayans. We couldn’t figure out what prompted Oromos, or at least those who agree with Jawar, to question which identity holds most meaning to them.

However, the outbreak of the war in 2020 was an eye opener for many of us. What qualifies me as an “Ethiopian” and what do I want from my country? These questions have been bothering me and many other Tigrayans since that fateful day a little over two years ago.

The fundamental guarantees and protections that I expect from my country of birth have slowly eroded. Practically speaking, foreign nationals, such as Eritreans, have more rights in Ethiopia than I do as a Tigrayan.

Ethnic Targeting

It is difficult to live in a country where your nationality is constantly called into question. You cannot easily mingle and have fun with people from other ethnic communities because they may think you are a spy or some sort of low-profile “Junta”.

ትግሬን ማመን ቀብሮ ነው, which means “trust a Tigrayan only after you bury him,” is the mantra that has gripped Addis Abeba and beyond.

Your life as a Tigrayan is not worth more than an animal’s life in today’s Ethiopia. Nobody takes responsibility if you are killed at any time, at any place. You could be burned alive if you come into contact with Ethiopian soldiers or their brutal allies.

It has been agonizing to witness the brutality of some of the killings. The killers gleefully used their phones to record the agonizing deaths of Tigrayans. Some of the killers’ “trophies” made their way onto social media and have been widely shared. However, there are certainly many more similar killings that went unrecorded.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the international community has stood by and watched as thousands of Tigrayans were slaughtered by federal troops, Amhara regular and irregular forces, and Eritrean soldiers.

It is estimated that more than 500,000 Tigrayans have died as a result of wartime violence against civilians, manmade famine, and the destruction of the region’s health system.

The actual figure could be even higher, but it’s hard to know because Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s regime has barred access to independent researchers, human rights investigators, and journalists who could help determine the true scope of atrocity crimes in Tigray.

Some of the atrocities committed in the region have been covered by credible human rights organizations. However, because Abiy’s brutal regime has deliberately cut off access to Tigray, most evidence of extrajudicial killings and other heinous crimes has remained hidden.

Wartime Abuses

Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans have been systematically cleansed from various parts of Tigray, mostly in the west. They are unable to return to their homes. Some fled to neighbouring countries, while others became internally displaced. They lead a perilous existence in which their survival is tested on a daily basis.

Hundreds of people have been murdered in government concentration camps, particularly Tigrayans who served in the Ethiopian military, and many more have starved to death in the detention centers due to a lack of sustenance and medicine, overcrowding, and poor hygiene.

Abiy’s government is not only killing people directly, it has used every trick from the Biafra siege during Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war to systematically wipe out Tigrayans.

Due to the blanket suspension of their bank accounts until recently, people in Tigray have been unable to feed themselves and their families. Since banking services were reopened in some places, they are limited to taking out small sums. Many people who owned their own businesses and lived comfortable lives prior to the outbreak of the war are struggling to survive because they no longer have access to their savings.

Unable to pay their rent and other bills, the vast majority of them have gone bankrupt. Moreover, one in three children in Tigray is malnourished due to the siege.

Countless men and women have been subjected to rape, and survivors have been left to their own devices with no help from the outside world. According to estimates by the Tigray Health Bureau, 120,000 Tigrayan women and girls have been raped during the war.

Individuals have been abducted from various locations and tortured with electric cables, wooden sticks, and metal rods. Others have been mutilated and dismembered. Many are paralyzed as a result of their captors’ use of excessive force.

Destitute by Design 

Abiy’s government has given all federal agencies orders to dismiss Tigrayans from all positions. As a result, thousands of Tigrayans working outside of Tigray have been fired.

Even the well-educated are unable to support their family since they are not getting their salaries. Millions of Tigrayans employed by federal institutions in Tigray and the Tigray regional government have not been paid since June 2021.

Daily laborers and those who used to work in low-wage occupations confront the same predicament, since there are no job opportunities for them. All of these individuals face the following desperate choices: starvation, joining the struggle, or exodus from the region. Some have committed suicide due to their inability to feed their families.

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Businesses owned by Tigrayans have been closed. Due to excessive taxation, real estate owners, hotel owners, and other Tigrayans who used to play critical roles in the country’s economy are being forced to sell their businesses.

Those who fled the country for safety or were unable to pay the exorbitant taxes had their businesses auctioned off. The owners were left with little after the federal government and banks took a large portion of the proceeds from the foreclosure.

This begs the question of whether the Tigray war was precipitated by the economic needs of a small economic elite.

Restricted Movement

Between Tigray and the rest of the country, there has been no road or, for much of the last two years, air transport. As a result, families are being separated from one another. Flights resumed in mid-December, but soon after federal authorities imposed a ban on air travel for Tigrayans between the ages of 16 and 65.

It has become difficult to determine which of our relatives are still alive. It’s also difficult to send cash and other necessities to Tigray.

Before the peace deal was signed on 2 November, sending money to Tigray had effectively become a crime because people were forced to smuggle money in to feed their starving families. Smugglers demanded up to a 50 percent commission. At checkpoints in Kobo and Afar, federal security agents and Afar special forces confiscated a large amount of money intended for Tigray.

Even within Tigray, you had no idea how your close family members who live a few kilometers away from Mekelle were doing. Until recently, all communications systems were down and it still remains difficult or impossible to contact people living in remote areas.

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You can’t easily drive to their house to see them in person because you realize buying fuel, if there is any to buy, costs an arm and a leg. You can’t send them money because the banks are closed.

That is the way people have been living in Tigray.

Arbitrary Arrests

Walking through Addis Abeba’s streets gives you an unimaginable sense of insecurity. You can be detained at any time for no apparent reason.

Thousands of Tigrayans remain in concentration camps that have sprung up in Afar, Amhara, and elsewhere in the country, and the fate of countless Tigrayans has remained a mystery.

Even those deported from other countries face this kind of treatment. However, the forcible disappearance of Tigrayans has received little domestic and international attention.

A large portion of the Tigrayan population despises Abiy and his regime. Only a small number of Tigrayans support or are members of the ruling Prosperity Party. They, too, were subject to detention in camps.

It does not matter if you are a politician, an ordinary person, a human rights defender, or a businessperson. Even if you flee Tigray for safety or because you are starving, you are likely to face the same treatment: arrest, torture, denial of basic services, and internment.

Identity Reconsidered

If you want to survive in Ethiopia today as a Tigrayan, you must put up with discrimination and ill treatment.

There are no rights you claim as a Tigrayan living in today’s Ethiopia. Your freedom of movement, your right to basic services, and your right to protection from torture and other kinds of ill treatment are denied for the sole reason that you are an ethnic Tigrayan.

Tigrayans’ contributions to the establishment of modern Ethiopia did not protect us from the atrocities committed against our community. To the contrary, there is widespread hostility among Ethiopian nationalists toward Tigray and the Tigrayan identity.

A peace agreement between Tigray and Ethiopia won’t heal the deep wounds inflicted on Tigrayans by the brutal Abiy and Isaias regimes, especially one that does not include accountability for atrocity crimes.

Given how fundamentally our constitutional rights have been violated amid the war, many Tigrayans like myself have now completely rejected their Ethiopian identity.

Under these circumstances, I’m left to question why I should still call myself an Ethiopian.

Query or correction? Email us

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: A damaged Axum obelisk, Axum, Tigray; October 2016; Patrick Wight.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

Asmelash Yohannes Teklu

Asmelash (Ph.D.) is a former Senior Advisor at the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and head of its Tigray office.

36 Comments

  • Ethiopians said they had enough of TPLF led government after 27 years. They needed new and fresh ideas but what TPLF did since it left power was to terrorise Ethiopians. In this last two years it has become apparent TPLF led a country and people it despised.

    • Betty – Contrary to your false assertion, TPLF left power peacefully. However, a long running obsessive resentment against TPLF culminated into the war on Tigray. A tribal war of atrocities pitting Amhara against Tigray leading to the Rwandization of Ethiopia, very much like Rwanda in 1994 Hutus against Tutsi.

  • It is not possible to say that all the points you raised in this article are the positions of Tigray people.

    Half of TPLF supporters and members realized that the previous approach was wrong.

    You TPLF members and leaders are responsible for all chrises listed above. Tegrau have been hurt by the trouble and arrogance of you radical nationalists.through out history the people of Tigray have never questioned their Ethiopian identity. However, TPLF has hated Ethiopia since the beginning, so betrayal is not new when your interests are affected.

    • I don’t think it is true,but I believe Tigrayan used to be an Ethiopian before TPLF and They had respect from others.During TPLF (RIP) most Tigrayan started to be against unity and against the development of Ethiopia.They have time to see what they have done wrong and come to their Ethiopian brothers and sisters.

  • Despicable acts and senseless and fragrant violation of the basic human rights eventhough it was predictable outcome given the gruesome nature of the war . But the same time, if onyone thought that the identy or personal righs and wellbeing of of a citizen or particular group of people are sure things or permanent right in Ethiopia , he is either naive or must living in parallel privileged bubble status for generations during successive regimes . It has never been case. Mind you, we grew up in Ethiopia. especially in the Somali region, where the marauding Ethiopian army, and with the help and instructions of ruthless bureaucrats from the highland orthodox Abyssinians, used to terrorized population with impunity in daily basis and acted as though they were occupying force. It has been routine and it still is to disenfranchise collectively citizens in the pretext of security threats. on suspicion of being opposition to tge government or particular leader or simply belonging to particular ethic group or faith. They would be deprive their basic right, employment rights , economic rights and movement rights, in the blink of an eye without slightest prove of any wrongdoing. Yesteryear it was used against Somalis ,or against Erireans, then against Oromos and now against Tigrsain and tomorrow would beagainst different group.and the cycle will be self perpetuating. This failed and self-defeatist of socio-political culture and mindset must change but how or how long and by whom? That is the million dollar question.

    • The injustice committed by tplf is beyond words. In the name of tigryans members of tplf killed miammed, casterated, destroyed Ethiopians.
      Ethiopans should equally benefit from what Ethiopia can provide.
      I am sure the author of this artcle is a member of tplf. For him to be Ethiopian for tigrean is as far as they looted others.
      It should be noted that all are equal. The perception by some that tigreans are suprior and can do anything to others should stop.
      Tigreans lived for more than 5000 years with other Ethiopians. Why they question being Ethiopians now??
      The havoc that tplf team wrought on amharas and afars … the numbers killed… the schools hospitals …destroyed during the war is on document. Why does this author talk only about what happened to tigreans? After all it is the adventurous, and atrocious tplf that triggered the devastating war!!

  • The silly thing is that people of Tigray forget that Abiy ,who is an Oromo, was hand picked by TPLF when the late Meles Zenawi made up OPDO which was designed to promote their ethnic based politics and their anti Amhara movement. But things didn’t go the way TPLF wanted and instead OPDO rose up against TPLF. TPLF lost power and Abiy took the advantage to still away the power. Now an Oromo is ruling the country but Tigray politicians continued to hallucinate as if Amhara is in power. Amharas have nothing to give. They are being massacred in every part of Oromia, especially in Wollega. Tigray people are now suffering under an Oromo leader and that is the outcome of Meles Zenawi’s misguided politics.
    Leave Amhara alone

    • yet amhara are supporting abiy against tigray people so how are amhara any better than abiy. although i agree with what you said about tplf, the fact amhara keeping quite showing amhara aint any better than tplf and pp.

  • The atrocities that the author has listed should not have done to anybody late alone to our Tigrean brothers and sisters. But the author should have written a piece of article like this when other ethnicities were suffering at the hands of TPLF during the 27 rules of TPLF. Rather we have to look forward, start civilized thinking and work on how to re-build a country in which every citizen is treated equally; who ever is on power.

  • Please be rational! Who beg you to keep such identity? No one impose it up on you! Choose whichever nationality and go for it. This war was instigated by TPLF juntas but the fire consumes innocent Tigrians, Amharas and Afars and the Ethiopian economy at large. Be impartial in your assessment.

  • Haw long TPLF supporters blame the Ethiopian government and people since 1978, it is not tired of You, blaming Ethiopia people and government ? While You (TPLF leaders and supporters) created Ethnic based division and even wrote a constitution that Ethiopia to be divided into pieces of broken provinces. Is that not You humiliated Your country Ethiopia?

  • The Tigray people do not deserve the unthinkable atrocity committed against them. They are peace-loving people and did not do any harm to any people. Aby Ahmed’d Federal Army, Amhara’s forces with the direct invitation of Eritrea’s evil man’s forces along with drones from various countries have worked restlessly to wipe out the Tigray people from their land. They use all kinds of atrocities from killing to raping, to displacing over a million people out of their villages and towns to looting all kinds of resources, to destroying priceless artifacts. For over two years, these people have been sentenced to die not only by bullets and bombs from the sky, but also from starvation by denying them access to humanitarian aid such as food, medicine, and clothing and cutting basic services such as electricity, telephone, banking, Internet, etc. When you commit genocide against your own people, how do you expect them to continue believing Ethiopia is their beloved country?

    I was born and grew up in Eritrea and witnessed the Ethiopian (Amhara) during the Haile Selassie regime slaughtering the Eritrean people and burning people in the Mosques, especially my Moslem brothers. After Independence with the help of the Tray People who died in Eritrea to help the Shabia, the ruthless totalitarian Essays regime decimated the Eritrean population of 30 years and invaded the Tigray People so he can hand over Eritrea and become the ruler of Ethiopia. It is so sad these peace-loving people are killing each other for so many years because of hatred created by their leaders. All I can pray for is lasting peace, prosperity, and good neighborly relationships among the people and governments of the Horn of Africa, especially the people of Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

  • For many generations, being Ethiopian was both a historical identity and a natural sentiment for the people of Tigray. The war on Tigray, this act of betrayal, with all its deliberate and vengeful atrocities, has fractured that sense of belongingness that the people of Tigray had felt and taken for granted in the past. Tigray people did not choose to lose faith in the idea of being Ethiopian. It is the outcome of the war of vengeance and cruelty that was waged against them.

  • Didn’t you all say that you are going to leave Ethiopia when you started the war?

    Then 2 years later, you come back and beg Ethiopia for food?

    Let’s have a referendum today for Tigrayans if they really want to separate?

  • For someone holding Ph.D, this opinion piece is so shallow! What did it mean to be Ethiopian to you? Being one of the privilege when TPLF was in power? Have you ever realized that other ethnic groups had to go through the same injustices & persecutions that you’re listing now when TPLF was in power including genocide on Anuak & Wolkait people. Do you realize these same persecutions & genocide are also currently happening right now on other ethnic groups especially on Amharas. Persecutions based on ethnic groups intensified since TPLF came to power and implemented ethnic federalism system. You most probably never questioned this system since at the time it was benefiting all Tigrayans. I wonder if you ever uttered a single word against TPLF, why should you it was all rosy for most Tigrayans! Do you even want to see that the Abiy government is currently jailing, harassing more Amharas than Tigrayans even committing Amhara genocide.
    But, Amharas, Afars, Gurages, etc… didn’t question their Ethiopianess, they are fighting this apartheid system. Governments come and go, ruling systems are changed by the people, but rejecting your own country is unheard of especially when Tigray is where Ethiopia started!!
    It’s no doubt the war was a disaster for Tigray, Amhara & Afar. But, you didn’t have the decency to mention all the destructions & deaths purposely caused to Amharas & Afars by TPLF and you expect others to feel your pain when in fact you’re ignoring theirs.

  • There is nothing great in being Ethiopian or Tigrayan. This war has been really terrible for all those who lived through it, be they Tigre or Amhara or anything. How many more decades of this nonsense are we going to keep up with ? We need peace and economic opportunity!

  • As a Tigraway, I don’t want to be associated with Ethio….. see can’t even finish the spelling. I already forgot the rest of the letters.

  • Dear brother, I appreciate your right to speak your mind. You tried to say many things regarding the discrimination, ill treatments, restriction of movement, restriction of basic services, abuses… that have been done against people in Tigray State. I am telling you, this should be denounced by all.
    However, it seems you try to be innocent. Who caused all this mess up in this country? Who planted the very seedlings of ethnicity, narrow nationalism, and segregation through language…? Who snatched the lands of Amhara? Or allowed this madness to happen? Who is the very cause of all the current problems in this country? It is the ruling party, TPLF, which has brought all these things in this ancient country of ours. Who is behind the hostilities you are now talking about? Do you think all peace loving Ethiopians forget the war cry and parade the Tigre militias and Special Forces were staged in Mekele Town! Did you guys denounce this provocation? Don’t forget about the wide spread hatred and hostility promoted by you guys against people of Amhara!
    What were you saying during the war? You are mistaken if you think we forget that. We are not with short memories. Don’t you guys regard yourselves as the sole warriors in this country? Why did you not mention a single word regarding the massacre perpetrated by your militias in Afar Galicoma and Amhara. You did not say a single word regarding the missiles fired at air ports in Bahirdar, Gonder and Asmera. Is it not a provocation? Why do you guys reluctant to say anything about the killings of innocent Amharas in Wollo, Gonder and other parts of the region you invaded. Don’t forget the atrocities, the lootings and damages of hospitals, schools, universities, done by your soldiers in Amhara and Afar regions? Your soldiers deliberately gangraped innocent women and looted private and public properties from Amhara and Afar regions. Ethiopians will never forget this all!!
    My last word is this…. I share the common views of the entire peace loving Ethiopians that if you guys need to bring lasting solutions to this mess up, you should think twice to stop your madness! Enough is enough!!

    • None of the atrocities committed by either side justify further atrocities on civilian population. Afterall an Eye for Eye leaves everyone blind.

  • Well said, Horrifying atrocities and man made famine in Tigray isn’t only being committed by Abiy Ahmed to carry out his genocidal war , Menlik and haile selasse also used the same tactics as well . We have been fed to believe the so called Ethiopia has a a long standing history of sates hood that is patently false . The country has been burning in all directions since it’s inception and there was no time with no war except for short period of time . There is inherent problems deep dawn to the core that is very difficult to fix the fault lines . Personally I don’t want to be the citizen of a country that’s not real and also don’t want to live with barbaric people burn you alive because you don’t share their stupid beliefs.

  • I cannot refute or confirm all the claims of persecution, imprisonment, discrimination and other ills perpetrated against the people of Tigray or of Tigrean origin you have made. However, I cannot accept your premise that those claims are enough to make you question your identity as an Ethiopian. Let us not forget that the TPLF, for its entire existence has insisted on Tigray’s “exceptionality” and had infused on two generations of Tigreans their “apartness” from the rest of Ethiopians. While the TPLF was in power for nearly 28 years, it made sure that not only all positions of power, be they bureaucratic, diplomatic, military, etc… but also in banking, finance and business went to persons of Tigrean origin. Yet, Amharas and other minority Ethiopians never questioned their “Ethiopian-ness” because of this. Nor did they feel “Un-Ethiopian” because thousands of them languished in prison, and many suffered unspeakable torture and death. Yet, none of us, who have suffered in person the persecution of the TPLF have for a single moment questioned our Ethiopian-ness, on the contrary we only hoped and dreamed for a better, democratic and peaceful Ethiopia. What you are doing is exactly what the TPLF has been wanting you to do all along: question your Ethiopian identity so you would adhere to its separatist, and resentful ideology. Tigray, as far as I am concerned is the birth place of Ethiopia. Yet many who have joined this nucleus of Ethiopian-ness, unwillingly or willingly, feel more Ethiopian than ever. Isn’t time for Tigreans to separate themselves once and for all from the damaging ideology of the TPLF and reclaim their Ethiopian-ness?

    • No, it’s time for Tigray to Separate itself from Ethiopia. It was a dumb experiment to even try and make a country out of 86 different tribes. We have nothing in common because we find the burning of people, rape of women/girls unacceptable. So far there is only one side open to independent investigation of all atrocities and for perpetrators to be accountable.

  • Dear Asmelash:
    Another grievance like most everybody in Ethiopia claiming to be victimized by somebody and refusing to take responsibility. Your dishonesty is so stark that you’ve risked your PhD credentials. Facts first. You deliberately set aside three facts: first, threats of a coming conflict was broadcast on Dimtsi Weyane and other outlets by Seyoum Mesfin, Debretsion, Tsadkan, Seye prior to Tplf attacking the Northern Command and launching a missile at Asmara on 3 November 2020; second, you never complained when Eritrea and Tplf in their heydays (and Tplf for the next 27 years) looted, massacred, jailed and tortured thousands; third, you felt fully Ethiopian ONLY when being a Tigrayan gave you enormous advantages and access to the resources of the country. You were let down by the outcome of the conflict, right? And instead of facing reality and evaluating where you went wrong, you’ve taken another slippery slope of denials and accusations. One item that Tplf and beneficiaries of the system like yourself publicly flaunted was that Ethiopia would turn into a rubble without Tplf at the helm. It didn’t matter to you that Tigray constituted less than 6% of the population. I hope you are decent enough to recall those years and honest enough to direct your accusations to miscalculations of Tplf!

    • You have made several strong accusations against the writer, but one of the things that caught my attention was that you stated he was ” beneficiaries of TPLF’s system”. How did you find out? Do you know him personally? Or do you believe that the TPLF’s rule in Ethiopia benefited all Tigrayans?

      • Yes, most Ethiopians do believe that TPLF’s rule benefited ALL Tigrayans. Therefore, they all have to pay the price. They can’t differentiate the innocent Tigrayan people from the political party of TPLF. That’s how they justify the bombing, the raping, the burning of people alive and the man-made starvation in Tigray.

    • Your writing echoes the sentiment of the far right Ethiopians who like to feast on the pain and suffering of other human beings. For goodness sakes, at least show some empathy and put aside your animalistic behavior. The author has written what is now very well documented facts. Please activate your basic humanity and see yourself in his pain as his fellow sojourner. Until you walk in his shoes, you may never understand it.

    • Ethiopia short memory

      The late Amhara police commissioner bragging confirmed that the federal and Amhara forces had planned the attack way before 4th of November . are you trying to put a positive spin for the atrocities committed? Well lying and denying is the basic reflex of the pan Ethiopian and thanks to Abiy Ahmed for confirming this behaviour to international community.

  • I cannot refute or confirm all the claims of persecution, imprisonment, discrimination and other ills perpetrated against the people of Tigray or of Tigrean origin you have made. However, I cannot accept your premise that those claims are enough to make you question your identity as an Ethiopian. Let us not forget that the TPLF, for its entire existence has insisted on Tigray’s “exceptionality” and had infused on two generations of Tigreans their “apartness” from the rest of Ethiopians. While the TPLF was in power for nearly 28 years, it made sure that not only all positions of power, be they bureaucratic, diplomatic, military, etc… but also in banking, finance and business went to persons of Tigrean origin. Yet, Amharas and other minority Ethiopians never questioned their “Ethiopian-ness” because of this. Nor did they feel “Un-Ethiopian” because thousands of them languished in prison, and many suffered unspeakable torture and death. Yet, none of us, who have suffered in person the persecution of the TPLF have for a single moment questioned our Ethiopian-ness, on the contrary we only hoped and dreamed for a better, democratic and peaceful Ethiopia. What you are doing is exactly what the TPLF has been wanting you to do all along: question your Ethiopian identity so you would adhere to its separatist, and resentful ideology. Tigray, as far as I am concerned is the birth place of Ethiopia. Yet many who have joined this nucleus of Ethiopian-ness, unwillingly or willingly, feel more Ethiopian than ever. Isn’t time for Tigreans to separate themselves once and for all from the damaging ideology of the TPLF and reclaim their Ethiopian-ness?

  • My wife is the same. We live in Canada now, but if someone asks where she is from, she will say East Africa and if they question further, from Tigray.

    We spend at least a thousand per month to keep family in Tigray alive, and we are the lucky ones whose family all lives in Mekelle.

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