A British journalist’s unique report from Irob, on the plight of the people of Alitena

Source: GQ Magazine

The human cost of the Tigray conflict: ‘We are in constant fear’

Imagine there was a massacre in Kent tomorrow, carried out by French troops on behalf of the UK government. In Ethiopia, that’s the reality, as its prime minister invites neighbouring Eritrean soldiers to slaughter and rape his own people. As GQ reports from the stricken Tigray region, only now is the world noticing to decry the war crimes and warn the country could face its first famine since the 1980s. But with the nation’s existence hanging in the balance, why are so many Ethiopians still looking the other way?
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In 1842 the Italian missionary Giustino de Jacobis wandered through East Africa, in search of a place where Catholics could flee religious persecution. After a two-day hike from Adigrat, a city in northern Abyssinia, de Jacobis arrived in Alitena, a tiny village perched on a hill and surrounded by parched, red mountains.

Alitena’s knot of homes, which tumbled down to a tight, shallow river bend, was perfect. Its people, an ethnic group called the Irob, had for centuries developed a language independent of the Tigrinya-speaking Tigrayans, whose region surrounded them, and an agrarian proto-democracy whereby villagers ordained leaders with blessings of a long and prosperous life. The Irob’s hospitality, de Jacobis wrote, “goes straight to one’s heart”. He built a Catholic seminary, called the Lideta Mariam (or “Virgin Mary”) – the empire’s first – and converted the Irob.

Alitena sat at the very edge of Abyssinia, a vast, ancient empire known since Biblical times as Ethiopia. Just miles north was a land that would soon become the Italian colony of Eritrea. Even Tigrayans thought Alitena a strange and lonely place, buried in a district, also named Irob, the size of Greater London but with the population of Orkney. Alitena was a needle in a haystack. But it wasn’t safe. Patriarchs from Abyssinia’s dominant Orthodox faith ordered it sacked and invaders tore south across the empty border. Over the next 150 years tyrants visited cycles of violence on Alitena, from European fascists to kings, communists and foreign troops.

Today Alitena is home to 5,000 Irob, and the Abyssinian Empire has reverted to its ancient name. The road to Adigrat now takes three hours. But there are few prospects and scores of the village’s youth have fled into the arms of human traffickers, crossing deserts to Saudi Arabia, Libya or Europe. Some fear the Irob culture is on borrowed time.

Over the past five years Alitena distilled its hope for a brighter future in 12 young men – eight from a single family – who rose, improbably, to become one of Ethiopia’s most promising sports teams. Dressed in the red of Tigray’s flag, the Irob Volleyball Club had swept all in its path. Opposition feared a preternatural unity the team channelled toward their star player, a tall, rawboned attacker named Yonas. He knew Alitena’s violent past better than most people. It had crushed him once before, in 1999.

This January something else awful happened in Alitena. It began on Christmas Eve – 6 January in Ethiopia’s Coptic calendar – when everybody was home with family, preparing for the following day’s feasts. Eritrean soldiers knew this fact. That morning they crossed the border and plucked four young men from their gardens, marched them quietly across the river to a spot just outside town, lined them up and executed them.

At first nobody noticed. Neighbours assumed the four men had left Irob for supplies in Adigrat. That was still a dangerous journey. It was two months since rebels loyal to the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), Tigray’s ousted leadership, launched attacks on five Ethiopian military bases, including one in Adigrat. The ensuing war, which pitted them against Ethiopia’s army, militias from a neighbouring region and Eritrea, raised ghosts of Tigray’s violent past. Tank shells clapped into the hills around Alitena, getting closer each day.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s populist leader, assured the world his troops were engaged only in a “law enforcement operation” against the TPLF, which it had quickly routed from Tigray’s major cities. He denied rumours that Tigrayan civilians had been killed in great numbers or that Eritrean invaders were flooding south across the border with his blessing to carry out horrific human-rights abuses. Abiy’s government denied foreign media visas and it knocked out internet and phone networks, throwing Tigray into darkness. But the 44-year-old was an economic reformer and, since 2019, a Nobel Prize laureate. Western leaders gave him a pass.

Alitena’s villagers, however, knew better. Travellers brought daily tales of looting, rape and murder, carried out by Eritreans wearing their distinct sand-coloured fatigues. They knew such horrors would soon reach Irob. Sectarianism on both sides of the border made its people targets. Geography left them sitting ducks.
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The volleyball team knew that fear well. In 1998, a border dispute between Ethiopia, whose politics was dominated by the TPLF, and Eritrea, to the north, blew up into a brutal, dirty war. Tigrayan civilians – among them the exposed, mistrusted Irob – suffered the hatred of both sides.

In January 1999 Yonas and his three young brothers were celebrating Christmas when Eritrean troops burst into Alitena. The soldiers burned down the family home, stole cattle and dragged away the boys’ father, Abraham. Nobody heard from Abraham again. Yonas, his brothers and cousins drew closer and studied hard, sometimes walking miles to attend lessons outside Alitena. They ate together and attended mass at the Lideta Mariam, the town’s quiet, uncluttered heart. The home of the boys’ grandfather became an unofficial clubhouse. His generation evoked the days of Ras Tafari Makonnen (Emperor Haile Selassie), who seized control of Ethiopia in 1930, proclaiming himself “By The Conquering Lion Of The Tribe Of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King Of Kings, Lord Of Lords, Elect Of God”.

When Allies defeated Italy in the Second World War – which Selassie sat out – the UN awarded him Eritrea, a parched slither of land north of Tigray on the Red Sea coast, and he set about dismantling its politics, lowering its flag and banning the native Tigrinya language.

Rastafarians deified Selassie as their “black messiah”. But to millions of Ethiopians Selassie was a tyrant, an African Nero who dripped in wealth while his people starved to death. He built a security apparatus such that an official told the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Ears appeared everywhere, sticking up out of the ground, glued to the walls, flying through the air, hanging on doorknobs, hiding in offices, lurking in crowds, standing in doorways, jostling in the marketplace.”

Still, Selassie left Irob more or less alone during his reign. The Soviet-backed generals who ousted him in 1974, nicknamed the Derg, or “Council”, did not. Eritrea was fighting its own war for independence from Ethiopia and the generals targeted border dwellers as potential spies. “You were supposed to laugh when they killed a relative,” one Irob herder told me, sipping a beer in an Adigrat bar. “Crying was forbidden.”

Famine and poverty followed. A coalition of rebels – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – led by Tigray’s TPLF, toppled the Derg in 1991. Eritrea, led by a moustached, Machiavellian general named Isaias Afwerki, won its independence. But neither Ethiopia nor its newly formed northern neighbour agreed where its border was and when the 1998-2000 war ended, remote little Irob wound up in a UN-administered buffer. Once again its people found themselves in a no-man’s land, suspected spies.

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Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974

In 2002, the UN awarded Irob to Ethiopia, infuriating General Afwerki. His new country struggled to recover from the conflict and Tigray and the TPLF became his bêtes noir, blamed for Eritrea’s weak economy. Afwerki descended into paranoid tyranny. He tossed enemies into gulags of shipping containers in the desert and conscripted his people to never-ending military service.

The TPLF, meanwhile, tightened its grip on Ethiopia. It pursued a federal system of rule, handing out increased autonomy to Ethiopia’s ethnic-based regions. But its own cronies always came out on top and it expanded the country’s police state to ensure it stayed that way. Ethiopians, too, confused the TPLF with the Tigrayan people as a whole. A popular image of the powerful Tigrayan, draining Ethiopia’s wealth, grew popular.

Both countries wanted the borderland. They didn’t seem to care about its people. Alitena bore the war’s bad blood. Soldiers on both sides “were cutting trees, taking girls, everything”, Yonas told me, when we met on a quiet hotel rooftop in a city far from Tigray.

Yonas is strikingly tall, with a short, messy Afro and arms like boating paddles. A cousin translated his native Saho, the language of Irob, and we paused when people came near. Even hundreds of miles away he fears for his life, months after the massacre. Yonas, like most names in this story, is not his real one.

The 1998-2000 war baptised Yonas into a life of constant anxiety. He and the other boys found respite in sport. When they saw some older relatives playing volleyball in Alitena, they bundled some old clothes together for a ball and hitched together a “net” out of three long branches, like football goalposts.

They were good. Yonas commanded the net with a powerful spike, volleyball’s most kinetic shot. His cousin, Tedros, anchored the side. They quickly outgrew opposition in Irob. Nobody in Tigray’s 35 districts could beat them either. People wondered if Irob’s mountainous terrain or its people’s ascetic diet was to thank for Alitena’s surprise cache of superheroes. Yonas thinks it was their togetherness. “We were disciplined well,” Yonas told me. “We were very committed to our families and helping each other.”

The Irob Volleyball Club was becoming its people’s Harlem Globetrotters, putting Irob’s precarious existence on the map. Adigrat’s cathedral funded away fixtures: its clergy saw sport as a way to hold on to Irob’s wantaway youth. “Such games,” one of them, who coached the boys, told me, “help them to at least continue school.”

But however far and wide the Irob Volleyball Club travelled in Tigray, Alitena remained home. “Their whole world was that village,” a close relative told me in Adigrat, holding back tears. “They were brought up there, married there and studied there. They didn’t know another world. For them, the biggest place on earth was Adigrat.”

By the time war in Tigray erupted, nobody had beaten the side in five years. In 2020 an Addis Ababa side playing in Ethiopia’s top division, its Premier League, signed Yonas and as night drew on 6 January he was the only member of the team not in Alitena. Scouts hovered around three more Irob players, including Tedros, as if four young stars from a single Sunday league team were about to win Premier League caps. As the boys retreated to their homes to eat and drink, they knew it could be their last Christmas together as a team.

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Before he was elected in 2018, Abiy Ahmed confided that his mother believed her sixth and youngest son would become the king of Ethiopia. A little-known former soldier from Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, the 41-year-old thrilled with charismatic, elite-bashing speeches that placed him in the pantheon of world populists such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi.

He preached a prosperity gospel he called “medemer”, which would upturn communist and Western liberal thought. “There is no life challenge that the philosophy of medemer does not solve, a barrier that it does not overcome and a hilly terrain that it does not terrace,” he wrote. Medemer rejected the TPLF’s ethnic federalism in favour of national unity and castigated TPLF state officials as perfidious fools.

Isaias Afwerki president of Eritrea
Isaias Afwerki, president of Eritrea Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/Shutterstock,Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/Shutterst

Abiy set about weakening the TPLF’s hold on lucrative sectors, such as mining, and welcomed foreign investors. He pulled power away from the regions towards Addis Ababa, trying to decant a centralised state from its diverse, fractious parts. Ethiopia became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It was a “full-frontal assault on the Establishment”, a Western official told Reuters.

In July 2018 Abiy ended 20 years of “no war, no peace” with Eritrea’s president, Afwerki, at a summit in Asmara, Eritrea, seeming to end a war that had cost tens of thousands of lives. The following December he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and made an impassioned speech about his role in the 1998-2000 conflict.

“War makes for bitter men, heartless and savage men,” he said. “Family units were split over borders, unable to see or talk to each other for years to come… All were worried that any small border clash would flare into a full-blown war once again.”

Both countries threw open the border. Irob celebrated, embracing friends and family they hadn’t seen for 20 years. “Soldiers came first and it was amazing,” Yonas told me. “We’d hoped that the border problem would be solved once and forever.” But when people on the Tigrayan side tried crossing into Eritrea, troops said no. “We’d love you to rejoice with us, as we rejoice with you,” Yonas recalls one telling him, “but the authorities told us not to let you in.”

The Irob Volleyball Club won its last match soon after, a tiring away trip five hours south to the very foot of Tigray, in the town of Alamata. Yonas told me that his cousin Kaleb, wiry and well-mannered, was the best player that day. But the atmosphere in Tigray had changed. Abiy stepped up his campaign against the TPLF’s ageing leaders, who responded mockingly. They claimed to have the comprehensive backing of all the Tigrayan people: an exaggeration. Still, the conceit suited them – and Abiy. To millions of people, the TPLF and the Tigrayan people were one and the same. Hate crimes against Tigrayans in major cities outside the region increased.

In December 2019 Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, the coalition of regional parties the TPLF had led, and cut it out of the Prosperity Party he christened in its stead. Months later he postponed a national election, blaming the Covid-19 pandemic. When Tigray held its own regional election in September 2020, with the TPLF winning a dubious 98.2 per cent of ballots, Abiy declared it illegal. Whether or not Tigrayans believed that the TPLF had won almost every vote in the region, Abiy’s interference smelled a lot like past betrayals.

Then, on 4 November, the TPLF carried out its assault on the Ethiopian military across Tigray. A new civil war exploded, pitting Ethiopia’s former northern rulers against their current leadership in the south. Tigrayans realised something terrible was happening within hours. “It was morning,” a doctor at a hospital in the region’s capital city, Mekelle, told me. “I came to my office and we had soldiers who were wounded – lots and lots of wounded soldiers. We knew we wouldn’t have the capacity to deal with it.”

The government soon directed troops to military hospitals. They were replaced by civilians suffering shell wounds and severe burns. Some had walked for days on foot, arriving with life-threatening infections. They said soldiers from bordering Eritrea, not Ethiopians, were responsible. They were looting vehicles, homes and livestock and stripping factories bare before destroying them. It seemed, incredibly, as if Abiy had invited them across the border to gut their common enemy. Abiy denied the Eritreans were in Tigray, while Afwerki kept quiet. Abiy’s supporters outside the country began to feel they’d been had.

“The ‘peace agreement’ with Eritrea was presumably always the endgame,” Helen Clark, former New Zealand PM and administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, told me. “‘Let’s join forces and take out the TPLF.’ Well, they’ve taken an awful lot of civilians as well.”

“In very unnuanced language,” University Of Oxford professor Richard Reid told me, “this is the ultimate revenge for Eritrea.”

Tigrayans feared their own government had unleashed a genocidal, foreign enemy upon them. “If I have an angry dog,” an aid worker in Mekelle told me, “and I tie your hands together and release it, it will attack you, tear you apart and play with you.”

Militia from the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara, which borders Tigray to its west and south, joined the bloodshed and quickly occupied swaths of fertile, western Tigray. TPLF loyalists responded by massacring hundreds of Amhara in the western town of Mai Kadra, on 10 November. Tens of thousands of civilians fled, either west to Sudan or east across the Tekeze River, a tributary of the Atbarah River, itself a tributary of the Nile.

Women I met at an overcrowded IDP (internally displaced people) camp in a former school in Mekelle described how Amhara militia and Eritrean troops forced them to crawl along a bridge over the Tekeze on their bellies and shot young men. The militias marched beside the women and children, telling them that they, too, would die if they tried escaping into the bush. The journey took most people more than a month.

Cities across Tigray suffered unprecedented bloodletting. The worst massacre occurred in Axum, a city in central Tigray, once the seat of a mighty, ancient empire and reportedly home to the Ark Of The Covenant, the chest containing the Ten Commandments. Over two days in late November, Ethiopian troops stood and watched as a foreign force, Eritreans, murdered, witnesses say, up to 800 of their own people. The killers refused to let families bury their dead. Some were able to pile bodies onto the back of wooden carts. Others were eaten by hyenas. “God is angry,” one priest told me, wiping a tear from his eye. Beside his church lay dozens of concrete graves. Each one, he reckoned, contained around 20 bodies.

Abiy’s government arrested journalists and rounded up or killed politicians loyal to the TPLF. Diplomats with ties to the former government – which, given its 27-year control of Ethiopia, could be anyone – received orders to return to Addis Ababa. “It is beyond profiling,” Kassa Gebreyohannes Gebremichael, who fled Ethiopia’s embassy in Moscow this March, told me. “It’s genocide.”

In late November Abiy flushed the TPLF out of Tigray’s major cities. Its leadership vowed to regroup. But artillery continued pounding towns, churches and mosques. All the while Abiy denied his soldiers were doing anything other than restoring “the rule of law” in Tigray. Afwerki launched drones from a base in Eritrea that flew high above Adigrat “like blackbirds”, a priest told me. He, and thousands of others, fled for shelter in nearby caves. “Everybody was shocked,” he added. “Why are they invading us again, after 22 years?” Perhaps more importantly: why was Ethiopia standing by and allowing it?

The violence hit the volleyballers’ village of Alitena “like hailstones”, an elder told me. A shell killed one mother and six died when medical supplies to the village were stopped. On 6 January the invading Eritrean troops committed their first killing. The following day they flooded back into Alitena, searching for young men, just as they had done on Christmas Day 1999. This time townsfolk heard them coming and locked their doors, praying the Eritreans would spare their home. The soldiers found Yonas’ three brothers in their childhood home and pulled the four remaining Irob Volleyball Club players from their families.Nine boys were herded downhill to tall grass beside Alitena’s river and told to line up just yards from the spot where they had begun playing volleyball. Then the soldiers raised their guns and started shooting. One by one the boys fell back – some from headshots, others in the chest – into the water. Kaleb was last in line. He decided to run. He bolted but a bullet hit him in the leg, throwing him into the reeds. He tried getting up but another thudded into his shoulder and he collapsed into the river’s shallow water. He held his breath and played dead, expecting a headshot, drenched in his teammates’ blood. But it never came. After a few moments the soldiers walked away.

Kaleb stayed down. When the Eritreans disappeared, he heard townspeople rushing to the spot. They knew enough from stories elsewhere in Tigray not to move the boys’ bodies, but when Kaleb moved they hauled him up and rushed him two miles to the Lideta Mariam, whose nuns took him to a clinic and treated his wounds.

He wasn’t safe there either. Within days the Eritreans discovered they’d left a man alive and returned to Alitena. Twice the nuns helped Kaleb escape. Eventually they snuck him out of the clinic, but he was alone and confused and cried every day for his teammates and cousins. The Irob Volleyball Club had spent five years becoming their people’s unlikely champions. The Eritreans took moments to execute almost all of them.

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I spent three weeks in Ethiopia this spring, as the war in Tigray rolled into its seventh month. It is the most consistently gruesome conflict I have covered. Every place I visited held tales of mass killings, rapes or, somehow, worse: women violated with shards of plastic or raped by 25 men; family members tied to posts and forced to watch the bodies of their relatives rot for days; fathers shot dead for refusing to rape their own daughters. These kinds of stories are not outliers but the norm. One NGO worker I met told me he alone had treated more than 500 rape victims since the war began.

Shallow graves mark Tigray’s main roads and its factories are blasted open like ribcages. Its pharmacies and stores are empty and roads are shut. People walk around burned-out tanks, buses and cars as if they’re trees or market stalls.

Imagine a massacre was carried out in Kent tomorrow and that Boris Johnson had invited French troops across the border to do it. It would have catastrophic effects across Europe, perhaps the world, and thousands of reporters would arrive to cover it. Tigray has suffered so many of these killings, I don’t have room to report them all here. Yet I have barely seen the conflict make the news in Europe since November. Only a small handful of journalists have visited the region.

Civilians are desperate to memorialise their dead. In some towns in Tigray I would interview victims, leave their home and another group would flag me down, eager to point out another execution spot. More than 60,000 people have died since November. Many survivors cannot access healthcare or food: the UN estimates that 4.5 million people are in danger of starvation. Businesses, farms and homes lie in ruin. Hundreds of thousands are jobless.

Eritrean and Ethiopian troops have weaponised rape against Tigrayan women and girls across the region and I lost count of the number of people I met who had either been raped or had loved ones who were suffering its effects. A Mekelle doctor broke down for minutes while describing cases he’d seen there. “Some of them can’t walk, they can’t control their bladder,” he told me. “Almost all of them have contracted HIV. They have aborted. They have lost their children. It is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Large parts of Tigray are still information black holes, offline and out of phone coverage. Digital work is impossible and ATMs are out: each morning queues for banks stretch back hundreds of yards in major cities. It took Abiy Ahmed almost five months to admit that Eritrean troops were active in Tigray at all. Now they occupy land more than 200 miles into the region, including all of Irob. Imagine that those French soldiers now occupied pockets of land from Dover to Birmingham. That is happening in Tigray now.

Thousands of young Tigrayans, meanwhile, have joined the TPLF’s rebranded Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), motivated by revenge and a desire for self-rule. One guerrilla, no older than 20, told me he and others weren’t even supporters of the TPLF before the war began. But Abiy, he added, “killed many kids, raped our sisters, destroyed our companies. The TPLF is the only organisation working to help the people of Tigray from its misery.”

In 2019 Abiy Ahmed Ethiopias prime minister won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace initiative with Eritrea. A...
In 2019 Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace initiative with Eritrea. A year later, as violence erupted in Tigray, Eritrean troops crossed the border undeterred ASHRAF SHAZLY

In February, Eritrea’s Afwerki told his state television network that “the system of ethnic federalism applied in Ethiopia for the past 20 years and more by the narrow clique is bankrupted now. In our language it is called ‘game over’. And Ethiopians have said ‘enough’.” But it isn’t over. The TDF, Ethiopians and Eritreans now fight pitched battles in the Tigrayan outback. It is hard to see how anybody will land a decisive blow.

In early April, just before I arrived in Ethiopia, Abiy offered an admission he’d underestimated the TDF, while leaving room for more violence against civilians. “Eliminating an enemy which is visible and eliminating an enemy which is in hiding and operates by assimilating itself with others is not one and the same,” he said. “It is very difficult and tiresome.” Abiy has imprisoned a small number of soldiers for crimes committed during the war. He still denies widespread abuse, including the horrors in Axum. Neither country’s officials would go on record for this story.

Afwerki may have overstretched his hermit kingdom, dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, in Tigray. “This is seen as outrageous military adventurism by many in Eritrea and opposition figures,” says Crisis Group’s Ethiopia senior analyst William Davison. “It just exacerbates the image of [Afwerki] as a disastrous leader for Eritrea.”

People may claim to love their neighbours, but through the length of human history conflict is the resounding status quo. There are more than 30 wars being fought right now and almost every one of them is over land. What makes Tigray’s war unique is the presence of an invading foreign army, invited by its neighbour to destroy an entire ethnic group. Abiy Ahmed has treated Eritrea like a hired gun, contracted to kill, rape and pillage however much it wants. Neither is it simply a military war. Revenge and deep-seated hate have opened the floodgates to barely fathomable levels of violence and cruelty.

Tigray is a nightmarish extreme of fractures happening all over the world and close to home. The political far-right, hopped up on nativist dreams concocted by populists, have left even the mightiest democracies teetering. From the 6 January rioters in Washington to Brexit, our hyper-connected world isn’t bringing people together, it’s tearing them apart.

Populists follow a familiar playbook. They wage war on marginalised communities, dressed up as a fight against “elites”. The TPLF’s corrupt hold on Ethiopia’s economy was worth fighting, but Abiy and his allies have leveraged it into ethnic cleansing, supported by armies of keyboard warriors and pliant state media. Eritrea is the least technologically connected country on earth: just one per cent of Eritreans are online. Analysis by Humanz of a number of pro-Eritrea influencers suggests a high level of irregular activity, including a synchronised explosion in activity and engagement on one day in April, as Ethiopia and Eritrea faced sustained media scrutiny over the war.

Abiy has slapped a scarlet letter on all Tigrayans as TDF combatants. We should expect more human-rights abuses to follow. Arrests have swept up hundreds in Addis Ababa and many fear to speak their language in public. Despite their poverty, Tigrayans are seen as rich, sucking the wealth of the nation, and dirty, a dehumanisation that has fuelled genocides from Armenia and the Holocaust to Rwanda.

But it is not isolated. We are living in a golden age of hate that is puncturing societies all over the world. Last year, hate crime in England and Wales hit a new record. Extremists are in power across Europe, accelerated by conspiracies such as QAnon that airlift them from reality.

Nobody I spoke to in Tigray considers themself Ethiopian any more. Other regions, rattled by Abiy’s autocratic rule, are roiling too. “Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of civil war has meant,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a senior diplomat the US appointed to the Horn Of Africa this April, referring to the collapse of a nation of 22m people that gave rise to Isis. “Ethiopia has 110m people,” he added. “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

At the time of writing, Abiy had rescheduled the national elections a second time, for late June. Tensions are high. Tigray has brought into question what Ethiopia even is. “Ethiopia is an empire,” says Norwegian professor Kjetil Tronvoll. “And in empire theory, there are clear phases of an empire of growth, consolidation and decline.” Since the student movements that ousted Haile Selassie, Tronvoll adds, “Empire traditions have been weakened decade by decade. And we are approaching, possibly, the final days or the fall of the empire of Ethiopia.”

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What happens next is hard to say. The TDF’s young men know their land, are well equipped and steeped in the tales of the TPLF’s great victories over the Derg and their Soviet paymasters. Supporters told me the kinds of apocryphal tales that often spread through the ranks of rebel groups: 5,000 Ethiopians beaten by a battalion of 600 TDF; Eritreans drinking the blood of goats to stay alive. All were convinced they would secure an independent Tigray. With its economy in ruins and fertile land occupied, it is difficult to see how that state would function.
An Ethiopian militiaman from Amhara who joined the fighting in Tigray alongside Eritrean combatants
An Ethiopian militiaman from Amhara, who joined the fighting in Tigray alongside Eritrean combatants

Abiy has nowhere to go. In March he said TPLF fighters had dispersed “like flour in the winds” and in May he designated the TPLF a terrorist organisation. “There’s absolutely zero chance of Abiy or [Afwerki] doing a deal with the TPLF,” a former Western military official told me. “For [Afwerki], it’s totally unacceptable. For Abiy, it would collapse him, because he’s vilified the TPLF for everything they’ve done, to the point that if he were to say, ‘Now we would have to do a deal with the TPLF,’ the rest of Ethiopia would say, ‘Fuck off.’”

International actors have finally begun to pay attention to the conflict, as media reports the worst of its crimes, while the US has brought Feltman out of semiretirement to monitor developments and it has tabled sanctions against Ethiopian officials. “The large-scale human-rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end,” wrote US President Joe Biden in a statement in May. “Families of every background and ethnic heritage deserve to live in peace and security in their country. Political wounds cannot be healed through force of arms. Belligerents in the Tigray region should declare and adhere to a ceasefire and Eritrean and Amhara forces should withdraw.”

But movement is slow: as with the waves of violence that preceded it, 60,000 dead Africans just doesn’t seem enough to persuade countries to act decisively. Irob, meanwhile, faces an existential threat. More than 80 of its people have died in the conflict and many, many more have left. Troops have forced some to carry Eritrean identity cards. “If this continues,” said another, “you will only see the Irob in Google.”

The Irob Volleyball Club’s coach now spends hours each day gathering information about the war. The first time we met, he scattered the passport photos and IDs of men murdered at a local factory. Later, he sent me 30-second videos of their faces and names, accompanied by local, religious music, so they would never be forgotten. Ethiopian forces have warned him twice not to speak out about the war. He doesn’t think there’ll be a third. I only saw one small group of boys play basketball outside Adigrat’s cathedral during my visit there. “Now we have no time for fun and games,” the priest told me. “We’re just trying to survive these beasts.”

Abraham’s grandparents never recovered from Abraham’s abduction. They hoped he might one day walk back through their door and suffered from depression all the way up until their deaths a couple of years ago. “When I see the soldiers of Eritrea today I understand that he’s not alive,” Abraham’s brother, Aaron, told me in Adigrat, breaking into tears. “I see how they kill everyone.”

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Women in Dengolat, near Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean forces in February

One sunny afternoon, Aaron invited me to look at pictures of the Irob Volleyball Club boys on his phone, celebrating Christmas in 2020. In one, eight of them are huddled around a campfire, eating and joking together. In another they are standing, lined up, shoulder to shoulder, arms draped lazily over one another. All the boys look relaxed and happy. When news of the massacre reached Adigrat a week after it happened, Aaron knew it would be them. “My nephews are always together because they really love each other. And especially during the feast days they celebrate. Even on ordinary days they are always together.”

The nuns moved Kaleb to a location outside Alitena, where he remained until the time of writing. The wounds on his body are healed but his mind is destroyed and he cannot go outside in case the Eritrean soldiers recognise him. After a day, the people of Alitena moved the boys’ bodies from the river to the crypt of the Lideta Mariam. They lie there now, together, in their home, somewhere the village can come and pay their respects in relative peace. But the sight of the river running red with their blood has scarred the boys’ mothers and they refuse to drink its water. “If they go there,” Aaron told me, “they feel as if it is happening now.”

Yonas has two sisters in Addis Ababa. One of them fainted when she heard the news and still requires medical care for depression. He believes he can be the best volleyball player in Ethiopia, but he is lonely and poor and the massacre haunts him. For a long time those boys were his universe. Without them, in a sprawling city of five million people, he feels lost.

Yonas has a Tigrayan teammate: sometimes, at training, they speak Tigrinya, the native language of Tigray, to each other. He’s not sure how long that will last. Tigrayans are increasingly afraid to speak their mother tongue outside the region and police crackdowns have swept up hundreds of them across Addis Ababa.

“We are in constant fear,” he told me, gazing wildly at the traffic below. “If things get worse here, we will be the victims.”

3 comments

  1. Heartbreaking story! How cruel human beings can be, if we can include these evil murderers members of the human family! In contrast to the action of these murderers, look how the TDF members are handling POW and the way they’re behaving as they proceed to occupy places in the Amhara region- no sign of vengeance. Having witnessed all the atrocities, restraining oneself from retaliation is nothing but noble and highly exemplary! May they win to the end!!!!!

    1. Amen Tamrat!
      Indeed the handling of prisoners is nothing less than noble by the part of TDF & for that, we Tegaru (Tigrayans) are very thankful & very proud.
      All the horrors that have occurred & that continue throughout Ethiopia against Tegaru (Tigrayans) must be remembered for generations to come, never to be forgotten and never to be blotted out of the history of Tigray.
      I personally have lost 7 (seven) members of my family in early December 2020! How can my family and I possibly forget it or forgive that maniac for causing their death? The youngest was 15, the oldest was 52. All were innocent, unarmed civilians, farmers and peaceful people. We still have no word of the rest who lived in the same house…we hope and pray they are safe somewhere as we thank GOD for TDF.
      In 2019, my husband and I arrived in Adigrat at the end of November & left the area, including Irob, just days before Christmas 2019.
      I have written this before and I want to write it again!
      After church services at the Catholic Church in Adigrat, we went to town with two priests and a nun. We didn’t have to go far to see 2-3 Eritrean soldiers here’n’there and questioned their presence. We were staying with the nuns at the Don Bosco Center in Gul’a and one of the nuns said: “Ind’ii! Entay kem z hasebelna ayni felT’n!”
      “We don’t know what this man is planning for us!”
      We were all puzzled and concerned. Why Eritrean soldiers in Ethiopia???
      When we left Ethiopia/Tigray, it was with a very heavy heart. We wondered!!! On 11/04/2020 we stopped wondering!
      Abiy Ahmed is nothing less than a murderer with dreams of power and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. However he didn’t count on the resilience & fortitude of Tigrayans! Thank GOD for TDF!
      With all due respect Sir, you omitted something very crucial on your lengthy article; Just before sending his goonies to do his dirty work, Abiy Ahmed demand that Tigray ‘kneel’ to him!
      You wrote to imagine a massacre in Kent carried out by French troops invited to do it by the UK government.
      I want you to imagine Tigrayans kneeling in front of that sick genocider!! It can NEVER happen! Tigrayans kneel only to GOD!
      There are few mistakes you made…and granted, you meant no harm, but so to clarify facts, TPLF did NOT attack military posts in Tigray until and only AFTER Abiy Ahmed sent more military personnel to the area.
      In fact, they were there as early as in that November of 2019, which I mentioned before, wondering again as to why we were searched at various posts in Tigray by Ethiopian soldiers, reminiscing Menghistu Hailemariam Derg of 30 years before.
      Now, as I write this reply, I wonder what will the International Community do to stop Abiy Ahmed from executing the 17k + Tigrayans lingering hidden somewhere in his many concentration camps.
      Yes! That’s what we call his prisons!
      No one knows their whereabouts! No one is allowed to visit! Families cannot ask the whereabouts of their loved ones! Many have already been executed! Children as young as 10 and 11 are also kept in those horrid secret prisons. Some who either escaped or were released (though I doubt they were released), spoke of inhuman situations. I should know!
      Both my mother and I were in a Derg prison for 6 1/2 months; tortured & mistreated horribly along with all the Tigrayans who shared our fate.
      Even then, in the far 1986, Tigrayans were suffering by the hands of Amhara Derg & Eritrean Derg!
      Strangely, none of our captives were Tigrayans. They were all Amharas and there was only 1 (one) Eritrean. I still remember all their names & their faces. You cannot forget tortures & threats!
      Having said all that I can, I do hope and pray for peace in my country, for the benefit of all the people of Tigray and in Diaspora and, for an Independent Tigray & with all my heart, I also wish the rest of Ethiopia a better leader who can lead them to a peaceful future, for the sake of their children and the future generations to come.
      As for me and mine, we never want to step foot in the Ethiopia that has so cruelly sought our demise. Never again!
      GOD bless Tigray!

  2. Tigrigna speakers from Tigray and Eritrea hate and kill each other, and in the process, traumatize the Irob. But that does not stop the Sean Williams from demonizing Selassie, quoting Ryszard Kapuscinski, an author who has recently been found to exposed to have been a fraud and liar.

    Still, even Williams admits that “Selassie left Irob more or less alone during his reign” Ya, facts are a b, so what was the point of demonizing Selassie if not to engage in the usual inexplicable Amhara bashing by Westerners.

    Missing as usual any criticism of the TPLF and leaders like Debre Tsion and Getachew Reda with their appalling surpremist and expansionist ideology that has driven Eritreans and Ethiopians to hate them. This is a leadership that will tell you that they are the rightful leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea because they are the descendants of the Axumite civilization. To that end, they left no stone unturned to destabilize Eritrea. There is no family in Eritrea that has not lost a brother, a father, an uncle due to the TPLFs war against Eritrea in 1992. Funny how you left that out.

    Similarly, TPLF want to destabilize Ethiopia because Ethiopians kicked them out of power, refusing to live under their minority rule.

    It took someone like Abiy to show us that we Ethiopians need not be manipulated by TPLF to hate Eritrea.

    I know some Irob people and they are patriotic Ethiopians constantly victimized by the reckless and militant actions of the TPLF.

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