By Mebrahtu Ateweberhan
In a previous article on Ethiopia Insight (7 December 2020), I outlined how Eritreans were divided regarding the War in Tigray. Almost four months into the conflict, the case remains the same. Exchanges on social media have intensified and even become tarter. Some government supporters continue to deny their country’s involvement. Many others have accepted that fact but are determined to justify it as a necessary evil against the TPLF, archenemy of Eritrea, in their minds.
The divide is even deeper within the opposition camp. There are those that see the TPLF as the main adversary. This group accepts that Isaias Afwerki, although culpable, is a secondary concern compared to the TPLF. There are also those that see Isaias as the main cause of instability in Eritrea and the region, and his removal should come before anything else. Some within this camp see the TPLF as an ally in the fight against Isaias and consider the demise or weakening of the former as a major setback.
News about Eritrean troops’ involvement in mass civilian killings and other serious crimes has been on the surface starting early December. The initial reports on the Axum killings indicated that they occurred at the famous Church of Mariam Tsion (Zion) when a mob of civilians attempted to block Eritrean soldiers from stealing the legendary Arc of the Covenant. However, that story was dismissed very quickly. The discrepancies in the figures also rendered the story questionable. It is alleged that Eritrean troops have been involved at least in three mass killings.
True to form, the reaction of Eritreans to Amnesty International’s report is divided. There are those that accept the story and extremely shocked by it. There are also those denying it outright and believe it is ‘concocted by TPLF sympathisers and lacks independent evidence.’ Parallels have been made with Mai Kadra, where accounts by Tigrayan refugees in Sudan and the investigation report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) do not match. As in Mai Kadra, where the person responsible for the Amnesty International’s report was an Amhara and a former member of the EHRC, the investigation on the massacre in Axum was led by a Tigrayan member of staff of AI. The doubters of the atrocities seem to capitalise on that short-sightedness on AI’s side. These and some of the exaggerations by Digital Woyane (social media teams mobilised by the TPLF) have not helped the cause. It is vital that every major crime committed by any warring party is independently investigated.
Irrespective of the type and level of violence committed by the Eritrean army in this war, there is no doubt that this conflict would be remembered for an awfully long. It will add another layer to the ongoing narratives over contested history, issues of nationality and identity, leading to further of mistrust and suspicion between the two brotherly communities.
The cost of war
While the world was in a state of obscurity, Eritreans had already been conversing about their country’s involvement in the Tigray conflict. For them, the main question was to what end and at what cost. Many of them have either their loved ones in the Eritrean army or receive first-hand information about troop movements from villages and towns in border areas. They were also aware that their brutal autocratic leader would not waste time in seizing the opportunity to attack the TPLF. He had told the world in no ambiguous terms that he would not sit and watch with his hands folded on Ethiopian affairs.
There are no more questions raised either about the claims made by Tigray leadership at the start of the war concerning heavy Eritrean engagement. Although the support by United Arab Emirates’ drones is understood to be pivotal, sources from Tigray and Eritrea indicate that the main and decisive battles in the Shire-Axum-Adwa and Adigrat-Idaga Hamus routes (to Mekelle) were fought by the Eritrean army. To this day, most of north-western Tigray continues under Eritrean army control. They also remain bogged down in heavy battles in the rugged and mountainous areas of Temben. Time will tell how costly the war of attrition in these natural fortresses is going to be for Eritrea.
Some of the rare news coverages by Eritrean state television and radio furnish a few clues as to Eritrean human losses. Since the start of the conflict, the deaths of more than ten senior military officers have been officially announced. The main cause of death is reported to be Covid-19 or some underlying diseases. However, these figures are not included in the official Covid-19 statistics, which stand at 7 deaths. It is left to one’s imagination how many ordinary soldiers have lost their lives, considering the high number of casualties of high-ranking officers.
Eritrean refugees in Tigray are the other casualty of the conflict. Reports by the UN have indicated that 20,000 of the 96,000 or so Eritrean refugees in Tigray have not been accounted for. Thousands have been forcibly transported back to Eritrea and could face jail and torture. It is reported that hundreds have been killed by Eritrean troops or local militias. Arguably, the number of Eritreans living in different cities in Tigray was larger than those in refugee camps. Many of these have dispersed themselves in an irregular manner and remain unreported.
Silence is often described as an effective tool of communication; it is also a powerful instrument of diplomacy of the Eritrean leadership. Born out of violent independence struggle and having to fight against a regional power with strong allies, the EPLF has mastered the skill of secrecy. In keeping with that tradition, there is hardly any information coming out of Eritrea about the Tigray war. Except the occasional counterattacks and denials against the accusations by Western Governments and international NGOs, there is little coverage of the Tigray conflict on state media. However, the mention of ‘corrective measures against the TPLF’ and that the conflict was ‘far from over’ in Isaias’s recent convoluted interview suggests admittance of involvement. His main message was a hurrah and call to the nation to intensify its resolve against foreign powers that he accuses of destabilising the entire region. That must be a big blow to some of his trusting supporters. It would serve them well ‘to wake up and smell the coffee’; there will be no reforms while the man is in power. He is incapable of living outside conflict and conspiracy. He would create it if it were not there.
What surprised many in that interview is his description of Abiy Ahmed as a hasty person. So much from a close ally. His adoration of the Saudi Government suggests an attempt to fill a diplomatic gap left by the withdrawal of UAE, recently one of the main regional enablers. It could also suggest an adjustment to a shifting regional alliance and global politics typified by improved relationship between Sudan and the US and an attempt at easing the mounting international pressure caused by his calamitous involvement in Tigray. He appeared to appease Sudan when he called for a peaceful resolution of the border dispute with Ethiopia. He also appeared to subtly criticise Ethiopia over spreading the conflict: “There is no need to mention third-party involvement.” That third-party is probably Egypt. This was reiterated in a message delivered to the Sudanese leadership, which ‘reaffirmed Eritrea’s neutral stance’ in the Ethio-Sudan border dispute. A master of manoeuvre that he is, it would not be surprising if Isaias sold Abiy Ahmed down the river.
Whatever the cause of the war, facts on the ground indicate that Isaias Afwerki’s regime has a clear aim that goes beyond reprisal against senior TPLF leadership for the humiliation it faced in its hands in the 1998-2000 border conflict. It looks like the main aim is to humiliate Tigrayans and undermine their resolve for self-determination. The random killing of innocent civilians, wanton destruction of properties and monasteries, looting of public and private property and assisting the Amhara to occupy a fertile chunk of Western and Southern Tigray is clearly designed at diminishing Tigray.
If at all, there will only one beneficiary from this war as far as Eritrea is concerned – the ruling elite. It will only help Isaias quench his personal vendetta against the TPLF and stay in power. For the rest of Eritrea, there could only be incalculable losses.
Eritreans must quickly realise that this war could be more costly than the 1998-2000 border war. They do not need to look anywhere else to learn that a determined people fighting a war of survival at its own turf could not be annihilated easily. The tank and armoured vehicle graveyards of Afabet and Massawa should serve as a witness.
Stopping the war and saving Eritrean lives and ensuring the safety of refugees is the main priority. That goes without mentioning the need to heal added scars of war within Eritrean society. The reconciliation process also needs to be broadened to include Eritrea-Tigray relations.