Ethiopia’s civil war: one man’s journey from entrepreneur to militant

Source: Economist

“If someone is going to kill me in my home I’m not just going to sit there and do nothing”

It was late September and Ethiopia’s civil war had been raging for almost a year, pitting government troops against rebel fighters from Tigray, the region north of Amhara. In recent weeks, Tigrayan forces had been pushing southwards. Now, the mayor of Debark, who had spent the night shouting orders through a loudspeaker, urged residents to pick up any weapon they could find and rush to the battlefield.

Solomon didn’t need telling twice; he’d heard enough terrifying stories about Tigrayan fighters to make the idea of staying put seem suicidal. He stuffed bread, honey and bullets into his rucksack, grabbed his rifle and said goodbye to his wife and four children.

Things had been looking up for Solomon before civil war broke out a year ago. The tour operator he ran with an Italian friend in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, was preparing to welcome tourists back to the country after months of covid-related travel restrictions. Business had been brisk before the pandemic, particularly in tourist hotspots near Debark: the Simien mountains (the “roof of Africa”) and Gondar, the old imperial capital where the ruins of a 17th-century castle still tower over ramshackle cottages and cobbled lanes. Though the return of foreign visitors was promising, Solomon also felt a growing sense of unease: the drumbeat of war, once faint and far-off, was becoming harder to ignore.

In April 2018 Solomon had celebrated the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister. Abiy grabbed power on the back of public protests against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (tplf), which had dominated Ethiopia’s coalition government since 1991. Despite representing only 6% of the population, the tplf’s military prowess helped it triumph over Ethiopia’s other ethnic factions. Solomon blamed the tplf for decades of bitter division between Ethiopia’s more than 80 ethnic groups: the tplf had made ethnicity a core part of the federal constitution, giving each group the right to form its own region or secede altogether. Abiy was an Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and pledged to forge unity.

Things had been looking up for Solomon before civil war broke out a year ago

There had been some progress on the tplf’s watch: the economy had grown at around 10% each year for the past decade and tourism was flourishing, aided by new, Chinese-built roads, power lines and a gleaming railway. But Solomon was an Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group from a historically powerful region of Ethiopia, which had produced many of the country’s most renowned rulers. Solomon reckoned the tplf depicted the Amhara as the face of an unpopular feudal empire and denigrated their history.

Solomon had come a long way from the remote village where he’d grown up. Yet even as his tourism business took off, he felt excluded from Ethiopia’s nascent middle-class. He thought the elite in the capital were hoarding the country’s wealth: “The rich got rich and the poor got poor.” The media were censored and even peaceful opposition was stifled. “There was no freedom,” said Solomon. “No freedom of speech or freedom of education.”

When Debark went online in the 2010s Solomon railed against the tplf on Facebook and organised protests against the regime. (He had voted only once in his life, in 2005, in an election he believed was stolen by the tplf.) At first, the internet felt like a safe space to campaign against the government. Then some of his friends were arrested and put in prison. Solomon went quiet.

But with Abiy in power Solomon felt energised. Abiy blamed the tplf for everything that had gone wrong in Ethiopia in the past 30 years. Solomon liked Abiy’s pride in his country and admired him for attempting to make peace with neighbouring Eritrea. He applauded when Abiy removed Tigrayans from the machinery of power.

Solomon hoped Ethiopia might be inching towards democracy after decades of authoritarianism. His faith in politics renewed, he even decided to run as a representative for Debark in the next elections – not because he wanted to be a politician (he would have no chance of beating the ruling-party candidate), but to feel as though he was helping Ethiopia. “My goal was just to increase democracy…I’d like to be a diplomat, just serving my country.”

Yet the changing of the guard in Addis Ababa brought uncertainty as well as optimism. Despite strong talk, Abiy’s government was weak and vigilantism spread across the country. In 2018 ethnic violence forced more than 3m people from their homes, including many Amharas. The prime minister appeared untroubled by the turmoil, more concerned with showing off the new parks, museums and high-rises he was building in Addis Ababa.

On Facebook, Solomon denounced attacks against Amharas, calling them genocide. Firebrand nationalists in the region claimed the tplf was behind the violence – its aim to wipe out its historical rival – and demanded a response. Why was Abiy doing nothing? In 2019 Solomon joined the National Movement of Amhara, a new political party that promised to defend Amharas and reclaim swathes of land which, it alleged, the tplf had stolen. For the first time there was a party that spoke to Solomon as an Amhara first and an Ethiopian second. “Ethiopia and Amhara are two sides of the same coin,” Solomon told me. “But we in Amhara are being intentionally targeted by a small clique – the tplf. So we have to defend ourselves.”

It was then that, like many Amharas, Solomon decided to invest in his first gun, a second-hand Kalashnikov.

Solomon is an unlikely militant. A former teacher who spends his evenings tutoring his children in English and geography, he prefers reason to war talk. When we met he seemed like a pillar of calm in a sea of paranoia: he chose his words carefully, pausing before difficult questions, confessing the limits of what he knew about the war on his doorstep. But after a gruelling year of horror-strewn conflict, Solomon was every inch the hardliner. So was almost everyone around him.

After a year of horror-strewn conflict, Solomon was every inch the hardliner

Following months of escalating tensions and military build-up on both sides, civil war erupted late last year. The tplf attacked government military bases in Tigray, pleading self-defence against federal forces massing on its borders. Abiy sent in troops and fighter jets. The fighting almost immediately sparked a wider ethnic conflagration.

Paramilitaries from Amhara flooded into Tigray, annexing disputed land and murdering Tigrayan civilians. In a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of Tigrayans had fled to Sudan. Troops from Eritrea joined the fray as Abiy’s allies unleashed an orgy of destruction. Towns in Tigray were plundered, their factories stripped bare, fields burnt to ashes, shops and banks emptied and vandalised. Civilians were raped and slaughtered – many thousands are believed to have died. An American government report described it as ethnic cleansing.

Like many in Amhara, Solomon doesn’t talk much about what happened in Tigray. For him, the destruction was a terrible side-effect of a war the tplf began: he can’t see how Ethiopia can be at peace while the tplf exists. He is even more uncompromising about the disputed territories, rubbishing the idea that both groups have reasonable claims over the land, or could share it: “In short, it is a question of identity. Tom can’t be Solomon and Solomon can’t be Tom. It’s all about identity.”

In recent months the balance of power has shifted again. The tplf pushed southwards to break a government-imposed siege that put 5m Tigrayans at risk of starvation. Reports have emerged of Tigrayan forces gang-raping Amhara women, and looting schools and hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes.

“Everyone is ready to go to the front line”

Until September, the closest Solomon had got to the war was watching the news and speaking to paramilitaries who passed through Debark. But on that sunny morning, he finally saw it for himself.

In October, during a lull in the fighting in northern Amhara, I joined Solomon on a trip to the battlefield of Chenna where he’d travelled with his rifle and rucksack just a few weeks earlier. The village is perched on a cliff over a deep valley, a short drive up from Debark; the grass was thick and green with a smattering of yellow daisies. A group of us – journalists and locals – wandered into what remained of the village, through woods and across streams, gingerly avoiding the rotting corpses of Tigrayan fighters who lay unburied in the fields.

Solomon says he didn’t fire a shot when he went, but played a supporting role, carrying water and food to the troops (a mixture of federal soldiers, Amhara paramilitaries and local youth militias) and tending to the wounded. On a nearby hillside, he stood behind men with machineguns and mortars who bombarded the village where the Tigrayan fighters were stationed. “I’m a pillar in my family, a breadwinner, so they don’t let me get too close,” he said. When his wife and children phoned to check up on him, he ducked for cover to muffle the sound of close artillery.

He remembers being surrounded by Orthodox priests, who carried with them a painting of St Gabriel for good luck, and sang and prayed for the troops. He saw people die in front of him: “I won’t ever forget that, really. Never in my life.” On the fourth day of fighting, as wind and rain pounded the hillside, the Tigrayans began their retreat. What exactly happened next is murky. According to official accounts, fleeing rebels murdered scores of civilians. Some residents say their loved ones were tied up and shot; the leader of Chenna village alleges that a family of six was among the dead. Fenta Terefe, an official in Debark who has spent the past two months showing journalists the battlefield, claims that as many as 200 civilians died.

It isn’t clear whether a cold-blooded massacre of this scale really took place. The attorney-general’s office in Addis Ababa, which might usually be expected to claim a higher death toll from alleged tplf atrocities, recently said that 96 civilians had been killed in northern Gondar. Human-rights researchers believe executions did take place, but don’t know how many. The blurred line between civilian and combatant makes it even harder to determine the true extent of any war crime.

“If someone is going to kill me in my home I’m not just going to sit there and do nothing”

For Solomon, the events in Chenna simply confirmed his worst fears about the brutality of the tplf. Had Tigrayan forces captured Debark they would have massacred civilians, he had no doubt. “We can all imagine what would happen – it’s obvious,” he told me. “Retaliation.” He said he’d stop at nothing to prevent Debark falling. “I really do not want to see their faces anymore.”

Afew weeks later the war heated up again. Solomon and I met between rounds of fighting. The tension was oppressive, hanging over the city of Gondar like a thick fog. As the military tide turned against Abiy, his forces were demoralised and divided: the war was beginning to slip from their grasp. The tplf had claimed two strategically important towns and threatened to keep marching south. Having admitted that the army could no longer be counted on, Abiy declared a state of emergency and urged ordinary Ethiopians to prepare to fight.

In Addis Ababa Tigrayans have been rounded up and slung into makeshift detention centres. Elsewhere they are even more vulnerable. Two weeks ago a Tigrayan university lecturer in the Amhara region was murdered by security forces. In Gondar there have been calls to intern into camps the few Tigrayans who still live there.

Solomon assured me that such moves were intended simply to distinguish tplf supporters from innocent Tigrayans, who would be left untouched. But he added, his voice hardening, that for those with a “tplf agenda” there would be no tolerance. “If someone is going to kill me in my home I’m not just going to sit there and do nothing, am I?”

Feelings towards foreigners, particularly foreign journalists, have soured: officials routinely accuse them of backing the tplf. As we ate lunch in a popular restaurant, Solomon and I were arrested. We were released after several hours, but only once the police chief recognised Solomon as a family friend.

Nobody knows what might happen if the tplf and its new ally, a rebel group called the Oromo Liberation Army, launch an assault on Addis Ababa. Solomon scoffs at the idea that the tplf would agree to a ceasefire. Like most Amharas he is sure the tplf is fighting to enthrone itself again. “We really do not want this protracted war,” Solomon said. “But it’s a battle for survival. We really do not want to be oppressed anymore.”

At the heart of Ethiopia’s crisis is a violent rupture in the social fabric: each side utterly mistrusts the other. And the situation is getting worse. Tigrayans say that the events of the past year amount to genocide: many are demanding independence. Some of their neighbours in Amhara might not mind. “Some people say they don’t care,” Solomon said. “Others say it’s unthinkable. I mean, do they have natural resources?”

These are questions for the future. The last time I texted Solomon he sounded more resolute than ever. “Everyone is ready to go to the front line,” he said. “No choice.” This time he would do more than just support the troops. “I am ready to fight from now on.”

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