Tigrayans in Ethiopia fear becoming “the next Rwanda”
As hate speech and targeting of Tigrayans escalates in Addis Ababa, many are terrified and some are planning to flee.
Yared* has not left his apartment in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa for days. “I don’t feel safe here,” the 29-year-old says. “I’m scared to go outside. They [Ethiopian police] are going around the whole city and detaining people from restaurants, bars, cafeterias, and even their homes.”
Yared is from Tigray and, about two weeks ago, celebrations broke out in the regional state capital Mekelle after the Tigray Defence Forces, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), retook the city. This was the latest dramatic turn of events in Ethiopia’s devastating eight month-long civil war, which has been marred by serious human rights violations, including ethnic cleansing, mass killings, and brutal sexual violence.
Despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed withdrawing federal troops from Mekelle and declaring a unilateral ceasefire on 28 June, Tigray has remained under siege on all sides. Up to 900,000 people are facing famine, and humanitarian supplies are restricted due to a lack of fuel and a shutdown of telecommunications and electricity.
Nonetheless, Mekelle’s residents embraced the temporary reprieve from war, cheering and setting alight fireworks, as Tigray regional fighters were met with hugs and kisses. Tigrayans living elsewhere in Ethiopia, however, sunk into terror.
Since November 2020, Tigrayans in Ethiopian cities, especially the capital Addis Ababa, have been arrested by the thousands, had bank accounts temporarily frozen, been purged from their jobs, and had businesses shuttered. Tigrayans, a minority ethnic group who make up about 6% of the Ethiopian population, have also been prevented from traveling abroad.
Now, Tigrayan residents in Addis Ababa tell African Arguments this racial profiling has escalated to an alarming degree since the TPLF regained ground, with many Tigrayans too fearful to leave their homes. Mass arrests have resumed, along with scores of Tigrayan businesses being forcibly closed by Ethiopian authorities.
“Next they will kill us”
Yared’s 42-year-old brother, a father of three, was detained by Ethiopian security forces soon after the war erupted. He was held for a week and interrogated about his relationship with the TPLF despite not having any connections with the group. Soon after the TPLF took over Mekelle, he was detained once again by plain-clothed police officers while eating lunch at his home in Addis Ababa, Yared explains.
Yared says he and his brother’s wife followed behind the vehicle to the Akaki Kality police station. “There were over two hundred Tigrayans there demanding information about their loved ones who were detained,” he recounts. Yared was informed a week ago that his brother had been moved to an undisclosed location. Yared’s uncle, who was an officer in the Ethiopian army, was also detained when the war broke out in November and has not been heard from since.
There have been widespread reports over the last two weeks of scores of Tigrayans being detained and transported to detention centres. At least 15 Ethiopian journalists and media workers were also arrested in the crackdown.
“It’s very concerning,” said Fisseha Tekle, a researcher for Ethiopia at Amnesty International. “It’s clear racial profiling. People are getting arrested after police check their IDs and see that they’re Tigrayan. They are not taken to court. It’s a clear human rights violation and a violation of their rights to due process.”
Dawit* was just released from the Semit police station in Addis Ababa on Sunday night after being arrested that morning from Feven Shiro, a local Tigrayan-owned restaurant in the city, where he was eating breakfast with three non-Tigrayan friends.
“About seven [uniformed] police officers came in and checked everyone’s IDs,” Dawit told African Arguments. “I was one of four Tigrayans in the restaurant and they detained us. They accused us of celebrating the TPLF’s control of Mekelle. They were pushing us around and insulting us.” The police also confiscated their mobile phones.
Dawit, along with the three other Tigrayans, were brought to the police station and placed in a large holding compound, where Dawit estimates at least a thousand other Tigrayans were being held. “There were a lot of girls there and they were crying and the boys looked so sad,” Dawit explains. “Even myself, I was shaking and feeling so sad. I had heard about Tigrayans being arrested, but when it happened to me I felt so heartbroken.”
Dawit says the Tigrayans were being held for about three days and then transferred to Awash Arba, a military camp located about 221 km from Addis Ababa. Yared says he heard that his brother was also transferred there. According to Dawit, the Tigrayans in the compound at Semit station are fed one piece of bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and do not have access to water. They are forced to sleep on the cold ground.
Dawit was released after about ten hours after paying 10,000 birr ($228); one of his non-Tigrayan friends had connections with the police commissioner. Dawit, who was born in Addis Ababa, owns a bar in the city, which was also shut down by Ethiopian authorities.
Tekle from Amnesty International says there have also been cases of arbitrary arrests in Dire Dawa, a city in eastern Ethiopia, and that these people have not been heard from since their arrest.
According to Dawit, there are checkpoints in Addis Ababa every two or three kilometres where police check IDs. “If someone is Tigrayan, the police will take their phone, tell them to open their social media and their messages. If there’s even a flag of Tigray or anything related to Tigray, they will be arrested,” he says.
Fresh out of the jail, Dawit says he will leave to Tigray after three days. Despite the siege, Tigrayans are finding a way to access Tigray through the Afar region, which borders it to the east, in order to seek refuge.
“I was raised as an Ethiopian,” Dawit told African Arguments. “But now I want to go to Tigray and I will join the resistance and fight for freedom. This is the only option we have now. Today they are arresting us and tomorrow they will kill us. It’s better to go and fight then to just die here in Addis.”
Dawit wanted his full name published because he is leaving for Tigray and he “just doesn’t care anymore”. We decided to keep him anonymous to protect his well-being.
African Arguments reached out to the Ethiopian government for comment, but did not receive a response.
“Full of hate”
Sara*, 27, moved with her husband from Mekelle to Addis Ababa a few weeks before the war broke out. She says her guesthouse in Addis Ababa was forcibly closed by police about a week ago. “The police came in and told everyone they had to leave,” she says. “They shut it down with no explanation. Our neighbours’ shops were also closed”, all of which are Tigrayan-owned. Her husband’s relative who was at the guesthouse at the time was detained and interrogated for days.
“We feel very unwanted here,” Sara explains. “We can’t speak Tigrinya on the streets anymore because someone could just call you ‘junta’ [Abiy’s preferred term for the TPLF] and security forces will come and take you, no questions asked.”
Sara and her husband’s bank account, which was opened in Tigray, has also been frozen, along with all other bank accounts opened in Tigray. “It’s very hard to live now,” she says. “We’re using the money we have right now. But when we run out we don’t know what we will do.”
All those who African Arguments spoke to pointed to Abiy’s recent speech after the TPLF’s advancement as the source of escalating targeting and hate speech against Tigrayans. In his first remarks since he pulled federal troops out of Mekelle, Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, denied that his military was defeated by the TPLF and went on to allege that Tigrayan civilians had attacked the Ethiopian army and helped the TPLF.
“Our army sometimes stayed for four or five days without water when continuous fighting was going on, while the junta was busy drinking bottled water,” he said, adding that Tigrayan priests had called for people to fight the army and that “most of the churches” were used for hiding weapons.
In last month’s elections, Abiy’s Prosperity Party won 95% of seats. This suggests he enjoys significant support, though the legitimacy of the process has been questioned due to its timing during a brutal civil war, the fact that Tigray region was not permitted to participate, that some of the most prominent Oromo politicians continue to be imprisoned, and that many opposition parties boycotted the vote.
Abraha*, a former Tigrayan law professor in Amhara state, says that since Abiy came to power, he and his support base, much of which originates from Addis Ababa and the Amhara region, have “blamed Tigrayans for everything that’s happening in the country”. But “up until recently, he was mostly blaming the TPLF, not civilian Tigrayans,” Abraha explains. Now, however, “because of Abiy’s recent statement, people are claiming all Tigrayans are traitors and it has fuelled the process of racial profiling that already existed.”
“I’ve been receiving threats for months, but now the death threats have become much more serious,” he says. “And this is not just some random social media users. Even my own former students have threatened me.”
“It feels very different now,” Abraha adds. “As a researcher I’ve always feared the government, the intelligence and the police. But now I’m scared of everyone, even my students and colleagues. Everyone is now expressing their hatred of Tigrayans, from the politician to the yoga teacher.”
In a recent interview, Dagnachew Assefa, an advisor of Abiy, publicly suggested the registration and possible deportation of Tigrayans. Seyoum Teshome, a prominent social media activist with hundreds of thousands of followers, recently stated: “since each and every Tigrayan youth… has been raised with the same Woyane [Tigrayan rebellion] mentality… If you want to defeat them, you have to eliminate all the youth in Tigray.”
Amhara journalists have also called on citizens to spy on their Tigrayan neighbours. “These statements and these anti-Tigrayan campaigns can spread like wildfire because of social media,” says Abraha. “My fear is that if this continues, and the Ethiopian army continues to be defeated or humiliated, that all Tigrayans living in all parts of Ethiopia will be in danger.”
According to Amnesty researcher Tekle, this is not yet “people attacking people”. “This is the government machinery that is targeting them,” he says. “We haven’t seen any actions by civilians against Tigrayans, at least in Addis.” On Sunday, though, reports emerged of at least three Tigrayan civilians allegedly being killed by a mob in the town of Wereta in Amhara region.
Aaron*, a 34-year-old father born and raised in Addis Ababa, says he has never identified with his Tigrayan roots. “I honestly thought I was Amhara up until two weeks ago,” he says. “All my friends are Amhara and I don’t even know any Tigrayans in the city…I always saw myself as Ethiopian and all my friends as just Ethiopians. I have an Amhara name and so none of my friends in Addis actually know I’m Tigrayan.”
He is concerned now, however, as “the hate is escalating a lot”. “I’ve been hearing about many Tigrayans being arrested and even my friends who are usually politically neutral are openly talking about Tigrayans as traitors and how they hope Tigrayans are killed or deported. These are my colleagues, employees, and childhood friends saying these things.”
“I’m terrified they will find out I’m Tigrayan,” says Aaron, adding that he has started learning Tigrinya, along with others in Addis, in fear that they could be expelled to Tigray. Aaron has also attempted to make connections with other Tigrayans on social media forums, but is viewed as suspicious because he cannot speak the language.
“Everyone is so full of hate here and hate for Tigrayans is growing all over the country. I feel like I’m around full-scale fascism,” he adds. “The ethnic cleansing has already been happening, but I’m scared the worst is yet to come. I’m worried we will become the next Rwanda.”
“I have a family in Addis so I cannot run away to Europe or the United States if something happens…For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m living on foreign soil. I used to be Ethiopian, but now I have no idea where I belong.”
*Names changed over fears of reprisal