“They’re all the same”: Ethiopia’s sad descent into a war between brothers
Abuses by armed forces, retaliatory killings, and a long-simmering land dispute have raised the tensions and stakes for Tigray and Amhara.
Despite being an ethnic Tigrayan, Birhane*, 28, was born and grew up in the town of Kombolcha in the Amhara region. He was part of both an ethnic and religious minority – being a Protestant in a mostly Muslim area too – but he felt comfortable and at home. He felt particularly blessed to be part of a tight-knit Christian community.
When war broke out in the Tigray region in November 2020, however, things began to change. The conflict resulted from a dispute between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), but it quickly morphed into a bitter civil war. Despite the government’s assurances that its intervention was merely a “law enforcement operation” targeted at a “terrorist group” or “junta”, the conflict quickly led to growing distrust between entire communities.
“Many people in my neighbourhood started pointing fingers at me,” says Birhane, his sparkling smile fading as he recalls the early days of the war. “Some of my friends since childhood began calling me a ‘junta’. I thought they were joking with me at first, but I was shocked when I heard some people in my church talking about me as a menace among them.”
About a year into the war, Tigray armed forces took control of Kombolcha. On their very first day in charge, they allegedly killed several youths in the town. After a few weeks, the federal army and Amhara regional forces retook the area. Retaliatory killings and the mass arrest of ordinary Tigrayan residents followed almost immediately.
“Tigrayans that I knew well have been found killed on the streets,” says Birhane. “Some of them were merely accused of eating and drinking with the Tigrayan fighters, others of defaming the army and Amhara forces. I had to hide for over a month. I was sure I too would be killed if I went out. I have become a criminal because of my identity.”
Birhane has since fled his hometown.
Over the past year, there have been many stories like these – of alleged abuses by Tigray forces and of revenge attacks against Tigrayan civilians – in the Amhara region. Weeks after Tigray forces had been expelled from the town of Chenna in September 2021, it resembled a ghost town. The dead bodies of soldiers alongside the carcasses of animals were spread throughout the village.
“We don’t even touch the enemy corpses,” Melke Alew, an Amhara militia told African Arguments, holding a Kalashnikov as he strode atop the cliffs overlooking the mountains. “They killed our children, women and priests.”
Other locals spoke of similar atrocities committed by Tigray forces. Babu, a 13-year-old boy, described how his older brother had been killed in cold blood. “My brother was also about to flee, but they caught him,” he recalled. “They declared him a Fano [an Amhara fighter] and killed him. He was not even armed.”
“They wanted to wipe us out, the Amhara, and finish off the Ethiopian people,” he continued. ” I will not leave my brother’s blood spill over. I will fight them when my time comes.”
In December 2021, Human Rights Watch also reported the summary executions of scores of Amhara civilians in Chenna and Kobbo, another Amhara town, by Tigrayan forces. In February 2022, Amnesty International documented the rape of “girls as young as 14”, accompanied by “shocking brutality”, in and around Chenna. African Arguments and others have documented the widespread harassment, forced disappearances, and torture of ethnic Tigrayans in the capital Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia since the war began.
“A ticking time-bomb”
At the very start of the conflict, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tried to draw a clear distinction between the TPLF and ordinary Tigrayan citizens. “Let us all be the keepers of our brothers by making sure our fellow Tigrayan people living in each of our neighbourhoods face no discrimination,” he wrote a week into the war.
It did not take long, however, for reports of intercommunal violence to surface. Just days into the war, ethnic atrocities were committed against Amhara and then Tigrayan civilians in the town of Mai Kadra, in western Tigray, in a worrying sign of things to come. In other parts of Ethiopia, both officials and ordinary people also took matters into their own hands in targeting civilians they deemed to be their enemies. Today, the hope that Ethiopia’s war could remain limited to warring parties – rather than pitting communities against one another – feels distant.
Even religious associations, which once helped unite people across ethnic boundaries, have split. Last month, the Tigray wings of the Orthodox , Islamic , Catholic and Evangelical faith groups cut ties with their central organisations, accusing them of being passive onlookers of “genocide in Tigray”. According to aid agencies, 5.2 million people (over 90% of the population) in the Tigray region need emergency food aid, yet the federal government continues to restrict humanitarian access as well as block banking, telecommunications and other services. At least 2.5 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the war, the vast majority from Tigray.
Nearly 18 months into the war, statements from officials and armed leaders have also shifted from emphasising the distinction between warring parties and civilians to equating the two.
In Amhara, for instance, some militia leaders have openly called for “all Tigrayans” living in the region to be put in concentration camps. An official from North Gondar Zone in Amhara commented to journalists in Debarq that “[Tigrayans] are all the same; they blindly follow each other”. And in a televised briefing in July 2021, Agegnehu Teshager, the then president of Amhara regional state, claimed that “misled by the Weyane [TPLF] propaganda, the people of Tigray, from the child to elder, have attacked our defence forces. They are now attacking the special forces and militia of Amhara region.”
According to Adem K. Abebe, an expert on constitution and peace building, long-running tensions between political elites in Ethiopia are now being writ large across society, in particular between Amhara and Tigray.
“It was a ticking time-bomb,” he says. “The war has now spiralled into and worsened in the social realm. It has generated fear and tension amongst the two people that it now has become difficult for one group to trust the other.”
A territorial dispute
At the heart of tensions between the neighbouring Amhara and Tigray regions is a territorial dispute that has simmered for over three decades. Amhara leaders claim that a large swath of land that was demarcated as part of Tigray in 1991, when a TPLF-led coalition took power in Ethiopia, is rightfully theirs. The area in question – covering parts of the highly fertile western and southern Tigray – is home to both Amhara and Tigray people.
Mistrust over this disagreement has bubbled for 30 years and, when the war began in 2020, Amhara forces didn’t wait long to cross the border. They quickly took control of much of western Tigray and declared it the Wolkait Tegede Setit Humera Zone of Amhara. Their militias allegedly committed widespread atrocities against Tigrayan civilians living there.
“They started it early by destroying the economic capacity of the Tigrayan society in western Tigray. They looted agricultural products and possessions of Tigrayans,” says Getachew Temare, acting executive director of the US-based Tigray Human Rights Forum. “They have now forcefully annexed the territory. Amhara political elite and their government have no understanding of the depth of harm they inflicted upon Tigrayans.”
International rights groups have also documented atrocities against civilians in western Tigray. The UN Humanitarian Office (UNOCHA) estimates that 1.2 million from this area have fled their homes, a figure contested by Demeke Zewdu, the deputy chief of the new zone, who claims there were only 140,000-150,000 Tigrayans in the area even before the war began.
“A mere countdown to another war”
Amid a recent lull in fighting, there have been growing calls for peace talks in Ethiopia. Last month, Prime Minister Abiy said there had not been any negotiations with the TPLF yet but indicated an openness to dialogue. “If there is an option towards peace – if the TPLF becomes sober, and if it understands that war will not be an alternative and it cannot win it too – we are very happy to accept that,” he said.
More recently, Wondimu Asaminew, a senior TPLF official speaking on Tigray TV, referred to promising signs from the federal government and alluded to negotiations “started by a third party”. He added, however, that the “Amhara elite” are trying to sabotage talks due to “sesame politics”, referring to the widespread sesame farming in parts of the land under dispute.
If difficult talks are to finally happen, observers worry that the land dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions may prove to be one of the more intractable disagreements, especially given the alleged atrocities and high distrust between communities.
“Should negotiations begin, the issue of territorial disputes between the Amhara and Tigray is a critical issue. It is a major point of contention,” says William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “While it is possible to imagine long-term solutions, such as local autonomy or joint administration, as it stands now, both parties consider control of the territory as non-negotiable.”
According to Adem, anything but a plan for a long-term peaceful solution will simply lay the groundwork for more violence in the future.
“A political scenario where the Amhara seek to rely on brute force to claim contested territories and disregard Tigrayan claims and concerns will be making the same mistakes the TPLF made when it had the power,” he says. “This would only be the repetition of the zero-sum game in Ethiopia’s politics and a mere countdown to another war, if this one ends at all.”
The author asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from the government. See: Ethiopian journalists are taking a stand for press freedom in 2022.