“We Are Under an Existential Threat”: War Ravages the Tigray Region in Ethiopia

An escalating crisis in Ethiopia raises familiar concerns over ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses.


Gift Habeshaw / Unsplash

A skyscraper looms in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The country’s northern Tigray region has been consumed with violence and fighting since last November 2020, when the military invaded, after a regional political party attacked a government base.

Nobody knows how many people have died in Tigray. 

Since last November 2020, the northern region of Ethiopia has been engulfed in conflict. The Ethiopian government invaded the region after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the controversial political party that has controlled the region for decades, attacked a military base. Access to Tigray by the press or international actors like the UN has been cut off. The conflict is playing out behind closed doors, preventing the rest of the world from witnessing the horrors that are occurring.  

But despite the lack of absolute and accurate information, there are still rumors and whispers of the death and destruction that has been haunting Tigray for nearly six months now. The UN believes that 4.5 million people are in need of food assistance. Around 950,000 people are thought to have fled their homes, but other estimates reach up to 2.2 million displaced. This disparity in information around displaced Tigrayans demonstrates the depth of doubt surrounding the crisis. The World Politics Review estimates that there are 100 children dying each day. 

The crisis in Tigray did not spring up randomly. Ethiopia is a country haunted by its colonial past, by ethnic tensions, by famine, poverty, and war. While Ethiopia was never colonized— only annexed by Italy from 1936 to 1941— the history of colonialism in the Horn of Africa still inextricably affected the country’s development, particularly the relationship between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea and the dynamics between Ethiopian ethnic groups. Today’s conflict in Tigray can be traced directly to the wars and crises that have historically plagued Ethiopia, which explains why the conflict in the region today has been so difficult to resolve. 

The Tigray region has historically been separate from the rest of the country, developing its own distinct identity and ethnic group that was in many ways more connected to Eritrea in the north than to Ethiopia in the south. After Italy attacked the independent Ethiopian kingdom in the late 19th century, Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II emerged victorious, and kept his kingdom intact by striking up a deal with the Italians. Ethiopia would remain free, but Italy would maintain control over Eritrea, although it would give up a large portion of Tigray to Ethiopia. This decision was at the root of many of the ethnic and geopolitical tensions that plague Tigray, Eritrea, and Ethiopia today. 

When Eritrea gained independence from Italian colonizers in 1941, it discovered it would be a brief period of freedom. Soon after, it became part of a united federation with Ethiopia, and in 1961 was annexed against its will as a province of Ethiopia. This kicked off a 30-year battle for Eritrean independence, which Tigray was at the very heart of. The three-decades-long war was characterized by brutal human rights abuses and a famine that killed 1 million people and inspired the most famous musicians of the time to host a charity concert, LiveAID. 

The famine — which most severely afflicted Tigrayans, living in the Ethiopian region closest to Eritrea — was not an unfortunate effect of war, but a deliberate tool used to terrorize civilians. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the authoritarian leader of Ethiopia in the 1980s, is infamous for saying that you must “drain the sea to kill the fish,” reflecting his belief that blocking food from Tigray was necessary to stamp out its desire for autonomy. Starvation was a weapon used to destroy any spirit of insurrection amongst Tigrayans or Eritreans who wanted self-government.

History may be repeating itself. Today, international observers and human rights groups worry that the same tools employed throughout the long Eritrean-Ethiopian war of the late 20th century to weaken and terrorize the public are being used once again. Rape cases are rapidly rising, with just 500 new cases reported in recent weeks and many more suspected to have gone unreported. A report by the New York Times in April detailed how one doctor has seen three new patients for sexual assault every week since November 2020. The healthcare system is in shambles, with eighty-two percent of Tigray’s medical centers not functioning, according to Wafaa Said, a UN humanitarian official. 

“The situation in the Tigray region is horrible,” said Aerin Mann ’21, a captain and novice director of Bronx Science’s Public Forum Debate team. “What makes it even worse is the lack of attention drawn towards it — I haven’t heard about it much in the media, and I haven’t seen many posts on social media, which is concerning because it’s a devastating crisis that isn’t being addressed,” she continued.

One of the worst aspects of the situation is the lack of accountability for every side involved, due to the restrictions placed by Ethiopia’s government on entering Tigray. The government has blocked the UN, aid groups, and non-governmental organizations from reaching the region, preventing millions from getting the crucial healthcare, food, and protection they need. The media — both local and international — is blocked from entering Tigray, and multiple journalists have been arrested for violating these rules. Violence is occurring behind a cloak of secrecy that helps every actor involved evade responsibility.

The crisis in Tigray is especially concerning because it is much, much more than just a low-level civil war. Fears of ethnic cleansing have been brewing since the government first invaded in November 2020, and the evidence supporting these claims has only grown since. 

In February, the New York Times obtained an internal U.S. report that concluded there had been acts of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, a minority group numbering almost 7 million. The report documented deliberate instances of violence towards Tigrayans by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers, most of whom are Amharan, another ethnic group with a history of tensions with Tigray. Towns occupied mainly by ethnic Amharans largely remain untouched by soldiers, whereas majority-Tigrayan areas have been pillaged and besieged. 

Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have begun tracking civilian deaths during the war, becoming the most reliable source of information on casualties in Tigray. Their research has counted over 150 massacres of 5 or more people so far, the majority of these deaths being Tigrayans. These researchers also found that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been burning and looting banks, preventing Tigrayans from getting access to their money. Soldiers have been stealing or destroying food preserves, further exacerbating the threat of famine facing the region. These actions seem disproportionately directed towards ethnic Tigrayans, a symbol of how the crisis is veering dangerously close to an ethnic cleansing. 

While this crisis has been spiraling towards an ethnic cleansing, foreign actors have been worryingly silent. When asked about possible acts of ethnic cleansing in Tigray in a March 2021 briefing, President Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki responded, “the President is deeply concerned, highly engaged on this issue. He recognizes that we have very active ongoing efforts by our diplomats to try to move this forward to a better place, including getting humanitarian aid workers in with full access.” 

Psaki’s response makes it clear that the Biden administration is concerned about the situation in Tigray, but she skirted the question, which explicitly asked Biden’s thoughts on if an ethnic cleansing was occurring. 

Her answer immediately reminded me of another press briefing that I have heard about, in April 1994, in the midst of the Rwandan genocide. During the press conference, a spokesperson for President Clinton, Christine Shelley, admitted that “acts of genocide” had occurred in Rwanda. A Reuters reporter pressed her on it, asking, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?” It was a simple mathematical question — an algebraic equation — but the spokesperson had no answer. With a desperate sigh, she responded, “That’s just not a question I’m in a position to answer.” Bill Clinton’s administration never did answer that question, and it is unclear to me whether Joe Biden’s will, either. 

Biden’s administration should heed the mistakes that Clinton’s made in Rwanda and mobilize resources and attention towards addressing the crisis. If the United States, the United Nations, and our allies do nothing, we may look back on the Tigray crisis as a tragedy that escalated into avoidable death and pain right in front of our eyes, another example of destruction which could have been avoided completely, but was cursed by our inaction. 

What makes the situation in Tigray most horrifying is how familiar it is. The marginalization of the ethnic minority living there has been a recurring theme in Ethiopian history since the country became an established state in the late 1800s. Just last month, a Tigrayan professor spoke for millions living in the region when she said in an interview with The New York Times, that “this is a war against the people of Tigray. Basically, we are under an existential threat.” 

The professor’s words reminded me of a quote I stumbled upon while doing research for this article. In 1912, the Ethiopian scholar Gebrehiwet Baykedagne wrote of the Tigrayan people, “Whilst other people live in tranquillity, Tigrai has never been free from wars, leave alone outlaws and bandits.” Words written over a century ago still ring true today.

Biden’s administration should heed the mistakes that Clinton’s made in Rwanda and mobilize resources and attention towards addressing the crisis. If the United States, the United Nations, and our allies do nothing, we may look back on the Tigray crisis as a tragedy that escalated into avoidable death and pain right in front of our eyes, another example of destruction which could have been avoided completely, but was cursed by our inaction.