I was 13 When I Fled War in Tigray. This is What Conflict has Done to My Home.
Weyni Abraha shares how war has devastated her Indigenous community in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Source: Global Citizen
In November 2020, the conflict between the Ethiopian government and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began. In February 2021, the United Nations along with 60 other organizations called for the opening of safe corridors within the Tigray region so much-needed humanitarian aid could be delivered — with the conflict putting millions at risk of starvation.
As well as the impact on food security and the thousands killed in the conflict, eyewitness accounts and humanitarian organizations have raised the alarm about potential war crimes in regions impacted by the fighting. A communications blackout has also impeded efforts to get information from the region.
Amnesty International noted in February this year: “Evidence is mounting of a pattern of Tigrayan forces committing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in areas under their control in the Amhara region. This includes repeated incidents of widespread rape, summary killings, and looting.”
Weyni Abraha is a young woman from Tigray who fled her home following the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. She reflects on the impact conflict has had on Tigray, her family, and her small Indigenous community of the Irob people.
My name is Weyni. I was lucky to have been born and raised in Tigray, an ancient region with indigeneity, rich culture, and a place regarded not only as a cradle of Ethiopian civilization, but also of African pride. I belong to an Indigenous minority within Tigray called Irob, which is one of Tigray’s three ethnic groups with a small population of only between 30,000 and 40,000.
My childhood was a perfect example of the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I was raised by my village until my childhood was interrupted by the 1998 to 2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. Located in the northeast part of Tigray and bordering Eritrea to the north, my Irob community of Tigray was devastated by the war. Just like that, we lost control and our destiny became governed by fate.
My brother and I were among the youngest to flee that region because of that particular war. I was only 13 years old when we fled to seek refuge in Uganda with my younger brother and a few cousins. I always wondered how desperate a mother has to be to send her two young children away to a land she has never even heard of to ensure their safety.
It is one of those journeys that will alter everything about a kid. It will either make you or break you. After four years of being in a state of limbo in Uganda, my brother and I finally moved to Canada with the help of my uncle.
Searching for Meaning
Living in a state of limbo, you have only you and your thoughts. The same questions continuously swirl through your mind, such as, “how and why did this happen to us?” or “why me?” It is not a coincidence that I ended up studying International Development and Conflict Resolution in college, as I tried to understand the conflict that interrupted my childhood in a traumatising manner. I knew my story was not unique. I couldn’t help but wonder why this happens to the children of Africa and why the so-called African leaders pass on intergenerational traumas as if it is some sort of intergenerational wealth.
In search of answers, I focused on international development studies with a focus on Africa during my college years. It was comforting to hear about Ethiopia’s path to peace, stability, and remarkable economic growth. According to the World Bank, in the early 2000s Ethiopia’s GDP was at about $8.2 billion; that number drastically increased to $74.3 billion by 2016. It was also liberating to learn about Tigray’s role in African history. It’s believed that Christianity and Islam were first introduced to the region in Tigray. Tigray is also home to Adwa, a town that has become the symbol of African independence following the defeat of the Italian colonists who had invaded the region. In many ways Tigray’s history mirrors the richness of African history and the resiliency of its people.
I continued the exploration of my home country and region when I decided to do my internship for my degree in Tigray. I did so mainly because I wanted to assess the economic development that was supposedly taking place in Ethiopia and explore the archaeological sites of Tigray. My simple analysis after six months of community development work was that, even though the country as a whole was heading in the right direction, much of that economic growth had not trickled down to the people of Tigray.
Yet I was still optimistic about the future. I left my internship hopeful of the development prospects for my community and inspired by Tigray’s history.
The War in Tigray
Since my internship, I have returned to visit my grandmother and the rest of my family in Tigray every two years on average until COVID-19 hit. It is the one place that connects me to my roots. The last time I was in Ethiopia was when Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed the Joint Declaration of “Peace and Friendship” between Eritrea and Ethiopia on July 9, 2018.
One would think that the deal would have felt like a huge milestone, especially for the Irob community on the border between the two countries, but the way the deal was conducted raised more questions in Tigray. Two years later, these governments, in collaboration with other foreign forces, waged war on Tigray.
With the war waged on Tigray in November 2020, Tigrayans now know that this was in fact a “war pact” to destroy Tigray’s elected government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and weaken the Tigray region in the process. Abiy invited foreign soldiers to occupy and destroy Tigray. These forces have committed unspeakable war crimes and crimes against humanity, including weaponized rape against Tigrayan women and girls.
This lack of moral leadership is not only hard to comprehend, but the country is falling apart as we speak. Ethiopia’s economic growth is forecast to slow down significantly from 6% in 2020 to just 2% in 2021 — the lowest level in almost two decades, according to the IMF.
Nothing hurts more than seeing 70,000+ Tigrayan refugees fleeing to Sudan, many of them children. I have felt their despair. A refugee knows too well what it feels like to lose control of what is happening to you and to have your life controlled by fate. You are always waiting for someone to extend a hand. Waiting for asylum, waiting for food, waiting for money, waiting for the immigration papers in hopes of getting to a safe haven. Waiting in a state of limbo, each day feels the same as the next. Days are long, nights even longer. Fear always looms. Never settled. Always in search of a place to call home.
To make matters worse, we haven’t been able to speak to our families in Tigray in over a year as a result of a communication blackout. The Ethiopian government has cut off both the internet and electricity, allowing Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to continue committing atrocities in the dark.
A while back, I was scrolling through social media and saw a list posted of Irob civilian youth massacred by Eritrean forces during mass killings in December 2020. The first 10 were family members and kids I went to school with. I couldn’t look at the list any further. I was physically sick and cried myself to sleep.
I am constantly trying to reprogram my subconscious and manifest positivity, but I know horrific atrocities have been committed against my family and community. Due to this genocidal war, the very fabric of our indigenous societies have been dismantled. Our way of being and living is completely interrupted yet again.
For over a year, the already vulnerable Irob community has suffered at the hands of the occupying Eritrean forces. Food aid has been blocked, their livestock stolen or destroyed. Our ancestral land, our culture, language, our diversity and ecosystems are threatened. We are beyond terrified that our communities cannot survive the ongoing heinous atrocities committed against Tigray, and particularly, against such a small Irob population. This particular indigenous community is facing an existential threat and they are occupied by Eritrean forces as we speak. Our destiny is in the hands of the enemy. Our very existence is at stake.
Coming to Terms With My Identity During a Genocide
The nation we once proudly identified with is now synonymous with weaponized rape, genocide, famine, and lawlessness. Identity politics has us thinking one side is winning or the other losing but, in reality, we are all losing. I cannot emphasize this point enough. I have personally lost too many family members to count but the sad part is that some Ethiopians did not believe my loss unless they were Tigrayans. For many Tigrayans like myself, this utter lack of empathy for Tigrayans was the end of a proud identity rooted in Ethiopia.
Being uprooted during my childhood, my identity is a complex weave with strands of multiple origins. The easiest identity to take on would have been that of being human or a global citizen, but society always finds a way to compartmentalize your identity and attach meaning to it.
The genocide that is taking place in Tigray, and the existential threat posed to the people of Irob, have me holding onto my Tigrayan-Irob identity as tight as possible, to make sure that strand is never lost. The Ethiopian leadership has dehumanized Tigrayans using genocidal rhetoric, describing us as “Day time hyenas,” “cancer,” and “weeds” that need to be removed. There have been multiple outright calls for the eradication of Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia. Tigrayans are dying from starvation because the Ethiopian government is restricting all access. Tigrayans across Ethiopia are being arrested in masses solely because of their identity.
The international community is well aware, yet they remain completely silent. They said “never again” after the Rwandan genocide [in 1994], but now the Tigray genocide is happening right under their nose. The time is now for the international community to go beyond rhetoric and immediately intervene to stop a genocide that is over a year old. Despite falling on deaf ears, we continue to fight for our existence.
I initially wanted this story to be of inspiration, of strength, and of love, but all I feel right now is anger and betrayal from the so-called “leadership.” Our leaders continue to let us down over and over again. My people deserve better. Our mothers deserve better. I deserve better. I do not deserve to be dragged back to my past traumas. We all deserve better. It is way past the time where politicians resort to primitive war tactics to get what they want, instead of negotiating and maintaining peace.
Sadly, with the inaction of the international community, Tigrayans are forced to fight for their survival on the battlefield today. As a global community, we have a collective moral obligation to ensure that our vulnerable are protected. We owe it to ourselves to stand for human dignity.
Every life is inherently sacred regardless of where they are born. In the name of humanity, I plead the world leaders and global citizens to recognize the ongoing Tigray genocide and put pressure on the Ethiopian government to end the siege that has prevented any and all forms of humanitarian aid to Tigray.