Horrific video brings more pain to New Zealand’s Tigrayan community
A horrific video which appears to show three people being burned alive in Ethiopia has sparked outrage from the Tigrayan community in Wellington.
The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia has been locked in a civil war with Ethiopian federal forces and its allies since November 2020.
As well as allegations of human rights abuses from both sides of the conflict, including executions, torture and rape, more than two million have been forced to flee their homes since it began.
“I didn’t want to see [the video] but everyone was calling me and sending it to me,” says Rahwa Hagos, chairperson of Wellington’s 100-strong Tigrayan community.
“Everyone was crying and saying we need to do something. I felt helpless. What can I do?” she says. “They were laughing as they pushed those people into the fire. I can’t believe a human being will do that to another human being. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, a person is a person.”
The Ethiopian Government Communication Service confirmed the incident, although the video has not been authenticated.
The gruesome event, which is understood to have taken place in the northwestern Benishangul-Gumuz region, was further anguish for the Tigrayan community in Wellington, who fear for the safety of their loved ones.
Hagos, who is from Tigray’s third largest city of Shire, came to New Zealand with her family in 2001 as a refugee from Sudan.
Her mother, Shawaynesh, a New Zealand citizen, went back to Tigray in 2017 to look after her elderly mother. They have since lost touch.
“When the civil war started we tried to get her out, but we couldn’t because it wasn’t safe,” she says. “We didn’t hear from her till January 2021 and even then she had to travel miles to find a connection to call to say she was okay. They have no access to communications, banking, electricity, often no water supply, no medicines. She’s been worried about my grandmother not getting her medication.”
Civilians are at the mercy of it all, she says.
In June last year Hagos’ mother, who used to work at Wellington’s Commonsense Organics, was able to make a minute-long call through an aid organisation.
“She had lined up all night long to get her turn. She said ‘We are okay, we are surviving, but we need money.’ She is capable of looking after herself and family but all their bank accounts have been frozen, so she can’t access her own money.”
She was unable to move around freely because she was too scared, she says.
Hagos, who lives in Wellington with her husband, Hancock, and their two young daughters, has taken part in protests to draw the New Zealand Government’s attention to the crisis.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced in June last year the Government would give $3.25m towards the humanitarian response in Ethiopia adding Aotearoa was “deeply concerned at the worsening humanitarian situation and food insecurity in Tigray”.
Hagos remained frustrated with the United Nations, saying the organisation was “not doing anything apart from releasing statements.
“Statements don’t do anything,” she says. “The atrocities we have seen… It feels like no one is paying attention. People are losing their lives every day just for being Tigrayan. It just blows your mind.
“We want people to know what is happening. We hope people will keep pushing the UN and people who have power [to act].”
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark was one of the few she saw asking the UN to do something about it, she says.
Clark, former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, has said war crimes were being committed in Tigray. Sexual violence had become a weapon of war. In an article published last year in Foreign Policy, co-written with Rachel Kyte, Clark said there was evidence of widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated by men in uniform.
She called on the world to “step in now and call the assaults what they are: a war crime.”
Hagos cries every day worrying about her family in Tigray. She can only hope they are safe.
Since that June call there has been only one message from her mother just before Christmas letting them know she was alive. And since then, silence.
Issac Ghebremiskel lives in Wellington with his wife and four children but has grave fears for his family in Tigray’s capital Mekelle.
Hi 63-year-old sister was arrested twice in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa “just for being Tigrayan”, he says. She escaped with civil war and is now living in Aotearoa.
Ghebremiskel and his wife have been unable to make contact with the rest of their family.
“There is no Internet, no phone. It’s blackout. They don’t have any access to banks. We don’t know how they are surviving. We don’t know if they are alive,” he says. “It’s difficult to get [food] aid in to Tigray. The government is using starvation like a weapon.”
Conflict – the fallout
- Civil war began after a dispute between Tigray’s regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Ethiopian Government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
- Tigray has long fought to self-govern, despite the federal government’s desire for unity. Both sides declared war after Tigray held its own elections in September.
- Almost 40 percent of Tigrayans are suffering an extreme lack of food, after 15 months of conflict. Across all three conflict-affected regions of the north more than 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, according to the World Food Programme.
- Killings, looting and destruction of health centres and farming infrastructure have caused humanitarian needs to surge.
- In late January, the International Committee of the Red Cross was finally able to make its first delivery of medical supplies since September 2021 into Mekelle.
- People in New Zealand who have lost contact with family in Ethiopia (or anywhere overseas) can make an enquiry through the online form on the New Zealand Red Cross website: https://redcross.org.nz/rfl/