Heritage and History Cleansing in Tigray, International Organizations Overlooked
By Gebremeskel Xaleb
The War to Decimate the Ancient Core, Tigray
False but well-crafted narratives leading up to and framing the war on Tigray, characterized by gaslighting, misinformation, and disinformation, have created a smokescreen to distract from the ongoing genocide, including the systematic destruction of religious and cultural heritage committed against Tigray. The war that the Ethiopian government launched under the deceptive banner of a “Law Enforcement Operation” has revealed itself to be a long-planned full-scale Ethiopian regime led invasion of the allied Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces, among others, with the intent of wiping out Tigrayans along with their heritage and values. It was also highly supported and blessed by drone power global actors.
Understanding the vitality of such a long history and heritage for society’s unified co-existence and resistance, it’s apparent that the heritage and value cleansing in Tigray is motivated by the long-planned purpose and strategy of decimating Tigray’s millennial-old core territory, layered legacy, and cohesive society.
Tigray, its map, territory, history, flag, heritage, institutions, people, icons, and memory, are banned and targeted, proving the Ethiopian regime is leading an alliance of forces to decimate the ancient core of Tigray.
Not only are mass starvation and mass rape weaponized, but the very idea of riding off Tigray’s vital history, heritage, and values is used as a weapon of war.
Tigray’s Heritage and the Precursors of Pillaging
Tigray’s Immense Heritage and History
Tigray, an artefact itself, possesses cultural traces dating back to the Middle Stone Ages (25,000 years ago) as part of humanity. It is thought to have been part of the Punt polity domain, which was followed by several civilizations during the Pre-Aksumite (1600 BCE–300 BCE), Aksumite (100 BCE–800CE), and Medieval periods. It stands out for its archaeological, historical, and sacred heritage, as well as traditions and values as a composite product of long-spanning civilizations. Its people value their heritage as a source of everything: past, present, and future life; they are as inextricably linked as body and soul. In principle, too, people without history, legacy, and culture are lost people.
History of the Pillaging: its Precursors
Historically, there were campaigns of aggression by the rulers of the modern center against the periphery (but ancient core),Tigray, which had the pillaging of heritage as one goal. For example, Menelik II’s (r.1889–1906) campaigns demonstrated a desire to appropriate Tigray’s unique history, heritage, and values, which are the parameters for a viable nation. Hence, troops looted and carried off large numbers of cultural and religious relics. This practice continued with subsequent leaders who sought to establish a dominant center of Shoa mold rule while claiming the ancient history and treasures of Tigray. Tigrayan society has withstood opposition to this due to its national consciousness and a gradually metamorphosed national unity.
A cause of the war, the current genocidal regime is also primarily a camp with an antithesis to any system (e.g., federalism) that recognizes and guarantees other people’s values, history, heritage, and culture; it is nostalgic for its own glory. To realize that it destroy nations (like Tigray) through cultural predation, heritage and memory cleansing, territorial invasion, forced assimilation, and genocide.
The current invasion and multifaceted attack on Tigray and Tigrayans follows this continuum and has, as such, been characterized by the large-scale and systematic destruction of Tigrayan heritage.
The Heritage and History Cleansing
I experienced the invasion and occupation by the joint forces, including the Axum massacre, from which I escaped sniper shots and hid in caves and mountains south of the town, Mahbere Deigo. During my stay in Axum, I observed deliberate shelling of the sacred center of Axum Tsion and its revered archaeological area. Later on, Axum University archaeology and heritage management students reported to me the list of numerous Tigray churches damaged and treasures looted. The first phase of assessments was carried out by a team of experts drawn from Tigray University’s departments of Archaeology and Heritage Management. This was dispatched as the first phase report by the government of Tigray that 232 heritages (not in terms of objects but) of museums, mosques, churches, manuscript centers, sites, and other monuments were damaged. Foreign and local individuals and organizations have published and reported the destruction in different ways; much evidence of destruction was seen circulating on social media. Hence, it was mind-boggling and drove me to assess the systematic destruction of heritage in Tigray that has occurred since November 2020.
One litmus test for the matter was synthesizing contents and intentions from narratives and rhetoric delivered and developed by the Ethiopian regime’s spearheading religious, sociopolitical, and military masters.
The PM braggs he demolished Mekelle city to the level of his home village Beshasha. Mekelle city which was a vibrant city beofre the war, is built over millennial old settlement traces, is a fabric and artifact of at least 150 years.
In addition, their de facto denial proves to me that the destruction was premeditated and deliberate. Moreover, I analyzed the pattern and magnitude of the heritage destruction as well as how each destruction happened. Finally, it proved to me that heritage and history cleansing is one goal of the war in Tigray; it is a policy that has an ideological component in it.
It should come as no surprise that many of the world’s most deliberate heritage destructions (e.g., in the Middle East) have been perpetrated by a few rebel groups labeled as terrorists, but the heritage destruction in Tigray has been perpetrated by the robust state itself and its licensees. In many cases, the combined forces’ selection and targeting of the “most valuable ones” (e.g., the ancient Al-Nejash Mosque, Tigray Islam, and Christian unifying icon) suggests destroyers well oriented by anti-Tigray, church clerics, or other elites.
Looting, damage, and destruction that are occurring as part of the Tigray war are not due to war collateral damage but are premeditated, systematic, and deliberate targets of all the non-Tigrayan forces. Tragically, all relevant institutions and establishments in Ethiopia (except their branches in Tigray) like the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), at times by commission and omission as well as legitimizing, sanctifying, and downplaying the crimes, have contributed to this historically embarrassing heritage and values cleansing bid. In his interview with DW TV, Aba Tium Berhe (after 00:35:00), Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Tigray, denounces the holy cross and drum in Addis Ababa, beaten to start and reactivate the war of genocide and dignity cleansing in Tigray.
Intentional Destruction Against All Dimensions Using Any Means Available
The Destruction of Waldba Monastery
The recently released video about the catastrophic destruction of the monastery of Waldba, found in north-western Tigray, hurts one’s conscious mind. The monastry was founded in the 14th century by a Tigrayan monk from Aksum named Abba Samuel. The Amhara and Eritrean forces destroyed it because of its significance in the wisdom and history of Tigray. The joint armies looted over 3,000 parchment manuscripts and over 300 ancient crosses made of gold and silver, burned and littered many other religious treasures, and destroyed the church museum. This quantity is not a mere number; rather, irreplaceable heritage, which amounts to irreplaceable museums, histories, wisdom, and enormous knowledge; it is the epitome of the heritage cleansing project.
All Time, Space, and Size
During all phases of the war, all dimensions of the heritage and values in Tigray, irrespective of time and space, tangible and intangible, religious (Orthodox, Catholic, and Islam) and non-religious, from the smallest object to the monument, ancient and modern, are targeted.Ancient (e.g., 12th BCE site in Mai Adrasha, shire; 8th century BCE heritages in Wukro and Adigrat; 3rd-7th CE sites and coins in Axum; Al-Nejash Mosque and its collections in Wukro); medieval (e.g., churches and monasteries and their treasures throughout Tigray); and modern (e.g., Yohannes IV museum and its collections in Mekelle), could be mentioned.
Heritage and History Institutions
Libraries, museums, archives, manuscript collections, as well as individual book collections at the household level, which store wisdom and knowledge associated with Tigray’s heritage and history, are confiscated and targeted. Similarly, Tigray’s bureau of culture and tourism offices, along with their resources and relevant heritage documentation records, are expropriated for their relevance to Tigray’s heritage and history. A painful consequence of the loss of such records is that it will be another challenge to claim the objects destined abroad. Because to claim ownership of objects for restitution, documents related to the object’s picture, identity number, and material nature are required for authenticity. Reading books entitled “Tigray” or written in Tigrigna caused merciless death. Hence, many readers were forced to hide and burn their precious book collections. Aksum University, a pioneer in the country’s archaeology and heritage management program, had its mini-laboratory, library, and sample collection room vandalized by Eritrean troops, who were followed by Ethiopian troops. The Amharic graffiti they left on the walls tells us they did it heroically. Through time, collected books, records, and research papers on archaeology, heritage, and history as well as sample objects and manuscripts that were kept for their value and teaching guides are looted.
Gardens, Parks, and Protected Areas
Cultural landscapes, landmarks, and gardens that served as sources of inspiration and beauty, as well as habitat for a variety of biological species, are being vandalized and expropriated.A prominent example is the Kafta Sheraro Park, home to many ungulates, predators, and other wild animal species, biodiversity, and ecosystems with mosaic woodlands. It is actively deforested for coal production and consumption by Eritrean troops; its African elephants have reportedly been killed, and others are being hunted in Eritrea. Awdewur, a jungle site in the wilderness between Rayya and Wejjerat, a cultural setting for Mahlete Gumaye, was attacked by drones early in the war. Mahlete Gumaye is a social celebrity mainly known for the colorful folksongs of the people in the Rayya, Wejjerat, and Enderta areas.
Tigray and its Popular Icons
Tigray popular icons were banned, and civilians proudly wearing them, putting them on wall hangers, or using them as cell phone defaults were brutally killed. To mention some of the iconic pictures, banners, and crafts of prominent individuals celebrated in Tigray’s history, struggle, art, and political arena: Emperor Yohannes IV, Ras Alula Aba Nega, M. General Hayelom Araya, Artist Eyasu Berhe, Artist Kiros Alemayehu. These are popular prisms through which Tigray’s history and values can be seen. There was no time icon or hero left from targets. Above all, the Tigrayan flag and the map it represented were banned. Invading soldiers were seen tearing the flag apart, burning and trampling on it in disgrace. Iconic people and emblems associated not only with the Tigray People Liberation Front but all Tigray parties that articulate national values and causes are targeted. Not only were icons banned, but also listening and amplifying Tigray’s value by mentioning it in songs and in open public talks about Tigray and its history and heritage. Graffiti by soldiers on the walls of some churches, universities, and schools, as well as on stone boulders, says it all [ትግሬም የትግሬ የሆነም ይጠፋል: Tigrayans and their belongings shall be eliminated]. I staunchly argue that this fits the template of the cleansing.
Heritages at all Levels of Value
In terms of classification as to the level of significance, local, country-level, and international-level recognized heritages are targeted. Elements of heritage that retain Tigray’s integrity as Tigray as well as heritage-fabrics that horizontally connect with its neighboring people and the rest of the world are targeted and damaged.
The World Heritage Site of Axum, e.g. its Melekia Axum (close to Maryam Tsion church),known from legend, Metshafe Axum and for its significant Axumite structure, coins, pottery, and others, was shelled and its context damaged (as per my observation); its fragile main stele and underground chambers (which the local community before the war called the incumbent for intervention action) were challenged by the quaking vibration of heavy military tanks as they drove (while de facto prohibited) proximal to the endangered stelae side (as per my observation); its museum coins were looted. Axum’s associated intangible values were disgraced and banned during the occupation times. Consequently, this situation could aggravate the question of the stay of the Aksum site on the World Heritage List. Heritages which were under preparation to be inscribed as world heritages, are damaged due to their known exceptional significance. No doubt, this seriously hampers their future inscription as world heritages.
Eritrean troops, along with their door-to-door barbarism, confiscated family-level valued precious objects in the vernacular rural villages. For Tigrayans, it is a tradition to preserve selected transgenerational utilitarian objects (out of use) inherited from (some 100 years old) their forefathers. Such objects include crafts made of copper, gold, silver, and any metal or wood that are important for history, ethnographic, and archaeological knowledge. The troops demanded such objects for their raw materials’ commercial value.
Religious Men and Guardians
Members of religious institutions and their custodians, performers, producers, and heritage caretakers are brutally murdered.Regrettably, collective social, psychological, and religious binding values, spaces, and memories are deliberately targeted in sophisticated and planned ways. In an interview with DW TV, Aba Tium Berhe (after 00:11:00), the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Tigray, articulates how Tigray values and dignity are targeted as part and parcel of the genocide.
Damage (by shelling and burning), destruction (deliberate dismantling of contextual features), looting and pillaging of objects (e.g. captive soldier with cross she stole), littering (turning the spaces into living camps and shields, dumping ground literally up to sh*tting), banning Tigray popular icons, and other acts summed up heritage and value cleansing.
The Cleansing is still Ongoing
The heritage and history cleansing project is active with the current bid that: many areas of Tigray, including those with major 3,000-year-old heritages, are still under the occupation of the same forces and are being looted, destroyed, and damaged; the Tigrayan Irob and Kunama, as well as their history, culture, and religion are still being wiped out. Looted antiquities have made their way out of Tigray, with some being sold on worldwide markets while others remain in the hands of plundering forces in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Tigray, despite the restoration of its legitimate government, has collapsed resources and systems; it is impossible to contemplate heritage restoration and protection while under genocide.
Ethiopia’s Abused Sovereignty and the Silence of International Heritage Caretakers
Conscious of the fact that targeting cultural heritage has always been a part of the deadliest wars, the lawyer Raphal Lemkin introduced the concept of cultural genocide. Cultural genocide is the deliberate, wanton theft and destruction of cultural monuments, objects, and symbols. The crime of cultural genocide is even more heinous and more unforgivable when perpetrated against groups within one’s own country. And, how ironic that a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize is a war criminal, ordering, sanctioning, and enabling the crime of cultural genocide against people within the federal country of Ethiopia, particularly in the region known as Tigray.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO Convention 1972), governments have a responsibility to protect heritage found within state party boundaries (e.g., within Ethiopia) through law and practice. Oddly and sadly, the government in Ethiopia, both by law and practice, as a state policy, is actively involved in spearheading the heritage and history cleansing project. International organizations like the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO, and the Blue Shields have literally failed to condemn, criminalize, and act while the destruction has been active for over nineteen months now. These bodies have the mandate for both types of heritage: those with Outstanding Universal Value, recognized as World Heritage like Axum, as well as any heritage on earth irrespective of its whereabouts and level of recognition. The destruction of (cultural) heritage is both a crime against property and a crime against people, a crime against the law. Conventional law, international law, and customary law are all still irrelevant to the methodical eradication of heritage and values; criminals are destined to live with impunity.
The Tigray genocide and heritage cleansing are being carried out with the help of foreign armies. In the eyes of the world, Ethiopian sovereignty remains a cover behind which principled international players such as the United Nations cannot intervene, as well as a tool unjustly exploited to perpetrate heritage and value cleansing in Tigray.
Call to All: Humanity
A genuine political settlement would be the panacea, but despite the ruses and hype of “national dialogue,” it appears that the joint forces aided by the drone powers are rehearsing for a full re-occupation or any new offensive on Tigray. If this occurs, it will add another layer of heritage and history cleansing to the process.
As a result of the cleansing project, I am terribly worried and urge institutions and individuals in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Amhara to come to their senses and work together to put a stop to the heritage, history and value cleansing; they must work together to stop the movement of relic objects through Eritrea, Amhara, Sudan, and other parts of Ethiopia. Human values and heritage do not deserve to be cleansed; instead, it would have been a tremendous act of dignity and history to use such priceless heritage to forge social bonds and promote peace and development among peoples in the Horn of Africa. Above all, the international community (e.g., INTERPOL) should be aware of the situation and collaborate to stop the flow of innumerable Tigray heritage objects that have started to appear in the antiquity market.