War and famine: history repeating itself in Tigray

Published on 2 July 2021

Image of Lyla Mehta

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Atrocities committed in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia are destroying the lives of innocent civilians, many of whom already experienced the trauma of passed conflicts and famine. IDS researcher Lyla Mehta recalls the families met during fieldwork in Tigray years ago who had been rebuilding their lives.

It’s been eight months since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops to Tigray in Northern Ethiopia. Despite originally claiming it to be a short military campaign, largely to subdue leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), it is now globally acknowledged that the soldiers of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) (with the involvement of Eritrean forces) have unleashed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Tigray. While Tigrayan forces have recently regained control of Mekelle and other towns, the current situation is unclear, with a possible ceasefire rejected by the TPLF and a new communications blackout in Mekelle.  What is clear is that the violence so far has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis, including famine.

Atrocities on a scale and magnitude that defy the imagination have been reported and confirmed.  These include, soldiers descending on villages and towns, going door to door and beating and killing people and livestock;  shutting off water, electricity and roads followed by massive massacres; destruction of factories and businesses;  pillages of ancient religious sites and cultural assets;  the killing of priests  and religious leaders as well as horrific rapes of women and girls. These past months have been a tragic taste of Déjà-Vu.

Between 2014 and 2017, I was part of a team of researchers that participated in two research projects with the Mekelle University  in Tigray. The first was led by Meta Meta and second by the University of Utrecht. We conducted fieldwork in the region of Geralta northwest of Mekelle, on the impacts (often quite destructive) of uncontrolled water runoff on peoples’ assets and livelihoods in relation to road construction.

Short but intense periods of fieldwork across the region in numerous villages affected by the road’s construction presented unforgettable encounters with the people of Tigray. This included colleagues from the university and villagers who took us into their homes and shared their experiences and life stories, while also generously feeding us with injera, beans and offering us coffee and their local brews Even though our focus was on something seemingly mundane as roads and water, the evidence and memories of Tigray’s tormented past were evident in many ways.

A woman preparing coffee on the floor of her humble home with many plastic containers around her
Local woman preparing coffee in her home.

Legacy of the past

For example, the legacy of past conflict could be seen in the high number of female headed households and skewed demographics of the region. Mekelle’s martyrs memorial and the museum of Tigray contains exhibits and accounts of the numerous wars and conflicts. Mostly though it was in the life-histories shared with us, sometimes by widows or ex-combatants themselves. There was not a single family that hadn’t lost a parent or sibling to the many wars that had affected the region, be they with Eritrea or against the Derg regime (1974 – 1991) and the associated bombings of civilians and politically motivated famines (1984-1985).

Yet, it seemed this was all part of the past and the courageous people of Tigray had taken the task to rebuild their region and lives, harnessing the fragile resources of the land with resourcefulness and hard labour. Often supported by the Productive Safety Net Programme, the landscape was dotted by  stone walls, check dams, tanks and wells which helped transform a dry landscape into lush valleys where nearly everything could grow.  Livelihoods were precarious and we heard numerous accounts of destitution, failed crops, illness and poverty but these were not considered to be completely desperate or unsurmountable.

A dry landscape of Tigray with steep rocky hills
Landscape of the Tigray region.

Thanks to access to irrigation, agricultural intensification services, new road connectivity, and local improvements in access to water, food and services, many felt that life in Tigray was getting better and they looked to a better future. As people and children grazed their animals and tended to their fields in the green hilly landscape of the Geralta Range, punctuated by red cliffs and spectacular rock-hewn churches, each with its own history and spiritual quality, life in Tigray seemed stabile and peaceful despite being tough.

A church built into a rocky cliff
A church in the Tigray region.

Current conflict

The situation in Tigray over the past months has been horrific for civilians and ordinary people who are victims of a conflict they did not start and did not want. And it is impossible not to think of the people and children we met and interviewed who shared their stories and hopes with us as they invited us to sit in their homes or under a tree, or guided us through their village, church or garden. We can’t help but wonder and hope that they are alive and safe.  It was awful to hear of the horrific attacks and looting on the small town of Wukro, where we stayed.

It is also deplorable that sacred texts, and treasures have been looted in so many amazing rock-hewn churches  and monasteries that dot the mountains, including treasures in one of Ethiopia’s holiest churches, Church of Out Lady Mary of Zion in Axum that is said to house the Ark of the Covenant. The loss of manuscripts and cultural artefacts will also undermine the cultural integrity of the region, not to mention the horrible rapes and massacres committed in these holy places.

Our colleagues at the Mekelle University did not have internet facilities for about six months which made interactions with the outside world very difficult. The capital of Tigray, Mekelle, has largely been spared the horrors inflicted on villages and small towns in other parts of the region. Still, this once dynamic town buzzing with cafes and trendy night life in the narrow streets of the old town, became eerily quiet due to curfew and fear.  The city now also must cater for thousands of internally displaced people who are housed in camps with massive problems around access to water and sanitation.

Humanitarian impacts

Despite calls by the international community to end the war and for Eritrean forces to withdraw, there was no negotiated and peaceful solution. At the time of writing, the Tigray Defense Force had fought back and regained control of Mekelle and some towns.  Regardless of the outcome, the humanitarian impacts on an already food insecure population dependent on aid are horrifying. As predicted back in November famine has been confirmed in Tigray by Mark Lowcock, UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief. About 350,000 people are affected and 1.7 million people have been displaced. The famine has been “intentional, systematic and widespread” and deployed as weapon of war.  Millions of Tigrayans need aid to survive and it is important that shipments are not blocked further by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.

The case of Tigray highlights how fragile peace can be in federation where power is distributed along ethnic lines. For researchers and practitioners it reveals how difficult it is to study and work towards water, food and livelihood security when peace cannot be guaranteed.  However, researchers and academics can and should speak up about these injustices. In this regard, the work by Prof Jan Nyssen from Ghent university who has organised an appeal and petition to raise awareness and mobilise support and action has been significant.

Earlier in the conflict our colleagues in Tigray believed a negotiated solution was possible and asked us to pray for peace but now it does seem now that many in Tigray wonder about their future in Ethiopia.  There are wider risks about the war spilling over to neighbouring countries and indeed Ethiopia’s fragile ethnic federation is also looking unstable.

It is imperative that the UN, African Union and governments all over the world to push for an immediate ceasefire and enable unfettered humanitarian access to prevent more suffering.  Also as argued by academic Kjetil Tronvoll the Nobel Committee should also resign for awarding  Abiy the 2019 peace prize and seriously reform how it decides future awards. Sadly, such international prizes only serve to embolden leaders like Abiy to pursue their genocidal campaigns.


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