Tigray: Fears of Escalating Violations

In the aftermath of the military defeats suffered by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Tigray there is an immediate high risk of reprisals against civilians.

Last week the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) took the strategic offensive for the first time and destroyed an ENDF force of approximately 15,000 men and captured significant amounts of heavy equipment. One divisional commander was killed and one was captured. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, a veteran of many battles, described the scene afterwards as ‘horrific.’ Raw recruits had been sent into battle, told that they should fight to the death, and many continued resisting long after an experienced soldier would have surrendered or fled.

Every one of Mulugeta’s reports over the last six months has been proven correct factually. I have every reason to believe this one.

In the wake of defeat such as this there is heightened danger of vengeful and frightened soldiers turning on civilians. Routed troops are a high risk for perpetrating violence against civilians, especially if they suspect those civilians of supporting their adversaries. A civilian witness from Hagere Selam tells of five local people being killed by soldiers and the straw for feeding farm animals being burned.

Medical staff in Mekelle are very nervous; in the past when soldiers have arrived at hospitals with their wounded comrades, they are angry and jittery, demanding at gunpoint that doctors treat them at once. The doctors are Tigrayan and know that if they displease the soldiers, or the patient dies, they are at risk.

The airforce is flying sorties over the rural areas and bombing from a high altitude, almost at random.

As the TDF consolidates its control over Tembien it will bring more and more rural communities under its direct control. This is the poorest part of Tigray where many people are starving. The need for humanitarian access across the battle lines has become even more urgent.

Photo: At home, Tigray, Ethiopia, Rod Waddington (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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