Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

Ethnic Violence is Escalating in Ethiopia

On June 19th, reports began to emerge of a mass atrocity in the Ethiopian region of Oromia committed against members of the Amhara ethnic group. This latest attack fits into a broader pattern of ethnic violence in Ethiopia since the outbreak of civil war in November 2020.

Laetitia Bader is the Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. She contributed to a joint Human Rights Watch-Amnesty International report titled “We Will Erase You from This Land:  Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone.” The report finds evidence of an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayan people, which is occurring in the context of Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the State of Ethnic Violence in Ethiopia Today?

Laetitia Bader [00:02:59] It’s been very difficult to get information from that area. Now, Western Oromia has actually been the site of a lot of violence for almost three years now. There has been a very abusive counterinsurgency operation by both federal governments, but also regional government forces there. There have been other bouts of very large-scale attacks on minority communities, notably Amhara communities in Western Oromia in the last few years. So, these are unfortunately trends which have been happening for some time. This incident and the little information which has come out so far suggests that this is really a horrific and very large-scale attack, but it is happening in a context in which civilians, and this is both the Oromo population, but also the Amhara minority communities in Oromia, have been caught very much between a rock and a hard place between armed groups and also security forces. This is happening at a time where the events there have really fallen off the radar of the world. People have been ignoring Oromia more generally for the last two years, as a lot of the attention has been for very real reasons as well, on the very serious abuses which have been happening in the context of the conflict and in northern Ethiopia but the suffering of the communities and a lot of fear among the communities there has been very real. One of the trends we have repeatedly highlighted has been a context of impunity for bouts of previous violence against minority communities, but also attacks on the Oromo community there by security forces and also by armed groups there as well.

What happened in the recent attack of Amhara people in Oromia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:12] So if indeed this was a massacre of Amhara civilians perpetrated by Oromo armed groups, which is what is being reported and alleged at this point, it would fit into a broader pattern in the region.

Laetitia Bader [00:05:31] Yes. I mean, there has been a complexity to some of the attacks on the Amhara minority communities there in the past so it’s not the first large scale attack which has been blamed on the Oromo Liberation Army. They have denied involvement. This isn’t the first time. They’ve denied involvement in these abuses in the past, but there is very little information coming out of what happens there and so the complexity is key. And ensuring that there is a context in which there can be independent investigations is so critical as well because narratives play such a key part in shaping the mindsets of many communities. And I think making sure that there is a space in which you get to the truth is absolutely key to ensure there aren’t new cycles of grievances. So yes, it does fit into previous trends, but there have also been other types of attacks involving other actors. What is very clear is that civilians have not been protected. This is an area where for a long-time communication was actually shut off in early 2020. This was really at the time when COVID was really taking off and a lot of our concerns was that key public health messaging, because the government would shut off the communications in that area where they were undertaking often quite abusive counterinsurgency operations, comms had been shut off. And so not only was there very little information coming out on what was happening, but also communities there were not receiving critical security, but also health information at the time. So, this is this is a region within a region which has been neglected and civilians have paid a high price as a result.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:28] What will you be looking towards in the coming days to help you gather more information about what exactly happened and who might be responsible?

Laetitia Bader [00:07:41] I mean, obviously, given our human rights mandate, what’s key is understanding the trends in that area. Had there been any warning signs? Had security forces responded if they had come up? Had had there been moments when there could have been a response to better protect civilians? So, understanding what the needs and the demands of that community before the attack were happened is obviously key. But of course, understanding their current situation, testimonies of actually what happened in the attacks and understanding the cost. What are their requests? What are they asking for of the government and of others at a time when, you know, so many lives have been turned upside down?

What are the demographics of Western Tigray?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:32] So this recent incident, if indeed confirmed, would fit into a broader pattern of increasing ethnic violence in Ethiopia that’s accelerated since the outbreak of the conflict in Tigray in November 2020. We were scheduled to speak before news of this latest incident erupted about your report into abuses in Western Tigray. Could you situate Western Tigray for us, both geographically and demographically?

Laetitia Bader [00:09:08] So Western Tigray is on the border of the Tigray region with Eritrea and Sudan. This is actually a very fertile region. There’s a lot of sesame plantations there. There’s a lot of seasonal laborers coming from other parts of Tigray, but also the Amhara region and further afield that would come to this area in the key harvest seasons. So, this was in many ways quite a vibrant area, quite a fertile and wealthy area, but has also been an area which has been contested for decades.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:48] And what are the main ethnic groups that have resided in this area?

Laetitia Bader [00:09:56] I mean, predominantly there have been both ethnic Tigrayans, ethnic Amhara communities and also Wolkait communities which are much more of a mix and in many ways, there have been a range of definitions and self-identification both with the Amhara community and with the Tigrayan community and within their own communities as well. So, these are in many ways the key communities around which a lot of the contestation and the demands and the related abuses have been happening.

What does increased ethnic violence look like in Western Tigray?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:37] So take us back to November 2020 when the conflict in Tigray starts. How is this conflict experienced in Western Tigray specifically, where your report focused?

Laetitia Bader [00:10:51] Well Western Tigray is very much one of the first area where the conflict broke out. We traveled to Sudan in December 2020, so about one month after this conflict in Tigray had started and we mainly spoke to individuals and communities that had fled from Western Tigray and really kind of described how much their lives had been turned upside down in the space of a few days. No one was expecting what was about to happen. And so, some really incredible testimonies of, you know, an individual bathing in a lake, an individual in their kitchen cooking what they were about to eat when the fighting just completely caught them off guard. So, one of the first areas affected by the fighting and where the fighting broke out now very quickly in the space of a few weeks, the federal government forces with allied forces from the Amhara region and also militia from the Amhara region took control of Western Tigray, a lot of the special forces, of the Tigrayan forces and also local militia in towns in Western Tigray actually retreated very quickly from this area. And as we describe what then happened was very quickly Amhara regional officials and new administrations were established in Western Tigray going back to late November 2020 and December 2020.

What happened to Tigrayans in Ethiopia after Amhara forces took control of Western Tigray in 2020?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:35] So whereas previously this area was administered by the TPLF, that entity had been defeated on the battlefield, so to speak, and had retreated to other parts of Tigray. So, Amhara forces took control. What then happened to ethnic Tigrayans living under this new administrative control?

Laetitia Bader [00:13:00] So what we found — and we really started to document the waves of abuses and so our report looks at what has been 15 months of different waves of what we have found to be an ethnic cleansing campaign — is a very organized series of very serious crimes. So, we documented sexual violence against Tigrayan communities there, expropriation of land and property, mass roundups of Tigrayans of all walks of life, and what our reporting really highlights is this wasn’t just happening in one or two towns. The abuses were rolled out in a very organized fashion by the administration and the security forces in Western Tigray across at least 14 towns so a really large geographic area. And what we found was that these measures, so they also included denying Tigrayans to speak Tigrayan in the streets and signs in Tigrayan were removed in the streets, people’s property was taken away from them, Tigrayans were denied the little humanitarian assistance, the food, that was coming into this zone was distributed by the Federal Government’s Main Food Assistance Agency, and that was being denied to Tigrayans at a time where they were also losing all their other means of survival. They were denied new administration I.D. cards, which made it very difficult for them to move around. I mean, imagine this was very much a period where very militarized checkpoints everywhere and you have this community increasingly living in fear and unable to move around. Massive sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, especially of Tigrayan men, but also boys, and what we really started to document from late December 2020 was an organized, forced expulsions of Tigrayans. And this is really when we started to see hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans from Western Tigray arriving in other parts of Tigray. So that happened in two ways. Many thousands of Tigrayans were forcibly expulsed directly from detention facilities. So, as I was describing, you had the federal government forces, the Amhara forces, that were sweeping Tigrayans into these informal formal detention facilities throughout that area.

Who is enacting the ethnic violence in Western Tigray and across Ethiopia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:47] Basically just like big open-air prisons.

Laetitia Bader [00:15:50] A mixture. Some were warehouses, some were homes, some were police stations, some were prison. So, a real mixture of different security forces controlling different detention facilities.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:04] But you do have evidence that it was an alliance of the Amhara regional forces and the federal government that were participating in this mass roundup.

Laetitia Bader [00:16:14] Absolutely. I mean, in our report, we document the specific abuses we found in which the federal government forces were involved, I mean, especially war crimes that were committed in the first two months. But federal government forces have been involved and participated in the mass roundups, which continued for over 15 months, but also in the forced expulsions. So, what we saw were those thousands of people from detention facilities being put in buses and basically bussed away from their land. But we also saw what is coerced expulsions where people’s lives were made so, so difficult, the intimidation, the ongoing killings, the sexual violence, the ethnic slurs that were being on a daily basis, they were warnings. They were basically warnings being made in town halls by the new administration saying Tigrayans have to leave. This is not land belonging to Tigrayans. There were leaflets that were appearing on the streets of several towns at the same time. And so, you also then saw organized bussing. So, people, the administration were actually putting forward busses that, of course, people then had to pay for to actually be bused to other parts of Tigray. And so, this organized, forced expulsion was very central to this ethnic cleansing campaign. And I think it is important to underline here, this is a government organized ethnic cleansing campaign, which is very different in many ways to bouts of ethnic violence, which are involving non-state actors, armed groups. This was a state orchestrated campaign against a particular population.

How is the Ethiopian government cleansing Western Tigray of ethnic Tigrayans?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:59] Are there any individual stories you could share from your reporting that are illustrative of this organized campaign? What were victims of this campaign telling you, telling other human rights researchers about what happened to them as individuals?

Laetitia Bader [00:18:24] I mean, there were a whole range of themes that came up again and again. I mean, one was how dehumanized people felt and especially those who were held in these mass detention facilities. I mean, the waves of detention have continued to date and in many ways it’s one of the biggest concerns we have is that we believe hundreds, if not thousands of Tigrayans are still detained. And what we found was that the conditions in those detention facilities were deteriorating. Individuals would describe how they were being denied increasingly access to food. They were increasingly being beaten. They were being told, you know, the most dehumanizing things within the context of this kind of ethnic hatred and slurs and we had testimonies of individuals starting to question whether they were humans, given what they were being told and the way they were being treated and the way they were being made to feel. You know, I interviewed an old man who was actually rounded up in one of the later phases that we documented. So, these roundups continued into November, December through to January this year. And an old man of 70 was picked up in Woomera town purely for being a Tigrayan and he was brought to a detention facility in Woomera town where we know of at least two facilities where hundreds if not more of people are still being detained. And he was held there. He was so badly beaten; he saw two other older men beaten to death in the two weeks he was in those detention facilities. And he told me he believes the only reason he was eventually freed and actually put on a bus and expulsed into other parts of Tigray was because they thought he was about to die. And so horrible, dehumanizing stories. I think his story in many ways is just so illustrative of the ongoing suffering of this community. He was actually bused across the Tekeze river, which is seen as the natural boundary between Western Tigray and other parts of Tigray. He then ended up in a displaced persons camp, which was then hit by a drone strike. And so, I was speaking to him not only because of his experience in Western Tigray Zone to understand how he’d ended up in this displaced people’s camp, but also as a survivor of a horrific drone strike which killed dozens of people who had just been forcibly expelled as part of this ethnic cleansing campaign.

Why was there a drone strike taken out on a displaced persons camp in Tigray?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:11] And this was a drone strike on a displaced persons camp.

Laetitia Bader [00:21:15] Yes.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:16] So deliberately targeting civilians.

Laetitia Bader [00:21:19] There are absolutely real questions about why. The victims were predominantly women, children, very young children, and elderly people, because what we were seeing in Western Tigray at the time was it was mainly older people and women with young children who were basically being forcibly expulsed, whereas boys of the age of 15 through to 50-year-old men were being detained. And so, these were the people in that displaced camp, which was targeted on what was an Orthodox Christian Christmas night while they were sleeping.

Why is the government of Ethiopia engaging in an ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:03] So what you’ve described to me is not the spontaneous eruption of communal violence, but as you described, a really organized campaign of ethnic cleansing on the part of the government in partnership with the Amhara regional forces. What would you suspect is the perhaps strategic logic for organizing this kind of ethnic cleansing campaign? Why would the government want to do this?

Laetitia Bader [00:22:41] This has been an area which has been contested for decades and when the conflict started, this area was given very much, and the Amhara regional forces and administration were given the opportunity to establish an administration in this zone. This was happening in a context where communications had been shut off. There was very little information coming out from Tigray as a whole. There were serious abuses happening in other parts of Tigray at the time as well, but Western Tigray Zone was also one where there were very, very few independent eyes on the ground. There was a very little humanitarian presence in the area and so this also created a context which was conducive to rolling out this organized policy and these abuses.

What is happening in Tigray today?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:47] So there has been mass displacement, a massive humanitarian crisis that has unfolded throughout Tigray since November 2020. Can you just describe the state of the conflict today?

Laetitia Bader [00:24:03] At the moment there are areas where there are still and there have been continued skirmishes over recent months. We are still talking about a situation in which there are massive humanitarian needs, real issues around humanitarian access. Now, this is predominantly for the Tigray region, where for almost a year now the government has been effectively ceding the region. So, since April, we have definitely seen an increase in goods and supplies, humanitarian goods and supplies which were allowed into the region, but services are still cut off. And this remains a policy and a strategy of harm against civilians in that area. So, we are still seeing massive suffering. Some of the key trends which all warring parties have committed in northern Ethiopia have been widespread sexual violence, but also targeted attacks and deliberate attacks on health care. We saw this very clearly and starkly in the first nine months of the conflict in the Tigray region. We’ve seen similar patterns in the Amhara region in late 2021, but also in the Afar region. Now that has an ongoing and long-term impact on communities in these areas, even when the fighting isn’t happening. So, we really are talking about a context of massive need. We have seen directly how the lack of accountability for these abuses have resulted in new cycles of abuses, of reprisal attacks by Tigrayan forces against other forces because of the behavior in Tigray so really talking about a context of ongoing suffering.

What can the international community do to support the end of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:19] So is there anything sort of realistic that the international community can do at this point to both support accountability for ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes that have been committed in the context of the Tigray conflict and also anything more the international community can be doing to support both increased access to besieged regions and also support a more comprehensive cessation of hostilities or peace agreement?

Laetitia Bader [00:26:54] So let’s start with Western Tigray Zone, because in many ways the needs there are quite specific. In the report we identify three individuals with command responsibility roles and also involvement in direct participation in the crimes we documented in this report. So, it is absolutely essential that the international community is calling for investigations and serious prosecutions for the crimes they have committed. They have overseen and continued to oversee these abuses, and their ongoing involvement and presence in the region is contributing to harm there. So, both in terms of calling for investigations, accountability, but also taking measures such as individual targeted sanctions against these individuals, there can be no business as usual by the international community with individuals such as those. And at the same time, there are absolutely pressing protection needs so it’s key for the international community to continue to press for there to be independent actors able to access detention facilities. As I described, the conditions in the detention facilities deteriorated in the second half of last year. We believe the crimes and the abuses there could amount to the crime of extermination and so that is an absolute need. Given that this is an area where there is likely to be a protracted political process which needs to happen, it’s also absolutely key that there is a protection presence in the area. So that can happen in many ways. First of all, there needs to be a much stronger humanitarian presence there to ensure that all communities, and we’re not only talking about Tigrayans, but others as well, are accessing assistance, but a presence which is really protection led and where there is stringent oversight. The international community needs to make sure that assistance going into Western Tigray Zone is not further instrumentalized in this ethnic cleansing campaign. But we’ve also said that as part of any negotiated settlement among the warring parties, there should be an agreement to deploy an A.U. led protection force to this area. There are real, concrete physical protection needs.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:35] Basically peacekeepers from the African Union would be a useful way to protect civilians under threat?

Laetitia Bader [00:29:45] Absolutely. So, we’ve called for an A.U. led peacekeeping force, which would obviously need to have significant international support and participation, if possible, as well and it would play several roles. It would play a physical protection role. It should be playing a monitoring role. It could also help facilitate independent, unfettered humanitarian access into that area as well. One of the issues that came up in a lot of our discussions with the Tigrayans who had been cleansed from this area was, not across the board, I would say, you know, younger generations were feeling very angry and more reluctant to return home, but many of them want to return home. And so, it’s going to be absolutely critical that there is a safe environment and a conducive environment for them to return to. I mean, more broadly, it is absolutely key that international pressure doesn’t press for humanitarian access as a confidence building measure and we’ve really seen that shift in the last few months unfortunately. Last year, the call for humanitarian access to Tigray was very much put forward as a priority in itself but increasingly, the messaging has shifted and humanitarian access in many ways has been instrumentalized as a political tool when it isn’t. It is a responsibility of the warring parties to allow access. It is a responsibility of the Ethiopian federal government to be allowing populations on its territory to have access to assistance. And one final point there, I mean, humanitarian convoys and trucks getting in themselves are not going to resolve the massive humanitarian needs in Tigray right now, it is also absolutely critical for services to be restored. A lot of civil servants in the region haven’t received salaries in over a year. The banking system has been cut off. And so, it means there are also categories of the population there that have really been pushed over the edge because of the shutdown of basic services.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:15] Well, Laetitia, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time and for your indispensable reporting.

Laetitia Bader [00:32:25] Thank you very much.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:30] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Laetitia Bader for taking time to speak with me. And we scheduled this interview before news of that new mass atrocity broke in Oromia and I was very glad that she was able to offer us some context for helping us understand that event as we learn more about it in the coming days and weeks. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!