On 28th June, Tigrayan fighters regained control of the regional capital of Mekelle in Tigray, Ethiopia, after nearly eight months of violent conflict. The seizure of the capital prompted the declaration of a ceasefire by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – an announcement Tigrayan leaders have dismissed as a “joke".

As fighting continues between the Tigray Defence Forces and Amhara militia, amid reports of the mobilising of all able-bodied Amhara and troops amassing once more across the border in Eritrea, it is even more important that the international community keeps a keen eye on the situation in the region, and that those responsible for the egregious crimes of the last eight months must be held to account.

Ethiopia Tigray IDP camp

A camp for displaced people in Tigray, Ethiopia. PICTURE: Josh Brown/CSW.

As has been widely reported, on 4th November, 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front forces in response to an attack on a federal army base which the Tigrayan authorities insist was pre-emptive. Information is emerging increasingly that supports the TPLF’s conversion of events.  

Prime Minister Abiy’s order sparked months of violent conflict during which consistent reports emerged of egregious human rights violations which appear to bear the hallmarks of crimes against humanity and genocide.  These violations have largely been attributed to soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, whose leader Isais Afewerki had long held a vendetta against the TPLF dating back to the border war of 1998 and beyond. Eritrean soldiers have been repeatedly identified as responsible for extensive killings, looting and destruction, and for the forcible return of thousands of Eritrean refugees who had fled their repressive government.

"As fighting continues between the Tigray Defence Forces and Amhara militia, amid reports of the mobilising of all able-bodied Amhara and troops amassing once more across the border in Eritrea, it is even more important that the international community keeps a keen eye on the situation in the region, and that those responsible for the egregious crimes of the last eight months must be held to account."

Reports indicate that Eritrean troops may have mostly withdrawn from the region, although fighting continues in border areas. On 13th July, the TDF reportedly liberated Tigray’s southern border. The outlook is grim, however, for the individuals who have been forcibly returned to the country. Recaptured refugees in Eritrea typically face lengthy imprisonment in inhumane and life threatening conditions, and can be often subjected to torture or even extrajudicial execution. 

There is a similarly concerning picture for the citizens who remain in Tigray. The threat of renewed intensity in the fighting looms large, and on 2nd July, UN officials warned that over 400,000 people are currently in famine, with a further 1.8 million on the brink of famine. Two million people are believed to be displaced, with over five million people, the majority of whom are women and children, in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, which the Ethiopian government continues to hinder despite having rebranded the defeat and hasty retreat of its forces as being a ‘unilateral humanitarian ceasefire.’

There is also the matter of the extensive trauma experienced by Tigrayan civilians over the past eight months. In particular, women and girls in the region have been subjected to a campaign of sexual violence described as being of “a level of cruelty beyond comprehension". While the total number of victims is unknown, one organisation asserts that 10,000 would be a “conservative estimate.”



These are wounds that will take decades and lifetimes to heal, described in an open letter by a group of 56 women from Africa and the diaspora as causing an “incalculable physical, emotional, and psychological damage...to an entire people group".

In regaining Mekelle and other parts of Tigray, the Tigrayan people have shown incredible strength against seemingly insurmountable odds. The international community, who until now has taken disappointingly limited action to address the crisis, must now prioritise their protection as a matter of urgency.

First, humanitarian assistance must be channelled into the region to tackle one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of recent times. As well as this, a ceasefire must be instituted along with the verified withdrawal of all forces from Tigray. Violations must be investigated in an independent manner, and perpetrators must be held accountable.  Including the leaders of both Ethiopia and Eritrea who bear responsibility for crimes committed by those under their command.

 

Finally, steps must be taken to ensure that refugees who remain in Ethiopia suffer no repercussion, and have an opportunity to move to safer third country to await the outcome of their cases if they so wish.  This means that the recent decision of the UN Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the country is essential, not only to monitor their wellbeing, but also to hold Eritrea accountable for violations committed against its people.

As citizens, it is easy to feel powerless when presented with such a devastating picture, however we must remember that we serve a God of breakthrough whose hand we have already seen in the recent turn of events. It is with this reminder that we can pray these famous verses from the Book of Amos over Tigray today: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" - Amos 5:24.

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW.