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As A Tigrayan My Bond With Ethiopia Feels Beyond Repair – OpEd

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By Temesgen Kahsay*

We’re told the war is not with ordinary Tigrayans. Yet as thousands suffer and our compatriots remain silent, that’s how it feels.

As a child growing up in the then Ethiopian city of Asmara in the 1980s, my parents used to ask me what I wanted to be when I was older. My answer was always that I either wanted to be a fighter pilot or army general. The reason was simple. My father was a soldier in the Ethiopian army under the Derg regime and I too wanted to kill the nation’s “enemies”.

Growing up at that time of war, the sounds of rockets and bullets supplied the soundtrack of life and the state-controlled media provided the script for making sense of the world. I was taught to see the conflict in black and white, with good Ethiopian patriots on one side and the hateful rebels on the other.

I memorised war songs and wrote poems to honour war heroes. In the last days of the brutal Derg regime in 1991, I vividly remember crying as I held aloft the green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia.

What I didn’t know then is that the “enemies” my father had been fighting including his cousins and the children of our neighbours. The civil war cut deep into the social and cultural ties of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, often pitting members of the same families against each other. My father, from the Tigray region, had been battling members of his own ethnic group in the rebel Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

For my family, it was a precarious time to be Tigrayan and Ethiopian. Among supporters of the Derg regime, we were mistrusted because of our ethnicity and suspected of being agents of the TPLF. Among Tigrayans, we were seen as having betrayed our people by siding with the government. Like thousands of other families, we received abuse from different sides as we tried to juggle our ethnic and national identities.

In 1991, the repressive Derg regime was defeated. The TPLF effectively became the leaders of Ethiopia and the EPLF took control in Eritrea, which became an independent country. My family left Asmara for Addis Ababa where we lived in a refugee camp for the next ten years. The new government was not in any hurry to help the families of soldiers that had fought against it.

Everything in Ethiopia had changed, but our questions of belonging remained as complex as ever. As refugees from Eritrea, we were regarded as outsiders. But as Tigrayans, we were seen as beneficiaries of the new Tigrayan-dominated government.

For the next 27 years, the TPLF-led ruling coalition governed the country. It pursued a form of ethnic federalism that has led to growing ethnic consciousness and a weakening of pan-Ethiopian identity. Over time, however, popular resistance to Tigrayan domination and its undemocratic rule led to its demise amid huge protests.

In 2018, the ruling coalition selected a new leader. Abiy Ahmed, from the Oromia region, came to office promising hope, peace and unity. This did not last long. His relations broke down with the formerly powerful TPLF officials, who retreated to their home region. On 4 November 2020, Abiy declared war in Tigray.

The ongoing conflict has brought about another reckoning on what it means to Tigrayan in the larger body politic of Ethiopia. The war is happening in a context of resurging pan-Ethiopianism that has framed the TPLF as its archenemy. The government has portrayed its actions as a “law enforcement operation” against the TPLF and not a war against the people of Tigray, and yet this is how many people have experienced it.

Many Tigrayans support the TPLF, as seen in the result of the regional election in September 2020 which was seen as illegal by the federal government. Moreover, under the current “law enforcement operation” launched to capture the party’s top leaders, thousands of ordinary people have been killed or displaced. Meanwhile, many non-Tigrayans celebrated the capture of Tigray’s capital Mekelle and remained silent when the government obstructed aid reaching their compatriots. Ethnic profiling and harassment of Tigrayans is on the rise.

Some friends and family members whom I’ve known for a long time have come out supporting the war, despite the untold devastation and misery of countless families it has caused. My social ties have become thinner and thinner. In the face of emerging humanitarian crisis affecting ordinary Tigrayans, the deliberate attempt of the government to deny aid and the silence and the support of the majority of Ethiopians have eroded the sense of belonging to and identification I once had with Ethiopia.

One of the most painful aspects for me is that my father, who has always been a proud Ethiopian, has once again been condemned to suffering and isolation by the country for which he had sacrificed 28 years of his life. Personally, it feels impossible to be both Tigrayan and Ethiopian in the current situation. Because of the war and the responses of so many of my compatriots to the suffering of Tigrayans, the bond I had with Ethiopia feels broken beyond repair.

*The author is an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology. The following appeared first in ‘African Arguments’ on January 12, 2021.

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One thought on “As A Tigrayan My Bond With Ethiopia Feels Beyond Repair – OpEd

  • Avatar
    January 14, 2021 at 5:01 pm
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    Dear Temesgen,
    First and for most, I hear you–what is happening or had happed to ordinary ‘Tigrays’, is heartbreaking, to say the least. You and I share many similar past experience, e.g. grew up in Asmera, military family, relocation to Ethiopia post Eritrean liberation/independence, etc. Up to that point, we shared similar trauma. The problem for my family and millions of Ethiopians that considered themselves ‘Ethiopians’ first suffered heavily under TPLF. For the simple fact you spoke Tigrigna gave you legs up over the rest. My family which never declared to be Amara but consider Amara suffered all kind of humiliations. You can’t say you didn’t know about this. I left Ethiopia as a 15 year old after life in Ethiopia became unbearable for my parents and moved to a few countries, managed to complete my education in the West. Coincidentally, I became engaged in International Development and traveled to many parts of the world. So, let me give you another perspective to consider–external perspective. I met thousands of Ethiopians all over the glob. For example, do you know that there are over 20,000 girls/women in the Iraq region of Kurdistan–many serving as house maids and prostitutes. In Malta I met several men from Ethiopia telling harrowing stories of crossing Sahara, life/death in Libya, and now suffering racism in Malta. Ethiopians all over African prisons, in Tanzania I meet at least 2 thousand migrants in hellish like conditions…the same goes from Kenya all the way to South Africa. In short, it made me hate my Ethiopian identity because of what I witnessed everywhere I traveled, many defeated souls. To add insult to injury, the ethnic divide that chased them out from Ethiopia followed them to their new ‘refuge’. In Malta, for example, while most West African banned together to defend their human right, our keens man refuse to help each other because of ‘ethnic id’. In many occasions, I also met ‘Ethiopian diplomats’ in many of these countries–first most were Tigrays (no problem there but for most this brings up the question of equity) and second, they did not care for the plight of their country men…that I cannot understand; and third, most of the were embarrassingly clueless about the country they were appointed to represent. So, if you see me jumping in JOY it’s because of the demise of WOYANE or TPLF–selfish, mediocre, irresponsible bunch of thugs–don’t think I’m for the suffering of the average Tigray by any means. In short my brother, lets work for a better Ethiopia where you are counted as a person rather than your ‘ethnic’ make up. After all, no body in the world care about that. I’m for helping our sisters and brothers in the Northern parts of Ethiopia recover and rebuild.

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