The purpose of this article, and that published in May is to provide evidence that increasingly reveals the logic underpinning recent events in Ethiopia by drawing the reader’s attention to little known crimes against innocent civilians, not so much to chronicle some of them as to expose the agenda directing them. I also hope to contribute to more awareness concerning these civilians who have, since 2018, been slaughtered and displaced, and given little or no notice.
There has been a degree of confusion in the media in recent months regarding attacks on civilians outside of Tigray Region. These have been expressed in terms of a “spill-over” from the war in Tigray. In reality, there have been numerous victims around Ethiopia since 2018, and especially right through 2019 to 2020. Ever since it lost its control over Ethiopia in 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has found ways to undermine the country by assisting other destructive forces with weaponry, communications equipment and personnel.
Since my previous article, local sources have continued to report much slaughter of Amhara and other civilians by the Oromo Liberation Front’s (OLF’s) military wing, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and by the TPLF. It is vital to keep in mind that these fronts are made up of only a fraction of Oromo and Tigray, though they have the capacity to multiply their followers through propaganda, harassment and force. It is also important to be clear that Oromia and Tigray regions have a variety of ethnic groups; they are not populated by Oromo and Tigray only.
It might be imagined that in Ethiopia ‘remote’ ethnic groups can lay claim to some degree of “ethnic purity”, but even they are ethnically mixed through centuries of ritualized and/or socio-political exchange with their neighbours. Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, not least such large ones as the Oromo and Amhara, have long been heavily mixed. But that reality is covered up when ethnic-based hate speech is to the fore, as it has been recently in Ethiopia, and the false assumption is espoused that prosperity can be built through an imagined ethnic homogeneity, a project that Hitler tried so disastrously. The founding fathers of African independence knew the dangers of ethnic exclusivity, of tribalism, when they called for unity in their nations (for example “One Zambia, One Nation”). Museveni of Uganda once advised Meles Zenawi to put national unity first, and ethnicity a distant second. Meles had neither the wisdom nor interest to do so. Yet Ethiopia had existed for millennia without politicizing ethnicity.
When Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali returned with his Nobel Peace Prize, he said he wished to share it with the President of Eritrea, Isaias Aferwerki (or Afwerki). Was the peace he had made with Eritrea partly a reward for Isaias’s long protection of OLF? Did Abiy calculate that his relationship with Isaias might prove a resource for restraining TPLF from threatening his position as Prime Minister?
Since Abiy came to power in 2018 and invited OLF to return to Ethiopia, over 2,000 Guji-Oromo have been killed by OLA, some recently. Not all Oromo support ethnic politics, and many peaceful Oromo have been imprisoned for that reason by the Oromia authorities. In September 2021 OLA killed and displaced people in the Goumaydé area, just south of Lake Chamo, Southern Region, and on the night of 7/8 November it burned a village there, killing inhabitants – others fled.
In Oromia Region’s East Wellega Administrative Zone (Zone for short) in western Ethiopia, 300 or more displaced Amhara were slaughtered by OLA on 21 August 2021. In a sequence of events that has been too common to be a coincidence, this happened the day after security forces were removed. At other times, as mentioned in my previous article, security forces simply refuse to intervene, on the pretext that they have not been told to do so. The 300 victims had taken refuge in a forest. The government remained silent, as usual, further implying ongoing complicity.
Four days later came news that 400 displaced civilians (IDPs, Internally Displaced Persons) were killed in East Wellega Zone, part of a group of over 40,000 displaced Amhara trying to shelter from OLA attacks. On the same day there was a separate attack on Amhara worshipping in two churches. There have frequently been desperate calls for help from among the displaced Amhara of East Wellega. Few if any journalists are able to operate there; almost the only direct information available to them comes from those under threat who are still able to use mobile phones.
A brief exception to the pall of silence (‘a voice in the wilderness’) was a witness to the UN Human Rights Council who said on 13 September that “Amhara women and children are being killed and their villages are looted both by TPLF and government forces….Amhara farming families are victims of killings and lootings in non-war zones of Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia. Elderly people and babies have been massacred in these regions. Today over 2 million Amharas are displaced throughout the country. They are living without any assistance from the government nor from the international community.”
On or about 20 September a leader of OLF/OLA was royally received at Bole Airport by top Federal ministers. Around that time Abiy’s party, the governing Prosperity Party (PP), which runs Oromia Region, told OLA they would be given amnesty if they agreed to work together with PP. The Administrator of East Wellega Zone, on whose watch massacres by OLA happened, was appointed head of security for the whole of Oromia Region.
People have lost hope that the Oromo-dominated Federal Government will do anything effective for the 40,000 IDPs in East Wellega. The government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) gives their number as 43,139. By 13 September OLA had forbidden the IDPs to leave the isolated forested area, and left them to starve. OLA severely damaged the roads that were people’s only route to escape or down which succour might come. Long deprived, some were already dying from starvation two days later, but there seemed to be little in the international media in English on this huge unfolding crime.
On 17 September 2021 came news from the sole survivor of 18 women who had ventured out looking for food. The other 17 had been slaughtered by OLA. Two days later ten people were put in a house and burned alive. 100 were butchered on 21 September. EHRC produced a report that was very inadequate, but perhaps better than nothing. Just as the government since 2018 has referred to ‘inter-communal clashes’, so EHRC uses the expression ‘communal violence’ – sanitised phrases for massacres of unarmed civilians by armed OLA.
On 10 October a caller from East Wellega said there were too many scattered bodies for him to count. No one is allowed to bury the dead. Local Oromo who try to protect Amhara are targeted, a parallel with those Hutu who bravely protected Tutsi in Rwanda. By 14 October OLA had been shooting the 40,000 Amhara IDPs for five consecutive days. On 13 October a women who spoke to a journalist by mobile phone said she accepted she would be killed, but pleaded for the children and elderly to be saved, which has not been the practice so far. Journalists who got through to local authorities were insulted or had their call closed abruptly. On 14 October a phone call to a local official from one of the 40,000 IDPs pleaded for the government to save them. The only response was ‘Why are you bothering me about that?’ By 3 November these IDPs were starving to death in increasing numbers, and the wounded had been dying from infections, for they had no access to medical care.
Elsewhere in East Wollega, on 18 October OLA shot a large group of Amhara. A call from those being killed said the number of dead could be over 1,000. On 5 November OLA killed all five members of a household in the same zone. Knowing OLA’s prohibition on burying the dead, relatives went to the official authorities to get permission, only to be told “Consider yourselves lucky not to have been killed too.”
On 3 November a caller from Dibate in Benishangul-Gumuz said Amhara were being killed in small batches – as if to keep the genocide there below the radar. “We are just waiting our turn. There is no one to defend us. Is this not our country? Where else can we go?” He said some, when going by bus to Chagni (about 75km north-east), were stopped and had to show their IDs. When the IDs revealed they were Amhara, the men’s heads were severed, and the women were taken away.
In October the administrator of a district in East Wellega was heard saying “I will happily die after I have finished off all Amhara in my area.” Countrywide, is the government in league with OLA, despite the rhetoric and actions of government and OLA giving the impression that they are mutual enemies? With ‘nods and winks’ between them, are PP and OLA willing to sacrifice some of their own low-level recruits to make it appear that there is no coordination between them?
A document in Amharic purporting to come from Afendi Muteko has recently come to light. He provides two lists. One has the founders of OLF, including Lencho Leta and Dawud Ibsa. The other list starts with the words “The founders of OLA are me, Afendi Muteko, and Jawar Mohammed, Kumsa Diriba [also known as Jaal Marroo]….” In this list Afendi gives a further seven OLA founders. It was Kumsa who, as OLA leader, made public a political and military alliance between OLA and TPLF. Referring to OLA, Afendi adds, “Those who sponsored us are Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megersa.” Lemma is a former Defence Minister and a former President of Oromia Region.
In September 2021 it was reported that OLA had set up a camp near Bati to train a force of 3,000 so as to be able to take Kombolcha and Dessie cities in South Wollo Zone. On 12 October local civil militia captured members of OLA. When they reported this to the government they were surprised to be told to leave them alone as “They are on our side.” The authorities sent a vehicle to collect these OLA members.
The 40,000 or more Amhara IDPs in East Wellega certainly no longer have any illusion that they can trust the government. Death from starvation is increasing. When the well-fed salaried Oromia Region’s Special Forces turned up in their midst on 12 October they ordered the starving IDPs to feed them. The people’s response was to flee at once for their lives into the forest. Before the Special Forces (who are under PP of course) withdrew they handed over weapons to the OLA. On 19 October there was another report of Amhara being burned alive. On 31 October a group of 70 Amhara IDPs were reported surrounded by OLA in a forest in East Wellega. On 7 November many Amhara were killed in the zone.
This genocidal process has continued on a daily basis, not only in Wellega, but in Benishangul-Gumuz Region (especially in Metekel Zone), Afar Region, and Amhara Region (mainly North Wollo, South Wollo, North Shewa zones and the zones of Gonder.) It has also begun since October 2021 in Gojam zones in Amhara Region where some members of a community-based civilian force, the Fano, were arrested. Is this just a coincidence? Perhaps, but the authorities have expressed nervousness, given the Fano’s popularity, acumen, integrity and valour. They also tried to limited the Fano to kalashnikovs, at best, against far superior weapons. By 18 October OLA was displacing people at Dima in East Gojam Zone.
On 28 October fighting was reported in Benishangul-Gumuz Region, where OLA, TPLF and Gumuz fighters have long cooperated with each other. Some days earlier many soldiers (“countless”) had been seen on the move in the region. As of 11 November militia sent by Amhara Region to protect Amhara in Benishangul-Gumuz were in prison, and there were still daily killings of Amhara in Benishangul-Gumuz, as well as in the East Wellega Zone of Oromia Region.
On 14 October in North Shewa Zone, the Amhara regional government (under PP) delivered by vehicle 600 kalashnikovs to OLA, in fact to the very men who had destroyed the mainly Amhara town of Ataye in March 2021, when they killed many and displaced the rest. When asked why they were arming OLA, the answer was “Because we were told to.” On 18 October OLA burned many houses is West Shewa Zone. On 28 October, vehicles unexpectedly arrived at Majete (a small town in North Shewa) carrying 300 youth from Arsi (in Oromia Region). This appears to be part of PP’s plan to insert more Oromo into Amhara Region. Each person came with an official paper. On 10 November TPLF entered the town and massacred many inhabitants. A witness said it killed first the leading members of the community, and then others. She knew personally twenty of those murdered. OLA was doing the same in the surrounding countryside. The woman added “The government had done nothing to help us; rather it seems that it wants us to be killed.”
On 18 October people were burned alive in the east of North Wollo. On 19 October four commandeered UN trucks full of TPLF reinforcements were seen arriving in North Wollo. TPLF has been massively involved in killing, looting and destruction not only in Amhara Region but also in Afar Region and elsewhere. Local people have seen long columns of UN aid trucks commandeered for these TPLF operations in Gonder, where TPLF’s shocking behaviour has included killing the mentally handicapped when it happened to come across them. On 12 September the President of Amhara Region enumerated the huge infrastructural destruction by TPLF in his region. Hospitals, clinics, health posts, schools – many hundreds of public service institutions were left looted and ruined. Such destruction has continued. On 28 October the Deputy Director of the Education Department of North Wollo said TPLF had destroyed 832 schools in the zone, with the result that over 330,600 pupils had been unable to start the new academic year. Even those expecting to sit for their secondary school leaving certificate could not do so.
The slaughter of Amhara by TPLF at Chenna Teklehaimanot in North Gonder Zone has been widely reported. In one case, two little children were playing outside, near the back of their house. They saw TPLF coming and ran towards the house. Before they could reach it, they were both killed with machetes. Their horrified mother saw this from inside the house. She took her one-week old baby and fled into the forest. When her husband returned from market, he found the two little bodies. The head of the elder child, a daughter aged five, had been severed. There was no sign of his wife and baby, who he eventually found alive. As usual, TPLF looted the village and area, taking all they could, even the chickens. Youth were forced to carry the loot until they reached the vehicles. Then they were shot. In the parish church, clergy were forced to sing sacred songs, and were then killed, with their hands tied behind their backs.
On 10 September there was news of a massacre by TPLF in Lasta (an area in North Wollo). As at Mai Kedra in Gonder in November, TPLF wiped out a whole village. In various places, TPLF has been shooting livestock that are too many to take. OLA shot livestock in southern Gojam in early September.
By 13 September there were many hungry people in Wollo. There had been almost no food aid deliveries. In one area when some food aid was being delivered a woman was crushed and died in the stampede, but all the food was taken by local officials; the starving were left empty handed. Similarly on 15 September there were reports from Benishangul-Gumuz Region that emergency food brought by the Red Cross for the starving was stolen by local officials.
In North Wollo a local woman reported on 17 September that TPLF had tight control, and people had not been allowed out of their houses. As it was towards the end of the main rainy season, they could no longer collect enough water from their roofs, and food was finished. In her village, 3 people who went to look for food and water were shot dead. She heard that at least 600 residents had been killed in Kobo town by TPLF since its arrival there. By 19 September the figure had risen to 800. TPLF distributed machetes to its soldiers in the zone.
The then Amhara regional president said many districts in his region were fully occupied by TPLF. He also said that he did not know the whereabouts of 5 million Amhara. This remark drew criticism concerning his competency to know what was happening in his region. His successor is widely considered a lackey of Abiy. The President of Tigray Region, Debretsion Gebremichael, has repeatedly declared that TPLF is taking revenge against the Amhara. How were ordinary Amhara farming families responsible for what happened in Tigray? Thirty years of TPLF attacks on Amhara civilians have come to a climax. TPLF prisoners say they were told that when entering an area they should kill all Amhara, loot their property and destroy their homes, taking or destroying their crops and livestock, as well as looting and destroying the infrastructure serving them (schools, clinics, etc.).
In Weldiya (capital of North Wollo) military trainees said they were trained for 6 weeks and then told to fight, but were given no weapons. So they could not defend the town and had to flee like everyone else. TPLF, bristling with sophisticated weapons, took over Weldiya, Kobo, Lalibela, in fact all of North Wollo. Lalibela airport became a TPLF camp. Perhaps Wollo, or indeed most of Ethiopia, is to be shared out between TPLF and OLF/OLA. On 24 October “countless” TPLF soldiers were seen arriving in North Wollo. TPLF sent anyone they could, including the elderly and children – even below age ten. The top leaders aim to stay safe, and their family members live comfortably abroad. On 7 November in Dawunt District, North Wollo, TPLF destroyed a village, slaughtering many. On 27 October a woman reported from her house in Wag Hamera Zone, Amhara Region, that the surrounding area was covered in corpses killed by TPLF, On 9 November another TPLF attack in Wag Hamera was reported in which civilians were killed and an Orthodox archbishop, who had been distributing aid in his diocese, was taken away.
By 28 October TPLF had artillery trained on Dessie, capital of South Wollo Zone, after taking strategic nearby hills, something they had been promising to do. Five shells landed in Dessie, three near a secondary school. A man was killed and seven were wounded. Vast numbers of IDPs have been sheltering in Dessie. New IDPs from North Wollo spoke of massive organized rape by TPLF soldiers in their zone.
Headed by the Prime Minister and his Deputy, the pathetic tone of the Bahir Dar security meeting of 29 October and of subsequent statements effectively declared that the government could not do any more to stop TPLF. ‘Could not,’ or ‘does not want’ to stop TPLF until OLA and TPLF have overrun Amhara Region? The government limply tells ordinary citizens to defend themselves by whatever means they can. This is reminiscent of when, over a year ago, Abiy was visiting southern Ethiopia, and in a meeting he was asked to help because people were in fear for their lives due to insecurity in the local area. His answer was “Do you expect the Prime Minister to organize militia for you?”
That was certainly not the answer expected from any responsible and concerned head of government, and could encourage chaos. It has been obvious for a long time that Abiy and his top people do not understand the responsibilities that come with governing. Abiy has certainly made it plain that he wants to hold onto his prime ministerial chair, but he seems to want power without responsibility. He has missed the key point: if he had governed with the attitude that people expect of a leader his position would have been greatly enhanced.
As has been its practice elsewhere, the government withdrew its Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) from Dessie on the morning of 30 October. Instead of informing their allies, the Fano, they told them to go to the nearby hills to control TPLF. When people in Dessie told the Fano of the departure of ENDF and the arrival of some TPLF, they returned, surrounded these TPLF and killed most of them. Among, and mixed in with, the many long-established Tigray inhabitants there has been a well-armed fifth column, which guided the artillery in its targeting (of, for example, hotels). It then guided the oncoming TPLF on what and who to target as they took Dessie. The Fano, relatively small in numbers and weapons, were forced out, but, as local people rallied to them, by 6 November TPLF in Wollo was facing a severed supply line – the main road was cut north of Weldiya. On 10 November this was still the case when a very large convoy of trucks bearing loot and heading towards Mekelle was blocked.
TPLF repeatedly used a fifth column method in the towns it took, often starting by getting its secret supporters to tell their non-Tigray neighbours that they should flee as the town was about to fall. Many would leave, including ENDF, and the town would fall like a ripe fruit. It is as if ENDF is a phantom army. It stays to give people a false sense of security, only to leave at the critical moment as though to leave the inhabitants as easy prey. On 1 November it was the turn of Kombolcha (20 kms south of Dessie) to be abandoned by ENDF. The government correctly accused TPLF of collecting 100 youths from their families and executing them, but it was the government itself that had left them to their fate. Soon TPLF murdered another 300 civilians, including Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean origin, some of whose families have lived in Kombolcha for many generations.
Some of what has happened in Dessie and Kombolcha is already fairly well known. What may be less known is that TPLF’s looting in these towns has included bringing their own mechanics to dismantle and take away industrial machinery. TPLF is using an armada of trucks to carry away their loot, which includes goods from even small shops. Dessie and Kombolcha have been the industrial hub of Amhara Region.
TPLF and OLA may have linked up in a joint operation extending well beyond these towns. Before heading to Addis Ababa, TPLF and OLA are spreading their tentacles ever wider in Amhara Region. For many months OLA has eyed the capital. There have lately been indications that control of it is a point of contention between OLA and TPLF.
The unspeakable crimes of OLA and TPLF are far beyond the ken of ordinary Ethiopians, who traditionally have had high ethical standards. For many Ethiopians these fighters, or mass killers, must be possessed by the Devil and his cohorts. Indeed, the degree of depravity is unprecedented and unrecognizable in Ethiopian history. Is it another Hitler’s Holocaust, Cambodia (1975-79), Yugoslavia (when breaking up) and Rwanda (1994) all over again?
Is a hidden ‘logic’, a hidden agenda spilling its contents: PP, OLF/OLA and TPLF hell-bent on eliminating the Amhara by all means – slaughtering them, taking their lands, and stealing or destroying their property? A little told tragedy of ongoing genocide against 30 million human beings, who, along with other all-but ignored groups (e.g. the Konso), are left without the right to survive in their own country, and fewer and fewer means to do so. On top of all its killing, looting and destruction of physical infrastructure in Amhara Region, and its disruption of agricultural work, TPLF has burned a third of the crops, and stolen a vast amount of them. Throughout much of Ethiopia any surviving Amhara will face a prolonged struggle to regain normal life.
In the minds of many Ethiopians, matters have gone so far that only divine intervention can return the country to its inclusiveness and moral order. TPLF said many years ago that if it could not retain power in Ethiopia it would destroy the country. It aimed to destroy Ethiopia morally too. Previously peculiar habits have spread far and wide. TPLF has a history of destroying the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by infiltrating its structures. Now OLA is said to have done similarly to some Protestant churches. Top Ethiopian leaders of Islam are deeply concerned at local increases in radical Islamic fundamentalism. They, alongside genuine Christians, have called for national unity instead of ethnic politics.
By imposing its ethnic politics since 1991 TPLF leadership created a time-bomb, which it is now exploding all over the country. It designed this carefully for maximum destructiveness. It imagined sitting comfortably in Tigray while the rest of the country collapsed. Or, if need be, joining its loot overseas (cash and real estate).
About two years ago, Shimelis Abdisa of PP, now re-elected President of Oromia Region, said “We will do it quietly,” and “We will do it by either convincing or confusing.” Was he referring to the expansion of Oromo power and territory through creating supposed ethnic homogeneity by killing and displacing other ethnic groups? Was he also referring to governing supposedly effectively and independently of OLF/OLA while not standing in the way of a programme of liquidating Amhara?
In the emerging scenario Amhara, Afar, Konso and many others, but especially Amhara – who appear to be subject to the most persistent common focus among TPLF, OLF, OLA and PP to attack them or let them be attacked – find themselves trapped in an ever tightening vice. OLA has its alliance with TPLF. PP pretends it is against both, yet we have seen PP regularly protect OLA by a cloak of silence over its massacres, and repeatedly allow the regular army to abscond when TPLF advances.
The Federal Government and its ENDF have repeatedly used militia and military personnel, especially Amhara, to bravely free areas from TPLF. But there is a pattern in which the Government, for no apparent reason, abruptly orders a withdrawal, leaving behind the bodies of mainly Amhara, and all sorts of weapons. Has the government not only been collaborating with OLA to murder Amhara but also been aiding and abetting TPLF to kill the next wave of cannon fodder? Is it less keen to defeat TPLF than to let it kill Amhara and other non-Oromo soldiers? Is it deliberately allowing OLA and TPLF to carry out a genocide of Amhara and other civilians? Machiavelli would have found even his imagination outstripped. Are those who say the Prime Minister is perfidious and power-hungry correct?
What is the emerging logical flow? Is it that we are facing one of the most deceitful and duplicitous undertakings of modern times? Increasingly that looks all too possible, indeed obvious.
*Peter W. Esmonde MSc has worked in rural development and education in many African countries. He has been a resident of Zambia, Ethiopia (12 years) and Kenya.