CW/TW: death, violence, war

Since November 4th, Ethiopia has been upturned by civil war. The conflict stems from deep-rooted political and ethnic tensions between the government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the northern region of Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). With an Ethiopian population of over 44,000 in Canada, many in Canada’s Ethiopian communities are affected by the ongoing crisis in Tigray. In an interview with Yalem Beyene, a Canadian-Ethiopian living in Winnipeg, she described mounting fears since the war began:

“I personally have not heard from my family in 77 days and worry of whether they’re dead or alive and imagining the trauma they are currently experiencing is truly heartbreaking.”
Yalem Beyene

Tensions between the two groups heightened on August 29th, 2020 when the Ahmed government delayed federal elections indefinitely, citing the global pandemic as the cause. These actions are concerning, especially when regional elections were held days later, on September 9th. About 2.7 million Tigrayans still voted during the pandemic while it was deemed illegal by the Ahmed government. However, the resulting TPLF win was denounced by the federal government, which subsequently outlawed the TPLF and appointed Ahmed’s own government to the region. After the Ahmed government officially declared war on the TPLF in early November, an estimated 2.2 million of the 6 million Tigray residents have been internally displaced without electricity, telecommunications, fuel, and cash. The war has also created 56,000 Tigrayan refugees and counting, not including the 100,000 Eritrean refugees already in the Tigray area. Many of these refugees are relocating to Sudan, a country that is not in a position to take on any refugees, let alone this many at such a rate. Updated 2021 figures from local authorities state that 4.5 million people need emergency food aid, nearly the Tigray region’s entire population. A Tigray government administrator warned that without aid “hundreds of thousands might starve to death.” Starvation has been closely linked with Ethiopia since the famine of the 1980s. Then, much like today, was exacerbated by the systematic blocking of humanitarian aid during the ongoing civil war.

The Ahmed government has taken a forceful stance against any interference from the international community, other than that of Eritrean troops who have taken up the fight against Tigray leadership. The federal government has taken control of all incoming and outgoing lines of communication; a strategy implemented to broadcast falsities and misleading facts about military targets and the number of Tigrayan civilians that have been killed. Some news outlets such as The New Humanitarian have reporters on the ground speaking with civilians who describe horrific scenes, such as what 65-year-old Tishpho Gabriel describes:

“[I] witnessed horrible things… families using… light and heavy weapons [and] slaughtering [people with] knives.”
– Tishpho Gabriel

The international community has been aware of the potential for a civil war to break out in Ethiopia. In a 2020 report by former U.S. Ambassadors to Ethiopia, the country was said to have the potential to be the largest state collapse in modern history, with its population of 110 million and increasing instability. As for the Canadian government, a short November news release said that the federal government is providing $3 million in assistance to the Tigray crisis via humanitarian organizations in the region, as well as neighboring Sudan who has seen an onslaught of incoming Tigrayan refugees.

But is this enough? Brhane Haftu, a former geography teacher in Tigray who has been one of many affected by the weeks of fighting told reporters:

“All my belongings are gone, evaporated. I have no hope for Tigray – it has completely changed.”
– Brhane Haftu

Not only Tigray, but the entirety of Ethiopia has been irreversibly changed by the conflict between the Ahmed government and the TPLF. Now, the Ethiopian community here in Canada is calling for action. The Association of Tigrayan Communities in Canada (ATCC) is calling for the newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Global Affairs Canada to:

  1. Withhold all Canadian funding to Ethiopia until the Ahmed Government grants full humanitarian access to all areas of the conflict, reconnects the entire Tigray region, and follows international law.
  2. Release an official statement on the current humanitarian crisis and blockade of critical services and access by the federal government.
  3. Condemn the involvement of Eritrean troops, war crimes, and call for the Ethiopian authorities to comply fully with international law, ensuring that people in need get access to life-saving aid.
  4. Sponsor and support the refugees which fled the fighting to Sudan.
  5. Engage the recently established Media Freedom Coalition to address the lack of press access to the region, cutting off of internet and phone lines, suppression of free media in Ethiopia, the jailing of journalists, and attacks on human rights.

As of right now, there has been no movement within the boundaries of international law regarding the crisis, outside of deeming the civil war a humanitarian crisis. Canada’s slow response may be attributed to its support given alongside several other countries in the decision to award Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his work to broker peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed Canadian involvement in the crisis. The pandemic has had severe impacts on refugee resettlement in Canada, curbed any possible deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and took up the majority of social media and news coverage. Canadians should be aware of the strife happening in Ethiopia so as to support the many individuals in Canada with family in Ethiopia that they have not heard from and may not see again. Canadians can get involved via social media campaigns and organization websites. The Canadian government should amplify the voices of the Ethiopian community during this time of strife overseas. The political instability, violence, and a global pandemic make the crisis in Tigray an increasing extreme that is felt by many in Canada.

“What has been even more heartbreaking has been the denial of Tigrayan suffering and in many cases the celebration of the unfolding genocide by other Ethiopians and the inaction of the international community. What we’re seeing is the systematic extermination of Tigrayan History, Tigrayan Leaders, Tigrayan Economy, and the Tigrayan people.”
– Yalem Beyene

Taylor Brown is a master’s candidate at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, focusing on climate migration in Canadian policy. Her undergraduate research out of the University of Manitoba is titled, “Inescapable: The Forced Migration of the I-Kiribati Caused by Climate Change.” Brown is an advocate for social change as well as a proud first-generation Canadian to Jamaican immigrants. 

Banner image by Kelly Lacy, courtesy of Pexels. 

Related reading: Ethiopia Fragility Brief 2020 

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