How I Found Myself in the Tigrayan Struggle
The Story of a Tigrayan in Addis Ababa
I am not a great writer, and under normal circumstances, I would not be writing about this. However, I have realized that when it comes to Ethiopia, staying quiet hasn’t benefited Tigrayans. With the genocidal war waged on Tigray on November 4, 2020, I feel the need to speak up.
This is not a special story. It is one that is common among Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In the past year, I have realized that I have lived in a fantasy world all my life. I grew up thinking that Ethiopia was home to a perfectly diverse, peace-loving, and progressive population. I am now amazed by how out of touch I was from the dark history and reality of Ethiopia.
My parents are Tigrayans and I was born and raised in Addis Ababa. My family is middle class at best. My parents worked hard to provide us with a quality education and to put food on the table. Up until my twenties, my connection to Tigray was limited to sending books, pens, and clothings to relatives in Tigray.
I was a typical Addis Ababaian. My family was too. We assimilated, unconsciously conforming to the culture, language, and lifestyle of the city. We celebrated ‘Abebayosh’ (a more typical Amhara celebration) more than ‘Ashenda’ (a Tigrayan festival). We sang and danced to “Menilik Tikur Sew” and “Ethiopia hagere yedefersh yiwdem,” and other songs that were pro-Ethiopian nationalism. Little did I know that I was singing and dancing to songs that would be used as background music to the decimation of my own people – Tigrayan people.
As a member of the Tigrayan population in Addis Ababa, I now feel deeply betrayed by both communities. I blame my parents and relatives for not teaching me Tigray’s history and for not telling me what Tigrayans went through in the past.
I also feel betrayed by the people in my hometown, the city I was born and raised in, that now sees me and my parents as the “enemy.” The truth came out in pieces … and then slowly flooded our homes and hearts with blood.
My upbringing as a Tigrayan in Addis Ababa…
I grew up aware of my Tigrayan identity. I was raised to respect the dynamic identity of populations in Ethiopia. I was raised to be conscious of others’ feelings, emotions and to not offend anyone in our community.
Retrospectively, I am not going to deny the fact that I had my own implicit biases against people from outside of Addis Ababa. For example, my friends and I often laughed at non-city sounding names. I had my own biases against every ‘non-Addis Ababian’ (non-urban) person. It was all fun and jokes at the time, but I believe those small implicit biases contribute to the bigger problems we see today.
Ethiopia’s university system draws students from across the country to new areas in hopes of creating appreciation for the country’s diversity. Now, as I witness students who once studied at Mekelle University (in Tigray’s capital) cheering for the destruction of Mekelle or Tigray, I can’t help but wonder if education or cultural integration through universities failed to address the root cause of the problem.
As I think back, there were always signs of what was to come. One of my best friends once said to me, “Tegrewochu yihidulin” (we want Tigrayans out). We were in middle school. He wasn’t the brightest kid, he never really paid attention in our civic or history classes. His parents appeared to be loving people. I wondered what they taught him at home behind closed doors.
There were protests throughout the city against the outcome of the elections. It did not take long for me to realize that Tigrayans were being scapegoated for the problems.
Many were chanting, “Tigre wede Mekelle” (deport Tigrayans to Mekelle). My Tigrayan friends and I were shocked. We knew our parents were from Tigray, but we had no clue what they did to deserve deportation. None of us had been to Mekelle at that time, so it felt somewhat foreign.
What happened during the protests was utter chaos. My most vivid memory was of the fear in my father’s eyes when he came to pick me up from school during one of the protests in Addis Ababa. I could see he felt threatened, unsafe, and concerned about the future.
Although I was young, I too felt the uncertainty, the rush, the panic.
ESAT: The media that spread hate against Tigray and Tigrayans
The flames of ethnic tension in 2005 continued to be fanned by Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).
ESAT journalists shared conspiracy theories, and demonized Tigrayans every day. Ethiopians, ate it up!
In my home, we were not allowed to watch TV, though on occasion we watched some family oriented shows. Our parents wanted us to focus on our studies. I had never heard of ESAT. It was never brought up in conversation with friends and we never really discussed politics. I thought all of our problems could be solved if we were educated together. I had no clue what the rest of Addis Ababa was being fed day in and day out until recently.
The first time I learned about ESAT in 2016, it came with a warning from my cousin who lived in the United States. She told me to keep my “eyes open.” She mentioned that Tigrayans were being targeted in the media – especially on ESAT. There was apparently a Youtube video on “How to shoot a Tigrayan in the leg” and that ESAT released a statement to challenge the Ethiopian people to fight Tigrayans who made up 5 million of Ethiopia’s 95 million population at that time. I dismissed it and thought “diasporas are crazy, man. No one is going to do that.”
But I was wrong…
Following ESAT’s call for solidarity against Tigryans in 2016, universities became a hit zone for Tigrayans, and later they became a crime scene for everyone. So many despicable things happened, including the killing of innocent Tigrayans, the removal of Tigrayan students’ eyes, and the burning of Tigrayan homes in Gondar that launched the internal displacement of Tigrayans from different parts of Ethiopia. There was a systematic demonizing and persecution of Tigrayans all over Ethiopia.
The same friend who said, “we want the Tigrayans out,” in middle school, said that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) made Ethiopians racist. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was a key member of the EPRDF coalition and Tigrayans were often associated with the EPRDF regime and its doings.
Other people also joined the chorus.
“You don’t think Tigrayans benefited from the system?” or “By the way, I like the people of Tigray but not TPLF…” said the same person who is denying the rape and death of civilians during the genocidal war today.
Our Addis Ababian friends were quick to tell us about Tigrayans’ experience in Addis Ababa. They didn’t want to hear what we had to say. If we had anything positive to say about Tigray or Tigrayans, some of them went as far as telling us that we were brainwashed and lied to by our Tigrayan community elders.
Slowly, I stopped engaging with friends about the Tigrayan struggle for equality in Ethiopia. They believed the accusations made about Tigrayans on ESAT more than they believed their own friends.
I am not going to defend the EPRDF regime for its oppressive reputation, but the party did not represent Tigrayans nor work for the Tigrayan population alone. Tigrayans were members of the community receiving the same services as others. We were no different. Money didn’t rain in Tigray or in our homes, but the way others portrayed it made it seem like each one of us was receiving gold chains for every breath we took.
Ethiopia was one of the fastest growing economies during the EPRDF regime, but Tigrayans were not the beneficiaries of the rapid economic growth. The Ethiopian elites were made up of people from different ethinic groups.
Tigrayans often supported developmental projects during the EPRDF regime, not because TPLF was a key party in the coalition, but because all we wanted was development, for the country to do better, and most of all – we wanted peace. We know the cost of war – most of us have lost close family members in wars. Our mothers were thankful for and willing to do anything to preserve peace. We supported the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and we gave money to the project without a second thought. Tigrayans had fully bought into the idea of the “Ethiopian” identity, without realizing that we were never fully accepted by other Ethiopians.
It was shocking and painful to discover your own friends were saying such awful things about Tigrayans.
Personal experiences of anti-Tigrayans sentiments…
A Tigrayan can’t be rich, poor, smart, or dumb without having his or her Tigrayan roots mentioned in the conversation in Addis Ababa.
I remember once in my profile picture on social media I had an afro, but I was naive to not know the association of this hairstyle with Tigrayan fighters during the Derg regime. A very close friend said:
“Zemedochisihn new mitmesiyew, keyriw please” (Please change your afro hair style, you look like your Tigrayan relatives.)
Tigrayans were also perceived as having access to wealth and weapons. Occasionally, I got the usual:
“Tigre aydelesh eski yeteshale sira asfeligilign” (Aren’t you a Tigrayan, find me a better job through your connections.)
To this day I cannot believe what a medical doctor friend of mine said:
“It looks like the number of contraceptives and abortion laws in Amhara was designed to depopulate the Amhara region.”
Typically, when people refer to harmful laws implemented in the Amhara region, they blame the EPRDF regime, but I had never heard such extreme opinions before. I didn’t respond to her statement, I was in disbelief.
The comments continued. The sad thing is most of us Tigrayans did not bother to correct their jokes on Tigrayan identity or how the EPRDF was being associated with Tigrayans.
And then there was the election–
Tigrayans decided to hold a regional election in August 2020. The unelected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, did not support this election. He wanted to postpone the regional and federal elections and used COVID-19 as an excuse. Through a state-sponsored campaign, Abiy’s administration successfully made it look like holding an election was a crime against humanity.
During this period, Abiy strengthened ties with Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki. Ethiopian youth went out to celebrate dictator Isayas’s visit to Ethiopia. No one questioned why Ethiopians or the Prime Minister would celebrate a guy who is known to have destroyed his own country – Eritrea.
Anti-Tigrayan sentiments escalated across the media. The Amhara elites began telling farmers not to sell their goods to Tigray or Tigrayans. They genuinely believed that the best way to defeat Tigrayans would be to starve them. They blocked roads to Tigray and started robbing trucks and cars in an attempt to starve the Tigrayans in Tigray.
Amhara Regional Government officials admitted to blocking roads to Tigray because Tigrayans were “harboring criminals.”
I will never forget the videos of armed men threatening to destroy Tigray, broadcasted on social media since 2018. The same men were paraded around as heroes in Amhara Regional Government meetings and conferences.
Each one became hunters of what the Prime Minister called ‘‘ye ken jib’’ (daytime hyenas).
I visited Tigray during the elections. No one was harassing non-Tigrayans. To the contrary, the people would speak to you in their broken Amharic if they felt like you were struggling with Tigrigna – it is our culture to welcome guests. No hate was sung against innocent people. They would criticize Abiy, but they saw criticizing a politician as a right. I was pleasantly surprised by the political knowledge of the average Tigrayan and their ability to separate people and governments.
The world turned upside down right before our eyes
The war on Tigray broke out on November 4, 2020.
People in Addis Ababa began voicing their support for the war. Our friends, our neighbors, and our co-workers. All of them were happy to hear a war being waged on Tigray.
They posted and shared their support of the war on social media outlets. To my surprise, those who had lived and worked in Tigray, or those with better exposure to the people of Tigray than myself, were cheering for the destruction of Tigrayan cities.
Our Instagram friends who had enjoyed watching what we had had for breakfast, lunch and dinner muted us when we started speaking out against war.
Every complaint was followed by whataboutism. Friends were no longer allies. People stopped asking questions and just started to watch and see how the war would play out.
Addis Ababa police raided Tigrayan homes. Some Tigrayans were being taken to the police station and disappearing for days. My aunt was held hostage by the police for no apparent reason.
We were nervous to go to the airport even as civilians. We began mocking each other by looking at each other’s’ ID’s to see if we could be identified by our last names and thrown in jail. Tigrayans usually have distinct names that could be identified easily. We asked ourselves if we would lie and say we were not Tigrayans. Would we proudly say we were Tigrayans and risk prison?
We could not reach loved ones in Tigray. But news about airstrikes and door to door killings in Tigray were common. Everyone was in the dark and it only kept getting darker.
Constant anxiety and panic attacks. We received phone calls from family members abroad with uncontrollable tears. They somehow knew our pain.
Police officers were telling people to identify Tigrayans coming back from Mekelle. Our neighbors called our children “little juntas” and their friends were told not to hang out with Tigrayans. The non-Tigrayan people we once considered ours turned against us.
Our non-Tigrayan mother and father in-laws started denying the atrocities happening inside of Tigray, forgetting that we are family. They always asserted: “In the end, Tigrayans will be Tigrayans.” They seemed to be disappointed by the fact that we didn’t want to see another war.
My coworkers couldn’t hold in their excitement to go cheer for war on Tigray. Those who grieved for the innocent lives during the protests that followed the 2005 election results happily accepted that Tigrayan youth (our brothers and sisters) could be collateral damage in the name of politics.
All the while, Tigrayans in Ethiopia and across the globe were worried about their loved ones in Tigray and in Addis Ababa. My family has already lost three distant cousins. A few family members in the ENDF are missing after being taken out for questioning and a few more are seeking refuge in Sudan.
Humanity slowly disappeared into thin air. The Ethiopians who in the past would stand by to make sure you have your tire changed, or gather to help with anything, turned into strangers who wished you ill.
Our Ethiopian “friends” chose to ignore our suffering. They never asked about our relatives in Tigray. At birthday celebrations, they got mad at us for not laughing as much, or for acting “oddly.”
It became clear. They never liked our Tigrayan identity. Such dislike did not develop in the past thirty years; it was a culturally and socially constructed hate that goes back for generations.
In the end…
I am Tigrayan. No amount of hate or fear can diminish that part of my identity. I, like many others raised in Addis Ababa, didn’t grow up romanticizing living in Tigray.
Since the war began, I have made every effort to learn about Tigray’s history and its people. There is nothing that I am ashamed of.
In fact, I have found a cause greater than myself. A cause to protect my heritage and my identity. A cause to resist forced assimilation and to rebuild Tigray.
My last message is to fellow ESAT followers. I would like you to to understand that:
- A country is not an idea, it is the people in it.
- Invasion is not liberation. Under Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has allowed Eritrea to invade Tigrayan lands.
- War kills both sides, not just the minority group.
- War has rules. You cannot rape, kill civilians, and demolish religious sites, universities or factories.
- Justice does not equal vengeance.
- Having an election should always be encouraged. It should never be a crime, especially when the constitution allows for it.
- The EPRDF is not the TPLF. Four coalition parties led the country under the EPRDF. Oppression under the EPRDF should never be associated with Tigrayans or Tigray.
- Tigray will prevail. History will judge those who are supporting the genocidal war.
Betty – Omna Tigray External Contributor April 2021