NAIROBI – Ethnic Amharas killed. Ethnic Tigrayans arrested, in hiding or cut off from the world. Ethiopia’s deadly conflict is spilling beyond its northern Tigray region and turning identity into a mortal threat.
A report that scores, perhaps hundreds, of civilians were “hacked to death” in the streets of a single town on Monday night has sent already dangerous tensions soaring. Amnesty International confirmed the killings via images and witnesses, and the United Nations warns of possible war crimes. Most of the dead were ethnic Amharas, according to a man who helped clear the bodies away and looked at identity cards.
“The killing reflects the ongoing ethnic divisions in the country,” Amnesty researcher Fisseha Tekle said.
While the Amnesty report late Thursday said it had not confirmed who carried out the killings, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is blaming the massacre on forces loyal to the Tigray region’s government, which his administration regards as illegal after a months-long falling-out. The federal government seeks to arrest and replace its leaders.
Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, accuses the regional government of “unceasing hate and fear propaganda." On Friday, speaking in the Tigrinya language, he urged its forces to surrender “in the next two to three days.”
The allegations, combined with the severing of communications with the Tigray region and growing reports of targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, are raising widespread alarm as Abiy rejects calls for dialogue and de-escalation and the United Nations says more than 14,000 “exhausted and scared” refugees have fled the Tigray region to Sudan.
The U.N. office on genocide prevention in a sharply worded statement has condemned reports of ”targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or religion” in Ethiopia, including hate speech and incitement to violence. It warned that ethnic violence in Ethiopia "has reached an alarming level over the past two years,” and the new rhetoric sets a “dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
The news of Monday's massacre of ethnic Amharas in Mai-Kadra town in the Tigray region followed more than a week of federal government statements blaming the conflict that erupted Nov. 4 on the ruling “clique” of the Tigray regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and counterclaims by the TPLF.
The Tigray region’s communication and transport links remain almost completely cut off, making it difficult to verify each side’s allegations. The federal government has warned journalists about reporting events “properly,” and human rights and media rights groups have expressed alarm about the arrests of journalists.
“At least two journalists have been arrested in connection to their work, including coverage of Tigray, and continue to be detained without formal charges,” Muthoki Mumo with the Committee to Protect Journalists told The Associated Press in a statement, calling it “outrageous."
Ethnic Tigrayans report being questioned and threatened. The African Union, based in Ethiopia, fired its ethnic Tigrayan head of security, according to a memo dated Wednesday and seen by the AP.
“I received no letter ... they just told me not to show up for work as of Nov. 6,” a lecturer at the Federal Defense Engineering College told the AP. “It's not just me, several dozens of others have faced the same situation.” Other ethnic Tigrayans said they are being blocked from boarding flights.
Fears have spread in the Ethiopian diaspora. From his home in Belgium, university researcher Mekonnen Gebreslasie Gebrehiwot described his attempts to speak with family members in Addis Ababa and reach his mother and others in the Tigray region.
“They don’t want to pick their phones up,” he said of his relatives in the capital. “I try to talk to them about the situation, they think their phones are being monitored. They say, ‘We are fine, we are fine, call us later,’” and then message him separately, saying they are scared.
“I’m really afraid this might lead to ethnic attacks on Tigrayans,” said Mekonnen, who leads an association of ethnic Tigrayans. “It’s really frightening, and everywhere in the country they’re asking people to go out demonstrating for the heinous attacks that have been done by the TPLF. For me, it’s a sign of what’s coming.”
In the United States, Ethiopian writer Teodrose Fikremariam, whose family fled Ethiopia during the bloodshed of the Derg regime decades ago, saw the Amnesty International report and quickly wrote and posted a plea.
“What the report did not assign is blame,” he wrote. And yet, “This report has quickly been seized by those who support Abiy Ahmed and those who support the TPLF alike to spin narratives that favor their agendas; the conflict being fought on social media as much as it is fought in Tigray.”
The airwaves, he said, “are filled with selective outrage that is biased through the prism of ethnic affiliation.”
While critical of the TPLF, he said in a message to the AP that “all efforts must be undertaken by the Ethiopian government to ensure that the battle with TPLF is not construed as a battle against the people as a whole.” He said he believed that communications with the region should be restored.
With such concerns rising, the international community has begun to highlight the threat of ethnic targeting in its warnings about Ethiopia’s conflict and its pleas for peace.
“Ethnically targeted measures, hate speech and allegations of atrocities occurring in Ethiopia are deeply worrying. The demonization of ethnic groups is a vicious and lethal cycle from which Ethiopia must be spared,” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned the situation in Ethiopia could “spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction” and said fighting must stop immediately to prevent further atrocities.
Some fellow Africans have expressed their alarm after watching in amazement two years ago as Ethiopia transformed with sweeping political reforms that won Abiy the Nobel. Observers for months have said those reforms are slipping.
Tanzanian opposition leader Zitto Kabwe, in a warning, pointed to Ethiopia’s past. “The mistake Abiy Ahmed Ali is making on Tigray is the same mistake Mengistu and the Derg made in November 1974 to prosecute the war in Eritrea,” he tweeted. "Federal govt enjoy a short-lived triumph but that may be the beginning of the end of Ethiopia as we know it – BALKANIZATION.”