Follow-up (20 March 2021) regarding the appeal on humanitarian disaster in north Ethiopia

Cluster bombing in the surroundings of Samre

Dear friend,

As a signatory of the Appeal by concerned scientists and development professionals, we continue updating you on the humanitarian situation in Tigray.

This update addresses the announced Human Rights mission to Tigray (section 1), the dire health situation (section 2), the situation of education and the re-appearance of Prof. Kindeya (section 3), the support to Tigrayan students abroad (section 4), some news from Western Tigray (section 5) and Amhara region (section 6), interesting media reports and opinion pieces (sections 7 and 8).

LATEST NEWS! Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed published a sinister communiqué (“Final notice”) on 19 March, related to the war in Tigray ( It ends with these words: “The government calls on these [TPLF] leaders to do their part by learning from the devastation and damage so far, presenting themselves to justice, preventing further national loss and not shedding the blood of citizens in vain. TPLF’s top military and political leaders who do this will save themselves from severe punishment and prevent misery of their people.” Every Tigrayan reads this as a threatening omen of what may come (e.g.  

1. Investigating crimes against humanity

The Ethiopian Government has given official permission to investigators from the UN Office for Human Rights to travel to Tigray and investigate human rights abuses and crimes in the region (together with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission). The decision comes lately, and under immense international pressure. A first team of UN Human Rights Monitors will deploy to Mekelle very soon – including their own Tigrinya speaking investigators. Hopefully, like the international journalists recently allowed to enter Tigray, the OHCHR will manage to investigate independently. Our Atlas of the humanitarian situation has been updated and, though the widespread traumatic gender-based violence occurrences have not yet been mapped,  there is a map representing the 94 known massacres that have occurred so far in the Tigray war. And just while writing reports come in from numerous civilians massacred in villages around Samre. There is work for the OHCHR!

Related news:

2. Public health

In a press release on 15 March, Médecins sans Frontières, mentions that

  • Violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has extended to attacks on health facilities, withbarely one in 10 functioning.
  • Of the 106 health facilities MSF teams visited, one in five had been or was occupied by armed soldiers; one facility is being used as an army base.
  • The looted, vandalised facilities and resulting lack of medical staff means people in the region have very little access to healthcare. MSF Head said malicious intent was evident, the damage intended to make sure no one could use the facilities afterwards.
  • MSF urges all armed groups in the area to respect medical facilities and for services to be restored as soon as possible.

The MSF report holds numerous photos, including that of a graffiti realised by Ethiopian soldiers in the destroyed Debre Abay health centre. It reads: “Fuck you the people of Tigray: now we have handed you over to sha’ibiya [the Eritrean regime] and they will roast you”.

Other NGO people who were in Tigray last week confirm the MSF report for the facilities they saw in Eastern Tigray. Besides, most agro-input shops have been vandalised too…”

Related news:

3. University and education

We continue updating the situation of the four Tigrayan universities in our status report. Important news is that Prof. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, previous president of MU, who was evicted from his position by the Ethiopian government late October 2020, has recently posted several messages on Twitter ( Reportedly, as he was on the authorities’ search list (for sake of his position in the TPLF party), Kindeya retreated to the mountains. He now managed to find internet connection and to send out several tweets – in the first place, I am so relieved that he is alive!

The Ethiopian Ministry of Peace claims that, on 8 March, 1000 Tigrayan 12th grade students participated in the national exams in Tigray. ( However, a month earlier, it was stated that about 12,000 students were expected to take these exams, physically in Mekelle, Adigrat, Aksum and Raya universities. Our contacts in Mekelle doubt very much even about this number of 1000 participants. On that day, the Tigrayan students that could be reached were ordered to go to Kwiha to participate in the exam. When reaching the town they saw that the school where the exam was to be taken was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. Most students feared that a bad thing could happen (such as forced recruitment to the army) and they went back to Mekelle without taking the exam.

Primary and secondary schools in Tigray have not yet resumed classes.

4. Supporting the Tigrayan students abroad

I have received this message from one of the many committed Tigrayan students abroad:

“In the wake of the ongoing crisis in Tigray, significant trauma is being dealt by students in higher education who have family in Tigray, Ethiopia. This, in addition to an already isolating experience of graduate school amid the COVID-19 pandemic has a big toll on the physical, psychological and spiritual health of students. 

I wanted to reach out to you to distribute this form in your network designed to assess the current needs and hopefully organize virtual dialogue to support graduate students through this time of distress.

Thank you for your persistent advocacy to end the suffering of our people in Tigray!”

The message is in the first place addressed to Tigrayan students abroad. I do hope that all readers realise their immense suffering, not only when hearing about relatives killed and wounded, but also the numerous (filmed) massacres, the huge suffering of raped women (only those who suspect pregnancy or have suffered severe injuries will report to hospital!), the fact of being targeted as a nation, including the agricultural base, the infrastructure and the spiritual centre Aksum. The above initiative will for sure enhance self-help groups among Tigrayans, but I think it is as important to strengthen ties between the numerous international supporters and the Tigrayan community abroad.

5. News from the Western Tigray

In many places in Tigray, tens of thousands of internal refugees are arriving from Western Tigray, like confirming the notion of “ethnic cleansing” of Tigrayans that is happening there. Some contacts in Western Tigray mention indeed that remaining Tigrayans are fleeing; the provisional Amhara administration writes “laissez-passer” letters for them, in order to travel to the other side of the Tekeze. Fanno youth groups looted almost everything from harvests to generators to water pumps to health facilities. Remaining Welqaytés considering themselves Amharas or declared Amharas by the new authorities, are yet upset against the Amhara region’s administration. Some said, about the lootings: “What did the TPLF do worse than this?”. Some new administrators have Tigrayan names, speak more Tigrinya than Amharic and have the Tigrayan traditional scarifications on their temples… Some people who barely understand Amharic now claim their “Amharaness” as Welqaytés. “Tigrayan” there refers mainly to the people who were resettled in the lowlands over the last 30 years, according to the new nomenclature introduced by Amhara leaders. Eritrean soldiers are very active in Humera where they hold regular meetings with the provisional Amhara administration.

Prof. Wolbert Smidt has carried out ethnohistorical research in Western Tigray and mentions that “Welqayté are usually Tigrinya-speakers, today and also according to older historical sources, and belong to the cluster of several old autonomous Tigrinya-speaking provinces which were characteristic for the historical north.”

We do not have contacts in May Kadra, but a witness travelled through the town: “in the middle of the town, where a full block of houses has been burnt to the ground, they left on the road all the furnitures, broken things, pieces of corrugated iron and so on. They did not clean anything, as if they wanted to show the scars of war to anybody passing by. May Kadra is the symbol they were waiting for.” No names of the Amhara victims have been confirmed, including by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which was on the scene. The last word has not yet been said about May Kadra, there are very different versions to what is in the first Amnesty report. It’s one of 94 known massacres so far. “The government directly engaged in a PR campaign about one massacre without clear investigation, and neglecting all other massacres in Tigray”.

We learnt also that the new Amhara administration plans a land distribution in the conquered Western Tigray.

6. Meanwhile in Amhara Region

It is interesting to follow up what happens in Eritrea and Amhara Region. Both have their armed forces actively involved in the Tigray war. From Eritrean side, there is growing concern of civil society, both in diaspora and inside the country. 491 Eritrean women have written an open letter “Not in my name” to oppose the rape culture of the Eritrean army. Eritrean Church leaders have recommended their followers not to buy looted goods from Tigray, and Christians asked forgiveness for the war crimes by Eritrean soldiers.

We do not see such clearly expressed opinions from Amhara side (even not in the diaspora), and it worries. Hence we telephoned to some contacts in Gondar and Soqota, to learn more.

In Gondar, people genuinely think the war is over. The main daily problem is inflation. Prices of absolutely everything are skyrocketting. 120 birr for a litre of oil, if available. Queues for gasoil are one kilometre long. People are really angry about the huge inflation. But, they just don’t know about the war crimes in Tigray. Common people only have access to government propaganda. When travellers coming from Tigray tell what they’ve seen there, the others are shocked in disbelief. “You have no idea of the strength of media propaganda.” Many people find it more comfortable to believe the government talk. And there is a very vocal minority of young Amhara male activists, who enjoy war crimes against Tigrayans. The problem is that they are the only ones we hear.

In Soqota, the talk of the town is the occupation of the rural market place Tsata by the Tigray forces on 18 March. Tsata is part of Amhara region, some 20 km east of Soqota. There are fears that the local Agaw people may cooperate with the Tigrayans, and the Waghimra Zone (to which Soqota and Tsata belong) issued a communiqué inviting the population not to side with the rebels and mentioning that Soqota is not at risk. For the rest, same worries as in Gondar for inflation, but people clearly link it up with ongoing warfare.

7. Other news

8. Opinion pieces

Follow up communication compiled by Prof. Dr. Jan Nyssen.

Jan Nyssen is full professor of geography at Ghent University (Belgium). Besides numerous scientific publications mostly related to Ethiopia, he published two books: “ካብ ሓረስቶት ደጉዓ ተምቤን እንታይ ንስምዕ”? “What do we hear from the farmers in Dogu’a Tembien”? [in Tigrinya] (2016), and “Geo Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District”. Springer GeoGuide (2019).

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