The endless pain of T. from Tigray

Since this summer, T., a colleague of Joost Dessein, has been trapped in Ethiopia in appalling conditions. It raises the question as to whether Flemish[1] researchers should revise their long-standing collaboration with local universities.

Joost Dessein | Associate Professor in Rural Sociology (Ghent University, Belgium), writing in his own name

De Standaard (Belgium), Thursday, 4 November 2021

A Tigrayan rebel tank near the village of Mehoni. “The ‘clean’ conflict has degenerated into a hell of murder, looting and rape.” Eduardo Soteras/afp

On November 4th, 2020, the looming tensions explode in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Historically, relations with other regions, such as Amhara, have been tense and discussions about the validity of elections have led to further escalation. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launches a “short and strong police operation”. Although not neat, it seems to be done quickly and cleanly. It is occasionally discussed in the coffee room at Ghent University. Yes, we had already done research in the region. “Beautiful country, fine people, and what all progress has been made over the past thirty years. Hopefully it will be over soon. Another coffee?”

T., a doctoral researcher and colleague at Ghent University, sometimes participates in these discussions. He is a Tigrayan, who teaches at a university in the hostile Amhara region. His research and stay are funded by the university development cooperation of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR-UOS). He returns to Ethiopia in April. T. wants to do field work; wife and children are waiting.

Silent horror

The conflict is now exactly one year old and has degenerated into a hell of murder, looting and unspeakably brutal rapes. Eritrean soldiers eagerly participate, all kinds of militias take revenge for the past. Abiy Ahmed’s move to “maintain the law” has gradually turned into the systematic massacre of an entire ethnic group. Regional and national politicians are calling on the active population to take up arms and start eradicating “the cancer” Tigray, until there are no more Tigrayans left, until there are even no memories of Tigray left.

“Shall we continue working in a country that actively incites serious and frequent violations of human rights?”

With an umbrella structure of the Ethiopian army, backed by Eritrean and regional forces, and a substructure of machete- and hate-fueled militias and civilians, an atrocity that has all the makings of genocide is unfolding almost silently. The region is hermetically sealed. Food, medicine, fuel can no longer enter. Communication with the outside world is almost non-existent. The Tigrayan resistance also grows more determined and expands, haunted by the specter of a disastrous famine. Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and himself a Tigrayan, summed it up in one of the shortest but most powerful tweets ever: ‘Endless pain’.

During my summer vacation I received a short e-mail from Ethiopia: T. has been arrested, along with other Tigrayan employees of his university in Amhara. The only possible reason: wrong ethnic group. “A matter of a few days, the misunderstanding will soon be cleared up.” 84 days later, T. is still in prison. The conditions are unthinkable: overcrowded cells, sleeping on a concrete floor, little food, no hygiene, constant psychological torture. Now and then before a judge and then again into the unknown and the uncertain. Are my wife and children still alive? Will I still be alive tomorrow? The scant news we get about T. comes through loopholes. Not a word from the authorities, neither his local university, the police, the government, or the embassy. Not even after repeatedly insisting. Silenced like dead.


Institutional umbrella

While the silence becomes deafening, some haunting questions arise to which I have no comprehensive answer. For decades, Flemish universities have been intensively engaged in research in, with and about Ethiopia, sometimes financed through their own research funds, sometimes through the umbrella of the VLIR-UOS. They are active in the most diverse disciplines in close collaboration with Ethiopian universities. This is often very successful. The flourishing of Mekelle University in Tigray, and the associated development of the region, is partly due to Flemish researchers. The long-term cooperation with the universities of Jimma, Arba Minch and Bahir Dar has contributed to fundamental capacity building of those institutions. And there are plenty more examples.

But some of those Ethiopian universities seem to be involved in the hate campaign and the war against Tigray to a greater or lesser extent. This places the Flemish universities and the VLIR-UOS in a difficult position: shall we continue working in a country that is sliding further and further into crater-deep internal division, and thereby actively instigates serious and frequent violations of human rights? Would we organize a working visit to a university where staff members have recently been arrested because of their ethnic background, probably indicated by the management? Each partner university is bound to sign a statement on respect for integrity and human rights. But what is such a signature worth and how can the agreement be enforced? There is also a lot of money involved, both there and here.

Many individual researchers have invested for years in a network in Ethiopia. Good colleagues, sometimes even friends. Can they hide under an institutional umbrella (“As long as my university doesn’t quit, there is no reason for me to do so”)? Or does the real decisiveness lie precisely with the individual researchers, who may withdraw from a personal consideration and can therefore act as leverage?


Karel or Marieke

Some Ethiopian colleagues openly support the systematic persecution of Tigrayans and actively spread hate messages and even death threats, also addressed at Flemish researchers. Often such messages are tolerated, sometimes even supported by their own [university] management. It should be obvious that any further cooperation with these people is impossible. But what about all those well-meaning colleagues, who advocate peace as much as we do? What about my messenger, who continues sending information about T. at his own risk? Can they become victims of a possible cessation of cooperation? Wouldn’t we then also mortgage the future of the country?

Every now and then, another difficult question overwhelms me. The efforts to learn more about the fate of T., a doctoral student at Ghent University, are very limited. What if the imprisoned researcher did not come from Ethiopia – that forgotten country – but from Afghanistan, which is constantly on the front pages? Or what if T. would not be called T., but Karel or Marieke[2]? Would the involvement and therefore also the worries be greater?

There is no definitive answer to those questions. As a red thread, there is the lack of a framework and therefore also of decisiveness and initiative. Cooperation agreements do not appear to be prepared for this type of exceptional circumstances. However, there exists a fairly transparent framework. There are clear guidelines, inspired by universal human rights, that should enable a test in such situations and that can guide and justify far-reaching decisions, both internally and to the outside world, both here and there. This is not the time to question such human rights checks – rather these direct and remove doubt from those who must take decisions.

[1] Note by translator: In Belgium the educational system is organised by the regions; “a Flemish researcher” should be understood as “a researcher pertaining to a university located in the Flemish region”.

[2] Note by translator: Karel and Marieke are common first names in Flanders.

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