Testimony at the Tigray demonstration in Brussels on 17 February 2022


Jan Nyssen

Good afternoon. My name is Jan, and I am a professor at Ghent University, here in Belgium. I have been carrying out research in Tigray since almost 30 years now, that is since 19941. We went there for building up Tigray after the civil war [of the 1980s]. The research aimed to help the farmers in Tigray filling their food basket. When I went the first time to Tigray in 1994, the farmers could eat two times per day only, because there was real poverty. Gradually, Tigray has been climbing out of misery at least. The country is still poor, but it was improving, and rural people were having a meal three times per day. We saw everything improving. I have worked very much for natural resources restoration and also there, the people in Tigray did a lot to improve it.

17 February 2021

War crimes and blockade

And then this war started, and all of a sudden, we could not telephone anymore with our friends in Tigray. When we could reestablish communications – via oral transmission until somebody could telephone – we heard very bad stories about massacres. We heard stories of girls and women being raped. The father of one of my best friends, an old man, was not killed but the soldiers came to his house, [killed his oxen, shot his dog] and kicked him badly. [He survived thanks to the use of indigenous herbs]2. It is ongoing and ongoing. My last telephone call to Mekelle was on 27 June [the eve of TDF entering Mekelle], and things were going to improve. That was the general feeling. But now, we see that people are starving. Tigray is cut off from the world, the harvest is failed, farmers had not been allowed to plough3, people have very little to eat and the [food] basket is empty.

[Jan carries an empty traditional Tigrayan bread basket with inscription “Abiy & co. did not allow Tigray’s farmers to plough timely; the food baskets are empty !!!”]

Even more, there is a total blockade of Tigray, nothing is allowed to enter, we cannot help the people in Tigray.

Ethiopia and Tigray

I was interviewed several times by media [about the Tigray war], I have been invited to debates, where I held the same discourse, and I was strongly insulted for this.  And I was so surprised: all these people in Bahir Dar, and other Ethiopian [Universities], who had called me to work with them and to share the expertise that we built up in Tigray, as soon as the war started in Tigray, they hurled all sorts of insults: “you are a hyena, … a juntas, … a baboon, … a gorilla, … cancer”; and all of you have heard the same words, from people whom you believed were your friends.

And then of course, they say “TPLF… TPLF…” – I have never been part of that party. I have written critical articles [about their policies]4,5, like many of you. Of course, they made errors. In my understanding, the big mistake was back in 1991, when they decided to keep and continue building the [Ethiopian] empire and prioritised their efforts to Ethiopia as a whole [creating also antipathies] rather than to Tigray. During my first fieldwork in Tigray, back in 1994, I often heard farmers complaining: “our leaders moved to Addis, we cannot control them anymore. Our leaders should stay with us to develop Tigray”. And I think that there has been a lot of naivety, thinking that by working [together] with all other parts of the country, they would be fair to Tigray, and this has not happened.

Reaching out to the public opinion

And now, of course, we need to get out of these problems. Millions and millions of people are suffering. The world is letting Tigray down; we see very little about Tigray in the media. We have to continue our efforts; we have to reach out to the public opinion outside of Tigray, and here I want to urge all of you: do more efforts to contact the public opinion. I follow your twitter messages, and I see that either you address them to “Tesfay” or “Gebrekidan”6, or they are directed to [UN Secretary General] Guterres. But what are you doing to address the Belgian public opinion? I speak for Belgium, but the same is true for Holland, France or Germany: we have to reach out to the public opinion in our countries, “Guterres” will not read your tweet anyway.

Tigray’s rebirth

I am hoping to go back to Tigray as soon as possible. I hope for a new Tigray, where there is room for all actors, where there is real democracy and that everybody works for the development of the region.

In the meantime, we continue researching on Tigray. As geographers we have access to remote sensing [imagery]. We have almost no contacts to the ground, but we can monitor it through satellite imagery. And I have been involved in a study about the status of woody vegetation in this war. As you know, Tigray did a big effort for regreening over the last 30 years, and I can tell you that the regreening continues, though at a lesser pace7. There is no electricity, so people need to cut firewood or to make charcoal. There are places where deforestation takes place, but the overall trend is still towards regreening. There is social control on wood cutting. I have an example, the Ch’elaqo exclosure8. As you know I am ወዲተምቤን [wedi Tembien, “a child of the Tembien district”], so my information comes often from that area9. Near Hagere Selam, there is an exclosure, a forest that has regrown over the last 30 years, its name is Ch’elaqo. And the people around Ch’elaqo are so happy to have it, nobody is cutting trees; [they say:] “when the Ethiopian soldiers came, when the Eritrean soldiers came, many people from Hagere Selam could hide in that forest, three women have even given birth in Ch’elaqo. We are so happy to have these trees, and nobody will cut these trees.”

1998 in the Habdi Luqmuts exclosure in Hech’i (Dogu’a Tembien)


That is just a small example to talk about resilience, that is what is needed now. All of us are so afraid of what is happening to our people, but at the same time, we see them resisting, we see them growing. We see also the farming communities taking their own fate in their own hands. The local [district] administrators moved out, now the farmers have to organise to manage everything by themselves. So that’s called resilience and we count a lot on that.

The people in Tigray are already working for reconstruction, and as soon as possible, like many of you, I want to travel there to assist in the reconstruction of Tigray!

Thank you.


  1. Nyssen, J. Soil erosion in the Tigray Highlands (Ethiopia). I. Natural and human environment in its relationship to soil erosion. Geo-Eco-Trop 19, 51-82 (1995).
  2. Nyssen, J. Catastrophe stalks Tigray, again. Ethiopia Insight (2021).
  3. Nyssen, J., Emnet Negash & Annys, S. How Ethiopia’s conflict has affected farming in Tigray. The Conversation, doi:https://theconversation.com/how-ethiopias-conflict-has-affected-farming-in-tigray-166229 (2021).
  4. Nyssen, J. et al. Geographical determinants of inorganic fertiliser sales and of resale prices in north Ethiopia. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 249, 256-268, doi:10.1016/j.agee.2017.07.037 (2017).
  5. Segers, K., Dessein, J., Nyssen, J., Mitiku Haile & Deckers, J. Developers and farmers intertwining interventions: the case of rainwater harvesting and food-for-work in Degua Temben, Tigray, Ethiopia. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6, 173-182 (2008).
  6. Very commonly used names in Tigray.
  7. Schulte-to-Bühne, H. Satellite data raises concerns about the effects of war on the environment in Tigray, Ethiopia. In preparation. (2022).
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%27elaqo_(exclosure)
  9. Nyssen, J., Jacob, M. & Frankl, A. Geo-Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District.  (Springer Nature, 2019).

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