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De-escalation and negotiation must win in Ethiopia to protect civilians and world heritage sites

De-escalation and negotiation must win in Ethiopia to protect civilians and world heritage sites


Andinet Belay 11-19-20


The war and its implications

War has been raging in the Tigray region of Ethiopia for three weeks now. Thousands have died, tens of thousands have fled their homes, and there are reports of other countries being implicated in the conflict.  If left unabated, the already calamitous situation will morph into a full-blown regional and multifaceted humanitarian crisis. This will have serious impacts on the stability of the already conflict prone Horn of Africa (HoA) and Red Sea regions. It behooves the international community to take all necessary actions before we witness another Rwanda and the disintegration of Ethiopia.


Where is Tigray and what is happening?

Tigray is one of the ten federated regional states of Ethiopia located in the northern part of the country. This semi-autonomous region is bordered by Eritrea to the north, Sudan to the west, and the rest of Ethiopia (the Amhara and Afar regional states) to the south and east. The region is home to an estimated 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million population and is governed by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a regionally popular and politically powerful party. The TPLF won regional elections held only in Tigray in September 2020, in defiance of the federal government’s postponement of national elections citing COVID-19 as a reason. Since the elections in Tigray, the federal and regional governments have treated each other as illegitimate - the former for holding elections, and the latter for failing to do so. Three weeks ago, the situation spiraled, and war broke out between the federal army in coordination with the Amhara regional forces on the one hand, and the Tigray regional forces on the other.


The humanitarian situation

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Tigray is currently isolated from the rest of the world with no phone or internet services. Air and land transportation in and out of the region is blocked. It is therefore hard to ascertain what is actually happening within Tigray, and especially in the conflict zones. As the war rages however, there is no doubt many have perished on both sides, and the potential for civilian casualties is high since the conflict involves airstrikes, artillery, and missiles. Moreover, infrastructure built over the relatively peaceful past three decades, when the country was registering double-digit economic growth, is also at high risk. Importantly, given that most people in Tigray are farmers and it is now the harvesting season, if the war continued, a devastating famine akin to the 1980s could ensue. To make things worse, the region has recently suffered a locust invasion that destroyed crops. Given the isolation of the region and with no access for humanitarian aid workers and relief supplies, the situation is serving as a “closed system” within which thousands if not millions could perish from starvation and the conflict itself. Two million people are at immediate risk.


Since the start of the war, there has been an exodus of people from the conflict zones to Sudan, the only safe haven close to where the war has concentrated until last week. It is estimated that 25,000 people have already crossed the border and find themselves in a dire situation, deprived of basic needs, and experiencing family separation. This is however only the beginning and Sudan is bracing for over 200,000 refugees. Federal army have now approached Tigray from the southern and eastern directions, and conflict on multiple fronts is underway. Here, civilians have nowhere to go as the Sudanese border is over 700 kilometers away from either side.


Potential danger to world heritage sites

In addition to the humanitarian crisis, unique world heritage sites are at high risk of being damaged if the conflict and use of airstrikes and artillery continued.  We all remember what happened in Syria where several cultural heritage sites were destroyed over the course of various conflicts. Tigray is home to the UNESCO world heritage site of Axum where one finds the exquisitely carved, 24 meters high, 1,700 years old monolithic tomb marker obelisks. Some of these are under restoration and risk crumbling if explosions occur nearby, let alone if hit accidentally. This would erase a unique part of humanity’s heritage and must be protected at any cost. Beyond Axum, most of Tigray is home to abundant but fragile rock churches and other archeological sites that date to between 800 BC and 1000 AD. South of Tigray, in Amhara region, two world heritage sites, Lalibela and Gondar, dating back to the 12th and 17th century AD respectively, are similarly close to the conflict zone.


The national and international dimensions of the war

While the war is now confined to Tigray, it is already having a ripple effect on the rest of Ethiopia and beyond. Over the past two years, the country has witnessed a high number of internally displaced people. Widespread conflicts leading in many cases to killing of civilians across many regions, have alas become commonplace, as have high-profile assassinations including the former Chief of Staff of the Army, the president of the Amhara region, and a very popular Oromo singer. With the government now focused on the war in Tigray, many ask if the rest of Ethiopia will be stable? The government has ostensibly pulled out an army contingent that was stationed in neighboring Somalia to aid with the fight against Al-Shabab, presenting a clear regional and imminent danger. This is doubtless one of the ripple effects of the war on Tigray resonating beyond the Ethiopian borders.  Furthermore, with thousands of Ethiopian refugees from Tigray now in Sudan, both the Sudanese government and humanitarian agencies will come under stress.  Importantly, the reported involvement in the war of President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, who displays an unapologetic animosity towards the leaders of Tigray, is worrisome. Eritrea shares a long common border with Tigray on the northern side, and both governments have downplayed this claim or refuse to comment on it. Yet, captured Eritrean soldiers were seen on TV. This would give the war a major international dimension. Beyond Africa, reports on the involvement of the United Arab Emirates in helping the Ethiopian government’s efforts with drone attacks will have far reaching implications similar to what we saw in Yemen.   In many ways the war is rapidly metastasizing and evolving in a direction which is hard to predict, making the case for taking preemptive political and diplomatic measures imperative.


What should be done?

In light of the above ongoing or imminent dangers to civilians in Tigray and world heritage sites in Tigray and Amhara regions, and the ripple effects the war is exerting on destabilizing Ethiopia and the HOA, de-escalation and negotiation is the only viable solution. This is not far-fetched. The leaders of the Tigray region and the federal government were members of the same coalition party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) up until 2018. Both know what war means. Sadly, Ethiopians and the HoA have seen more than enough war, famine and perilous exodus. War should not be the option. It is sad to observe major international players watching the rapidly degenerating situation in Tigray from the sidelines. Where is the African Union, the United Nations, USA, EU, China and other countries that have influence over the warring parties? It is also time for UNESCO to raise its voice about the heritage sites in northern Ethiopia, especially the vulnerable Axum obelisks, so that they will be preserved for posterity.


Intractably, we could have different opinions as to who is right and wrong about this potentially catastrophic war in Ethiopia, yet we all should prioritize: 1) the safety of civilian lives especially the most vulnerable; 2) the wellbeing of those forced to flee their homes and are now in camps lacking basic necessities; and 3) the safety of humanity’s irreplaceable heritage. This can only be achieved if the two parties come to the table. Tables don’t kill but guns do. We call upon the international community to act and avoid a humanitarian calamity which is now beyond brewing.  

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