Terror in Tigray. Trapped in Leuven


29 november 2020
Auteur(s): Ben Williams
As conflict rages in Ethiopia between government forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigrayan students at KUL prepare for a long exile as war continues with no end in sight

by Ben Williams

Contributing Writer

Article originally published by Veto in Dutch on 26 November 2020

'He's shit scared.' Two weeks ago I'd sat down with Liya (not real name) as she cooked thick handfuls of Ethiopian "Njarra" pancakes, joking about her shy boyfriend and weddings in her home region of Tigray.

Now she sits opposite me, flattened - 'I can't sleep, I don't even eat'; as if hit herself by some long-delayed version of the bombs the Ethiopian government has been dropping on her hometown in the highlands.

There have been reports of armed men going door to door and dragging Tigrayans away at random

She calls her mother's family in Addis, the capital of Ethiopia, three or four times a day. There have been reports of armed men going door to door and dragging Tigrayans away at random. She calls them 'security forces' but no-one seems to know who or what they are, other than that those taken reappear in government detention centres. A family friend has already been arrested; many have simply lost their jobs overnight.

The UNHCR, the UN Refugees Agency, is warning of a 'full scale humanitarian crisis' in Tigray itself, yet Liya's father remains there. An internet and network blackout has left her exiled; following the tweets which are smuggled out via satellite phones, and hoping for news. She's an engineer. Too fierce to cry: facts cannot be avoided. She doesn't know if she will speak to him again, but her hands sketch out vague figures - 'If he's dead, what can I do?'

Liya is one of the 6% of Ethiopians who come from the Tigray region which nestles up against the Eritrean border in the north of the country. Long standing tensions between Tigrayan leaders and the central government broke out into conflict on November 4th, as Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed declared an offensive to 'save the nation', reportedly in response to a TPLF attack on a federal military compound.

Mountainous and economically underdeveloped, Tigray spearheaded the 1991 revolt against the Derg dictatorship. This gave the TPLF almost total control of Ethiopian politics in the 27 years before PM Abiy Ahmed's takeover in 2018. His leadership of the transition towards a more pluralistic democracy won him a premature Nobel Peace prize.

Since then, international observers have accused the TPLF of undermining reforms and fermenting ethnic violence. Many Ethiopians resent their treatment under the previous TPLF-led system, accusing the then government of developing Tigray at their expense. As Liya points out however, the region lacks infrastructure more than ever. She blames government-run media for a campaign to demonise Tigrayans, tarring the community as terrorists and violent separatists. 

For their part, Tigrayans are worried about the protection of Tigrayan identity and the federal system, in a society which has typically been highly centralised under a class of Amharic-speaking elites. Abiy’s apparent insensitivity to these concerns, and determination to sideline the TPLF in negotiating the peace with Eritrea (among other issues), leaves him largely responsible for the current crisis, writes Tsedale Lemma in an Op-Ed for The New York Times. The PM's actions risk a Yugoslavian style ethnic meltdown.

Like many international students of colour, Liya has often felt unwelcome in Flanders

For Liya though, history is now a luxury. Like many international students of colour, Liya has often felt unwelcome in Flanders: 'I've never felt like I belong here.' Yet she is now forced to be the breadwinner for her extended family. Either she 'makes it' in Europe or returns home a burden. Her boyfriend hopes to join her: if he is not stopped at the airport, he will come here with nothing but three months of hope for an escape. After October, Liya's visa in Belgium runs out, and they must then negotiate the byzantine process of claiming asylum. If the system fails them, she will be forced to wander through Europe on a series of short-stay permits: hoping that the months here and there will stave off a return, and somehow allow her to get a legitimate job. She knows the odds are high, but for now, being here is beating them. A woman who would have built dams, bridges, waterways - she will now have to move mountains simply to find herself a place to be.

*For reasons of safety, names have been changed.

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