Ethiopia crisis raises new fears as civil war shows no signs of abating

·15 min read

More than a year into a bloody civil war in Ethiopia that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced upwards of 2 million people, experts fear the worst is yet ahead.

With the political power of Africa’s second-largest nation of 115 million people at stake, Ethiopia’s federal government remains at odds with fighters from the northern Tigray region, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who have been steadily advancing south toward the capital, Addis Ababa, since early October.

“It seems bleak at the moment,” Terje Østebø, an associate professor at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, told Yahoo News. “It seems like nobody really wants to negotiate. It might end up being the one that is victorious on the battlefield is the one that wins. When and how that happens is the big question.”

The reason for the war derives from Tigrayan opposition to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who rose to power in 2018 thanks in large part to support from the country’s largest group, the Oromo ethnicity. The group had long felt ostracized in countrywide politics, and Abiy, an Oromo himself, positioned himself to fix that.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. (NTB Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen via Reuters)

Before then, the TPLF controlled the country’s politics for 27 years, and Abiy had once been a part of its government. Since winning the election, however, Abiy has ruled on his own terms, seeking to squeeze the TPLF of its power and influence across the country.

Tigrayan forces formed the TPLF in 1975 on the ideals of liberation and revolution. The group centered itself as a rebel organization with a deep sense of national identity. It took 16 years for the TPLF to rise to national prominence, and its nearly 30-year reign is fracturing in less than 30 months.

The rebel fighters held their own elections in September 2020 in defiance of Abiy, and in turn Ethiopian leaders cut off funding to the region. TPLF forces responded by attacking a military base in Tigray in November of last year and looting weapons, which led Abiy to order a military offensive against Tigrayan leadership, launching the civil war.

A Tigray People's Liberation Front fighter.
A TPLF fighter surrounded by supporters in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, in Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

One year later, the fighting has only intensified, spilling into other parts of the country, as peace talks have taken a back seat to the power struggle. Tales of gang rape of more than a dozen women as recently as August, the murder of innocent citizens and the starvation of millions have plagued the conflict, further threatening the stability of the entire region.

A path toward progress, for many, appears daunting.

“This is really a conflict between elites — not a conflict between peoples,” a source familiar with nuances of the Ethiopian conflict on the ground told Yahoo News. The source agreed to speak under condition of anonymity, fearing retribution on the ground amid the ongoing conflict.

“It’s been sparked by leaders who are pushing messages to serve their agendas,” the source added. “Some of the rhetoric on both sides has been the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that you see before genocide takes place, or in the midst of it.”

A woman weeps in front of a tomb containing the remains of her husband and other family members.
A woman weeps in front of a tomb containing the remains of her husband, his brother and his nephew, located among mass graves in Mai Kadra, Ethiopia. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Ethiopia is a multiethnic country with interethnic conflict that has spanned decades. But this civil war has felt terrifyingly different from infighting in the past, reminding many of the Rwanda genocide, where for about 100 consecutive days in 1994 an estimated 800,000 people were killed by ethnic Hutu extremists. The mostly Tutsi victims were targeted for their ethnicity and political affiliation.

Fearing a reprise of that onslaught, thousands of Ethiopians have fled to Sudan, marking what experts say is the worst exodus the country has seen in two decades.

“The testimonies we heard from survivors describe despicable acts by TPLF fighters that amount to war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity,” reported Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general. “They defy morality or any iota of humanity.”

Atrocities have been committed by both the TPLF and Ethiopian forces, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found in a joint investigation.

Members of the National Defense Force march during a rally.
Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force at a rally in Addis Ababa in October to celebrate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's incumbency. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Fighters for the TPLF last Friday said they would target foreign mercenaries and technical experts supporting the Ethiopian government they were seeking to overthrow. 

“We don’t care [what their nationality is],” TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda told Reuters. “We will hunt them down. They will be treated like the mercenaries they are.”

American and British citizens have been urged to leave Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government is doing all it can to suffocate the TPLF by siphoning off basic resources and access to the outside world. Communication networks have also been cut off, banks are closed, fuel is scarce and the few hospitals that are open have been forced to run on generators.

Phones being charged at a temporary shelter.
Phones belonging to displaced people are being charged at a temporary shelter in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

Millions of Ethiopians as a result have had their lives drastically affected. More than 400,000 people are facing starvation and famine in the north, according to a BBC report, and the vast majority of essential medicine is unable to reach the region for those in need. Ethiopian government officials are accused of preventing aid from reaching areas in and around the northern Tigray region that need it, a claim they deny.

International humanitarian groups that are ready to provide aid to those who need it most have been frustrated by the lack of access to the region. Ethiopian authorities detained 70 truckers delivering aid to the region last week, according to the United Nations, after previously arresting 16 local U.N. staffers. Since July, more than 400 trucks with aid have entered Tigray and only 38 have returned, according to U.N. officials.

“It is an extremely difficult environment to work in … as we’ve seen the intensification of fighting,” Alyona Synenko, the regional spokesperson in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Yahoo News.

Since August, the ICRC has delivered emergency materials to more than 100,000 people in surrounding Tigray communities and delivered food to 18 area hospitals. But with a population of 6 million people in Tigray alone, the aid secured thus far pales in comparison to the actual need. An estimated 7 million people remain in need of more help.

A 2-year-old is treated for malnutrition at a hospital.
Gebre Kidan Gebrehiwet, 2, is treated for malnutrition after fleeing from the town of Abi Adi with his mother in May. (Ben Curtis/AP)

“As a humanitarian worker, to see that the needs are so big and it is difficult to reach all the people who urgently need this humanitarian assistance, it’s frustrating,” Synenko said.

Oxfam International, another humanitarian aid group that has been working in Ethiopia since the early 1970s, is calling for deescalation of the fighting to help innocent citizens in dire need of support.

“No matter how you measure this crisis, there is no disputing that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering in catastrophic hunger, and even more are in urgent need of aid,” Parvin Ngala, Oxfam’s regional director for the Horn, East and Central Africa, said in a recent press release. “Oxfam calls for all parties to deescalate the conflict and respect international law, to allow humanitarians to access the most vulnerable and to make cash, fuel, and other services available to allow the economy to recover and for the response to save lives.”

The Ethiopian government earlier this month declared a six-month state of emergency across the entire nation. Al Jazeera reported that the designation allows home searches without a warrant, requires residents to travel with identification and allows suspects to be detained for the entirety of the declaration.

The memorandum worries critics who feel lawlessness looms in a brewing situation that many believe could have been avoided.

Members of the Tigrayan Community Association in South Africa protesting.
Members of the Tigrayan Community Association in South Africa protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, on Nov. 10. (Alet Pretorius/AP)

“I think that is something that definitely could have been avoided had the parties been more engaged in trying to solve this politically,” said Østebø, the University of Florida professor. “And it’s not necessarily about Ethiopians versus Tigrayans, it is a political struggle between the current federal government prime minister and the regional government of Tigray. … It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this place.”

Many Ethiopians are now hopeful that other African leaders and international presidents will do what they can to quell the crisis.

Senior Biden administration officials have already threatened Ethiopia with loss of access to a lucrative trade program in 2022 due to human rights violations. Other African leaders have taken more measured approaches to call for mediation, careful not to become a new target of the Ethiopian government.

A banner with a portrait of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
A banner with a portrait of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally in Addis Ababa. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

“A war in Ethiopia would give the entire continent a bad image,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni wrote on Twitter last year, before deleting the tweet. “There should be negotiations and the conflict stopped, lest it leads to unnecessary loss of lives and cripples the economy.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ethiopia this week as part of a five-day trip to Africa, in hopes of helping find a peaceful resolution between the government and the TPLF. But according to the anonymous source with Ethiopian ties on the ground who spoke to Yahoo News, “If the pieces are going to align, it’s going to be African voices that are going to play the leading role.”

Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: A timeline in pictures

NOVEMBER 2020

Members of Amhara region militias riding on a truck.
Members of Amhara region militias on their way to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Ethiopians show their support for federal government forces.
People in Addis Ababa show their support for federal government forces fighting the Tigray People's Liberation Front. (Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The body of an alleged victim of a Nov. 9, 2020, massacre.
The body of an alleged victim of a Nov. 9, 2020, massacre lying in a road on the outskirts of Mai Kadra, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A photograph on a makeshift grave.
A photograph on a makeshift grave of victims who were allegedly killed in the massacre in Mai Kadra. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Ethiopian refugees gather on a riverbank.
Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in the Tigray region gather on a riverbank in Sudan's eastern Kassala state. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)
Ethiopian refugees ride in the back of a vehicle.
Ethiopian refugees ride to a reception center in Sudan's Kassala state. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the Amhara Special Forces keep guard at the 5th Battalion  of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the Amhara Special Forces keep guard at the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Ethiopian refugees stand in for supplies at the Um Rakuba refugee camp which houses refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Sudan. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Ethiopian refugees wait for supplies at a camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border that houses refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gestures at the House of Peoples Representatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to respond to the Parliament on the current conflict between Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the leaders of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).  (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the House of Peoples Representatives in Addis Ababa. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)

DECEMBER 2020

Refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region ride a bus going to the Village 8 temporary shelter, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Refugees who fled the conflict in Tigray on a bus going to a temporary shelter near the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Ethiopians fleeing from the Tigray region arrive by boat to Sudan after crossing a river between the two countries, near the Hamdeyat refugees transit camp. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Ethiopians fleeing the Tigray region arrive by boat in Sudan after crossing a river between the two countries. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
A man carries a sack of food aid from the World Food Program, at the Um Rakuba refugee camp which houses Ethiopians fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the the border in Sudan. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
A man carries a sack of food aid from the World Food Program at a refugee camp on the border in Sudan. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Buses transfering Ethiopian refugees, who fled the Ethiopia's Tigray conflict, from the Border Reception Centre to Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Buses transfering Ethiopian refugees to a refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
A member of the Afar Special Forces stands in front of the debris of a house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober, Tigray Region, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A member of the Afar Special Forces in front of the debris of a house in the village of Bisober in Ethiopia's Tigray region. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Children look on in a classroom with abandoned Tigrayan forces uniforms at an elementary school in the village of Bisober in Ethiopia's Tigray region. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Children in a classroom with abandoned Tigrayan forces' uniforms in the village of Bisober. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Tigrinyan refugees wait in line to receive cooked rice and lentils by Non Governmental Organization Muslim Aid, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Refugees wait to receive rice and lentils supplied by the nongovernmental organization Muslim Aid at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, Sudan. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Shoes left behind belonging to Tigrayan refugees are scattered near the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border after Ethiopian forces blocked people from crossing into Sudan, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Shoes belonging to Tigrayan refugees scattered near the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border after Ethiopian forces blocked people from crossing into Sudan. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Ethiopians, who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, walk at dawn within Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in the eastern Kassala state, Sudan. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)
Ethiopians who fled the fighting in Tigray walk at dawn in a village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)
An Ethiopian man who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, holds on jerricans used as a floater for his goat as they cross the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in the Hamdayet village, in eastern Kassala state, Sudan. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)
A man who fled the fighting in Tigray holds onto jerricans used as a floater for his goat as they cross the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

FEBRUARY 2021

Damaged military vehicles lie on the side of the road north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged military vehicles on the side of the road north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

MARCH 2021

A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house in Wukro, north of Mekele, that was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A young woman at mass graves in the Abune Aregawi Ethiopian Orthodox Church cemetery, in the town of Mai Kadra, Ethiopia. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
A young woman at mass graves in the Abune Aregawi Ethiopian Orthodox Church cemetery in the town of Mai Kadra, Ethiopia. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

MAY 2021

The city of Mekele is seen through a bullet hole in a stairway window of the Ayder Referral Hospital in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (Ben Curtis/AP)
The city of Mekele, in the Tigray region, seen through a bullet hole in a stairway window of a hospital. (Ben Curtis/AP)
A fighter loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) mans a guard post on the outskirts of the town of Hawzen, then-controlled by the group, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (Ben Curtis/AP)
A fighter loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front mans a guard post on the outskirts of the Tigrayan town of Hawzen, then controlled by the group. (Ben Curtis/AP)
An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (Ben Curtis/AP)
A woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Abeba Gebru, 37, from the village of Getskimilesley, holds the hands of her malnourished daughter, Tigsti Mahderekal, 20 days old, in the treatment tent of a medical clinic in the town of Abi Adi, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Abeba Gebru, from the village of Getskimilesley, holds the hands of her malnourished daughter, Tigsti Mahderekal, 20 days old, in a medical clinic in the town of Abi Adi. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Ethiopian pro-government demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the U.S. action over alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in the Tigray region, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Ethiopian pro-government demonstrators in Addis Ababa protest U.S. action over alleged human rights abuses. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Ethiopians protest against international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray, at a demonstration organised by the city mayor's office held at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)
People at a demonstration in a stadium in Addis Ababa protest international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

JUNE 2021

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends his last campaign event ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for June 21, in Jimma, Ethiopia. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a campaign event in Jimma, Ethiopia, five days before the country's parliamentary and regional elections, scheduled for June 21. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
A woman looks through a wall inside of a a polling station in the village of Wereb Michael, a rural area 15 km from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman looks through a wall at a polling station in the village of Wereb Michael. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)
A mother carries her baby on her back as she casts her vote in the general election at a polling center near Entoto Park on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia . (Ben Curtis/AP)
A mother carries her baby on her back as she casts her vote at a polling center on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Workers carry sacks of wheat for a food distribution for 4503 people, who fled the violence in Ethiopia's Tigray region, organized by the local NGO Relief Society of Tigray (REST) through damaged oil cans in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers carry sacks of wheat for a food distribution in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, organized by the local NGO Relief Society of Tigray. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
An injured resident of Togoga, a village about 20km west of Mekele, arrives on a stretcher to the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
An injured resident of Togoga in the Tigray region arrives on a stretcher at a hospital in Mekele. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Female Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters celebrate while sitting on men's shoulders as people celebrate their return on a street in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Female fighters of the Tigray People's Liberation Front celebrate while sitting on men's shoulders as they return to the Tigrayan capital, Mekele. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

JULY 2021

Wounded captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive on a truck at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Wounded captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive on a truck at a rehabilitation center in Mekele. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
People react as captive Ethiopian soldiers walk towards Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
People react as captive Ethiopian soldiers walk toward the rehab center in Mekele. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
A protester gestures as he stands with others during a rally against The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in Addis Ababa. ( Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
A protester at a rally against the Tigray People's Liberation Front in Addis Ababa. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)

SEPTEMBER 2021

Spent bullet casings are seen on the ground near a mass grave for victims killed in an alleged massacre in the village of Chenna, 95 kilometres northeast of the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. (Amanuel SileshiI/AFP via Getty Images)
Spent bullet casings on the ground near a mass grave for victims killed in an alleged massacre in the village of Chenna. (Amanuel SileshiI/AFP via Getty Images)
A soldier from the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) gestures after finishing training in the field of Dabat, 70 kilometres northeast of the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
A soldier from the Ethiopian National Defense Force after he finished training in Dabat, 70 kilometers northeast of the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Genet Mehari, 5, is treated for malnutrition but with limited medicine, at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP)
Genet Mehari, 5, is treated for malnutrition, but with limited medicine, at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele. (AP)

OCTOBER 2021

People walk with national flag on a street as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is sworn in for a new five-year term in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
People march with the national flag in Addis Ababa as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is sworn in for a new five-year term on Oct. 4. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed takes oath during his incumbent ceremony at the Parliament building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed takes the oath at the parliament building in Addis Ababa. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath at the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP)
Clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath of an airstrike in Mekele on Oct. 20. (AP)
A satellite image shows smoke rising from Mekelle, Ethiopia. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 Imagery, processed by @defis_eu/Handout via Reuters)
A satellite image of smoke rising from Mekele. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 Imagery, processed by @defis_eu/Handout via Reuters)

NOVEMBER 2021

Demonstrators march on the National Mall in Washington, DC, marking the one-year anniversary of the Ethiopian government's decision to deploy troops into the country's northernmost Tigray region. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Demonstrators march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 4, marking the first anniversary of the Ethiopian government's decision to deploy troops into Tigray. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
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