Stand With Tigray: Fighting a Genocide
TW: mentions of genocide, rape, and war
Editors Note: In the print version of this story the Tufts Observer did not place an art credit to the photographer our art was based on. The imagery created for this piece in the print version was based off of a photo by Nariman El-Mofty. The Observer apologizes for this mistake.
On Nov. 4, 2020, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia restricted all media and declared war on the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Since that day, families and friends have been cut off from the internet, humanitarian aid, and each other. The prime minister’s systematic targeting of the Tigrayan people and resulting deaths have led many people to term the events a genocide. The United Nations recently reported that more than nine million people in Tigray are currently in need of humanitarian food assistance and almost 40 percent of Tigrayans are suffering from an extreme lack of food in a human-made famine. However, the Ethiopian government is blocking all aid from getting to the people who need it the most.
The New York Times reported that “Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before war erupted one year ago, setting off a cascade of destruction and ethnic violence that has engulfed Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country.”
The World Peace Foundation, the United Nations, The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, among other international organizations, have cited human rights violations on both sides of the genocide, but as the World Peace Foundation puts it, “there is a clear and overwhelming difference in the scale and the systematic nature of abuses perpetrated by government-aligned forces against Tigrayan civilians.” The abuses committed by government forces include systematic and perpetrated rape, forced displacement, human-made famine, massacre, and the use of national media to broadcast hate speech.
Even with all of these human rights violations, the government has stopped most humanitarian aid from entering Tigray. No journalists have been allowed to enter and, due to the media blackout, all communication in the region has been blocked, and Tigrayans outside of Tigray have no way of contacting their family and loved ones.
Alex de Waal, the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, has been working for over 40 years on the issues of war, genocide, and human rights violations across the world, including in Somalia, Rwanda, and Darfur. He said, “there is no situation [that] I’ve encountered these [past] 40 years studying some of the world’s most horrible disasters that is as comprehensively grave as the situation in Tigray over the last 15 years in terms of the breadth and the scale of human suffering, exceeded only by the genocide in Rwanda.”
Senior Lwam Gidey was born in Tigray and moved to the United States for high school and has many family and friends back home in Tigray. When Gidey woke up on Nov. 5, 2020, she and her sister were shocked to hear news of the war that had started in their home.
Gidey described her reaction to the start of the war: “I’ve always been connected to my culture [and] to my people in my community, so, when [the war started], it was a very urgent emergency [and] very heartbreaking… the fact that there was no telecommunication and that Tigray was completely under [a] blockade made me really fear the possibility of losing my family [and] friends.”
In response, Gidey founded the nonprofit Stand With Tigray, a global campaign that aims to support Tigrayans and help others learn about the humanitarian crisis and take action. By Nov. 6, 2020, they had created a website to serve as a witness and news source for the atrocities occurring in Tigray. “We wanted to fight against the mass atrocities that were happening and to be able to be a voice to our voiceless people back home in Tigray,” Gidey said. Stand With Tigray has taken actions such as creating trends on Twitter (#StandWithTigray), hosting webinars, organizing petitions and calls to representatives, and raising donations to help Tigrayan refugees in Kenya.
Gidey said one of the hardest parts of this genocide is the media blackout that de Waal called an “extraordinarily effective information blackout and disinformation campaign.” “I haven’t been able to speak with my family for over a year and a half, and I don’t know if my friends or loved ones are still alive or dead,” explained Gidey.
The media blackout has been emotionally devastating for Tigrayans, but it has also made it hard for journalists who cannot enter the area. Gidey explained that organizations like Amnesty International and media outlets like CNN and BBC have used satellites to detect bombs and drones in their investigations of the area. Stand with Tigray aims to raise awareness and create action by amplifying these investigations on its social media in hopes of pressuring the international community to act.
Haddush G. Gebremedhin, a Tufts University alumni and founding member of the Tigray Rescue Mission Advocacy Group, also spoke on the impact of the media blackout. He recounted his experience of being unable to contact his family back home in Tigray while he was a student: “I never heard the voice of my mother, my brothers, my father. Imagine this, how difficult it is for students going to school and studying without any information about their family. It was a very traumatic time for me.”
In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, he explained part of his rationale for starting the advocacy group: “During the last couple of years, I have been physically here, mentally, and spiritually; however, I am with my people back home in Ethiopia… We are responsible… for being the voice of the people. This is the only power I have today—[to] let others know the active human suffering and [to] call [people] to action.”
In an interview, Gebremedhin also commented on the difference between the international community’s reaction towards the crisis in Ukraine and the genocide in Tigray. Regarding Tigray, he said, “I don’t see that [the international community has] sufficient information. Why? Because [the genocide] is being committed in a black-out situation; there is no flow of information through media.” Without information to generate awareness, Tigrayans are going through a genocide largely without an international outcry.
Gebremedhin also commented on how international organizations and governments that are aware of the genocide are less inclined to intervene because of narratives rooted in colonialism and complex political relationships. “They know what is happening. This is happening in Africa, which is really in terms of political strategy or ideology, there is a really different interest in [Africa],” said Gebremedhin.
Solomon Mezgebu is a human rights advocate and Tufts alumni who recounted a recent phone call with his cousin living in Tigray. Mezgebu said, “he traveled for three days… to a place where there is residual cell phone communication to give me a call. [My cousin told] me my cousins and their children are hungry and they need help from me, but I can’t do anything. I can’t send money, I can’t call them, I can’t send food or anything. To hear such a voice of agony and helplessness is just terrible.”
Since the 1980s, de Waal has worked to advocate for and uplift Tigrayan voices. For example, in a blog post in 2021, he shared his call with former senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, who escaped from the capital city of Tigray in November 2021 to the mountains. Over 250,000 people streamed the call, where Gebrehiwot described the current situation in Tigray.
De Waal also looked to the future, saying it is a must to consistently tell the world what is going on, even if it doesn’t seem to have an effect, “because a time will come for accountability,” and once access to the country is granted, there will be a great need for targeted humanitarian support.
Gidey explained that even as she balances school with this global campaign, the support from her family here and back home, as well as from the Stand with Tigray team, helps her to keep going. She explained that there are “people back home who have so much hope in us and also just seeing that they are very resilient; they’re still hopeful that peace will come. So it’s kind of like not giving up on my people.”
She also said helping her people in any way that she can is what grounds her and inspires her resilience. “I think that the only thing that matters to me at this moment is to be able to see justice for my people. Without that happening, I don’t think I can stop fighting.”
Students can go to swtigray.org to learn more about what is happening in Tigray and to take action. They can find places to donate to support Tigrayan refugees, ways to send letters, petitions to sign, guidance on how to tweet and share information on social media, and stories that elevate the voices and experiences of Tigryans.