Fear pervades as Tigrayans rounded up after battlefield reversals

Lawyers say ethnic Tigrayans living outside embattled region are being arrested and their businesses shut amid eight-month conflict.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said it was monitoring reporting of arrests of media personnel and residents of Tigray ethnic origin [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Luwam Gebrekirstos* spent her savings from years of working abroad as a maid to open a small coffee shop in Addis Ababa. Business was going well for the ethnic Tigrayan resident of Ethiopia’s capital until early July when a number of uniformed and plainclothes officers came to her shop and abruptly shut it down.

“The closure sign on my coffee shop said I had hosted unspecified meetings, even though it can barely hold three people at once,” said Luwam, who was briefly arrested before being released that evening.

The incident came days after Tigrayan fighters, in a stunning turn of events, retook control of Mekelle, the capital of the northern Tigray region, from federal government forces.

The eight-month conflict in Tigray pitting the Ethiopian army and its allied Eritrean troops and fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region against forces loyal to the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has been marred by grave human rights abuses, including massacres and rape, with hundreds of thousands of people facing famine.

Outside Tigray, reports have also emerged about a number of ethnic Tigrayans having their businesses shuttered, being dismissed from their jobs in the civil or security sector and being arbitrarily arrested since the start of the fighting in November 2020. The Ethiopian government has previously rejected reports of ethnic profiling, telling Al Jazeera they were a “total lie”.

But ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa say the situation has escalated following the recent battlefield reversals. Among those swept up in the new wave of arrests were at least 15 employees of two independent media outlets, as well as Tsegazab Kidanu, a humanitarian aid coordinator at the Finote Yared Philanthropic local charity.

A recent letter from Tigrayan lawyers to the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), seen by Al Jazeera, said “an unknown number of ethnic Tigrayans, but which are believed to run in the thousands, have been rounded up from their workplace, from entertainment spots, from their homes and from the streets and taken to police stations before their whereabouts disappeared.”

It said this has happened in various cities across Ethiopia, but especially in Addis Ababa, where “hundreds of business places frequented by Tigrayans including restaurants, bars, cafés and other businesses have been shut down without any reason, under the pretext of an unwritten informal excuse that they are a security threat.”

In a July 3 statement commenting on the situation in Tigray, the EHRC also said it was monitoring reporting of arrests of media personnel and residents of Tigray ethnic origin “suspected of connection with the ongoing situation” in the region.

“Such measures aggravate the public’s concerns on risk of ethnic profiling,” it said, while EHRC head Daniel Bekele added it was “imperative to ensure due process for all persons currently in detention”.

Mebrahtom Alula*, a lawyer who closely monitors the situation, said he has identified the enforced disappearances of at least 41 ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, including a relative of his who had his restaurant closed more than a week ago and his whereabouts are still unknown. He said those arrested are not taken to court within 48 hours of their arrest, in violation of their rights to due process.

“The widespread nature of the arrests with people arrested for either talking Tigrinya in the streets or having an ID issued in Tigray tells me this kind of crackdown, at least in my decade-plus time in my work, is unprecedented,” he told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reached out to the spokesperson of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication. Government and security officials have not publicly acknowledged the arrests and business closures, while a spokesperson for the federal police commission told the Addis Standard publication on July 5 they do not arrest “citizens based on their identity”.

Ethnic Tigrayans comprise about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 110 million people, but for nearly 30 years played an outsized role in the country’s military, economy and civil service.

The battle-hardened TPLF had led a long-running military campaign that in 1991 overthrew the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam and then went on to become the dominant force in Ethiopia’s governing coalition, until Abiy took office in 2018.

Hours after Ethiopia’s army vacated Mekelle on June 29, Abiy’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons. The TPLF slammed the declaration as a “joke” and later listed a series of conditions for ceasefire talks – but several of its demands, including that the federal government recognise the TPLF’s rule of Tigray, are almost certain to be rebuffed.

In a speech after the evacuation of Mekelle, Abiy accused Tigrayan civilians of backing the forces loyal to the TPLF, which has been designated a “terrorist” group by the Ethiopian parliament. During a recent interview, Abiy aide Dagnachew Assefa hinted at the registration and possible expulsion of Tigrayans, comparing it to events surrounding the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war.

“What I fear is that there could be a terrorist activity and assassination in Addis Ababa, it doesn’t need a big network,” he told a pro-government outlet. “They could send them the list (from Mekelle) or they could send a hit squad from there to coordinate assassination here.”

The escalation has left many ethnic Tigrayans outside Tigray fearing for the worst.

“I have my own personal fears for my safety as a Tigrayan who is trying to help the most vulnerable, but I convince myself since I did no wrong, I can free myself if and when I’m arrested,” said Mebrahtom.

“I think the repression will continue until there is a real ceasefire in the Tigray war and the international community puts real pressure on the Ethiopian government to stop its repression of Tigrayan civilians living outside of Tigray,” added another lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Meanwhile, Luwam said she is still anticipating officials to reverse their decision and allow her to welcome back customers at her café.

“I’m waiting every day at the door of my closed coffee house, hoping that the authorities discover I didn’t do anything wrong and reopen my business,” she said.

*Name changed for security reasons

Source: Al Jazeera