In the face of terrible civilian atrocities done to the Tigray people by the invading Ethiopian National Defense Force, Amhara militias, Eritrean military, and Somali mercenaries there are increasing reports of mercy and kindness given to their attackers by Christians and Muslims.
The city and villages surrounding Hawzen have been the victim of attack first in 1988 at a market place where hundreds of civilians where massacred and again this Spring. The following is an eyewitness account (corrected for grammatically errors) of mercy in the face of horror:
“Last March near Hawzen there were joint offensive attacks against TDF by both Eritrean and Ethiopian forces with heavily mechanized army targeting civilians. The TDF waited them in a very strategic place to counterattack which caused the enemy to be dispersed. Some of the enemy soldiers were captured by farmers who had seen friends and family cut down by enemy fire while they was trying to hide themselves around their village. The farmers held them and the soldiers started to cry …one soldier said that they deserved even death punishment but he pleaded to the farmer to be taken and killed in front of the church in order to save his body from being consumed by vulture or hyena. But the farmers were with full of humanity and mercy, they gave food and taken to POW center with out any harm.”
Here is another account from a village near Mekelle”
“In wejerat ..it is just east of mekelle. One farmer is killed by Ethiopian soldier and immediately some the attacking soldiers captured and taken to to show to the victim’s family what the soldier had done. But the family of the victim told to TDF to not harm them …since they have a family like us ..we dont need a bad thing on them we need only a verdict from God”….
In the attached picture TDF talks to gathered Amhara of a captured city to reassure them that their everyday life can continue under their local leaders.
The methods and motivation of the Tigray Defense Force are analogous to the Biblical hero, Gideon, in the victory of the Midianites in ancient Israel. Gideon is a venerated saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with a connected legacy to the Tigray. They are using a method of strategic encirclement of intended targets and showing their tactical superiority in night attack followed by negotiation with local leaders to bring surrender leaving the local authorities in charge. In this way they have captured much equipment and prisoners but with minimal civilian casualties. Like the ancient Israelis they are making alliances to make their former potential adversaries see who is real enemy.
The Tigray people or Tegaru trace their heritage to the ancient Saba people who lived around the Red Sea who would give rise to the Semitic peoples including the Arabs and Israelis. Thousands of years ago the Saban Queen of Sheba bore a son from King Solomon of Israel who went on to form the Axumite Empire based in what is now the city of Axum in Northern Tigray. The early Tigrayans were followers of Judaism until they converted to Christianity under King Ezana. Their particular form of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is similar to Eastern Orthodoxy and still follows many Jewish customs such as dietary restrictions. The story of Gideon who is recognized as a saint for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is found in Chapter 28 of the 1 Megabyan book of their Bible.
In the Old Testament following the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt there were many ups and downs in trying to become established in Israel. Early in their history they had strayed from following God and built an altar to the false god, Baal. As a result of this God had rendered them to be constantly besieged and attacked by the Midianites who would take their crops and occupied their land. The Midianites were relatives of the Israelis, in fact Moses wife Zipporah had come from this tribe, but over the years the Midianites never accepted the covenant the Israelis had made with God. The king of the Midianites rather than having his people worship God wanted the people to worship him in a cult. God sent a prophet named Gideon to help the Israelis find their way and punish the Midianites.
The Israelis where vastly outnumbered in the tens of thousands so Gideon had recruited more than 22,000 fighters for battle. However, God said they had to be righteous so he tested with with how they would drink water from a pond. Only 300 passed the test. In order for the Jews to win the battle they had to follow God’s instructions. Gideon’s army was well trained and disciplined. Using trumpets and torch proclaiming their righteousness they were victorious in a disciplined night attack against the Midianites.
Recently the world was stunned when the very small region of Tigray managed to retake most of its territory back from the federal forces of the Ethiopian national government who has one of the largest armies in Africa. To those who know the past 100 years this is not so surprising. A look at the recent history of the Ethiopian empire, a collection of many ethnic groups struggling for dominance, over the past century lends insight to current events.
How Western Civilization Has Looked at Ethiopia
Many scholars had looked at what had happened to Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries trying to understand its evolution and how it would progress. Donald Levine wrote in his work Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society that Ethiopia would develop a national identity due to experience of war, famine, religious conflict, trade development etc. The dominance of Amharic emperors during this time period until the late 1960s favored the development of an idealistic concept of Amharic elitism as a central theme as well.
Although many languages both Cushitic and Semitic are spoken in Ethiopia, for hundreds of years the Amhara leadership of the country (beginning with the monarchy) as well as the Ethiopian orthodox church essentially mandated that the Amhara language would be the official language of commerce and government. Elite schools and universities taught in Amharic thus its speakers were seen as superior to the non-speakers of Amharic. Those wishing to become “educated” had to learn Amharic. Political ideas and policies thus became mostly associated with this Amharic elitism. Until just the past two decades attendance of the prestigious Addis Ababa University was limited to the Amhara.
What is the Tigray Identity
The Tigray people claim their ancestry to the Axumite empire which was started by the Queen of Sheba, a Biblical figure, who lived thousands of years ago ( an aristocrat of the ancient Saba people who lived about the eastern and western areas bordering the Red Sea and spoke a Semitic language). Legend has it she conceived a son with King Solomon of Israel and converted to Judaism. Centuries later the Axumite empire converted to Christianity under King Ezana. Although early kings of Northern Ethiopia were Tigray they eventually lost power to the Amhara whose background is also related to that of the Tigray. The Tigray have a long tradition of being a warrior clan. In fact going back centuries in both domestic battles and battles against foreign invaders their abilities as fighters and commanders of armies were always sought. At same time these qualities have always fostered suspicion by other ethnic groups especially when the military services of the Tigray were no longer needed. Most recently the term Tigray is most often used to describe the region while the term Tegaru is coming more into use to describe its people and now even being used to differentiate them from Eritreans.
The Rise of the Tigray
The rise of the Tigray who make up only 6% of the population of Ethiopia to lead an alliance that would topple a powerful government without any outside assistance starting from essentially no resources was unexplainable to scholars. Daniel Young a journalist with the Sudan Times began to follow their rise in 1988 and eventually wrote the definitive scholarly work “The Peasant Revolution of Ethiopia”.
He did numerous interviews with peasants after gaining their trust. He noted then as did others that although there has always been talk about a greater nation for the most part over the past century there have always been nationalist movements within Ethiopia. Ethiopia has always been a empire and not a nation. Although the goal of the Tigray (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front) was primarily to overthrow the Derg (a quasi communist-socialist multiethnic movement which included many military leaders and was supported by the Russian communist party) the TPLF developed the concept that to be successful they had to gain great support from the countryside peasants. One important component was they incorporated educated Tigray women into leadership roles. The Tigray were remarkable for developing and sticking to their ideals and goals, creating alliances, strong action against dissent for which they have been criticized, and finally for basing their strength from a bottom up approach which is significantly different then the Amhara elite model which is a top down scenario.
Bottom Up versus Elitist Lead Revolution
From a social science perspective there has always been controversy over whether a revolutionary movement can be driven by perceived peasant led initiatives (bottom up) or by elitist lead initiatives. The successful revolt of the Vietnamese against French Colonialism and American interference is often demonstrated as a model of the bottom up approach. Thus what we are seeing now is a repeat of this ongoing struggle in Ethiopia of peasant based vs elite based focus and empire vs nation identity once again. How will it turn out?
This is the story I witnessed of the brave unarmed civilians peacefully protesting and blocking invading forces from ransacking Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital in Mekelle, Ethiopia in November of 2020. I had been performing neurosurgery, teaching fellows, and medical students at Mekelle University in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since 2015 in a federal university and hospital. As such I was present in Mekelle from the onset of the war between the Tigray Defense Force and the Ethiopian/Eritrean forces from the onset until my evacuation near the end of December 2020 at the behest of international influence and my family which was three days of driving through multiple checkpoints and unstable areas until we finally arrived in Addis Ababa.
Following the retaking of Mekelle by the Tigray Defense on June 28, 2021 there has been a mixture of sadness and joy. For sometime I have wanted to tell the story of what I think was the most heroic thing I have ever seen in my life which was the unarmed defense of Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital in Mekelle. Prior to this time I felt telling it would result in reprisal to the citizens of Mekelle. Now that Mekelle is free it is important to tell it.
For almost 24 hours on November 25, 2020 the city of Mekelle was attacked constantly by artillery, rocket attack, and airstrikes even though the Tigray Defense Forces had left the city to only civilians. In my own immediate neighborhood just a few blocks from the Mekelle University hospital, Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital many homes and buildings were destroyed and many killed. A market and home for elders was directly hit killing and wounding many.
About 200 yards from my house, a home that housed a large extended family suffered a direct hit that sent shrapnel breaking my windows at about 6:30 in the morning. I ran over there to find a young woman in the street with a severe bleeding wound in upper leg but that was just the beginning of the horror. The walls of the house had been destroyed on two sides and the rest looked like a Swiss cheese with many perforations. On the ground was a motionless young woman who had only a red spot on the ground where her chest was supposed to be. Her lifeless arms were extended with each one holding toddlers. The children where crying. When I pulled back their hair I found that hundreds of small munitions fragments had penetrated the scalp of both children although the eyes seemed okay. There was nothing we could do for the mother nor her mother who lay beside her dead as well from penetrating shrapnel. Remaining family members rushed the sister with the injured leg and the children to Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital.
At the hospital emergency room there was wave after wave of ambulances and private vehicles bringing those hit by the attack who were all civilians. Some could be helped but many were beyond hope. We were able to save the children and their aunt from the attack near my house. Although we would sometimes previously do mass casualty from bus accidents in the past this was a much greater magnitude as we saw more then 120 patients in the first few hours.
Before the invasion of the city, we had been receiving civilian causalities, Tigray Defense Force causalities, and also Federal/Eritrean causalities. We treated them all the same. The local people even brought food and blankets for the all the groups. However after the invasion the tenor of the invading force changed. Many patients were just suddenly whisked away to parts unknown and we were not allowed to inquire.
The next day on November 26, 2020 at which time Federal Ethiopian armed forces and Eritrean forces invaded unopposed the city of Mekelle. For the next few days in Mekelle there were Ethiopian and Eritrean forces looting, shooting, robbing, and harassing civilians all around the Ayder area where I lived and the hospital was located. The hospital was occupied by Ethiopian army regulars, then Special Forces from Oromia, and so-called Federal Police. Then suddenly for about half a day they disappeared.
Rumors where flying in the city that Eritreans where ransacking public utilities, schools, etc. The hospital had always been a source of pride and necessity for not only Mekelle but all of Tigray. The local population of civilians began to put tires, logs, and stones to block trucks or other vehicles in the streets surrounding around Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, the main teaching and tertiary hospital for Tigray, fearing that the hospital which was highly valued by the city would be destroyed or looted. Special Red caped soldiers showed up and began harassing the locals more and more.
The locals did not back off. They gathered by the thousands and began to surround the hospital 24 hours a day. Many times semitrucks and smaller trucks driven by Eritreans which were empty tried to make it to the hospital to loot it but where physically blocked by protestors standing in their way. At one point a group of young men were shouting about ten feet in front me to the soldiers. Suddenly the soldiers fired at them killed one and injuring two others. At that time there were tires burning all around the hospital with thousands of protesters. The soldiers were scared and I feared the worst was going to happen. It was tense until morning. Finally the lined up trucks driven by plain clothed Eritreans were told to leave by the invading forces. The two that survived to be treated were hauled off from the hospital by the invading forces and have not been seen again as far as I know.
Pictures I had of the event were erased by Eritrean patrols that would search me everyday I went to the hospital but I will never forget the bravery of the people in Mekelle who unarmed defended their hospital.