The experience of hundreds of foreigners trapped in Tigray who has listened to them?

Tigray diaspora protest in Washington DC before the onset of the Ethiopia Tigray conflict that they fear Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed will start a war!

The USA policy on dealing with Ethiopia Tigray conflict and humanitarian crisis is at least partly based upon the testimony of hundreds of foreign passport holders who were trapped in Tigray. Meanwhile the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has ignored them.

At the time of the onset of the Ethiopia Tigray conflict in November 2020 there were thousands of foreigners both ex-patriot and diaspora present in Ethiopia. NGO employees, religious missionaries, foreign development/business,  and academics from China, India, Europe, USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others. Following the capture of Mekelle many were gathered there. They numbered in the hundreds at least.

At that time I had been Professor and Chief of Neurosurgery at Mekelle University in Tigray. Leaders of the University and our Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital met with representatives of the Red Cross. There was no active effort by the occupying Ethiopian or Eritrean troops to address the issue of trapped foreigners. The Chinese were given special treatment so that they  organized their own affairs and were allowed to take armed buses to Samara in the Afar Region. Meanwhile all others were cut off from banking, communication including to their embassies, or traveling. I became the coordinator working with the Red Cross to try and evacuate and inform American diaspora as well as expatriates. We had meetings together with Indian, European, Australian, South Korean, Japanese and other foreign passport holders. Holding these meeting was difficult and frankly discreet because the occupying forces did not want us to talk to them. 

Being a former soldier schooled in the Geneva Convention to which Ethiopia is a signatory I wanted to inform the Red Cross of all combatants who were treated at Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital so that their families would be notified. Instead I was threatened with arrest for aiding terrorists.

Diaspora women especially young women were constantly harassed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. Most of the diaspora were visiting relatives in Tigray. The soldiers treated them like they were spies or had fake US passports. Sometimes passports were confiscated and personal belongings seized. Any cash in their wallets was often taken. 

Initially some communication was tried via the World Food Program and the Red Cross but quickly the occupying forces became convinced that NGOs were somehow cooperating with the Tigray military. Some initial attempts to send buses of foreign passport holders to Samara in Afar Region were tried with intermittent success however the Ethiopian authorities mostly blocked diaspora from leaving for some time. 

Many Tigray diaspora when they finally made it Addis Ababa were “detained” or even arrested. When they tried to check in for flights to leave at the airport they were blocked or apprehended. The American and other embassies spent considerable time getting them free. Some of them at the airport were actually other ethnic groups who had visited other regions but because their name “sounded” like a Tigrayan they were arrested.

The right to visit the World Food Program, Catholic Charities, or the Red Cross was soon blocked by the occupying forces. They would physically harass the women, often steal cash present on the person, in a least one case stole a motor vehicle, and did arrest some foreigners who would wait in line at the World Food Program office just to hand in a message requesting evacuation.

These diaspora and foreigner workers were important witnesses to the human rights violations and atrocities committed in Tigray. I know the United States State Department, Australian, and European equivalents interviewed hundreds collecting first hand testimony. Additionally many of us have responded to inquiry by the investigating bodies of the African Union and the United Nations. Yet to my knowledge the so called Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has avoided collecting any information from these important witnesses. Non Oromo or Non Tigray Ethiopian complainers of American policy now in place should understand that American policy is based upon a very good knowledge of what was happening and is happening in Tigray.

I remain very thankful to the Indian government for facilitating my own evacuation.

The Ethiopian response to the Tigray insurgency is not a winning strategy

The Tigray insurgency plan has a considerable chance for success when compared with many previous historical fights.  Insurgency against an established governmental institution have happened since prehistoric times. Scholars in schools of war and government policy have studied these occurrences to see if there are factors which can reliably predict who will prevail? Certain patterns emerge from these studies.

Map of the studied 59 cases of insurgency in the world

Of the past 59 cases of insurgency across the globe those occurring in Africa more than the other regions have tended to favor the insurgent force.

When we apply this type of analysis to the Ethiopia Tigray conflict we find there are some important factors which favor Tigray and go against Ethiopia prevailing with a successful counter insurgency plan.

  1. Allowing the Tigray to switch from a guerrilla type of warfare to conventional warfare. The resurgence of Tigray from being trapped in mountains with only rifles to functioning as an army was an important step towards potential victory.
  2. The large component of experienced professional fighters in the Tigray Defense Force. Upwards of 75% of the experienced officers and all important noncommissioned officers of the pre-existing Ethiopian Army are now fighting with Tigray Defense Force. Many of the leadership of the current Ethiopian National Defense Force were defeated by the the same Tigray leadership in the Derg war.
  3. Ethiopia applying an “iron fist” of repression ethnic punishment. Case after case has shown that ethnic cleansing and repression builds support for the insurgency. A resilient fighting force with determination and high morale is created.
  4. Ethiopian failure to include motives for negotiation and wither Tigray support. Offers to negotiate a peace take the power away from insurgents and tend to favor the government. Abiy Ahmed’s refusal to negotiate goes against conventional wisdom in dealing with insurgency.
  5. Ethiopian reliance on a foreign nation to successfully fights it battles. The requirement of Eritrean support ex parte portrays weakness on the part of Ethiopia and emboldens the Tigray insurgency.
  6. Ethiopia inability to counter diaspora support. World wide support by Tigray diaspora has resulted in condemnation of Ethiopian practices on the Tigray people including starvation, abuse, ethnic cleansing, and discrimination against noncombatants.
  7. Most insurgencies average a 6 year duration yet Ethiopia cannot economically sustain its current military spending more than a few months. Ethiopia has already spent $ 2 billion in one year equal to its whole annual budget. It had only $480 million left to last the rest of year but spent another $51 million on weapons from Turkey. Inflation and the falling birr which may drop to 100 birr to the dollar predicts risk of state failure.