✦Interview Jan Nyssen

For Ghent geology professor Jan Nyssen (63), the civil war in Tigray is not remote. With a team of associates, he collects testimonies of massacres, executions and organized food shortages. His report reads like a damning indictment of Addis Ababa. Partisan? “They are facts we are reporting, though.”

[Rough translation of an article by Erik Raspoet published on DeMorgen magazine (Belgium) on March 30, 2021]

In normal times, the physical geography research group at UGent focuses on the links between geomorphological processes and the human-environment interaction. Typical publications deal with the impact of land and water management on soil and relief. But in recent months, much research has crept into a very different kind of interaction: the civil war in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Since the start of the conflict on November 4, a team around professor of geomorphology and hydrology, Jan Nyssen, has been trying to map the humanitarian toll. That can be taken literally, according to the report Tigray: Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation published on March 9. Massacres, artillery shelling, air and drone attacks: the entire crime scene of the civil war was recorded on a map. The authors traced streams of refugees and displaced persons, and recorded by district the often alarming level of food stocks. The most striking map provides a geographical overview of confirmed civilian casualties.

“We have already collected more than 1,900 names,” says compiler Sofie Annys (28). “All victims of whom we not only know the identity, but of whom we also know where and in what circumstances they died. Our atlas is the result of 2,000 telephone calls, including about a hundred in-depth interviews with witnesses. We also have a second list of more than 7,000 victims that we filtered from messages on social media and websites. Not fully confirmed, but very disturbing.”


Annys is a scientific associate in the Department of Geography. In recent years, she spent several months in Ethiopia for her recently defended PhD on the downstream impact of dams in Tigray and the neighboring Amhara region. The emergency situation is even more personal for her supervisor. Jan Nyssen lived in Tigray for almost ten years, initially as a project assistant for the Leuven professor of soil science, Seppe Deckers, a pioneer of the Flemish academic cooperation with Ethiopia. Even after his appointment as professor in Ghent, he stayed at home there.

Ethiopia emerged as an international donor darling after the fall of the military-communist dictatorship in 1990. Belgian development cooperation also pumped millions into a range of large and small projects, mostly focused on agriculture and food security. They were spread throughout the country, but it was no coincidence that the focal point was in Tigray. The northern region was the epicenter of the apocalyptic famine that claimed at least one million lives in 1984-85 and gave rise to the legendary Live Aid concert.

Concerns about the civil war live in academic circles. In November, the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) published a sharp open letter signed by all rectors. But no one stuck their neck out as far as Nyssen, himself a house owner in Hagere Selam, a town of 10,000 in Tigray.

“I don’t think I can go there anytime soon,” says Nyssen during a joint video interview with Annys. “In the Ethiopian media and on social networks, I am portrayed as a puppet of Tigray’s ruling party, TPLF. That goes pretty far. Two years ago I produced a book on geotrekking in Tigray for a scientific publisher. The Tigrayan Ministry of Tourism had big plans for it. The area described is not inferior to the Grand Canyon, there is a lot of potential for adventure travel. Now there is a rumor in Ethiopia that I made the book specifically to show the TPLF the way to hidden caves from which they can organize guerrilla warfare against the central government. As if two years ago, I was already in a plot to start an uprising against Addis Ababa.”

It goes without saying that the Ethiopian authorities were not pleased with the Ghent report on the humanitarian emergency. The authors say they did receive compliments from various NGOs and embassies. “In all discretion admittedly,” says Nyssen. “NGOs and diplomats have finally been given limited access to the war zone. They don’t want to risk that by irritating Addis Ababa.”

Officially, the civil war is over. On November 28, after four weeks of intense fighting, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was allowed to claim victory. Mekelle, the capital of the rebellious region, had been recaptured and the leaders of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) had fled to the mountains with their troops. According to Abiy Ahmed, not one civilian was killed during the recapture. The Ethiopian leader, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his democratic reforms and especially his peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, often stretches the truth. Despite overwhelming evidence, he denied until last week that his troops were supported by the army of erstwhile arch-rival Eritrea.


In late February, Amnesty International published a sensational report on a massacre that took place in Aksum on November 28 and 29. Hundreds of civilians were massacred at home or on the streets by Eritrean soldiers, according to the testimonies Amnesty International was able to collect. Nyssen and Annys were not at all surprised. The Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) are a common thread through the testimonies they were able to dig up.

“We investigated the Aksum massacre ourselves,” says Nyssen. “We managed, with great difficulty, to reach a sexton of the cathedral. That’s not just any church, but the place where, according to Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is kept. In ancient times, places of worship were sacred; they were the places where people took refuge from violence. In this civil war, however, nothing is spared. Dozens of people were killed in and around the cathedral in Aksum. The sexton was so emotional that he could not get his words out.

“We tried to console him with the consideration that at least the Ark of the Covenant had remained intact. That gave a click, he began to talk about the horrors that had taken place before his eyes. Civilians were executed on the streets. He had seen a man’s legs being cut off with the sickle he was carrying to harvest crops in his field. Our newsletter with his story was picked up by the Associated Press. They contacted the sexton through us to double check his story. That’s how the Aksum massacre became world news, even before the Amnesty International report came out.”

Tigrayan refugees fill their jerry cans with water. Nyssen: ‘Food is weapon in this civil war.” Image AP

Sofie Annys has distilled patterns from the morbid figures. Three percent of confirmed victims died in aerial bombardments or artillery shelling. Surprisingly few; mass killings and summary executions weigh much more heavily, as do murderous house searches and fatal arrests.

“More than half of the executions were attributed to Eritrean soldiers,” says Annys. “In a quarter of the cases, the perpetrators are inconclusive, and the rest are attributed to the Ethiopian army and members of Amhara militias who are taking advantage of the civil war to settle old scores with Tigray.”

Remarkably, 93 percent of the victims are men which, according to Nyssen, points to a strategy of pre-emptively eliminating potential recruits for the Tigrayan guerrilla. “Even teenagers are not spared, perhaps to prevent them from taking revenge later.”

To collect testimonials, Annys and Nyssen approached their own network. Academic colleagues in the cities, project staff in the field, personal acquaintances. They received help from the Leuven citizen scientist Tim Vanden Bempt, who himself married to an Ethiopian from Tigray. Still, it was no easy task. Tigray has been cut off from the outside world since the beginning of November. Borders are closed and the Internet is down. Mobile phone traffic has recently been restored, but only in the larger towns.

“Fortunately, Tigrayans are very adept at finding loopholes,” says Nyssen. “The first conversations were made through satellite phones of some rare NGO employees in the region. Others sought out regional borders where the network did work. The biggest obstacle was fear. Especially at the height of the war, people were afraid to speak out. When we asked for details, they hid behind platitudes. That very bad things were happening, that was all they could say. But after a while we heard more and more explicit stories. This is where the law of numbers comes into play: the more stories, the less restraint because the less chance the authorities have of tracing the source. I think there will be a lot of shocking material to surface in the coming months.”


Such as the YouTube video of a mass execution at the edge of a cliff in the town of Mahbere-Dego, fifteen kilometers from Aksum. The corpses of young men are dumped over the edge by government soldiers, in the background you can see other soldiers carelessly giving the last gunshots. The video, distributed from the United States by Tigrayan satellite channel, fell like a bomb three weeks ago during a guided visit by diplomats to the town of Mekelle.

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is trying to convince the international community that the situation is under control,” says Nyssen. “Then a film like this is very inconvenient. Yet a semblance of normality has set in. An interim government with a CEO was appointed in Mekelle, a Tigrayan who is regarded by the population as a collaborator. The looted university has reopened, even though several professors have fled to Addis Ababa or abroad. Through intermediaries, I showed a few diplomats the way to some interesting places outside Mekelle. This allowed them to visit a village where even the beehives were set on fire. That is not unique either, in many places crops were burned to the ground and livestock slaughtered. Food is a weapon in this civil war.”

He shares a link from a newly received video clip. A column of 5,000 emaciated people streams into the centrally located town of Shire. The image says a lot about the current situation in Tigray. In early February, the number of refugees and displaced people was estimated at 2.5 million, almost half out of a population of 6 million. Now that the acute warfare is over and the conflict is moving into a guerrilla phase, a return movement is underway.

“The invasion by the Ethiopian army and its allies displaced particularly the urban population en masse,” says Nyssen. “Remote villages in the mountains or in the forests were overrun. There has traditionally been a lot of solidarity, but it stops when there is really no food left. The ragged people now arriving in Shire may have had an odyssey through several villages until they saw no way out but to return to occupied territory. The authorities are using food aid to lure people back. Not for humanitarian reasons, but to weaken the supporters of the TPLF. We have heard stories of women who were denied food aid because their husbands were still in the mountains.”

Nyssen could call himself a victim. His house in Hagere Selam was thoroughly looted in November. “By Eritrean soldiers,” he knows through sources on the ground. “Ethiopians are picky, they only take valuables like jewelry and cell phones. Eritrean soldiers loot everything, even my clothes and plastic kitchen buckets are gone. By all accounts, their wives travel after them. Behind the front line, they bundle the loot into large packs that are transported by trucks to Eritrea. It says a lot about the abject poverty in that country.”

He shrugs his shoulders for the material loss. Far worse are the sixty civilians slaughtered in the capture of the town, including three acquaintances who ended up on the list of confirmed victims.

New Famine

With such a background, it is understandable that he looks at the conflict with an engaged view. In a war, however, every camp has its truth. Yet his report does not specifically mention the Mai Kadra massacre on November 9 and 10, attributed to the TPLF by Amnesty International on the basis of three testimonies. Hundreds, mostly Amharic victims were allegedly killed, but only about 50 names of Tigrayans made it to the list in the Ghent report. “Of the Amhara victims, no names have been confirmed,” Nyssen explained. “Not even by the Ethiopian human rights commission that has been on the ground. The last word on Mai Kadra, one of the 94 known massacres, did not fall. Very different versions are circulating than what is in the first Amnesty report.”

Nevertheless, Nyssen realizes that he is being accused of subjectivity; on social media he is called a TPLF terrorist. Criticism he licks (?) every time. “I ask them if my engagement changes anything about the facts I report. They have no answer for that.”

A few weeks ago, Leuven professor Seppe Deckers warned in Knack about a repetition of the disastrous famine of the 1980s. “Rightly so,” says Nyssen. “The previous harvest had already been half-failed. First, the locust plague forced farmers to harvest their stunted crops prematurely, then civil war broke out. The following weeks are crucial; the land must be plowed, fertilized and sown. The continuing chaos makes this impossible; many farmers, by the way, have eaten their seeds from sheer hunger. A second crop failure threatens to be a catastrophe.”


Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting on Addis Ababa to end the occupation and allow international observers in. Most stridently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Ethiopia of ethnic cleansing. It remains to be seen whether it all makes much of an impression. The conflict is preceded by a complex history with domestic sectarian divisions and regional geopolitical agendas as centrifugal forces. Ethiopia transformed into an African tiger after fifteen years of a state-led economy with annual growth rates of 6 percent and above. That economic miracle took place under the authoritarian leadership of a unity party that purported to reflect all populations and regions.

Yet there is no doubt: until Abiy Ahmed – half Amhara, half Oromo – took office in 2018, the center of political and economic power lay with the Tigrayan TPLF. History speaks there too: the TPLF gained that power after it overthrew the Mengistu dictatorship together with the Eritrean EPLF. Their alliance did not last long. EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki tore off his country, and not much later a protracted and very bloody border war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is precisely this past history that makes the anti-TPLF coalition so murky. Is the Eritrean dictator out for territory expansion? Did Abiy Ahmed make concessions to him in the knowledge that the Ethiopian army was no match for the armed army of the TPLF? And was all this perhaps already negotiated during the negotiation of the high-profile peace agreement between the two former arch-enemies?

Nyssen and Annys can only speculate about it, but sectarianism holds few secrets for them. “I have often been surprised by that,” says Annys. “Especially in the Amhara region, I often noticed a deep hatred for Tigreans. Not with the villagers, it bubbled up during conversations with interpreters or colleagues at the university. The belief that they were being exploited by the TPLF was really ingrained. And that was before the war.”

The forecasts are not rosy. Tigray risks becoming the scene of one of the many endless conflicts on African soil. “Thirty years of progress are in danger of being lost,” says Nyssen, who notes with dismay that all ongoing cooperation projects have stalled. “I fear that Abiy Ahmed has made a grave error in judgment. The TPLF was on the decline in Tigray. I heard increasing criticism of their authoritarian and bureaucratic approach in recent years. The war has silenced that criticism, all Tigrayans are now behind the TPLF. Or more precisely, behind the armed wing, the Tigray Defense Forces. ‘Woyane’ in Tigrinya means as much rebel. Well, all of Tigray now feels woyane.

“Of course, there is a chance that Abiy Ahmed can break the resistance with his superiority, as happened with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But that will not bring peace. After the horrors of this war, a new generation of woyanes will rise up, and they will be resolute for Tigray’s independence.”