Genocide is nothing to be suddenly appalled by. What is happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is so abhorrent that we all have to be deeply ashamed – especially since many have known for a long time what was about to happen.
I’m sorry to bother you, but there’s a genocide going on in Africa.
Maybe you already knew that? That women are raped by dozens of men, and that when some victims end up in hospital, doctors have to pick shards and nails out of their genitals. That men are forced to rape their family members and are themselves raped.
This type of extremely sexualized violence as a method of war aims, as in the past, at breaking down a population, but also at brutal ethnic cleansing. Women who belong to the enemy’s ethnic group should be made pregnant to break the bloodline. To wipe them out.
The UN and several other organizations have confirmed this for just over a week now, and hundreds of testimonies of serious crimes against humanity continue to pour in from Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, and from Sudan, where many have fled.
Thick books have been written on genocide; about its dynamics and course. This follows the same pattern. Extreme disasters, followed by politicians who drown each other out in how appalled they are, and statements that this will never happen again. If only we had known, we would have intervened earlier! Eventually, invitations are sent to unveil memorials and inaugurate museums. For no; never again.
“This is the war in Africa that has been warned the most about,” says Kjetil Tronvoll when he calls me from Oslo.
He is an anthropologist and has studied Tigray region for three decades. The conflict has been going on for years. He feared that there would be a war in December 2019, shortly after Ethiopia’s acclaimed leader received the Nobel Peace Prize.
After that, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who claims to be God’s prophet, went home and announced a new policy that would centralize power and restrict the right to self-government in Tigray. It is home to a powerful ethnic minority, which makes up about 5% of the population. The TPLF, which stands for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and fought for 17 years for a measure of autonomy, in turn announced that it would hold regional elections as planned.
In January 2020, Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict research at Bjørknes University, therefore began to warn diplomats and the international community. He called and he wrote reports. Because then it was time to do what diplomacy should be good at: To go in and prevent a conflict that risks becoming something much worse.
But now things got problematic in Brussels: Ethiopia had one of those good and hopeful democratic leaders it had invested in supporting. The future of Africa and all that. To then come up with hints of some kind of conflict could be inconvenient. Bad atmosphere, even.
Washington was silent: the president was uninterested, and there had also been talk of a virus.
On the whole, there were three kinds of diplomats, according to Tronvoll: Those who knew nothing about Ethiopia and did not understand anything. Then there were those who understood but still did not think there could be war. They explained to the professor that he didn’t understand anything. In the end, there were those who both knew and understood what was happening – but who nevertheless refrained from saying or doing anything.
In October 2020, it was only a matter of time before the war would break out. Then Tronvoll received reports from the ground about mobilization on both sides. He dared to make a guess: on November 4, the war would break out. Because then a presidential election that took up all the oxygen would take place: The American one.
“On that day, you can do anything,” he said. Because then, at most, there will be little notification somewhere.
And indeed. On that very day, the Prime Minister ordered an offensive against Tigray, following an attack on federal forces. Eritrea also went after Tigray, with a pronounced revenge motive from the war against Ethiopia that they lost, largely because of troops from Tigray.
Many more notifications followed. As it usually is in the case of a continent that is a little far away, and even further away during a pandemic: two million people have fled. Humanitarian disaster. Starvation. Looting. Rapes. Executions, even of children. Massacres. Ethnic cleansing. And still, during this Easter weekend: Nails in the genitals.
At this stage in the conversation, Tronvoll recalls the unpleasant concept of “plausible deniability”. In yxig Swedish translation, it becomes “credible denial”. What you do not know, you do not have to act on. So knowing things can be a problem. It can therefore be so absurd in such contexts that diplomats actually avoid gathering too much documentation, or sending it to those responsible, precisely to avoid that situation.
So you can say that later: “If only we had known!” And then offer to come in and resolve the conflict. Negotiate. Broker peace.
“It’s just nonsense,” exclaims Tronvoll.
Nonsense, then, I wonder, to make sure my Norwegian keeps up.
“Bullshit,” he clarifies.
The genocide that is happening now is also an example of very little happening in this world until the United States reacts. But also that American statements still matter. In late February, a report came from the State Department using the term ethnic cleansing. And in March, Biden sent a messenger directly to the Prime Minister to express, among other things, “deep concern about crimes against humanity”.
So at least now more people know what’s going on. But do not wait until it becomes a museum to read more about, and show a fitting rage at this unacceptable thing that is happening right now: one more time, in our lifetime.