INTERVIEW

Von Johannes Dieterich

Picture: Believers flock to worship in Axum, Tigray region.© Johannes Dieterich

[Rough translation of a report by Von Johannes Dieterich for Frankfurter Rundschau – FR]

Getachew Reda, leading member of the “Tigray Defense Forces,” wants to fight until the independence of the region in northern Ethiopia

Mr. Getachew, the TDF has launched an offensive against Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. Is it successful?

Very much so. We have routed two brigades of the 31st Division and two brigades of the 11th Ethiopian Division in the past few days. The soldiers were armed to the teeth and had heavy artillery, howitzers and mortars. We captured more than 2,000 soldiers. Because the ratio of soldiers captured to soldiers killed is usually 1:3, we estimate that we killed over 6000 soldiers.

And how many did you lose?

Several dozen. Since the fighting started last November, our 4th Army has lost only 160 people, but killed tens of thousands of Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers. The commander of our 4th Army told me recently that even killing eventually becomes tiring. To be sure, the numerical superiority of our opponents still exists: we have tens of thousands of fighters facing 1.1 million Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers.

What do you want to achieve militarily?

We will recapture Tigray and ensure that none of our opponents can attack us again.

That sounds ambitious.

We can count on the support of the population and know how to fight. 99 percent of Ethiopian wars have been fought here in Tigray.

Civilians have never suffered as much from the fighting as they do today. The TDF is not uninvolved in this. Whenever you attack, the other side takes revenge on the population.

Our cat-and-mouse game represented the first chapter of the liberation. We will change this tactic. In the future, we will maintain control over the regions we have taken. And Samre, where we are right now, will become our center.

And your enemy has to swallow that so easily?

Abiy Ahmed’s troops hardly give us a headache. They run away after the first shots.

And the Eritreans?

For them, this conflict is a fight for survival. If they lose in Tigray, they will lose at home. We must weaken them to such an extent that they no longer pose a threat to us. If their president, Isaias Afewerki, is killed in the process, that can only be good for us. And if they leave Tigray, we will follow them.

All the way to the Eritrean capital of Asmara?

If that is what it takes to destroy their military capacity-why not? But I believe that the Eritreans want to fight the conflict here.

Even if you succeed in defeating your enemies, Tigray’s situation will be pretty hopeless. Sandwiched between two hostile powers, with no chance of economic independence.

About the person

Getachew Reda, 45, is a member of the nine-member command staff of the “Tigray Defense Forces” (TDF). The former Ethiopian minister is among the most wanted people in the country. The interview took place last week in a restaurant in southeastern Tigray. jod Photo: Dieterich

That’s why we have to make sure we’re not boxed in. Even if we have to destroy all of Abiy Ahmed’s forces to do it. Our people must be able to live here in safety.

At some point, though, you have to talk to Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki as well. Military is not the only way to resolve this kind of conflict.

The political solution is our self-determination. It could be guaranteed by our independence. Until recently, I was a convinced supporter of the Ethiopian idea, even as a minister in Addis Ababa. But now we are no longer interested in having a say in Ethiopia’s destiny. We are concerned with our own security.

Do you think Abiy will guarantee this at some point?

If you knew how politics works in Addis Ababa, you would not ask this question. Once the military capacity of the Ethiopian armed forces is decimated, there is no reason for Abiy Ahmed’s government to continue. His raison raison raison d’être is then over.

The conflict over Tigray is not the only one threatening to tear Ethiopia apart. The existing tensions between Oromo and Amhara could have a much more disastrous effect. Some see parallels with Yugoslavia …

… this is exactly how it could end.

Is there any foreign power that can still prevent this?

We don’t expect any rescue from the international community. First and foremost, Tigray’s government must be reinstated. And then we must hold accountable those responsible for the crimes committed in the past months.

Your party, the TPLF, is accused of having fostered a fairly authoritarian regime in Ethiopia for decades.

The TPLF was not the only governing party. There were also the Oromia, the Amhara and Somali coalition partners. However, we are ready to face the courts if there is evidence of our wrongdoing. I actually believe that the government should have confronted the mass protests by Oromo youth in 2015 and 2016 in a more peaceful manner. The fact that we did not, we should take responsibility for that.

How did the hatred between Eritreans and Tigray become so merciless?

Afewerki ruled Eritrea for decades like a medieval prince with an iron fist. To his people, he held us responsible for their abject poverty. Eritreans lack the courage to hold their leader accountable for their misery. Now they are taking their anger out on us, for which I lack all understanding.

The TPLF has a reputation problem among the rest of the Ethiopian population. It is accused of dominating the country’s politics and reserving the most important posts in the government and the military for Tigray.

This is what the Amhara elite says.

Many Oromo also say this.

We have become Ethiopia’s scapegoat. All the government’s mistakes, including those of the Oromo or Amhara, are blamed on us. We cannot force anyone to like us. If the Amhara have problems living with us, then we will just insist on our independence. We are very hardworking people. Even under the military rule of the Derg, Tigray was home to most of the businessmen. Under Abiy Ahmed, the number of Amhara businessmen has multiplied. If they are successful, the Amhara see that as their merit. If they fail, Tigray is to blame.

Interview: Johannes Dieterich

Getachew Reda is a member of the command staff of the “Tigray Defense Army.”© Johannes Dieterich
Tank shot by drone near Mekelle.© Johannes Dieterich
A two-year-old child seriously injured in Adigrat.© Johannes Dieterich