The Tekeze River, in Humera, in March 2021. On the bridge, the vehicle is an Eritrean army pick-up truck. Mehdi Labzaé / D.R.
From the start of the Tigray War in November 2020, the lands of the Wolqayt-Tegede zone were annexed by the Amhara region. Since then, most of its Tigrayan inhabitants have been expelled almost systematically. Amhara militiamen have also carried out several massacres with the help of the administration, without causing much concern.
On November 3, 2021, a year after the start of the war in northern Ethiopia between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the federal army and Amhara militias, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) co-published a report with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The result of a three-and-a-half-month investigation, this report documents human rights abuses and war crimes committed since the fighting began. Investigators cite the figure of 600,000 people from Tigray forced to leave the western part of this region. They also describe, on page 53, what amounts to ethnic cleansing in the area known as Wolqayt-Tegedé (spelled “Welkait-Tsegede” in the report)1, annexed to the Amhara region in the first weeks of the war2.
This episode was briefly mentioned in the international press in March 2021, when the US administration dared to use the term “ethnic cleansing”3. But the difficulty of documenting these crimes and the virtual absence of images of this war relegated the Tigrayans of Wolqayt to oblivion. Yet the administration of the Amhara region in ex-western Tigray continued to carry out a fierce crackdown there.
At the end of July 2021, some 30 mutilated bodies were found in the Tekeze River in Sudan, some 20 kilometers downstream from the town of Humera, which is in Ethiopian territory4. The river marks the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea before flowing into Sudan. The bodies were those of Tigrayan victims of the massacres and arrest campaigns that had taken place in Humera in the previous days.
In November 2021, terrorized witnesses told the author by telephone how civilians in Adebay and Humera were rounded up and taken to camps for deportation across the Tekeze River – which Amhara nationalists consider to be the border between the Amhara and Tigray regions. Some were reportedly executed on the spot. Back in March, members of the Amhara Special Forces (ASF, under the control of the regional government of the same name) returned to town and displayed, on the terraces of the cafés of Humera, videos of the villages they had “cleaned up” in the Tekeze Valley: dozens of lifeless bodies of civilians could be seen side by side on the bloody ground.
A Symbol of Amhara Nationalism
Wolqayt-Tegedé has been a symbol of Amhara nationalism in recent years. Covering an area comparable to that of Lebanon, this territory is made up of hot lowlands suitable for export crops (sesame, cotton), and highlands where agriculture is subsistence, essentially practiced on a household scale. The highland farmers speak Tigrigna rather than Amharic, and, as one of them explained in March 2021, “when you count your ancestors, you get to Tigray. However, intermarriage between Amharic speakers from around Gonder and Tigrigna speakers is numerous, so much so that today’s identity categories seem irrelevant to talk about past centuries.
In 2015, a group of investors, wealthy farmers and government officials from Wolqayt formed a “Committee for the Restoration of Amhara Identity of Wolqayt-Tegede.” This “Wolqayt Committee” (WC) advocated for the creation of an Amhara zone in Tigray, which the ethno-federal constitution of Ethiopia allows: the 1994 Ethiopian constitution instituted a system of “ethnic federalism” in which each region of Ethiopia is supposed to represent one or more peoples, making ethnicity the basis for political representation; according to this Basic Law, each “nation, nationality and people” in Ethiopia has the right to self-determination and can govern itself within the boundaries of regions or sub-regional zones.
To defend their project, the WC activists raised several claims, including those related to agrarian issues. The Tigray Region has, in the past years, carried out numerous land expropriations of farmers and investors, especially in the lowlands. These lands were subsequently allocated to investors linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that dominated the federal governing coalition until 2018.
These land expropriations followed the settlement of tens of thousands of peasants from other areas of Tigray in the Wolqayt Lowlands during the 1990s and 2000s. The TPLF hoped that the relocation of these peasants would provide a solution to the structural problems of food insecurity in their areas of origin: the idea was that they would then have large tracts of fertile land to cultivate, which would allow them to “escape from poverty. Former TPLF combatants also took advantage of this opportunity to acquire land.
For the members of the WC, this is a dispossession: these lands were taken from the locals to be given to a population considered as non-native. “It is since that time that people have been going underground,” said an Ahmara nationalist activist in October 2020. It is true that the Amhara peasants of the lowlands provided the bulk of the men for some of the armed opposition groups in exile in the 2000s and 2010s.
In addition to the agrarian demands of the WC, there were other demands such as the possibility of creating a school curriculum in Amharic language. The repression was very harsh. In 2015, members of the committee were arrested in the town of Gonder. Others disappeared, especially in Humera. On July 12, 2016, the violent arrest of Colonel Demeqe Zewdu, a WC figure, triggered fighting and riots in Gonder. The colonel will go down in history as a symbol of a man who was proud to be Amhara and stood up to the Tigrayan elites who controlled the state apparatus at the time.
In the summer of 2016, young people protesting throughout the Amhara region for more social justice and an end to repression made Wolqayt their symbol. To an Ethiopia divided into ethnicities and nations, they contrasted the past greatness of Ethiopian empires. In so doing, they accepted the reading adopted by the TPLF itself: that of ethnicity. From being “Ethiopians,” these activists have indeed began to call themselves “Amhara”5. A sympathizer of the Amhara National Movement (ANM), formed in June 2018, explained in early 2019, “As long as there is the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front, temporarily I support the ANM. We also need a party to defend the Amhara”. Fed by the speeches produced in particular by members of the diaspora, these activists began to speak of a “genocide” that would be underway against the Amhara. It must be said that massacres affecting Amhara populations multiplied in the Ethiopian peripheries in the second half of the 2010s.
It is therefore a nationalism posing as “defensive” that has been built during the years 2016-2020. Victims of the TPLF’s repression, the imprisoned WC activists have become symbols of a struggle for the Amhara’s newfound pride. In 2018, they were released by Abiy Ahmed. A few days before the start of the war in November 2020, Amhara militiamen said they were impatiently waiting to be able to invade Tigray. Many were from Wolqayt, and wanted to return to the country “with guns in hand,” as representatives of two hundred militiamen met in Soroqa on November 2, 2020 – a few hours before the outbreak of hostilities. At the time, several dozen members of the Amhara Region Special Forces (ASF)6 were also stationed in the small town. All of them went to the front in the early hours of the conflict.
After three weeks of fighting, the administration of the Amhara region could claim control of Wolqayt. The Tigrayan inhabitants, especially those settled in the 2000s with the support of the TPLF regional government, fled en masse. Villages were razed and burned, such as the site called “Division”, where about 9,000 families were settled. They all fled, and the hospital that had recently been built was completely looted.
But the majority of departures are less the result of fighting than of a sustained, if not organized, process by the government. From December 2020 to at least March 2021, the new administration, which emerged from the conquest of the territory, issued passes to Tigrayans to allow them to pass through the many checkpoints in order to “return” to the East of Tekeze. Many minibuses then took these civilians, loaded with a few belongings, to the bridge across the river. The displaced actually had no choice: the new administration was issuing new identity cards, which were often denied to them, and which were essential to continue living in the area, due to the large number of checks on the roads and the activity of the militiamen. By staying in the area, they risked their lives. The massacres of the following months will show how well-founded their fears were.
“We Don’t Need a Single One of them Anymore”
On the roadsides through the villages, civilians sold their few belongings before leaving. Others, wishing to obtain the necessary travel passes, lined up in front of the area administration office in Humera, along with investors who wanted to obtain additional passes to transport the grain confiscated during the looting. In the offices was Colonel Demeqe Zewdu, now the number two in the local administration, in charge of security.
In July 2021, Sefer Melesse, one of the main leaders of the Amhara militias, presented these steps as a form of leniency: “The Amhara government took care of them… [To prevent them from being killed, vehicles have been made available to take them home. Under the current conditions, a possible return of the displaced is impossible. In March, a local soldier said of the Tigrayans: “We don’t need a single one of them anymore! We cannot trust them!” He added, referring to members of the Tigray Region special forces killed by the coalition of federal army soldiers, Amhara militiamen and members of the Amhara Region special forces: “There were dead bodies everywhere here, bodies not buried. They were eaten by their own dogs, that’s what they got.
Amhara fighters have engaged in numerous abuses. Until December 2020, more than two weeks after the fighting, the new authorities prevented the burial of the bodies of members of the Tigray special forces. The militia considered that they were merely recovering property looted by the TPLF, and so they happily helped themselves to livestock, crops, generators and water pumps. The administrator of one village, who was appointed after the annexation of the zone, didn’t take offense: “They took everything! [But what is the problem with the Amhara authorities, they still don’t believe in the fact that Wolqayt is Amhara? They think that [the TPLF] will come back, right? […] When all these things are loaded on the trucks, the administration people see it, they do nothing! These things don’t go into the air, they go through the road, through all the checkpoints! All these things, if we develop this place again for 50 years, we would not even get them back […] It is not the thieves who stole, it is the Amhara region… What did the TPLF do worse?” Beside him, militiamen and local administrators seemed to agree.
No Hope of Return
As the military balance of power between the federal army and the Tigrayan troops shifts day by day, as international mediations fail and as UN investigators try to turn the tables on each side, there is no hope of return for the displaced from Wolqayt at the moment.
Le 9 juin 2021, le directeur de la National Disaster Risk Management Commission, en charge de la coordination humanitaire dans le pays, a annoncé la formation d’un comité devant travailler au rapatriement des déplacés du Tigray de l’Ouest amassés dans les environs de Shiré, une ville située dans le Tigray central, « avant la prochaine saison des pluies » – ce qui ne laissait que deux semaines tout au plus… Mais ce retour n’a pas eu lieu. Un groupe d’experts de l’administration foncière amhara était sur place depuis plusieurs semaines pour procéder à la redistribution des terres des déplacés. En juin, on pouvait voir des paysans labourer les parcelles sur lesquelles étaient auparavant érigées les maisons de leurs anciens voisins.
On June 9, 2021, the head of the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, which is in charge of humanitarian coordination in the country, announced the formation of a committee to work on the repatriation of displaced people from West Tigray who had gathered in the vicinity of Shire, a town in Central Tigray, “before the next rainy season” – which left only two weeks at most. But that return did not happen. A group of experts from the Amhara land administration had been in place for several weeks to redistribute the land of the displaced. In June, farmers could be seen plowing the plots of land on which their former neighbors’ houses had been built.