Once started, wars don’t end, even if the leaders decide that they should live in peace. Violence suffered and perpetrated remains internalized, becomes part of the everyday, fuels tensions, discriminates and breaks individual and community relationships.
Ethiopia is trapped in this dynamic, despite having reached a truce in March with the rebel region of Tigray. The tensions have remained, and they run deep: the war, in addition to all the human and physical damage, has caused latent historical tensions to emerge on the border lands, particularly between the Amhara region and Tigray. These are lands that in the past were part of Amhara, but were Tigray before that. According to researchers from the University of Ghent University, in the mid-19th century Tigray included the Eritrean Baharnagasch Plateau and present-day western Tigray, including Walkayt and Waldubba. Later, these regions would be part of Amhara; then, in the early 1990s, according to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), “in the early 1990s, Ethiopia’s previous government, led by the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), incorporated the zone into the newly formed regional state of Tigray, setting the stage for decades-long disputes over boundaries, self-government, and identity.”
Italian diplomacy is only now stumbling upon these distant realities. In his recent trip to Ethiopia, Foreign Minister Di Maio signed a series of agreements involving a loan of $22 million from Italy for the development of several integrated agro-industrial parks and rural transformation centers intended to create jobs in the country’s interior areas and increase farmers’ incomes, generate export revenues, replace the imports of agro-processed goods and contribute to economic growth and structural transformation in the Western Tigray area, in particular in Bulbula, Bure, Yirgalem and Ba’eker.
However, as reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, ethnic cleansing is currently being perpetrated in some of these areas, at the hands of Amhara regional officials, special forces and regional militias, with the complicity of federal forces, aimed at expelling the Tigrayan population. “In several towns, signs were displayed ordering Tigrayans to leave, and local administrators discussed in public meetings their plans to remove Tigrayans. Pamphlets appeared giving Tigrayans 24-hour or 72-hour ultimatums to leave or be killed. […] The authorities and forces in Western Tigray went to great lengths to coerce Tigrayans to leave. They refused to issue new identification cards to Tigrayans, restricted their movement and access to humanitarian assistance, and sought to intimidate them. ‘Every night they keep saying, “Tigrayans, go out [or] we will kill you. Go out. Go out of the area,”’ recalled a 45-year-old woman who eventually fled to Sudan,” Roth writes. According to a report by HRW published in April, “interim authorities and security force officials repeated slogans such as ‘Tigrayans belong east of the Tekeze River,’ and ‘This is Amhara land.’”
The human rights organizations are describing the expulsion of Tigrayans as systematic: people have been forced to leave for Sudan or other parts of Tigray, and a 23-year-old trader was told to his face: “This is your end! We will erase you from this land. This land is ours. This is the last time a Tigrayan will live in the area.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also spoken of acts of “ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.” The federal and regional Ethiopian authorities have always rejected the accusations, but said they started investigations into them. Amnesty and HRW are saying the evidence collected shows that Western Tigray has been the site of some of the worst atrocities committed during the war, and has been largely ignored. Therefore, the return to activity with the Italian-funded project, at a time when the abuses are continuing, and the choice of the project should be subjected to careful consideration.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed now says that his government has formed a special committee to negotiate with Tigray forces. For its part, the Tigray government has made it clear in a statement that “any lasting resolution of the current crisis must be predicated on the reestablishment of the prewar status quo ante.”
War does not settle any new or old disputes; it only adds problems, and we hope that the Italian loan will not have the same effect. In our dealings with Ethiopia, we Italians should remember the traditional saying that one who has been bitten by a snake should fear the lizard too; or that a prudent and wise guest will open their eyes instead of their mouth.