As Ethiopians around the world anxiously watch to see if a fragile peace agreement will hold, a group of people from the diaspora gathered at VOA headquarters in Washington for a town hall discussion.
The “Ethiopia: Paths to Peace” televised event brought together activists, scholars and others from multiple ethnic groups for a rare opportunity to speak about the two years of conflict that has torn the country apart.
Participants said frank discussions like this are badly needed.
“To move forward beyond ethnic divisions, it is important to debate and negotiate to get clarity,” said panelist Etana Habte, an Ethiopian scholar specializing in the political history of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. “The problem in the country isn’t something that started in a day or two. A problem that was caused in a day can be solved in a day. The problems in this country date back 150 years.”
Speaking for women
Meaza Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan activist, researcher and human rights advocate, was one of the panelists. Since the outbreak of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, she has organized protests and has spoken about atrocities in her home country.
She has received death threats, and someone even pulled a gun at her during a rally in Los Angeles, but she says it pales in comparison to the horrors that have occurred in Tigray.
“We didn’t just hear about how bad the war is, we lived it,” she said.
Meaza had been active in advocating for women’s rights and against rape before the war, but she said sexual violence was weaponized during the conflict. In Tigray, she said, rape by men in military uniforms was committed as a brutal form of ethnic cleansing.
“The attacks against women were to eliminate them so their wombs won’t give birth to another Tigrayan, so she can’t continue producing the next generation,” Meaza said. “So, I speak louder because the attacks on women [in Tigray] isn’t just because of their gender but also their identity.”
Human rights organizations join in Meaza’s concern. In September, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ethiopia concluded that Ethiopian forces along with their allies from the Amhara region and neighboring Eritrean forces used “sexual slavery” against Tigrayan women and girls.
Tigrayan forces, the U.N. report added, “committed war crimes and human rights abuses” in areas they occupied in the Amhara and Afar regions during the course of the war, “including large-scale killings” of civilians and “rape and sexual violence.”
On November 2, the Ethiopian federal government signed a peace agreement with the leadership in the Tigray region in Pretoria, South Africa, days before the war marked its second anniversary.
Panelists, however, believe there is still a long road ahead to establish a durable peace. Henok Abebe, a member of the Ethiopian diaspora who specialized in human rights law, said the country finds itself in a precarious situation.
Tigray suffered immensely, Henok said, but in order to move forward, the country must also acknowledge the damage done in the Afar and Amhara regions.
The war in Tigray “is a double-edged sword” he said. “If one Tigrayan is killed, Ethiopia suffers and if another soldier is killed, it is Ethiopia that is hurt. If we take any route, it is Ethiopia that is slaughtered,” he added.
He said although the war was avoidable it is now time to abandon the idea that a certain ethnic group is only bearing the brunt and understand that the country as a whole is suffering. “We need to show humanity beyond ethnicity, language, or identity.”
Henok said the use of “coded words” such as genocide isn’t going to invite dialogue between the people and should be avoided.
“Yes, there was destruction because of war but when we use such terms, we are gravitating it. We should ask was there an intention to eliminate the people as people? It is difficult to imply the intention. But that doesn’t mean attacks and suffering didn’t happen,” he said.
But Etana said there is a need for accountability, including examining how the federal government allowed troops from neighboring Eritrea to enter the country and occupy large areas while allegedly committing war crimes. There is also a need for a truthful account and acknowledgment of what occurred during the war, he said.
“When churches and mosques are bombarded, when foreign troops are invited into the country and there are mass killings, if that is not the intention, then what is it? Is it an error?” he asked. “If we begin with such denials, it is wrong. We need to acknowledge what happened first.”
Some in attendance said structural reforms are needed for Ethiopia to remain united as a country. Its 1995 constitution uses a system known as “ethnic federalism” that divided the country into regions based on ethnicity. Critics have blamed the system for exacerbating ethnic divisions and conflict.
Derese Getachew, an associate professor of sociology at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York, pointed to continuing power struggles between ethnicities and calls to divide the country as hanging over the peace process, threatening a return to war. He stressed the importance of reform at a constitutional level.
“There are those organized under different ethnic groups, including the demand for secession, and it is such friction that led us to a state of war to begin with,” he said. “Therefore, such disagreements need to be resolved for a truthful solution.” He said the current constitution didn’t come through a legitimate process in which the people’s voice was included.
Alemayehu Fentaw, an Ethiopian lawyer specializing in conflict resolution said the fact that the cease-fire has stopped the bloodshed is a big achievement and the opening of humanitarian corridors is a promising sign.
The war in Tigray has displaced thousands, causing a shortage of food, medication and access to basic care for millions of people living in the region. An estimated 5.2 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, the United Nations World Food Program says.
Another panelist, Alemayehu Biru, a political philosophy professor who taught at Addis Ababa University and now teaches in Virginia, said the parties must take advantage of the cease-fire to lay the foundation for lasting peace.
“The peace agreement is a ‘negative peace’ because violence has stopped but to go further, the opportunity of a cease-fire is important and gleaning from conflicts in other parts of Africa to understand the logical pattern of war and address the core issues of how the war started,” he said, adding that there is potential for war to relapse because of a disagreement between the elite.
Derese said true healing must begin with empathy across ethnic lines.
“What surprises me is that as much as some people are dedicated to their own side and ethnicity, why is it difficult to empathize with those who they live side-by-side when they are suffering?” he said. “When are we going to cut the cycle of never-ending crimes and continuous feelings of being attacked and build a country that is enough for all of us and stands for justice, equality and democracy? When are we going to be human?”
This story originated in the Horn of Africa’s Amharic Service. The town hall was conducted in Amharic, on December 3, 2022, at VOA’s headquarters in Washington D.C.