Tigrayan Parallels with Darfur: A Dire Humanitarian Crisis and its Regional Implications

By Ana Torres

After seven months of fighting, the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region shows no sign of cessation. The war rapidly went from conventional warfare to guerilla warfare that could continue for years. Despite the media and internet blackouts in the region, numerous testimonies of Tigrayans have emerged of war crimes, illustrating mass atrocities and the systematic rape of women, among other war crimes. Spillover from the prolonged domestic war risks triggering a territorial war on the Ethiopia-Sudan border, which would cause extensive damage to two war-torn countries.

Conflict erupted on November 4 when the Ethiopian government accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking its military bases in Tigray in an attempt to overthrow the government. In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground and air military operation in the region. The military operation resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths during several massacres, and over 33,000 people fled to Sudan. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of civilians were killed in a knife-and-machete attack in the town of Mai-Kadra. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy declared victory on November 28 when the army entered the regional capital, Mekelle. Despite claims of victory, ongoing fighting continues to produce mounting death tolls and concerning reports of the perpetration of rape as a weapon of war.

The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) is not the only force deployed in Tigray after the eruption of violence on November 4 and responsible for the war crimes committed. Ethiopia’s Amhara region sent troops to Tigray to support the ENDF. Amhara forces have been used by the government to reclaim western areas of Tigray and integrate them into the Amhara region. This deployment included members from the Fano militia, whose purpose is to defend ethnic Amharas. Reportedly the Ethiopian military and the Amhara liaison officers have provided ammunition, vehicles, and food to Fano. This war tactic is similar to when al-Bashir armed the Janjaweed militia to perpetrate the genocide in Darfur. Fano members claim that the militia has not attacked civilians or committed ethnic cleansing. However, reports from Tigrayans have indicated that Fano members have told residents that “no Tigrayan shall remain here [western Tigray]” and that “they won’t keep any man or boy alive.” Refugee accounts have pointed out that as the Amhara authorities control some offices of western Tigray, some Tigrayans were ordered to accept the Amhara identity or leave, and others were told to leave anyway.

The involvement of external actors has transformed the civil war into an internationalized civil war. The Eritrean government has also sent troops to support the ENDF military operation. For nearly four months, both countries denied the involvement of Eritrean forces despite reliable humanitarian reports of Eritrean forces’ participation in gang-rapes and massacres of hundreds of residents, particularly men and boys of Tigray. The increase of evidence of the involvement of Eritrean forces made it more difficult for the two governments to continue denying the involvement. On March 23, Abiy finally admitted to the involvement of Eritrea troops in Tigray. By March 26, Abiy announced that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its troops from the Tigray region. However, Eritrean forces show no signs of withdrawal as of June 2021, and Eritrean soldiers continue to commit atrocities across the region.

The humanitarian situation in Tigray continues to deteriorate into catastrophic levels of suffering. 5.2 million people, 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance. 350,000 Tigrayans as of June 11, 2021, including 30,000 severely malnourished children, currently face famine. Two million more are at dire risk of falling victim to their extreme conditions. Despite several calls to open access to humanitarian actors from the international community, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers continue to block the distribution of humanitarian aid in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Reports of gender-based violence and sexual assault plague the region. Hundreds of women rush to Tigray’s hospitals for “emergency contraception and HIV prevention drugs after being systematically raped, often gang-raped, by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.” Survivors indicate that soldiers have weaponized sexual assault to spread HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases to weaken the population. Countless survivors suffer in silence as they fear reprisals by security forces and rejection in their communities and families. Despite Prime Minister Abiy’s public acknowledgement of the endemic use of rape, survivors and healthcare professionals alike fear reporting the extent of the targeted violence they see in fear of retaliation.

The stigma associated with gender-based violence is one tragedy of many which draws parallels to the Darfur genocide. The head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, Abune Mathias, asserts that the atrocities committed in Tigray amount to genocide. However, not all entities have been upfront in their assessments of the conflict. The United Nations Security Council had five private meetings to discuss the situation before agreeing on a statement on April 22 expressing concern of the humanitarian situation in Tigray, particularly highlighting concern over the use of sexual violence against women and girls as a weapon of war. The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the reports of human rights abuses and atrocities, and acts of ethnic cleansing but has yet to call the situation a genocide.

The conflict has driven 63,110 refugees into eastern Sudan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), triggering a complex aid operation in an already vulnerable region of the country. Sudan is still trying to recover from its own internal conflict, which has left 3.2 million internally displaced Sudanese. The influx of refugees is dangerously straining camps that already operate above capacity.

While refugees have been welcomed in local communities in eastern Sudan, the economic crisis has already plunged thousands into food insecurity. Since the overthrow of former president al-Bashir in April 2019, poorly executed economic policies have caused inflation to skyrocket to 363 percent in May 2021. Economic liberalization policies and the refugee influx have pushed up the prices of basic goods, and aid agencies are struggling to source food, water, and healthcare for populations in need. This has resulted in hundreds of protestors demonstrating across Sudan in June.

The World Food Programme (WFP) plays a critical role in providing life-saving food and nutrition support to refugees escaping the emergent famine back in Ethiopia. The flexible funding from Germany, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States has enabled WFP to divert $5.2 million from other humanitarian programs in Sudan towards the immediate response to refugees at the start of this emergency. Given the lack of capacity that the country has to host the refugees, the influx of those arriving in Sudan could lead to economic and developmental consequences for the country. Therefore, international actors must assist refugees while continuing to support developmental projects and pre-existing needs in Sudan.

The war has also flared existing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan over the border known as al-Fashga. Since 1993, al-Fashga on the Sudanese side of the border has been occupied by Amhara farmers. In 2008, a de-facto agreement emerged where Ethiopia acknowledged the historic legal boundary putting al-Fashga inside Sudan, and Sudan granted Amhara farmers rights to cultivate the land. However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claims that the area belongs to Ethiopia. In November 2020, as the ENDF and Amhara troops entered the conflict in Tigray, Sudan expelled the Ethiopian farmers and their militias from the Al-Fashaga. By December, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) forces gathered along the Sudanese side of the border to monitor the crossing of Tigrayan refugees and possible retreating TPLF forces.

Multiple skirmishes in late May and early June, including the recent kidnapping and killing of Sudanese farmers, have resulted in ENDF and SAF troops finding themselves in close proximity to one another.  On June 8, a Sudanese military source indicated that Ethiopia deployed extra troops along the border with Sudan and Amhara region. On June 10, Sudan met the Ethiopian military build-up with adjacent troops across the border. Major General Ibrahim Gabir, one of Sudan’s eleven Sovereign Council members, has stated, “But if they [Ethiopian troops] come into al-Fashga, we will kill them, yes.” Given the increase in troop posturing and the fact that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed relies heavily on the support of Ethiopia’s Amhara, the disputed region of al-Fashaga will continue to stoke tensions between the two war-stricken countries.

As the potential for clashes on the Ethiopia-Sudan border becomes increasingly likely, there are also concerns of a recurrence of violence along the Sudan-South Sudan border. Ethiopia currently supplies the totality of troops to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Abyei (UNISFA), the highly contested region along the Sudan-South Sudan border that remains at the heart of the tensions between the two countries. If Ethiopia withdraws its peacekeeping troops, the SAF may be forced to fill the security vacuum with troops, which could spark renewed tensions with South Sudan. There are also worries that Sudan could unilaterally expel those forces out of fear that Ethiopia would recommission these forces in the event of an outbreak of violence along its border—opening a new front against Sudan and vastly expanding their zone of conflict.

Darfur Women Action Group remains concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation for innocent Tigrayan people and the consequences they will suffer from due to the widespread implications of this conflict. The scale of gender-based violence and utilization of rape as a weapon of war is reprehensible and must end immediately. The Sudanese interim government evidently remains committed to the militaristic aggression that characterized the Bashir regime during its 30 year reign, a stance that is contributing to the instability throughout the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia and Sudan have a history of engaging in proxy wars and supporting each other’s armed opposition groups, often with disastrous consequences for civilians, meaning that if relations continue to deteriorate, there is no shortage of armed groups for both sides to back. Thus, Darfur Women Action Group believes these tensions must be de-escalated before it results in greater regional instability.

The situation in Tigray is similar to that of Darfur, where mass atrocities occur daily, and little international action is taken to ensure that the government forces and their militias stop violations of international law. The international community must take immediate action and leave politics aside to ensure the protection of civilians in Tigray. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized in 2004 when referring to Darfur: “Call it a civil war. Call it ethnic cleansing. Call it genocide. Call it `none of the above.’ The reality is the same. There are people… who desperately need the help of the international community.”

As al-Bashir denied responsibility for the atrocities and genocide committed in Darfur by government forces and their militias, so does Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, as he continues to falsely claim the military operation in Tigray is a legitimate means for establishing law and order. The international community must ensure actors committing violence against civilians, including crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, and genocide are held accountable. The people of Darfur and Tigray have waited too long for the justice they deserve.

Ana Torres is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations and a minor in Human Rights. She is currently the Outreach and Partnership Building Intern for Darfur Women Action Group.