By: Bana Negusse, Abrahm Tesfay
One of the oldest sayings is that in conflict, truth is often the first casualty. Among the clearest and most apt examples of this adage that one could ever find these days is the distorted “news analysis and reporting” of the situation in Tigray Region in Ethiopia.
Indeed, over the past several months, we have been inundated with a seemingly endless stream of sordid reports; of repetitive claims of “gruesome crimes committed by Eritrean forces”. Precursory investigations reveal that these allegations are not only utterly false but are in fact willfully disseminated by Eritrea’s arch-enemies for ulterior reasons and objectives.
During recent weeks and months, a preposterous story of “Massacre at Axum” was propagated in mainstream media outlets with intense frequency and wide spatial coverage. Time and closer scrutiny have now poked massive holes in this fabricated narrative. First off, the various reports supposedly confirming the allegations, principally originating, as intimated above, from biased groups with a history of seeking “regime change” in Eritrea and who have frequently made false claims about the country, lack any semblance of rigorous, transparent, and independent fact-finding work or investigation.
The heavily criticized Amnesty International (AI) report, for instance, was based on the testimony of some 31 individuals from the Hamdayet Refugee camp in neighboring Sudan. False testimonies should not have been solicited from criminal elements in the first place. The fact is many of those sheltered in the make-shift camp are militants and former members of the notorious TPLF militias who fled to Sudan after their involvement in the hideous massacre and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of civilians in Mai-Kadra in early November last year. Furthermore, compelling evidence (including video clips) exists of civilians being “coached” by TPLF supporters both in Tigray Region and elsewhere on how to respond to reporters and investigators.
The subsequent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report is no different – both in terms of malicious intent and flawed methodological approach such as failure to verify evidence and credibility as well as neutrality of sources – from the AI report. In a way, this is not surprising in view of the decades-old hostile agenda of these two organizations against Eritrea.
Other reports fall into the same category. Remarkably, even something seemingly as basic as the date of the supposed massacre is shrouded in gaping incoherence and inconsistency. While various reports claim that the massacre took place on 28-29 November last year, there is clear video footage and extensive news broadcasts of the church congregation – comprising thousands of people – celebrating an annual festival in a completely normal and serene fashion the very next morning. What’s more, reporters who were actually in Axum from 29-30 November have stated that they saw “no widespread, indiscriminate killing” while servants for the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion also commented that attendees enjoyed the celebration of St. Mary “peacefully.”
What cannot be overlooked is also how the narrative about the claimed massacre has continued to mutate over time, with the alleged number of victims and supposed circumstances constantly changing. Thus, the account of the massacre has shifted from being an incident driven by an attempt to steal the “historic Arc of the Covenant” on St. Mary’s Day (Nov. 30th) to being portrayed as a “cruel retaliatory attack” a couple of days earlier after skirmishes to later involving “house-to-house” killing of civilians.
Likewise, it was declared that bodies were gathered and buried in mass graves. One “investigative group” produced “satellite images” to corroborate the false narrative. Later, as serious doubts on the veracity of these accounts persisted, the much-touted “evidence-based existence of mass graves” was abandoned altogether and supplanted with a new narration. This time round, the new story was there were no graves since hyenas had actually devoured the corpses. Similarly, the number of reported victims has fluctuated significantly.
For any reasonable, objective person, the various claims and reports, replete with factual contradictions, numerous discrepancies, and glaring inconsistencies, not only fail to provide a scintilla of confirmation or support for one another, but they provoke a host of serious questions of veracity and motive.
The “Axum Massacre” may have been the main tool of demonization against Eritrea in the concerted efforts to cover up the high crimes of treason and insurrection of the TPLF clique. But there were other fabricated accusations – and new ones are being hatched these days – to maintain the momentum and intensity of the demonization campaigns.
In this regard, the main allegation against Eritrea in the first weeks of the conflict revolved around “vicious attacks on and forced refoulement of refugees from the Hitsat and Shimelba camps”.
This allegation has faded with time due to incontrovertible evidences to the contrary. The full story is still emerging but it portrays of corrupt ties between the UNHCR and the TPLF’s ARRA (Refugee Agency), of embezzlement of funds, of using “refugees” for subversive agendas, as well as UNHCR’s collusion in the larger scheme of “strategic depopulation” in Eritrea to undermine its defensive and developmental capabilities and prospects. The harrowing stories also establish TPLF attacks and reprisals on the refugees in the early days of the conflict. In any event, Eritrea’s policy on forced refoulement is clear and available in the public record: it only accepts refugees who wish to return on their own volition. What is more, during the past year alone, well over 40,000 Eritreans have returned voluntarily from neigbouring countries – the majority of them from Ethiopia – due to COVID-related challenges.
In addition to these accusations, what has attracted much spotlight these days are the new allegations of rape and sexual violence. The London-based Sunday Telegraph even reported that “rape was being used as a weapon” by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and the latter “told one victim that we are here to make you HIV positive”.
Again, anyone with a minimal understanding or knowledge about Eritrean culture, society, and norms would know that these allegations are absolutely preposterous and devoid of truth.
In as far as the Sunday Telegraph article is concerned, a simple cross-checking of facts would have illustrated the logical fallacy of this outrageous narrative. HIV prevalence in Eritrea – which hovered around 4% in the early 1990s – has been reduced significantly in the past decades as a result of comprehensive and aggressive government health policy, intensive community-based public awareness campaigns, sensitization programmes in schools and youth clubs, interventions by religious groups, as well as the un-inhibitive use of condoms. These integrated programmes have reduced HIV infection prevalence to 0.36%, while new infection rates stand at 0.2%. The comparative current figure in urban areas in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia is 4.2%.
Furthermore, sexual violence, in all its manifestations, is illicit, intolerable, and totally abhorred in Eritrean society. Eritrea’s Customary Laws – which date back to the 15thCentury – included provisions for social ostracism and harsh penalties, mainly aimed at preserving the dignity of victims, in accordance with the respective indigenous laws.
As well, during Eritrea’s long struggle for independence, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) gave special attention to egalitarian, popular democratic principles and ideals, with a particular focus on women’s and gender-related issues. Thus, it enacted new laws in 1978 – while still in the field – that abolished forced marriage, bride price, child marriage, kidnapping, and dowry. This was especially significant because the liberation movement was attracting a huge number of female freedom fighters.
Subsequently, after winning its independence in 1991, Eritrea established detailed legal provisions against rape and other sexual violence including: sex trafficking and prostitution; pornography; adultery; and incest. These legal measures are part and parcel of the country’s strong and far-ranging commitment to gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women in all aspects of life and society. It is worth noting that Eritrea’s efforts in this regard have, according to the African Development Bank, “gone a long way towards achieving gender equality.”
There are also several other critically important points to keep in mind in regard to the allegations about rape and sexual violence. Shortly after its defeat and retreat, the TPLF released thousands of criminals – some estimates put the number at well over 10,000 – from prison. This was conducted alongside other acts of destruction (such as destroying roads, airports, and telecommunications facilities) in order to sow chaos and promote instability, therefore posing problems for Ethiopia’s federal and local authorities. One can only shudder to think of what mayhem ensued as a result of the release of these thousands of criminals.
Moreover, even prior to the recent events in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, sexual violence was not uncommon in the region. In fact, local and international mainstream media – including BBC – community groups and organizations, as well as academic and health studies, frequently highlighted how misogyny was common and that sexual violence was rampant posing a massive problem.
Overall, it is quite clear to any objective observer that the sordid allegations being peddled against Eritrea are preposterous and utterly false. The fact is, they are simply part of a blatant attempt to scapegoat Eritrea for the current crisis in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and toprovide a lifeline to whatever remains of the largely defunct TPLF.
What is intriguing is why there is almost a total blackout of the high crimes of the TPLF regime; why discussion of its dangerous acts of insurrection, the policies that incubated this act in the first place and the unimaginable chaos that would have ensued had its scheme succeeded remain deafeningly muted.
In this regard, what are the facts? The TPLF regime had always pursued a dual agenda in Ethiopia: i) maintain its monopoly of political and economic power through a subtly-crafted, institutionalized ethnicity; and, ii) opt for secession, as a residual or Plan B, in the event that its stranglehold on exclusive power in Ethiopia was threatened or became untenable. In the second scenario, the TPLF’s policy hinged on forcibly incorporating and annexing the majority of Eritrean territory.
To cut a long story short, this was the underlying policy and political backdrop of the massive attack that the TPLF launched on all contingents of Ethiopia’s Northern Command on the night of 3 November last year. The TPLF’s objectives – which it openly boasted of – were to take control of the Northern Command (which possessed 80% of Ethiopia’s entire weaponry) and then march to Addis Ababa in order to topple the Federal Government. The plan also involved the goal of invading Eritrea to implement “regime change” and incorporating sovereign Eritrean territories into Tigray. Contrary to all of its calculus and expectations, the TPLF failed.
Now, by disseminating allegations of brutal crimes through a network of supporters and well-placed, well-remunerated media figures and experts, the TPLF remnants aim to cover up the group’s culpability for the current crisis in the region and shift blame to Eritrea. As well, it is hoped that by doing so the last vestiges of the TPLF will be able to reverse the military debacle and offer the defunct clique some sort of lifeline.
The vain, last-ditch efforts of TPLF hardliners is understandable from their narrow perspective. What is baffling is why this dangerous policy is tolerated and accommodated by certain external powers who profess – at least verbally – benign intentions for peace and stability in the region. These contradictory positions are incompatible and betray sinister schemes that have nothing to do with the welfare of the peoples of Eritrea, Ethiopia and the wider region.