Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, has been devastated by war. The fighting turned violent in November 2020 and last month, a joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailed war crimes and atrocities happening there. Leake Gebrekristos is from Tigray and came to the U.S. in the late 90s. He is a community organizer based in Portland and has lived in Oregon for more than a decade. He joins us with details.
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Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Nearly three months ago, Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, and the world paid very close attention with wall-to-wall media coverage, and military and humanitarian aid from the west. Meanwhile, a large, complex, and deadly conflict with reports of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity has been unfolding in northern Ethiopia since November of 2020. And while it has gotten some coverage, the difference in the scale of that coverage is notable.
Leake Gebrekristos is from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the site of the current war. He’s lived in Oregon for more than 15 years now, and is an organizer for a group called Tigray Community of Oregon. He joins us now to talk about what’s happening in Ethiopia and what it means for Ethiopian Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Leake, welcome.
Leake Gebrekristos: Thank you for having the talk about this crisis in Tigray. Thank you.
Miller: This current war, it started in November of 2020, as I noted. But its roots are a lot deeper. They include colonial history, longstanding ethnic grievances, and earlier armed conflict. It’s too big a history to fully unpack right now, but can you give us a sense for what flared up in late 2020.
Gebrekristos: Yeah, so before November 4th, the region was already being isolated by the Ethiopian government led by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He had just come to power, and he started to use extremely dangerous words and rhetoric, and then also blocking roads so that nothing can go in. So, the genocide really, the war at least before November 4th, started way before that.
And there is, as you said, a very complex history as to what caused it. But the Tigray regional government did go ahead with an election, a local election. And as soon as that happened, the Ethiopian government did not like that, so they really pushed for a war. It became one of the reasons for the war.
Miller: How many members of your family were living in the region at the time?
Gebrekristos: Almost all of them. My extended families, my mother and my siblings, they’re all in there. They’re all in there, and some of them I have already lost. But almost all of them live there. And I have my wife’s family and yeah, a lot of them.
Miller: Early on in the war, there was what was described as a communications blackout. What did that mean in terms of your ability to have a real sense for what was happening?
Gebrekristos: Yeah, so the the communications blackout is not just the communications blackout. It’s a complete siege, as we are experiencing even right now. I always say Tigray is the largest concentration camp in the world because, basically, there is no type of communication, there is no electricity,
there is no banking services, there is nothing. And that was intentionally done by the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. We’re not able to talk to our families. We’re not able to send money to help them. Basically, they cannot even produce any food to survive because all of their plowing tools and agricultural tools were all either taken away or destroyed. So really, it’s still under siege. It is still under complete blackout. So, there is no communication even as we speak right now.
Miller: So, it’s just impossible for you to actually to get any direct word from family members or friends?
Gebrekristos: No, I am not able to communicate with my family. There are … basically, some people go to some other region in the nearby region to get some telecom lines, but there is a complete shutdown of communication. I have not heard from a lot of my family members. And I know for sure I have lost some that some people came to those areas and told us. But there is a fear of the unknown to have lost so many. I don’t know how many of my family members are still alive at this point.
Miller: I want to come back to the war. But I thought for a second, we could hear a little bit about your own personal story to give us just some context. What brought you to the U.S. in the first place?
Gebrekristos: I came to the United States as a college student, and I did complete that college student degree. And then I got the opportunity to go to work for a Fortune 500 company here in Oregon. So, that’s how I landed in Oregon.
Miller: When you came to the States, I think in the turn of this century, turn of the millennium, did you have a sense at that time that you would be making a life here, that you wouldn’t be going back to your country of origin?
Gebrekristos: I never thought about where I was going to end up. I think it was just a matter of faith. I came here, finished college, and then when I got the job, I just continued with that. But I had a very, very strong connection to the Tigray region. I always went there to visit my family. So, I am a U.S. citizen, and I love this country. But I also went back to my roots and then connected with my families, and they were both my home.
Miller: When you go back over the years, what level of of tensions or conflict did you find at various times? Because this is, in addition to internal conflicts in Ethiopia, there’s also an ongoing and complicated relationship with Eritrea to the northwest, which is, right on the border. I’m curious what level of conflict you’d already seen or experienced.
Gebrekristos: So, in the previous Ethiopian-led government, the country was on the rise. They had a double-digit economic development. People were living peacefully. There was a lot of economic development that you could see everywhere you go.
The conflict with Eritrea was over 20 years ago, and the Eritrean government did try to wage a war against Ethiopia ‒ actually against Tigray ‒ and then the Ethiopian government then was able to rout them out. So, what we are seeing right now is actually a revenge as part of that. And they believe that the Tigrayans were really the head of all of this. So, it is a revenge killing, what we are seeing right now.
So there was a lot of tension between the Eritrean and the Tigrayan, but really, when you look at the whole Ethiopia, the country was on the rise. You know, it was doing so well.
Miller: How big is the Tigrayan community specifically, among Ethiopian Americans, in Oregon?
Gebrekristos: I don’t exactly know how much it is, but it is quite a very tight knit community that is doing a lot of work and trying to connect with the community in Tigray, and, at this point, it’s not able to do so. And there’s a lot of pain and agony and then a lot of suffering. As we speak, a lot of people have have gone through a lot of trauma, and they are still going through a lot of trauma because of the known, which we have heard some have already lost family members. And then also the fear of the unknown of when the communication opens up, how many of us are we going to find out how many of our families have perished because of this manmade genocide, manmade starvation, as in Tigray right now. And then also the overall genocide that was systematically planned by the Ethiopian government in collaboration with the Eritrean government, and the Amhara Fano and the Amhara regional forces.
Miller: I should note, just to to put some details on that, last month Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch concluded in a report that the new leaders in the western Tigray zone, as well as regional officials and security forces from the neighboring Amhara region that you mentioned, are “responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out through crimes against humanity and war crimes targeting Tigrayan civilians.” And that followed a report last year from Amnesty International, which found that women and girls in Tigray were targeted for rape and other sexual violence by both Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces, along with aligned militias.
This has been described as a civil war. It’s obviously … it’s maybe more complicated than that, but that phrase does show that we’re talking about internal tensions and conflict within a country. Are their tensions within the Ethiopian or Eritrean communities here in Oregon as a result of this war?
Gebrekristos: Here in Oregon, there might be. I have not experienced it myself. But I think we are so focused on Tigray at this point. I do talk to my [inaudible] friends here, a lot of other ethnicities. I don’t have any, or we don’t … they don’t have any hostilities with some communities. And some of them have talked to us and you know, to express how they sorry they are that was happening in Tigray. But we Tigrayan community, we are so focused on what’s happening in Tigray, we have not really evaluated or quantitatively analyzed how we are or the level of tension that is here.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the level of the humanitarian crisis right now as we speak?
Gebrekristos: Basically for us, it is purely genocide, a systematically designed genocide. But as you noted earlier, there has been a gender-based violence. Over 120,000 women and girls in Tigray have been raped by the three groups, the Ethiopian forces, the Eritrean forces, and the Amhara panel and regional forces. And this is … rape is a very taboo subject in our culture. So there are more than that, we believe, that have not come out and expressed or told us the rapes. But we believe it’s more than 120,000. And this is really the most horrific kind of crimes when it comes to rape. There is gang raped, you know, keeping a woman for days, and then when she wakes up she found her dead son. There is a story of her dead son on the ground after they multiply raped her. And there are a lot of other horrifying stories.
But we have lost over 500,000 Tigrayans already. And so many Tigrayans are perishing right now because at first they tried to kill us using the bullets and after that, after the TDF forced them out of Tigray, (most of Tigray, not all of it), now they are trying to kill us through starvation, basically. They’re not allowing any humanitarian aid to flow in. No food, no fuel, no medicine is going in. No one can go in and out, and people are just really perishing. We are listening to harrowing stories. A few days ago, there was a picture of a lady that was carrying her child and walking in the streets of [inaudible] in Tigray, and she just fell down and collapsed.
Miller: What do you make of the level of media attention this war has gotten in the U.S.
Gebrekristos: For almost close to two years … sorry for my emotions … we have gone to the streets, we have had rallies and demonstrations to let people know what’s happening to Tigray. But I think, shamefully, the international community, governments, agencies, and including the media, they have had very little reaction to what was happening in Tigray. And even right now and there’s not a whole lot of reaction. We did see some harrowing stories that were told in CNN, New York Times, and in some of the major news outlets. But the coverage is not that much at all.
And then when the crisis happened in Ukraine, I saw humanity. I saw how beautifully the world reacted. I saw all the international communities, governments, and the media really talking about it ‒ wall-to-wall coverage, as you mentioned earlier. But you know, when it came to Tigray, not a whole lot of reaction. Even the U.S. government was able to allocate, what, $40 billion dollars within the last few days to Ukraine? And then they were also talking about bringing in over 100,000 refugees from Ukraine. What we’re asking here is for a fraction of the attention that the that Ukraine is getting. We want that reaction for Ukraine because they need it, and we we are in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. But at the same time, there needs to be some level of reaction when it comes to Tigray. Tigray needs the world. We need to stop this genocide as soon as possible.
Miller: What exactly do you want to see from the U.N., or the west, or the U.S., in terms of aid or more in Tigray?
Gebrekristos: So the aid is already in the force of Djibouti. What we want is for the international community, especially the United States, to force the Ethiopian government that’s intentionally blocking this humanitarian aid from flowing into to Tigray. Samantha Powers is the U.S. aide leader [and] has many times said that the Ethiopian government is intentionally blocking all of this aid from going into Tigray. What we really want is for the siege to be broken to allow all the humanitarian aid to go in, to turn on the electricity, the telecommunication, the banking services, and then to allow independent investigation by an international investigative body. They need to go in to investigate. And then also for them to allow independent media to document the atrocities committed in Tigray, in the dark, under the blockade. So there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done. But the most immediate thing right now is to allow humanitarian aid to flow to Tigray so that people who are perishing can be saved.
Miller: Leake Gebrekristos, thanks very much.
Gebrekristos: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Leake Gebrekristos is a community organizer with the Tigray Community of Oregon.