'Survival struggle': Ethnic standoff drives new phase of Tigray war

·5-min read

Asfaw Abera fled his homeland in northwestern Ethiopia three decades ago, stealing away on foot into Sudan as soldiers and ethnic Tigrayan rebels exchanged fire nearby.

During his long stretch in exile, Asfaw, an ethnic Amhara, scrubbed toilets in Khartoum office buildings while dreaming night and day of going back.

Last month, he finally got his wish, entering the town of Humera on a government-chartered bus, fighting tears as he passed sesame and sorghum fields he had last glimpsed as a teenager.

The relocation of Asfaw and other Amharas is part of a daring project to reshape the balance of power at the western edge of Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region.

It comes at a pivotal moment in the eight-month-old conflict that has already left thousands of people dead and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

Tigrayan rebels are ascendant again, having stunned the world last month by retaking the regional capital Mekele from forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Now they have set their sights on Amhara "invaders" like Asfaw, and have launched a fresh offensive with the goal of seizing "every square inch" of Tigray.

Amharas and Tigrayans have long duelled over who owns the famously fertile lowland territory of western Tigray, with firebrands in both camps saying they are ready to die defending it.

- 'We'll stay no matter what' -

That includes Asfaw, who is among the first wave of 15,000 Amhara families who local authorities plan to eventually bring over from Sudan.

Sitting this week in the courtyard of the spacious Humera home where he now lives with his wife and seven children, Asfaw scoffed at rebel leaders' threats to drive him out a second time.

"They say they are prepared to destroy us, but we will stay no matter what," Asfaw told AFP.

"With the will of God, our time has come now."

Asfaw's joyous return last month clashed dramatically with his furtive exit in the early 1990s, when the insurgent Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was on the cusp of taking power.

After toppling longtime autocrat Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, the TPLF went on to dominate Ethiopian politics for 27 years.

Its early reforms included dividing the country into nine regions, and placing northwestern towns including Humera into the newly constituted region of Tigray.

Amharas saw that move as a brazen land grab, but were too cowed to do much about it.

Today many Amharas in western Tigray recall the era of TPLF rule with bitterness, saying they were afraid of even speaking the Amharic language in public, opting for Tigrinya instead.

Amhara officials who agitated for change, and especially those who asked for western Tigray to be administered by the neighbouring Amhara region, were often jailed.

"I have suffered a lot, and I can't even start to comprehend what they did to me," said Siltal Admassie, a local Amhara official who landed behind bars multiple times.

- 'A new life' -

In 2018, however, Abiy came to power on the strength of persistent anti-government protests, and top TPLF officials were soon sidelined.

Deep rancour between the new and old regimes spilt over into conflict in early November, with fierce early fighting taking place in and around Humera.

After Tigrayan forces withdrew, the Amhara regional government raced into western Tigray to assert control.

Amhara security forces dismantled TPLF monuments and occupied TPLF-era military camps.

Amhara officials established local government offices to collect taxes and run schools where students could learn in Amharic.

They also allocated land and homes to thousands of Amharas arriving from elsewhere in Ethiopia and -- in the case of men like Asfaw -- even farther afield.

Farmer Seyoum Berihun is among the new arrivals who marvels at Amharas' sudden change of fortune.

"For me, personally, I have just started living now," he said.

"Even if I am 58, I consider my former life to be a waste. Now I've started a new life, and I'm not even exaggerating."

- 'Survival struggle' -

As Amharas have poured in, Tigrayan civilians have fled by the tens of thousands -- either west into Sudan or east, deeper into Tigray.

The exodus has been so dramatic that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress in March that "acts of ethnic cleansing" had occurred.

Senior Amhara officials fervently deny this, yet they also stress they no longer consider western Tigray to be part of Tigray at all, claiming it will be governed by Amhara going forward.

During a recent visit by AFP journalists, local officials trotted out several remaining Tigrayan civilians to bolster their claim that no one was forced to leave.

Tesfaye Weldegebriel, 67, told AFP he feared for his life when fighting broke out last November.

Yet he said Amhara officials assured him he could stay, and speculated that those who left did so because they had close ties to the TPLF.

"When one government leaves and another comes, you should welcome it joyfully," he said.

But this version of events is difficult to square with myriad descriptions of violent, often deadly expulsions from western Tigray, and Tigrayan leaders have made clear they don't buy it.

In a recent statement, Debretsion Gebremichael, head of Tigray's pre-war government, indicated his forces would continue fighting until the region's old borders were reaffirmed.

"Those who looted properties of the Tigray government, private citizens and businesspeople have to return the looted properties quickly," he said.

"If not, we will make them."

Meanwhile, Amhara leaders, emboldened by a fresh influx of federal soldiers in western Tigray, also appear to be preparing for a showdown.

On Twitter this week, Amhara regional president Agegnehu Teshager posted bank account details for supporters wanting to help fund coming hostilities against the TPLF.

The battle, he said, would be nothing less than a "survival struggle".

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