Teklay Hailay * has been so anxious since 4 November that he’s having trouble falling asleep. This was when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed announced in a televised speech the start of military operations in the Ethiopian state of Tigray in response to what he described as “traitorous” attacks on army camps.
The attack came on the heels of steadily growing tensions between the federal government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which used to rule the northern region of nearly six million people.
Abiy, who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his efforts to end two decades of frozen conflict with neighboring Eritrea, was quick to declare victory over the TPLF in late November after government forces entered the regional capital, Mekele. But fighting continued and reports of mass atrocities continued to surface, leading to fears of a protracted conflict with devastating effects on the local civilian population.
What received less attention, however, was the plight of Tiklai’s ethnic relatives: the Aerobes, a minority with their own distinct language that lived among the much larger Tigrayan population in the besieged area. Activists say the Arop district with a population of around 60,000, an estimated 35,000 of whom live in mountainous semi-arid regions in the northeastern corner of Tigray bordering Eritrea, is now facing an existential crisis in addition to the human suffering caused by the ongoing conflict.
Tiklai, who lives in the capital, Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera, “The social structure of the Aerob community has been turned upside down.” “Many, perhaps as much as 50 percent of the indigenous population … have fled to the provincial towns of Tigray and even to Addis Ababa, leaving the elderly and children behind.”
From the early days of the conflict, Aerop County has been under the full control of Eritrean forces who crossed into Ethiopia to support their federal forces in the fight against the TPLF.
The Eritrean government of Isaias Afewerki and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy took power three years ago, have a long-standing hostility over a complex regional, economic and political conflict that in 1998 turned into a brutal two-year war. That killed tens of thousands of people.
With inaccessible to Aerop and with communications cut off over the past six months, Tiklai has only been able to receive sporadic information on the humanitarian situation from people who have fled south to other cities in Tigray and Addis Ababa.
She helped hold memorial rituals [in Addis Ababa] The 63 residents of Erup were killed by the Eritrean forces, and some of the dead were my relatives and friends. ”Of the 63 dead, his father was kidnapped by Eritrean soldiers, his farmer more than two decades ago, and he was never seen again.
The 40-year-old said the restrictions in Aerop have made it “impossible to know the true number of dead people” – but that wasn’t the only thing that worried him. There are great fears of famine, too.
“The conflict started just as the crop harvest season was about to start, and it is a major concern for a region already suffering from food insecurity,” he said.
Activists said Tiklai and other people from Aerop living across Ethiopia are kept out of sight, especially after Dore Asgdom, the leader of the pro-Erup Assemba Democratic Party, was arrested earlier this year for his opposition to the war.
This means it has fallen upon people in the diaspora like Fissuh Hailu to try to raise awareness about the plight of the Irob community.
Fissuh, deputy director of Irob Advocacy Global Support Group, said the intermittent restoration of telephone lines late last year in major Tigray cities such as Mikkeli and Adigrat allowed him to collect “very limited, but very devastating” information from witnesses who fled the Arophe area. .
This is an incomplete list of the civilians who were massacred #EritreanArmy at #Irob Counties only and verified by Embed a Tweet. Many have been kidnapped and are still missing. #Irobs Refute EEBC’s unfair judgment. #EritreaOutOfTigray Embed a Tweet Embed a Tweet Embed a Tweet Embed a Tweet #TigrayGenocide @a https://t.co/bGtI8gCiru pic.twitter.com/JoeDbgBUhC
– 𝐹𝒾𝓈𝓈𝓊𝒽 𝐻𝒶𝒾𝓁𝓊, 𝒶𝓀𝒶 𝐹𝒾𝓈𝒽 (@ fishhailu83) January 30, 2021
“Since the beginning of the war, the Eritrean forces have participated in the killing and indiscriminate bombing of the areas of Erup,” Feysoh said.
People are terrified and live in constant fear [a] The next round of massacres and kidnapping of civilians by the invading forces. All civilian property in the area has been looted. “
Faisouh also said that he had received reports that Eritrea had already appointed local administrators, with the “Eritrean army continuing to terrorize and starve the local population in addition to forcing[m] To slaughter their livestock to feed them ”.
These reports could not be independently verified.
While the Arop community, like the rest of Tigrayans, has been suffering from the disastrous effects of a conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced nearly two million people, Aerop also fears that if peace someday comes, it might be at their expense.
This is because the Ethiopia – Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) that was formed in the aftermath of the 1998-2000 war handed over nearly a third of Europe’s lands to Eritrea, although the decision was not implemented. Addis Ababa refused to implement it unconditionally and called instead for dialogue. Eritrea said there was no need for talks and stressed that the only way forward was the unconditional demarcation of the border.
“If the EEBC decision is implemented as it is, then this small Aerop land and people will be divided into two warring states. This, most likely, will be the end of the existence of Aerop’s minority as a viable ethnic group,” Feysoh argued.
He said his community had yet to recover from the bitter effects of the 1998-2000 war when a new round of agony struck the Aerop River six months ago. “During the two-year border war, the Arop community was, as it is now, under Eritrean occupation, as Eritrean forces evacuated the local population and forcibly disappeared 96 members of the community,” said Faisouh.
Martin Plott, a longtime political observer of the Horn of Africa, said Irob is likely to look to a bleak future, with the division of society, as envisioned by EEBC, being the most likely scenario.
He told Al-Jazeera: “Eritrea has effectively annexed the region, which is dealing with it as part of its territory.” “It appears that links with the rest of Ethiopia have been severed and humanitarian aid maps show that none of it appears to be reaching the area – leaving people on the verge of starvation,” Plot added.
“It is as if Ethiopian Prime Minister Abe washed his hands from Aerop.”
Al-Jazeera has contacted the Eritrean Information Ministry and the Eritrean Mission to the African Union for comment, as well as the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office, but no response was received at the time of publication. This article will be updated upon receipt of your reply.
* Name has been changed to protect their identity