War Tigray It is difficult to get a picture of the war that is still raging in the isolated Ethiopian region of Tigray. Researcher Jan Nyssen estimates that there are now up to 600,000 civilian casualties.
Tigray War – It is difficult to get a picture of the war that continues raging in the isolated Ethiopian region of Tigray. Researcher Jan Nyssen estimates that there are now up to 600,000 civilian casualties.
The death toll, the state of the army, the shifting of the front: when it comes to the war in Ukraine, all this is closely monitored on a daily basis. How different it is in a war that takes place out of sight of the world, says emeritus professor and physical geographer Jan Nyssen of Ghent University. The 65-year-old academic is trying to gather reliable information about Tigray, a northern state of Ethiopia, which has been ravaged for two years by a war with the central government in Addis Ababa.
That’s not easy. The region of seven million Tigrayans is locked. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, is blocking access for humanitarian aid and journalists. There is also hardly any electricity and internet. NASA satellite photos from space in the hands of the BBC show how the state is almost completely invisible after two years of war because the lighting continues to go out.
“The Tigrayans I interact with believe that only God can save them. God and they themselves.”
The Ethiopian government recorded a strong victory this week. The government army brought under control one of the state’s largest cities, Shire. In the city, some 600,000 civilians were seeking refuge from other war-hit areas at the time of the raid, an aid worker on the ground told the BBC .
The cities of Alamata (about 50,000 inhabitants) and Korem (almost 20,000 inhabitants) have also been invaded. A rescuer was also killed in the heavy fighting this weekend.
The United Nations, the European Union and several senior US government officials have called for an immediate ceasefire and peace talks in recent days. These were scheduled for earlier this month, but were postponed due to logistical reasons, among other things. The African Union announced the new date on Thursday 24 October.
Jan Nyssen (1957) is emeritus professor at Ghent University and a physical geographer. He started his atypical career as a postman (1977-1997) in Liège. In 1994 he first traveled to Tigray for his dissertation at the University of Liège on soil erosion in Ethiopia. In 2007 he moved back to Belgium and became a lecturer at the Geography department at the University of Ghent. He still visited Tigray two or three times a year. In 2014 he was appointed full professor in Ghent.
“Please note, my wife is chronically ill and I can sometimes be called away from the phone,” Nyssen writes in his confirmation email for this interview. The informal care for his wife and his retirement that started two weeks ago do not make him less involved in the fate of the victims of the East African country.
Nyssen travelled to the Ethiopian region in 1994 for his dissertation. He did research there “on foot”, worked together with the inhabitants, built a house and taught at the university in the regional capital Mekelle. Although he returned to Belgium in 2007, he still visited Tigray two or three times a year. When war broke out, he and a group of academics called for peace negotiations.
How do you collect information in such an isolated area?
“First of all, we base ourselves on high-resolution satellite images, especially to see how the fields are looking. We have also been able to keep in touch with the geographers from the University of Mekelle and they have made observations in the villages. No food aid has been coming in since the end of August, so the Tigrayans are completely dependent on their own farmers. What they harvest now is enough for another three or four months. Then it will be finished.”
In addition to starvation, Tigray is threatened with “an invisible campaign of ethnic cleansing” by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, according to human rights group Human Rights Watch. The elderly, children and women are loaded onto trucks and driven from their villages, according to the NGO. Men are put in overcrowded detention centers where they die of disease, starvation or torture. If they haven’t already been killed.
Nyssen and his collaborators investigate the number of victims of mass murders based on about two thousand telephone interviews, social media messages (from family members) and information from interest groups. For each victim, contact is made with family or friends, some relatives send a photo of the deceased upon request.
“According to our calculations, there are between 437 and 914 starvation deaths per day in Tigray”
This too does not provide a complete picture of the actual number of victims. Traditionally, Tigrayans do not tell relatives abroad when someone has died, but wait until they see each other in real life. In addition, according to the researcher, there are also massacres in remote areas and victims who are not locals of the area, such as displaced persons from Western Tigray.
“We don’t just look at the war dead and massacres, but also the people who die from hunger or lack of health care, who normally don’t make it into the statistics.
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For this we use data from the small group of emergency workers who are on site. They estimate famine by weighing people and measuring the circumference of children’s arms. According to our calculations, there are between 437 and 914 starvation deaths per day.”
Based on all this data, there have been at least 384,000 and at most 600,000 civilian victims in the past two years, the researcher says.
How does Ethiopia manage this?
“The Ethiopian military is strong, with the United Arab Emirates as the sponsor and Turkey as the drone supplier. The European Union does not want to address Turkey about this, because Turkish drone deliveries to Ukraine could then also be called into question.”
A total of 750,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean government soldiers are fighting in the war. On the Tigray side, that is 250,000 soldiers.
“Ethiopia mainly calls on people from the west and south of the country. Because of their darker skin color, these have always been marginalized groups. The mobilization of the Eritrean army is under enormous coercion. The majority of Eritreans share language and religion with Tigray. But disobedience is not tolerated by the Eritrean regime. From Russia one occasionally sees videos of drunken soldiers and people protesting against the army. That will never happen in Eritrea.”
Is Tigray on the losing side?
“There has also been an enormous mobilization in Tigray. The Tigrayans realize that the government is trying to kill them and are therefore very motivated to fight. Every time the front shifts, Tigray’s army (the Tigray Defense Forces) conquered a lot of weapons. But I honestly don’t know what will be next.”
“There is little or no trust in the international community,” says Nyssen. “Ukraine has the priority. Our Belgian Prime Minister De Croo said about the Ukrainian refugees: ‘We have to take in these people, because they look like us’. The Tigrayans I interact with believe that only God can save them. God and they themselves.”