I am writing this open letter knowing that there are millions of Tigrayans in Ethiopia who are not able to access it online and hundreds of thousands more around the world who are too inundated by sorrows and exasperation to fully make sense of it. However, I feel compelled to write this letter nonetheless as I witness the devastating impacts that the conflict in Ethiopia is having on our Tigrayan brothers and sisters.
Though I’ve written it many times in recent weeks and insisted going back to the days of the EPRDF that my stand against the TPLF should not be conflated as a stance against all Tigrayans, I know full well that there are many who are not open to that distinction at this moment. While I proffer logic from the comforts of America, too many are bracketed by the emotional stress of having families caught in the cross-hairs of battles while others in Tigray have to negotiate between bullets and leaving home to provide for their families.
I haven’t been able to reach my two little brothers in #Tigrai for 19 days and counting. I have no idea if they’re alive or among the refugees in Sudan. On Nov 3rd Meles, 13, called to wish me luck that “the man you want to win wins” the US election. I said I’d let him know soon.
— BeeLyn Naihiwet (@naihiwet) November 23, 2020
I am not blind to the suffering this conflict has wrought on the people of Tigray; I have written that shutting off the internet and shuttering phone services for an entire region in response to the actions of the TPLF is nothing short of collective punishment and implored Abiy Ahmed to reverse that decision. Though I believe that the TPLF is the responsible party in this conflict and that Abiy had to act after the Ethiopian National Defense Force was attacked as admitted to by TPLF spokesman Sekuture Getachew, I continue to insist that Tigrayans should not be singled out for persecution. Any sign that Abiy is going down that path and forgoing humility in order to go for “victor’s spoils” in the mold of his predecessors will be met with harsh rebuke on my end.
But I’m writing this letter not so much to talk about the battles taking place in Tigray but to write about the wars that continue to be waged inside our collective minds as Ethiopians. I also write this letter to express my solidarity with the Tigrayan people even if most are not in my camp when it comes to our outlook on this conflict. I cannot say that our differences are petty given the scale of the hostilities taking place in Ethiopia at this moment, but what I can say is that our bonds span centuries and we’ve been through challenges in the past only to come back stronger.
Though darkness has fallen upon #Ethiopia, though tears blanket the land we walk on, though hazen has become the norm, I know this much to be true, in time tests turn to testimonies. This is my tesfa for #Ethiopia #HealEthiopiaTogether
— Teodrose Fikremariam (@TeodroseFikre) November 23, 2020
After all, we endured Mussolini committing a chemical holocaust against our country, we endured Italians invading Ethiopia only to be repelled at Adwa. We have endured droughts, famines, and wars; yet through it all, our connection endured the tests of time. I have nothing but deep reverence and admiration for the grit, perseverance, and hard work ethic of Tigrayans. Atse Yohannes, Ras Allula and Mengesha Seyoum are but a few names of fierce and patriotic Tigrayans who believed in and sacrificed for Ethiopia. The history of Ethiopia is written with the blood of Tigrayans as much as it is any other ethnic group throughout the land.
I take this moment to admit however, during the ignorance of my youth and blinded by half-knowledge, there was a time when I too fell into the trap of otherizing Tigrayans. I was born in Ethiopia in 1974 and grew up in Addis Abeba at the height of the Derg before we finally escaped to America in 1983 when I was eitht years old. Though my parents never once denigrated Tigrayans, I nonetheless remember the displeasure I would feel when I heard someone speaking Tigrayna and a sense of scorn I had when I heard people talking with an accent that diverged from the norm. For this, I offer my sincerest apologies.
I know these are some of the wounds that Tigrayans have and the grievances that many hold in their hearts. I cannot dismiss the marginalization that occurred in the past; especially during the times of the Derg where your customs and heritage were under constant attack by a junta that was intent on extending their primacy on the backs of all Ethiopians. I am very aware of how steep of a price Tigrayans paid for more than a generation as you were made to feel like second-class citizens while enduring first-class persecution at the hands of Mengistu’s blood-soaked regime.
I’ve studied the Woyane movement that arose during the 1940’s and burgeoned into a mobilized effort to depose Mengistu. To me, Woyanes and TPLF are not the same thing; the former was a genuine effort to rebel against tyranny—Woyane actually means rebel. TPLF, on the other end, was a bastardization of the Woyane cause; while a lot of the original Woyanes believed in Ethiopiawinet, TPLF morphed into an ideological faction that leveraged the suffering of Tigrayans in order to gain power and continue the repressive tactics of the very despotism that Woyanes rebelled against. Let us not also forget that the TPLF purged Woyane co-founders Aregawi Berhe and Fentahun Zeatsyon while massacring a lot of Tigrayans as they consolidated power through a brutal bloodletting.
And that is the tragedy of the TPLF, they co-opted the sacrifices of Woyanes for their own personal gains. The TPLF’s brutality against the slightest hint of dissent turned most Ethiopians against them which ended up sullying the reputation of all Woyanes who rose up against the Derg. This resentment also polarized the minds of many Ethiopians against all things TPLF, which unfortunately bled over in some corners into being against Tigrayans as a whole. TPLF had the golden opportunity to lead through inclusion; they tragically decided to lead by brute force as they repeated the mistake of Mengistu and went for “winner take all” only to eventually lose everything. In the process, they fractured Ethiopia into ethnic Bantustans and forced Ethiopians to choose ethnicity over our common humanity.
While many don’t fully understand the living agony that Tigrayans have in their hearts, Tigrayans never forget the price that was paid by their parents and their grandparents–their lament is homage to a generation that paid a heavy price for having the temerity to demand liberty and equality. Mothers and fathers alike lost by the thousands before they could see their children become adults. Whole towns indiscriminately bombed by the Derg as civilians and combatants alike were eviscerated. June 22nd 1988 permanently etched on the minds of Tigrayans as the Derg unleashed hell on Hawzen and killed over 2,500 people in one instance in an act of war that lives in the minds of those who survived only for those traumas to be passed down like a bad inheritance from parents to children.
There is a reason why this current conflict has triggered so many Tigrayans; the thought of bombs exploding in Mek’ele, Adigrat and Shire takes them back to the bombs that wiped away their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents in Hawzen. Even if we disagree when it comes to who is responsible for this crisis that has shrouded Ethiopia in a netela of bullets and bombs, I am nonetheless very aware of the suffering that this crisis is causing in the hearts and homes of millions of Tigrayans. I pray for a speedy resolution and implore all Ethiopians to not lose sight of their humanity when it comes to the grief of Tigrayans.
Please have compassion when you see a Tigrayan on social media fuming in anger or even lashing out; whether you accept their feelings or not is inconsequential. The point is that they are hurting and as believers in Egzyhaber or Allah, as your faith dictates, lead with love not indifference. Feel free to condemn the TPLF as I do, but stop demonizing all Tigrayans, you can’t be about one Ethiopia if you are excluding Tigrayans from your equation. Moreover, ask yourself how you would feel if this conflict was taking place in the town you grew up or in the village where your families currently live. Above all, do not assign collective judgement for that is immoral, castigate TPLF as you must, but do not pivot and condemn all for the sins of a few.
Let me also point out this one quirk about this current conflict, many Ethiopians are bewildered by the seemingly broad support that the TPLF enjoy among Tigrayans and think that this must mean that they are complicit in the abuses that the TPLF unleashed against civilians. However, this is a misreading of the situation, the truth is a lot more complex. I’ve received a lot of feedback the past couple of days alone noting that the TPLF do not enjoy as much of a support among Tigrayans as perceived by Ethiopians and portrayed by journalists with hidden motives to the world.
One particular Tigrayan inboxed me and let me know that the TPLF are viewed as coercive agents who enrich themselves through corruption while most Tigrayans suffer. But when people feel attacked, they go with those who give lip service to defending them. This is why Donald Trump, a man who has bilked countless “white” people and looks down with disdain at them was nonetheless adored by millions of Americans from the South to the Mid-West and beyond. The politics of emotional manipulation is a narcotic that has a draw many are unable to reject.
To my Tigrayan haweys and hafteys, as much as I understand your pains and try to convey those scars to others so they can be more empathetic to your suffering, I ask that you too take a step back and realize the suffering that the TPLF caused and the wounds that many have in their hearts to this day. The tears you shed at the memory of June 22nd, 1988, many Ethiopians shed the same tears at the memories of May 15th, 2005 and the horrors the TPLF unleashed in order to quash freedom’s song that was echoing from Addis Abeba. The sadness you have, Anuaks, Oromos, Ahmaras, Somalis and the rest of our communities in Ethiopia also feel as they look at pictures of relatives who were silenced by the orders of the EPRDF. We are a country that has a collective PTSD from generation after generation of bloodshed; let us find a way to heal instead of yelling past each other for the sake of ourselves, our children and future generations.
When we talk to each other and share conversations, it creates a dynamic where enemies can become friends. A lot of Tigrayans who approached me livid at my writing changed their minds about me when they realized that I’m not a hateful ideologue and more importantly once I gave them the space to voice their hurts. When I tell Tigrayans that I understand why they love the symbol on our Sendek Alema that I detest, when I tell them that I know for them the star represents the grooves on ambeshas Woyanes ate while living in the mountains so they could carry on the fight, their defensiveness lessens. As my wife tells me frequently, people want to see that yo usee them. This is how we advance the cause of Ethiopia, not through bluster and bravado but through conversations and empathy.
On a personal note, like millions of Ethiopians, I am not of just one ethnicity. On my father’s side alone, I can trace my lineage to Wizero Semeon Meshesha who married a Tigrayan by the name of Ras Gebreyohannes; it is from their daughter Selas Grebreyohannes that my family tree extends to me and my siblings. I am still researching , I hope to find out one day, if Wizero Semeon–who is the granddaughter of Atse TewodrosII–married a man who is related to Atse Yohannes.
I know a lot of the strife between Amharas and Tigrayans traces its roots to the rivalry between Atse Yohannes and Atse Tewodros. In the end, both died on behalf of Ethiopia, they were not greater than the nation that they led. That is a reminder for all of us, no ethnic group is greater than the whole. When this conflict ends, the hard work of mending our nation will start. The pains of loss is not the sole domain of any one group; it is a trait that is common to all. Instead of trying to monopolize pains and shouting over one another, let us listen so we can be heard. #HealEthiopiaTogether #EthiopiaCLICK TO TWEET
Let me close this open letter on a note of hope. As I’ve noted in previous articles, not too long ago I was homeless and hopeless in the streets of Greenville, South Carolina. Parenthetically, take a look at the map of South Carolina upside down and you will see that there really are no accidents in life. God’s grace and plans are greater than our temporary circumstances, while I was enduring the darkest days of my life, there was a light that was waiting for me.
Four years after sleeping in missions, all that I lost has been redoubled. In the midst of my tribulation, an angel by the name of Bethlehem was sent to me; her love healed a broken man and we now have a child named Yohannes. The resentments that I harbored because Atse Yohannes betrayed Atse Tewodros was washed away by the smile of my son Yohannes Teodrose. This is the healing power of love.
Perhaps the bias I once held against Tigrayans was actually not mine; maybe it was energy passed down implicitly generation to generation from Atse Tewodros’s son Meshesha Tewodros onward for grudges that were never resolved. The only thing that can heal these generational and festering wound is forgiveness and love. I know in time love will heal Ethiopia too. May God continue to bless Ethiopia and all her children.
To my adopted home America that gave me shelter when my birthland was under distress; as much as I love Ethiopia, I love America too. The pains I see here are just as palpable even if they are not identical; people on all sides who feel marginalized are manipulated to attack one another instead of realizing that they are in the same leaky boat that is headed into the night. Instead of fighting about politics and bashing each other over manufactured identities, unite and we can finally bend the arc of history towards justice. Failing that, watch the developments taking place in Ethiopia with keen eyes, that canary is coming right for America.
I’m adding this paragraph to express my sincerest gratitude to every Tigrayan who reached out to me over the past c0uple of days. I go into the full details in this Twitter threat below, but just know that people we are conditioned to believe are enemies are just like us. I pray that we start a “Healing and Reconciliation” campaign in Ethiopia that can lead to restoration of hope for our people back home and around the world. Ethiopia, the land of origins and the cradle of humanity, as she goes, may the rest of the world follow. Psalms 68:31