Overview:

Ukraine is not the only active conflict zone in the world today. But while there is good reason to grieve the differences in our response to each crisis, our rapid mobilization around Ukraine can also show us the way in other states of brutal violence, like the ongoing war over East Africa's Tigray.

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With Western attention on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s easy to forget the added pain of people from regions where crimes against humanity have been raging all this time. But it’s a whole different level of heartbreak for many to witness European borders suddenly opening wide, stronger sanctions put in place, and international organizations rallying to combat injustice done elsewhere. Why not also for Yemen or Palestine? Why not for Ethiopia?

But we need not wallow in despair when faced with this humanitarian disconnect. We can build from what the response to Ukraine has already taught us about our options. And we can put those lessons into practice today, even as the Eastern European crisis remains so terribly uncertain. We can leverage our rapid mobilization around one violent conflict to strengthen our international commitments to seeking peace most everywhere.

For example, in East Africa.

Tigray: A genocidal conflict in its second year

Ethiopia is a landlocked country around 1.5 times the size of Texas, with almost three times the population density per square mile. Like the US, Ethiopia has struggled with state versus federal rights, and huge demographic divisions from one state to the next. But in November 2020, the US and Ethiopia diverged when it came to levels of political strife. One grappled with an unceded federal election that would spill into a radical right-wing attempt at insurrection on January 6, 2021. The other was pitched into an ongoing civil conflict after the Nobel-Prize-winning president and regional forces in Tigray went on the attack over military targets.

It’s a whole different level of heartbreak for many to witness European borders suddenly opening wide, stronger sanctions put in place, and international organizations rallying to combat injustice done elsewhere. Why not also for Yemen, or for Palestine Why not for Ethiopia?

Now, after a year of brutal regional conflict in Ethiopia, compounded by hunger verging on famine, the faintest signs of progress toward peace exist. Barely. We actually don’t know the full extent of ongoing violence because many journalists fled the region in fear of persecution, and even major humanitarian NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, USAID, and the UNHCR have struggled to maintain their presence for affected regional-Tigrayans, displaced Eritreans, and other displaced Ethiopians. So what can we do, if we don’t even have boots on the ground?

A difficult task for world watchers

Just as with the current invasion of Ukraine, statistics around Ethiopia’s conflict have emerged in fits and spurts. Last summer, the BBC reported at least 10,000 dead in over 230 massacres. Sexual war crimes against women and children abound, with Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Tigrayan militaries all culpable in this brutality. A Tigrayan man in Sweden has been putting together records of the region’s dead as a personal mission: over 3,000 names and stories as of last fall. More recently, over 5,000 civilian deaths were reported from malnutrition, disease, and aerial bombardment under regional blockade—a tally covering just 40% of the Tigray region. Refugees International places forced displacement figures at nearly 2.5 million, and 900,000 in famine.

But when we can’t act on the ground in a given region—when the fighting is too intense, and the war crimes too extreme, for even aid workers and journalists to show up consistently—our work as humanitarians hasn’t ended. If anything, Tigray’s conflict, especially in the recent shadow of Ukraine, calls on us to think even more radically about the building of a humanist world.

Ethno-religious inheritance

At the heart of Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray lies a story of factions shaped by ethno-religious divides. Our four key semi-autonomous regions are northwestern Amhara, northern Tigray, northeastern Afar, and central-southern Oromia, the country’s political center. North of Ethiopia is the country Eritrea. Northeast is Djibouti. East, and jutting out into the Arabian Sea to form the Horn of Africa is Somalia, a state that includes the contested Republic of Somaliland.

First Christian, then Islamic conquest swept through this region long ago, creating a complex overlay of northern religions on ethnic groups that loosely inform federal zoning. An overwhelming 96% of Tigrayans historically belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (an Oriental Orthodox Christianity), much like their Eritrean neighbors to the north.

To the geographic east of Tigray live the Afar, after whom the region is named: a predominantly nomadic people also native to Djibouti and Eritrea. The region is 96% culturally Muslim, from a sect of Sunni informed in part by an ancestral Cushitic faith—but with one critical exception: a border town with a larger portion of Tigrayans, who in this conflict had to flee ethnic cleansing.

To the west of Tigray, Amhara is home to the Amhara and Oromo, among others. Amharan officials claim that about a quarter of Tigray is their land. Historically, Tigray held disproportionate levels of federal power, despite only constituting 6% of the country’s population. In the almost 30 years when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated its federal coalition, Amhara claims that they stole its region’s territory. 

Which brings us to a sea change in the region of Oromia.

Nationalism versus regionalism

The president of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, is from Oromia, a region with a diverse group of Ethiopian Orthodox, Christian Protestant, and Islamic peoples. Abiy’s background is pluralist: an Oromo Muslim father, an Amharan Ethiopian Orthodox mother, a Pentecostal wife. He rose to presidency on the back of two conflicting interest groups. Some were excited by his stated intent to unify the ethnically divided country. But Oromo youth wanted the first Oromo president in recent years to better advance economic prosperity and political centrality for their own. 

Once in office, Abiy made choices that estranged both movements. Instead of stabilizing the country’s still-fragile democratic structures, he consolidated power and set about unifying the country’s regional parties in an arrangement that possibly favored the Amhara.

Internationally, Abiy was much-loved at first. He received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending two decades of strife with Eritrea. Unbeknownst to the world, though, this accolade emboldened Abiy to collaborate with Isaias Afwerki, dictatorial president of Eritrea. Their target was Tigray. 

Or, more specifically, the TPLF, which refused to merge with Abiy’s new Prosperity Party, and held regional elections instead. When Tigray leaders openly attacked Amharan cities in an ongoing territorial dispute, Abiy had both pre-planned means and opportunity to strike.

And why did Eritrea care? Tigray was common territory for decades of inter-state hostility, and Eritrea is not kind to deserters of its forced conscription practices. Given license to enter Tigray, the Eritrean military has forcibly repatriated or “disappeared” refugees it finds there.

Nation-states versus global humanism

Westerners might be forgiven for finding a crisis like the Russian invasion of Ukraine “easier” to grasp than Ethiopia. For one, we’re generally more familiar with the former’s ethnic factors. For another, Putin’s culpability in the invasion of Ukraine is clear and singular. Conversely, when faced with a violent conflict in a country of divided ethnic groups? With no local military innocent of ethnically motivated killings and sexualized war crimes against women and children? It’s difficult for average Westerners to know how to “judge.”

Thankfully, we don’t have to. Not simply to respond as humanists. All we have to do is remember with whom our empathy should always lie.

As with the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, all word games played by leadership primarily serve to obscure our shared humanity. And with it, our responsibility to civilian care.

And so, yes, as with so many other nations, “sides” in Ethiopia’s conflict were shaped by allegiances crafted around ethno-religious relationships to traditionally held territories.

But as the world’s response to Ukraine illustrates, we can always choose to prioritize something greater than geography and blood: the creation of safe harbor for all fleeing violence. Men and boys who do not want to be killed for their ethnic ties, or forced into unconscionable forms of military service simply to survive. Women and girls who deserve better than to be victims of one of the cruelest war tactics that humanity has contrived.

Border restrictions eased swiftly for Ukraine. Visa requirements, by and large, were waived. Staggering economic sanctions soon appeared, to limit the aggressor’s means to carry on.

Why the difference in response?

In part, we reacted so quickly to the invasion of Ukraine because its civilian trauma was far more relatable to wide swaths of the white-Western world, with all the cultural histories that our countries share. And yes, that is a hard and shameful thing to realize about ourselves: that we do have biases, and that these biases have limited how much we’re moved to help.

Or, at least, how much we’ve been moved to help to date.

But humanism doesn’t need us to wallow or self-flagellate. If anything, it calls upon us to embrace the benefits of all this fresh intel—about ourselves, and about our systems, too.

Though the end of Ukraine’s struggle remains dreadfully unclear, and we’re still waiting to see what further devastations lie in store, we have new data regarding global collaboration, civic courage, and everyday neighborly care. And that data shows us what we’re capable of, all the good we can still do.

We reacted so quickly to the invasion of Ukraine because its civilian trauma was far more relatable to wide swaths of the white-Western world.

And in the case of those many other actively war-torn regions? Other nation-states where we also cannot directly halt all the horrors on the ground?

We can still put pressure on our leaders and action groups to do what we’re already doing for Ukraine: Transform immigration policy to create more safe harbors. Establish stronger economic sanctions. Curtail regional militias’ access to the tools of war. And above all else, empower local governance groups (like the African Union, which is currently not strong enough to stand up to Ethiopia) to more directly intervene for peace.

Obviously, these are all still tall orders. Peace is an active, ongoing process, never to be solved in one essay or built in a night. But though the world offers many sorrows, the sight of rapid mobilization across borders in response to one conflict should give us pause even amid despair.

After all, humanist and humanitarian action is already happening (here).

Why not also (there)?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.