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Targeted Violence of the Kunama in the Tigray Genocide

Mekelle:  29 April 2024 (Tigray Herald)

Targeted Violence of the Kunama in the Tigray Genocide

The genocidal war on Tigray has had a devastating impact on civilians, with reports of widespread international human rights and international humanitarian law violations. This war has cast a dark shadow over the lives of many ethnic groups, and the Kunama people are no exception.  One particularly concerning aspect of the genocidal war is the targeting of the Kunama ethnic group by Eritrean forces.

About the Kunama people

The Kunama people are not newcomers to Tigray. Their presence in the region stretches back centuries, their history and culture intricately woven into the fabric of the land. Archaeological evidence suggests the Kunama have inhabited Tigray for over 2,000 years, predating the very formation of the modern state system. As Negasi Awetahey wrote on TGHAT:

“The Kunama ethnic group is found in Northwestern and Western Tigray: Adabay, Adameyti, Adi Goshu, and to some degree in Kafta Humera. The earliest written mention about the Kunama´s presence in Eritrea, Ethiopia (particularly Northwestern and Western Tigray), and parts of Sudan was by the 9th and 10th century Arab travelers: Al-Ya’qubi  the 9th century historian and Ibn Hawqal the 10th century geographer (Tadesse Tamrat, 1972). Narration from the group itself as per the interview from elders in Sheraro and Humera (see: Andualem Tariku: 2019: 1048-1050) highlight that their history is associated with Aksumite King Baden/Bazen (and his wife Kuname) who ruled Aksum in the transition from before the Birth of Christ (BC) to Anno Domini (AD). Hence, the Kunamas are one of  the indigenous Tigrayans to Western Tigray since Pre- and Aksumite times.”

Generations of Kunama families have farmed the land, raised their children, and built a unique cultural identity deeply rooted in their Tigray homeland. The Kunama people, with a rich cultural heritage and distinct language, have inhabited the north-western Tigray region for centuries. They have a long history of peaceful coexistence. However, the eruption of the genocidal war on Tigray in November 2020 shattered this peace. Eritrean forces, allied with the Ethiopian government, entered Tigray and have been committing numerous human rights violations, including targeted violence against the Kunama people.

Reports from Tigrayan refugees in Djibouti

Recent reports from Tigrayan refugees in Djibouti raise serious concerns about the Eritrean regime’s actions towards the Kunama. These firsthand accounts expose a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide, a violation of international law with devastating consequences. Refugees fleeing the violence have painted a disturbing picture of systematic targeting and violence directed at the Kunama by Eritrean forces. The Kunama have faced a relentless campaign of human rights abuses, violence, displacement, and fear at the hands of Eritrean soldiers. This article explores the plight of the Kunama people and the urgent need for international action.

Eritrean Claims and Intentions

Eritrean military commanders have been disturbingly open about their intentions regarding the Kunama people residing in Tigray. A Tigrayan refugee in Djibouti recounted a chilling statement made by Eritrean commanders in January 2021: ” ‘The land now inhabited by the Kunama and Irob ethnic groups but administered under Tigray belongs to Eritrea; so we will take it to Eritrea soon,’ “ These pronouncements by Eritrean military commanders regarding the Kunama and Irob  people, a long-established ethnic group residing in Tigray, raise chilling possibilities of ethnic cleansing and expose a fundamental disregard for international law protecting minority rights. To claim, as the Eritrean commanders have done, that the Kunama and the Irob are merely temporary residents with no legitimate claim to the territory, is a blatant distortion of historical reality. Referring to the area as “administered under Tigray” downplays the Kunama’s and Irob’s long-standing presence and effectively erases their deep connection to the region. This dismissive language serves as a smokescreen, laying the groundwork for a dangerous narrative with potentially devastating consequences.

The Specter of Ethnic Land Grab

The most unsettling aspect of the Eritrean commanders’ statement lies not just in its disregard for history, but in the underlying motivation it reveals. By emphasizing the ethnicity of the inhabitants, they justify a land grab based on a dubious claim of shared ancestry with Eritrea. This not-so-subtle claim poses an existential threat to the Kunama and Irob people. Should Eritrea attempt to forcibly annex the Kunama’s and the Irob’s homeland based on ethnicity, it would trigger a domino effect of displacement and violence. The Kunama and the Irob people would be uprooted from their ancestral lands, their way of life shattered. Imagine the trauma inflicted upon families who have lived on the same soil for generations, only to be forced to abandon their homes and cultural heritage at the whims of an aggressive government.

Eritrean Commanders’ Ominous Rhetoric

Refugee accounts expose a deeply unsettling truth: Eritrean commanders openly discussed the “elimination” of the Kunama. One Tigrayan refugee interpreted this as evidence of “a well-coordinated genocide.” This interpretation is aptly justified.  Genocide, the deliberate killing of a large group of people specifically due to their ethnicity or nationality, is a grave international crime codified in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. This intent is clear in the discussion of the commanders as this statement by the Eritrean commanders underscores the severity of the Eritrean forces’ intentions towards the Kunama and Irob people and evidences the violations of this cornerstone of international law.

Selective Interrogation and Brutal Tactics

The targeting of the Kunama extends beyond rhetoric. Refugees report being subjected to harsh interrogations by Eritrean forces, specifically about the presence of Kunama fighters within the Tigrayan forces. One refugee described how the questioning shifted from gentle to aggressive, with beatings used as a tool of intimidation. This selective focus on the Kunama ethnicity during interrogation makes it clear that they were singled out as a perceived threat. The brutality of the tactics employed by the Eritrean forces adds another layer of fear and underscores the desperation of those fleeing the violence. These actions constitute violations of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.

Violence Invades Safe Havens: Refugee Camps Targeted

The violence wasn’t confined to battlegrounds. Established refugee camps, intended as safe havens, were not saved. Refugees reported that the Kunama were “the first target” of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) within these camps. This targeting within supposedly neutral zones demonstrates a blatant disregard for the safety of civilians, a violation of Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which protects civilians from attack or violence in times of war. Reports also detail Eritrean soldiers “intimidating and controlling” Kunama refugees in Shimeliba camp. These actions created a climate of fear and paranoia, forcing many Kunama to abandon the supposed safety of the camps and flee once again.

Forced Flight and The Lengths They Take to Survive

The fear instilled by the Eritrean forces is palpable in the stories of refugees who recounted being specifically targeted at checkpoints. One account detailed a harrowing journey through rough terrain, specifically to avoid a checkpoint guarded by Eritrean soldiers. This desperate attempt to evade capture highlights the lengths to which the Kunama people have been forced to go in order to survive.

Systematic Effort to eliminate a Population

The targeting of refugees, the stranglehold on movement through checkpoints, and the rhetoric of land ownership by Eritrean commanders all point towards a systematic effort to annex or eliminate the Kunama population. This deliberate strategy aims to harass, intimidate, and ultimately force the Kunama people to abandon their homes and ancestral lands. Such actions violate the prohibition against collective punishment under international humanitarian law, as enshrined in Article 50 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, in addition to the other violations outlined above.

Refugees fleeing Tigray paint a harrowing picture. One refugee stated, “‘The Eritrean regime does not want any Kunama to live in Tigray and its goal is to either exterminate them or forcibly transfer them to Eritrea.’ “This chilling quote underscores the immediate threat of violence faced by the Kunama people. The prospect of extermination evokes memories of horrific genocides, highlighting the severity of the situation.

The Brutal Reality: Fear, Displacement, and Untold Suffering

The targeting of the Kunama people by Eritrean forces has resulted in a devastating human cost. Many Kunama have been forced to flee their homes in fear for their lives. A harrowing account from a Kunama refugee paints a vivid picture of the constant fear and hardship they have endured: “We were forced to leave the area not only because of fear and lack of food but also because Eritrean spies were watching us,” said a Kunama refugee. This quote underscores the pervasive sense of fear that the Eritrean presence has instilled in the Kunama population.

The violence itself has been marked by brutality. Another Kunama refugee, a survivor of the massacres, spoke out about the horrors they witnessed: “’I witnessed heinous murder and was the victim of the shooting myself,” said a Kunama refugee describing the massacres. This harrowing testimony reveals the horrific experiences endured by the Kunama people at the hands of Eritrean forces. Reports also suggest that Eritrean soldiers have looted and destroyed Kunama homes and villages, further compounding the suffering.

The Bulwark of International Law: Can it Protect the Kunama People?

The experiences documented in this article paint a grim picture of the violence faced by the Kunama people. The targeting, interrogation, violence, and forced displacement raise serious concerns about their safety and well-being. The international community must take immediate action to ensure the protection of the Kunama people and hold those responsible for these atrocities accountable.

Fortunately, the international community has established a robust legal framework to protect the rights of minorities, including their right to reside in their traditional lands. However, international law is only effective if it is upheld. The challenge lies in ensuring that these legal instruments are not mere words on paper, but rather a shield that protects the vulnerable. The international community must take a strong stance against Eritrea’s crimes. Clear and firm messaging condemning such actions and emphasizing the rights of the Kunama people is essential. Additionally, international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Union must closely monitor the situation in Tigray and be prepared to intervene to prevent further crimes and displacement.

Source፡Modern Diplomacy

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