Mekelle፡ 11 June 2024 (Tigray Herald)


Since November 2020, the zone officially known as Western Tigray has been annexed by the neighbouring Amhara region. Based on observations and interviews with displaced people, this article depicts the administration of the occupied zone. Ten episodes of massacres are listed in the text, showing how mass violence is an integral part of state practices under the Amhara nationalist administration. The text first elaborates on the relationship between social science and law and shows the uses of social science thinking and methodology in dealing with mass violence.

This text is a modified version of a field report written in March 2024 that includes a list of massacres carried out in Western Tigray after it was annexed by the Amhara region in November 2020. Mass violence was not my initial research object: my investigation of the massacres stems from an exploration of the agrarian grounds for Amhara nationalism.

Whereas most Amhara elites had previously rejected ethnicity as a legitimate political framework, there was an apparently massive conversion to ethno- nationalism among the Amhara populations of Ethiopia and the diaspora from 2016 on. At the heart of Amhara nationalist discourses lay new territorial claims, notably to “Wolqayt”, a term used by activists as a metonymy for Western Tigray, which they claimed was forcibly integrated into Tigray in 1991.2

Wolqayt refers to the highlands around Addi Remets and the lowlands to the east, towards the Tekezé River. Historically, these areas had economic links with the lowlands along the Sudanese border, where sorghum cultivation peaked in the early 20th century, due to abundant land, an available enslaved workforce and rising food prices in colonial Eritrea. Agriculture was mechanised in the 1960s and export crops such as sesame have taken over since that time. Large- scale agriculture was promoted by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Until the 2010s, peasants from the highlands practised a form of seasonal shifting agriculture in the lowlands known as mofer zemet.

I was dissatisfied with the a-historical, essentialist narratives about “historical territories” and “identity” produced by activists that too often made their way into scholarly work, and wanted to dig into the agrarian grounds for Amhara nationalism, believing that claims to territory needed material content in order to mobilise a wider cohort than young, male urban activists. Starting in late 2018, I read nationalist literature and social media content extensively and conducted interviews with activists who endorsed Amhara nationalism, who were first city- based teachers, merchants and civil servants. From 2016, youth groups started to call themselves fanno, an Amharic word with powerful nationalist undertones that historically referred to the armed peasants who accompanied the imperial armies on military campaigns. Fanno increasingly took up arms between 2018 and 2020, to the point where the word became synonymous with armed Amhara combatants when the war in Tigray broke out.

Amhara activists have hammered home the idea that “Wolqayt is Amhara” and that Western Tigray was forcibly integrated into Tigray by the TPLF in the early 1990s. They built on old maps and historical documents that showed that notably between the late 1940s and 1991, Wolqayt had been administered from Gondar and Dabat, cities that are now located in the Amhara region”. This historical distortion was endorsed in 2018 by the Amhara branch of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front and was left unchallenged by foreign analysts, who were undoubtedly complicit in making the violence of the annexation so discreet. Likewise, the idea that Wolqayt and other parts of Tigray “have long been claimed by Amhara” has become normal, including in scholarly work and NGO reports”. This narrative depicting Wolqayt as a “contested land” normalises the annexation by Amhara forces, and ultimately endorses an extremely violent fait accompli. However, it is the speed at which this territorial claim was developed and proposed that should strike us, as no “Amhara claim” to Wolqayt or Western Tigray was made public before the mid-2010s. Even at the time it was formed, the Committee for the Restoration of the Amhara Identity of Wolqayt-Tegedé (CRAIWT), which led the campaign for the annexation of Western Tigray and now rules the area, did not advocate for secession from Tigray, but rather for an autonomous zone within the region. 10 When I first met members of the CRAIWT, it became clear that agrarian claims were central to a feeling of resentment that they voiced in terms of identity. It is an undeniable fact that the inhabitants of Wolqayt held grievances against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the region. In the mid-2010s, small agricultural investors who did not reach the threshold of 20 hectares required to qualify for investor status had seen their land taken and given to larger investors from elsewhere in Tigray. Others had been prevented from continuing to practice mofer zemet.11 Some had had their land taken or had been displaced by the Wolqayt Sugar Factory, a major land-thirsty state-led investment12.

The development of sugar factories in Ethiopia is closely associated with MetEC, the military-industrial conglomerate that spearheaded the developmental state and is commonly perceived not only as a TPLF-affiliated organ, but also as an institution “dominated by Tigrayans” and as “a means of channeling rents to powerful and well-connected military figures. “13 Western Tigray was a hotspot of the Ethiopian developmental state where parastatal enterprises structured the sesame and cotton value chain. 14 Young people from all over Ethiopia found seasonal jobs in the agricultural hubs of Humera, May Kadra, Bereket and Dansha. They were employed by local investors who put them to work farming parcels of land that were undeniably larger than is common in most of Ethiopia. They were particularly prone to adopting and spreading the stereotype that Tigrayans were richer, especially since they did not spontaneously distinguish

“Tigrayans” from “Wolqayté”. Many of the Wolqayté who were hiring this. migrant workforce voiced support for the CRAIWT after annexation. 15 The CRAIWT brought together wealthy individuals who often come from former landowning families, and it might be seen as the embodiment of discontent towards the developmental state.

Claims connected to agricultural policies revived the resentment that certain historical Wolqayt families might have harboured in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tens of thousands of returnees from Sudan and Tigrayans from food-insecure areas of Tigray were resettled on former agricultural land along the Sudanese border. 16 The nascent division between these resettled people and people who could claim ancestry in Wolqayt widened, and was used by Amhara nationalists.

However, I was able to see from my incipient research that the “Tigrayan” or “Amhara” labels did not seem to be politically relevant when it came to explaining much of Wolqayt’s history. During the 1974-1991 civil war, as today, Wolqayt families appeared to be divided; in November 2020 and the months that followed, brothers joined opposite sides even though they were supposedly defined by their blood relations. Even according to people who had sided with hardline Amhara nationalists, the politicisation of a distinct “Wolqayté” identity seems to be a fairly recent construction, emerging in the mid-2010s. While territorial claims are framed in terms of “identity” and “history”, my interviews with urban activists and (founding) CRAIWT members led me to the somehow unsurprising conclusion that it was economic prejudice perceived or real – that had led to the emerging racial hierarchies. 17

Once the war in Tigray began, I had to consider the evident fact that the nationalists I wanted to study had taken control of large swathes of the state apparatus. This called for an examination of concrete state practices under nationalism.


Between November 2020 and July 2021, I travelled to occupied Western Tigray several times with research authorisations, with the aim of observing land redistribution and documenting the day-to-day administration of the occupied zone. When direct observation by travelling to Wolqayt became impossible, I began to interview people who had been displaced from there, first in Sudan Qualitative interviews were conducted in Amharic or with the help of an interpreter who translated Tigrigna into Amharic, or a mixture of both. I conducted formal interviews lasting from 20 minutes to half a day with more than 110 people. The interviewees had been displaced from the villages and towns of May Kadra, Humera, Adebay, Mogo, Addi Goshu, Rawyan, Qorarit, May Gaba, Bereket, Delesa Qoqah, May Woini, Ba’eker, May Humer, Ruwassa, Division, Idris, May Qeyh, Dansha, Addi Remets, Tekezé, Bét Mulu and May Cha’e. All of them had left Western Tigray between November 2020 and March 2024. The interviewees included 16 women and 7 Tsellim Bét (although maybe more of them might actually identify as such). Tsellim Bét are Tigrigna-speaking Black people who identify as Tigrayans and live in the Tekezé Valley in the lowlands of Wolqayt.20 All the interviewees, whether they came from resettlement villages or claimed to be originally from Wolqayt, had spent decades in Western Tigray, except for five young adults who were born there. They were all farmers, agricultural employees, cattle keepers or agricultural investors, apart from six civil servants and two gold panners. Four had been administrators of their tabia, and four were priests. Several had been displaced twice, including some who had initially been expelled from the Amhara region in 2016.

Although I was particularly interested in details of the history, agricultural practices and current administration of the zone, extreme violence featured prominently in the stories told by the displaced people. “Leave the history!” several elders told me they wanted to talk about the current crisis and the violence they had suffered. On many occasions, they insisted that the level of violence was unprecedented. They had “never seen such things”.


The fact that all the accounts of violence tallied showed that subjecting an ethnically defined part of the population to extreme violence was central to the administration of occupied Western Tigray, which has now been rechristened the Wolqayt Tegedé Setit Humera Zone. An ethnic cleansing policy was carried out under the rule of the CRAIWT and the Prosperity Party, which took control of the administration in November 2020 with the aim of making land available to settlers and supporting new social hierarchies. The massacre of civilians, which is a common warfare practice in the history of the Horn of Africa, 22 served exactly this purpose of enforcing an ethnic hierarchy in which Tigrayans were at the very bottom. These massacres, and particularly the wave of mass killings in the Autumn of 2021 I detail below, had to be included in my investigation of state practices under nationalism.

encompasses all the lowland black populations who were historically targeted by slave raids. While Tsellim Bét are often said to be descended from enslaved people brought to Wolqayt from Sudan or Southern Ethiopia, Wolbert Smidt has questioned this, and argues that they are most probably related to the Gumuz. See W. G. C. Smidt, “Preliminary Report on an Ethnolinguistic Research Among the Cha’ré People, a Hidden Ethnic Splinter Group in Western Tigray”, Ihyopis, vol. 1, 2011, p. 103-126. 21. The tabia in Tigrigna, or qebele in Amharic, is the local administration in Ethiopia. The administrative structure is, from top to bottom: central government>region>zone>wereda qebele. In Tigray, qushet refers to a village, and is smaller than the tabialgebelé. 22. See A. de Waal, “Genocidal Warfare in North East Africa”, in D. Bloxham and A. D. Moses (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 529-549, especially p. 529-530. See also R. Reid, “Atrocity in Ethiopian History”, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 24, n° 1, 2022, p. 97-108; T. Berhane-Selassie, Ethiopian Warriorhood: Defence, Land and Society 1800-1941,

Rochester, James Currey, 2018.

I have omitted killings that took place during battles from my list, although some military operations appear to have targeted civilians directly, notably in the lowlands from Dansha to May Gaba, in the early weeks of the war. Some events, including the Tekezé Bridge massacre on 17 January 2021, were documented in the 2022 joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, 23 which all coincides with my data, even the names of the victims. My interviewees were adamant about reporting the massacres they had witnessed, but they all concluded that the killings of individuals or small groups were too numerous to be fully accounted for. As a former militia commander put it: “We stopped counting when just 3, 5, 8 got killed. There were too many. “24

Similarly, sexual violence was mentioned repeatedly, including evidence that indicated sexual enslavement by fanno. According to people who had remained in occupied Western Tigray for several years, “rapes are like individual killings”: uncountable. Being a foreign man, I did not try to identify victims of sexual violence and interview them, as my questions might obviously have had a traumatising effect. However, sexual violence was implicit in many stories. Numerous families have been divided, with the women staying in Western Tigray while the men fled in the early days of the war or were deported after spending months in custody. Some men reported that they had to “give” their daughters to fanno to be married 25. Many displaced people mentioned that the kidnapping of women by fanno was a common practice.

Among the research results, it appeared from my interviews that forced labour is ubiquitous in Western Tigray in agriculture and to a lesser extent in gold panning. Tigrayans are asked to work for fanno leaders, sometimes by the local administration, and are denied a salary. Some who asked about their wages were threatened with jail. All of them had already spent weeks or months in prison since the beginning of the occupation. 26 Some agricultural workers had been released from prison on bail only to be forced to work land that had been appropriated by fanno.

New sharecropping agreements are emerging in Wolqayt, largely to the detriment of tenant farmers, who are pushed to agree to keep only a quarter of their harvest. Those who enter into these agreements have no guarantee that they will eventually see their share, as armed landlords can always decide not to give them their due. 27 The development of these sharecropping practices reveals local power dynamics in which a de facto captive workforce has to accept whatever a violent administration controlled by armed men imposes on them. In addition to having unequal access to land and labour, Tigrayans have not been able to keep their cattle since the annexation. Large herds grazing in the lowlands were appropriated by fanno right from the beginning of the occupation. At the time, meat was cheap in Humera, Dansha and other towns, to the point where soldiers were complaining that they were “fed up with meat.”28

The racial hierarchy between Tigrayans (and increasingly Tsellim Bét) and Wolqaytés or Amharas in this agricultural production system is constantly recalled by fanno and the local administration. A young Tigrayan who had been freed from Addi Remets prison only to be put to work for a fanno reported this answer when he tried to ask for the 21 quintals of grain he was supposed to receive, when the fanno had only given him one: “Hey, but you’re Tigrayan! Have you forgotten Addi Remets? Do you want to go back there? Tigrayans don’t ask for their due!”29

Enslavement, which had been central to the region’s economic set-up for decades, may have returned in Wolqayt’s lowlands, as Tsellim Bét survivors were clearly told by fanno from the early days of the occupation that they had come to “buy and sell you like in Haile Sellassie’s time.”30 Many Tsellim Bét initially tried to stay on by taking advantage of the fact that the fanno did not spontaneously identify Black people as Tigrayans. At a meeting where Tigrayans were asked to identify themselves by raising their hands, the Tsellim Bét who complied were told to put their hands down, as according to the racial perceptions of the fanno they could not be Tigrayans. Despite this, there are many Tsellim Bét among the people who have recently crossed to the eastern bank of the Tekezé, describing continuous violence and forced labour. As a young Tsellim Bét man put it: “It is now that they are saying that Tsellim Bét are junta, now that they don’t have Tigrayans any more”31,

This racial hierarchy is not just imposed by brute force; it is also institutionalised and enforced by the local bureaucracy. Tigrayans are denied ID cards, which prevents them from travelling, even locally. Cards are denied to people who are not known to the new authorities or are unable to find a guarantor. In some towns, a temporary “moving authorisation” (mengeshagesha wereqet), which is valid for three months, can be issued. Known as “the white paper”, this document looks like an ID card but is not a real one: it is a “support letter” that displays a photograph of the holder and certifies that she or he lives in a given qebelé. On the cards issued in Rawyan, the geographical limits of their validity are specified: “Anybody found with this support letter outside our wereda or Humera city will be prosecuted by law”32, Holders of an ID card issued by any locality in the Amhara region can circulate freely in the zone. Controlling movement was among the first tasks of the nationalist administration in the early months of the occupation, and administrators were busy issuing laissez-passer to merchants who were transporting looted grain to the Amhara region, and to Tigrayan civilians, mostly elderly women, fleeing to the other side of the Tekezé, 33


Because I am a social scientist, documenting, organising and publishing facts about war crimes that might be used for prosecution might raise questions, as it would necessarily take me away from attempting a dispassionate, neutral vision of events. However, trying to produce “balanced research” is neither possible nor desirable, as social scientists are inevitably socially and politically situated, and acknowledging where we stand strengthens our findings.34

In the first place, the publication of these results is a way for me to remain faithful to the people I interviewed. All of them were adamant about giving me lists of victims and details of massacres and other crimes because they wanted them to be known. The displaced persons believed that their ordeal had not been paid sufficient attention by “the international community” a foreigner asking questions seemed to them to embody. The second reason why I am publishing these notes is that I share the interviewees’ belief that only justice – potentially including prosecution and trial-can ensure a sustainable peace.

Another important motive is that in a context of intense propaganda from all sides, especially the Amhara occupation forces, who produce negationist content 35, it seems important to provide evidence that makes it possible to assert that these crimes were indeed committed, and that the Autumn 2021 wave of massacres constituted a policy of ethnic cleansing. While it may be that this document cannot be treated as evidence of the type required in a prosecution or trial, it seeks to provide a clear, contextualised view of mass violence and an understanding of these crimes informed by social science methodology and thinking.

An understanding of the contexts and processes permitted by social science can be used for the purposes of justice. Before a legal judgment can be issued, and before an analysis can be offered, facts need to be established. This is all the more difficult when independent journalists and researchers cannot access the area, when there is a high probability that written archives on the massacres will not be found and when the overall political situation is not conducive to opening comprehensive debates on the crimes that have been committed. There is currently a high degree of risk that any talk about atrocities will be seen. as a threat to the fragile status quo following the cessation of hostilities. In this context, social scientists cannot rely on reports by others to provide an understanding of the violence. Data need to be produced using social science methodologies. In return, these data can be made available to others, notably to lawyers and people in search of justice.

This is therefore a way to respond to calls for international academia to “bolster fragile or divided [local] academic communities.”36 It means providing funding to Ethiopian colleagues, for example through the “Conflict and Politics in Ethiopia” programme that enabled me to carry out this research. It also means producing and sharing data to fuel collective thinking about the war. Furthermore, foreign researchers might face less pressure than their Ethiopian colleagues when it comes to doing fieldwork and touching on questions that are deemed to be politically sensitive.


While the facts must be established, the accounts collected in this text will certainly be met with suspicion by many people, so a few words on why I believe the victims are needed here. Social science implies a level of trust in the people one meets, which does not mean that their statements are exempt from critical scrutiny. Readers must also trust that the author is depicting social facts based on empirical enquiry and rigorous methods. Qualitative methodology, whether using ethnography or interviews, relies on the idea that “others exist, I have met them, and I am asking you to believe what I write about them.”37 Hence, most of the time the “proof” or “pieces of evidence” produced by social science cannot be treated at the level required for legal prosecution, although representatives of the social sciences are being called to the stand more and more frequently. Our proof does not have to reach the same level of irrefutability, or as Olivier de Sardan puts it: “The truthfulness of our assertions cannot claim to be truth, but rather plausibility.”38

Likewise, intentionality cannot be ultimately proved by using the tools

of social science, as decades of debate between the reified positions of the

“structuralists” and the “intentionalists” in studies of the Holocaust have

shown.39 But if we persist with a founding principle of social science – at least since Durkheim’s time that human action is determined by socially constructed norms and contexts, 40 then documenting the processes that form them allows an understanding of violence, just like any other social fact. This is why the elements gathered here matter, as they provide an understanding and contextualisation of the ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray.

On a more practical note, another reason the testimonies I have collected. deserve to be believed is that they are consistent in terms of the places, identities of the victims and the perpetrators, modus operandi, and numbers of people killed that are mentioned. Different people interviewed in different refugee camps a few months apart gave similar accounts of the events. This triangulation is a validation criterion in social science.

I was not able to interview the perpetrators, however. This is the main blind spot of this research, as the way perpetrators talk about violence, make sense of it and justify their deeds is necessary for the purposes of shedding light on the sociological norms that lead them to act this way. However, my encounters with members of the social groups and institutions that perpetrated the violence (Amhara Special Forces and funno) before the wave of massacres contribute to both giving credit to the testimonies and showing the level of intentionality behind the killings.



Back in March 2021, some ASF members told me about how they “cleansed” villages. One even showed me a video in which several corpses, including women, lay side by side. There were numerous calls to wipe out Tigrayans, as a policeman claimed in March 2021: “We should kill all Tigrayans over the age of five, then there will be a new generation and it will be better. We can’t live with them!”41 Declarations like this echo the words reported by survivors three years later. A Tsellim Bét man from the lowlands of Wolqayt remembered a public meeting in the first months of the occupation at which the fanno told the inhabitants: “We will kill Tigrayans and take their women; we will kill everyone over five, and the Blacks, we will buy and sell them.”42 In short, what victims of the late 2021 violence were describing was what the ASF and the fanno had been calling for in everyday conversations a few months earlier.

This does not mean that the nationalist forces had mechanically done what

they said they would, but it does show that on the side of the perpetrators,

the political context and the by then high social acceptability of violence – as

almost all male adults were de facto militiamen made these crimes possible.

The increase in the scale and the repetition of massacres by the Autumn of 2021

seem to confirm how the wider military context has shaped what the nationalists

could do. Back then, they had the full backing of the Amhara region and the

federal government. The outcome of the war seemed to be uncertain for the

government and its allies. The Amhara region, on which the Wolqayt Tegedé

Setit Humera zone officially depended, issued a particularly warmongering

“emergency call” to counter the TDF’s advance in which all public offices were

told to suspend their normal activities and direct all their resources towards the

masse fait partie integrante des pratiques d’État sous l’administration nationaliste Amhara. The text details the relationship between the social sciences and law, showing the usages of sociological thought and methodology in the face of mass violence.

Source፡Politique Africaine

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