Chronicler of Horrors

An Ethiopian Doctor Records the Destruction of His Homeland

Dr. Tewodros Tefera treats men, women and children who, like him, escaped the increasingly brutal violence in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. He records their stories in his little black notebook – and sometimes wishes he were dead.

Refugees in Hamdayet: Driven from their homes
Refugees in Hamdayet: Driven from their homes Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

By Fritz Schaap and Andy Spyra (Photos) - 15. March 2021

In the arid expanse of eastern Sudan, where the borders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan meet, in a camp of plastic-tarp shelters and straw mats, a man is standing before an angry crowd. He gazes out at the hungry faces as the haggard group calls for food. In his hand, he clutches a black notebook, as though it could help him.

Tewodros Tefera, a lanky 43-year-old with deep wrinkles running through his face, is a doctor. He belongs to the Tigray ethnic group. He got here after having made his escape from Humera, a city in northern Ethiopia that is just a few kilometers away, across the river that divides Sudan from Ethiopia. More than 60,000 people have crossed this river, just like Tewodros, fleeing the conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. He tries to calm the crowd in front of him, his eyes tired, his voice exhausted. The militias that hunt him down in his dreams don't let him sleep.

Tewodros leads a small clinic in the refugee camp in the border town of Hamdayet. But he is also a kind of shadow manager of this dusty camp, which is currently home to thousands of people. "There are no words to describe what I hear every day," he says. "Stories of massacres, ethnic cleansing, hunger. It is an unbelievable disaster." When he is done working for the day, he smokes one cigarette after the next. He tried to make himself believe it calms him down. He says there are moments when he wishes he were dead.

On this day in February, Tewodros is wearing brown pants and a shirt like a kind of armor, protecting him from the dust that creeps in everywhere. He treats around 120 people a day in his clinic, patching up the war wounds of new arrivals and helping others suffering from the miserable food in the camp that tends to cause diarrhea. He communicates the suffering of his patients to representatives of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), collects donations and tries to procure food. But most of all, he is the one to whom the stories of suffering are told, the tales carried across the river by starving escapees. They are stories of looting, of rape, of people shot and killed because they violated the curfew. Tewodros Tefera has become a chronicler of horror.

Not Afraid of Using Violence

The situation in Tigray is catastrophic, and has been since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war in early November on the regional government under the leadership of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Prior to that, Abiy apparently tried to have TPLF leadership arrested. When that failed, TPLF troops attacked an army base. In response, Ethiopian troops marched into the north, with soldiers from Eritrea also crossing the border. That, says Mirjam van Reisen, an expert on Eritrea at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, indicates that Abiy Ahmed's war had likely been planned long ahead of time together with Eritrea.

Since then, the conflict has continued. On one side, the TPLF in the north, an organization that held power in Ethiopia for almost three decades, developing the country significantly, but ruling with an iron fist. It has well-trained, well-armed military units at its disposal. Last September, the TPLF held regional elections in Tigray in defiance of a decree from the Ethiopian government. The organization is striving for extensive regional autonomy and is fighting to regain its power in the north.

A high-ranking TPLF member told DER SPIEGEL that the group's mid-term strategy is the waging of guerilla warfare until they are in a position to launch a broader offensive aimed at retaking control of cities in the region.

On the other side is the Ethiopian government under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed and the country's military, which is receiving support from Eritrea and from regular and irregular forces from the Amhara region bordering Tigray. With the help of these allies, the government was able to drive the TPLF out of the larger cities. Abiy's goal is that of keeping the country together and of consolidating power in the nation's capital of Addis Ababa – with brute force if necessary.

Crimes have reportedly been committed by all sides, but the worst war crimes haven't been ascribed to the TPLF or to the Ethiopian army, but to Abiy's allies, including the militias from Amhara. They started by plundering villages, burning crops and driving away Tigrayans in the western part of the region. According to a report obtained by the New York Times, the U.S. government now believes the campaign in western Tigray amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Another of Abiy's allies has been just as brutal: Eritrean troops apparently aren't just content at committing large-scale looting and rape, but they have also allegedly repeatedly carried out massacres like the one in Aksum last November, where hundreds of civilians were murdered. In a late February report, the human rights organization Amnesty International wrote of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Amid all the fighting, the humanitarian situation in Tigray remains disastrous. Aid organizations continue to complain of limited access, with the regional administration warning back in January of the potential for hundreds of thousands of deaths from famine. More than 4.5 million people, they say, are dependent on aid. The Ethiopian Red Cross said in mid-February that 80 percent of the Tigray region is inaccessible, and they are unable to reach people in need in those areas. The UN has warned of alarming levels of malnourishment. The health-care system has collapsed almost entirely.

Eating Roots

"The Ethiopian military and its allies are using starvation as a weapon of war in Tigray," says Tewodros, the doctor in the refugee camp. "People are surviving by eating roots."

In the beginning, Tewodros himself was enthusiastic supporter of Abiy Ahmed, who became prime minister in April 2018. "My hands were sore from clapping when I heard his inaugural address," Tewodros recalls. Abiy promised peace and unity. He released political prisoners and opened up the possibility of return to those in exile. His goal was reconciliation in a country divided by ethnic conflicts. Abiy wanted to develop a centrally organized state that unified all of the ethnicities and religions in Ethiopia. Like many others, Tewodros believed Abiy was a man who could lead the country into a bright future.

But the TPLF and many ethno-nationalists from other regions rejected the new government's centralist aspirations. They insisted on their constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. A downward spiral of mutual recriminations and provocations ensued, ultimately resulting in war.

Abiy was no longer able to withstand the destructive forces. Early on, he tried to reconcile the hostile groups, but then he lost control – and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now increasingly acting like an autocrat. He is confronting the unrest in the north with increasing brutality.

Even back in December 2019, when the prime minister received the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, Tewodros had already begun to lose faith. Like many Tigrayans, he felt ostracized and demeaned. "The Nobel prize made everything even worse," Tewodros says. "Abiy felt validated in the course he had charted." The result, he says, is now plain for all to see.Abiy has sought to keep the events in Tigray out of the public eye. For a long time, foreign journalists weren't allowed into the country, much less into Tigray. Ethiopian reporters, meanwhile, complain of repressions. Recently, selected journalists have been allowed to travel to the north, but translators and fixers say they have been threatened and even arrested. The camps in eastern Sudan are the only possibility to speak freely with eyewitnesses to the violence.

Tewodros views his new life with the desperation of a man who has no choice but to resign himself to the inevitable. His gaze falls on the crumbling walls of the reception center, the hungry people in their filthy T-shirts and torn pants. He then grabs his small, shabby, faux-leather notebook. Whenever Tewodros hears of executions or massacres, he records what he is told: the place, the date, the number of deaths. As if he is trying to keep a record of the catastrophe even as it continues to unfold.

A Respected Member of the Community

No one in the crowd of people in front of him is wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus. Hundreds of them sleep out in the open in the dust, wrapped in course blankets. Wary of establishing a permanent camp so close to the border, the UN Refugee Agency has not provided any tents for the refugees.

Refugees near the Ethiopian border

Refugees near the Ethiopian border Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

Tewodros himself arrived here as a refugee more than three months ago, dressed only in jogging pants and a T-shirt. "I never thought," he says, "that I would fall so deep."

Back home in Humera, he was a respected member of the community, the director and chief surgeon at a hospital which, he says, has since been completely ransacked. He also ran a private clinic.

He hardly ever had any free time. He lived in a small apartment in the hospital. His contact with his daughters was almost exclusively via video call. They live with their mother in a faraway city that he declined to identify out of concern that doing so could put them in danger. His job was his life.

Artillery shells first rained down on Humera on Nov. 9, five days after the start of the war. It was a Monday, the skies were clear, and Tewodros was in the operating room. He recalls that he was amputating the arm of a nine-year-old boy when the detonations started.

Once the bombardment grew too intense, he organized a tractor and a trailer, first evacuating 20 patients to another hospital located 30 kilometers away, and then another 17. Two days later, the situation grew too dangerous there as well and he sent the patients further to the east.

He fled with two nurses into the bush, where they camped in a dry riverbed. They drank from a watering hole just like the animals. On Nov. 14, Tewodros crossed the border into Sudan and arrived in Hamdayet. He slept hungry on the side of the road. Later, the Sudanese Red Crescent offered him a place to sleep behind the small clinic that would soon become his calling.

In Tears

Tewodros is a man who needs to help others to maintain his sanity. He never stops working. At night, he sometimes joins doctors from Doctors Without Borders, who run a clinic in Hamdayet. There, he breaks down and cries.

Later, wearing a red vest, he is standing in one of the two rooms of the dilapidated building that houses the clinic. The light blue paint is peeling from the walls and deep cracks run through the concrete floor in front of the rooms. Tewodros removes a shredded bandage from a wound. Thick blood oozes out. He redresses the wound. And then he listens.

Patients in the camp

Patients in the camp  Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

The wounded man is named Awet, a gaunt 29-year-old wearing an Atlético Madrid jersey. He arrived in Hamdayet the day before following an odyssey of several weeks. He doesn't want to provide his full name. In late November, two days after they shot his father, he says, Eritrean troops captured him in his hometown of Adigrat. The troops allegedly plundered the city, shooting people at random, including his cousin. Awet, who used to sell mobile phones for a living, was turned into a forced laborer.

For two weeks, he says, he and other Tigrayans were forced to drive from factory to factory and shop to shop in the old Italian trucks belonging to the Eritreans, loading them up with generators, water pumps and other machines. The trucks then brought their loot back to Eritrea. "I was forced to dismantle my native city," Awet says. When he refused to continue after two weeks, his abductors tortured him and chained him up, he says.

Eritrean units crossed the border into Ethiopia right at the beginning of the war. And the motive of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his military is as clear as it is brutal: They seem to be intent on completely annihilating the TPLF. Numerous analysts agree that Isaias has been hoping to accomplish this goal ever since the bloody, 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Around 100,000 people on both sides died in that conflict – and the TPLF held control in Ethiopia at the time.

Norwegian Eritrea expert Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College, says the primary motivation for Isaias to sign a peace deal with Ethiopia two years ago was to allow him to continue his fight against the TPLF. The actions of the Eritrean troops, the massacres committed, the targeted killings, the destruction of infrastructure: All of that, Tronvoll says, bears the characteristics of genocide. In the long term, he believes, Isaias hopes to destabilize Ethiopia as a way of weakening it.

Bodies on the Riverbank

Awet, the forced laborer, was finally able to escape after several weeks in captivity. But when he tried to flee to the west, he ran into Abiy's other allies: the units and militias from the Amhara Region. They apprehended him and took him back to central Tigray. He counted 51 dead bodies on the banks of the Tekeze River, where he was deported to.

Again, he tried to escape, walking through abandoned villages in western Tigray. He says he ran into almost no Tigrayans at all during his journey. "The people I heard mostly spoke Amharic," he says. Later, when he had almost reached the Sudanese border, he came under fire from a militia group, "with no warning," he says. Two men in his group died in the attack. Only very few refugees from Tigray are now able to make their way across the border into Sudan.

Tewodros says he has repeatedly heard stories of expulsions. Staff members of Western aid organizations active in Ethiopia confirm as much, with one group estimating that between 100,000 and 150,000 Tigrayans have been driven out of western Tigray to the east. European researchers with contacts in Tigray believe such estimates are accurate.

Tewodros recalls a patient who told him about the songs sung by the Amhara: "We're going to kill you all. This is our land!" And then they opened fire. The man survived because he played dead among the bodies.

Later, a farmer comes into the clinic and asks Tewodros to examine his eye sockets, which are empty. He says he was attacked by militia members and beaten until his lost his eyesight. Another man tells the doctor that he carried his newborn twins through the bush after his wife in Tigray died while giving birth. Others tell stories of improvised prisons and beheadings.

Darkness falls over Hamdayet, with just a few lamps piercing the darkness. As every night, Tewodros hears the braying of a donkey. He unrolls the mattress he bought on the bed frame behind the clinic, next to a black suitcase that contains everything he owns.

The next day, he walks through the camp. A whirlwind kicks up dust and plastic bags as people line up in front of a dented aluminum pot the size of a truck tire to receive a portion of watery lentil soup. But Tewodros is smiling.

Tewodros Tefera: "I never thought that I would fall so far."

Tewodros Tefera: "I never thought that I would fall so deep." Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL

For the first time in almost four months, he has been able to reach his mother, he says. She is doing well and is with his siblings in Aksum, he says. His face is then overcome by an odd radiance. "And I have a new sibling!"

"Dissolve and Disappear"

He says his mother could no longer stand the uncertainty of not knowing whether he was still alive or had been killed in the violence. For weeks, he says, she didn't leave the church. One day, the priest showed up with an orphaned infant. His mother, Tewodros relates, made a pact with God: "I'll take care of this child and you, God, take care of my son."

Then Tewodros grows serious. He thinks he knows when the orphan lost its parents: on the last weekend in November. That was when he lost his last remnants of hope that he would ever be able to return to his home. It was the moment when the massacres of Aksum were taking place, of which Tewodros has heard so often.

Several hundred civilians were killed by Eritrean soldiers within just two days. Eyewitnesses report that dead bodies were lined up on the streets. The soldiers forbade families from burying their dead – until the hyenas came down from the mountains at night.

Tewodros recalls a patient who told him he had been forced to dig mass graves. He says he can't return to a country where such a thing has happened, nor does he want to.

Later, he is again sitting on a plastic chair behind the clinic. A rusty kettle is sitting on glowing embers surrounded by three bricks. It is in the evenings when Tewodros breaks down, when the stories he has jotted down in his black notebook during the day come back to haunt him.

"What keeps me going is the fact that I can help here," he says. "If I couldn't do anything, I would just dissolve and disappear."

He cries.

"I would love to speak with my children. But what should I tell them? Who knows when I will be able to see them again?" He does know one thing though: It won't be in his homeland.

 

The article above originally appeared in German in issue 10/2021 (March 06, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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A Country on the Brink

Ethiopia Sinks Deeper into Ethnic Conflict

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised democracy and a new beginning for his country -- and received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his initial efforts. It has been all downhill from there, however, and he is increasingly turning to authoritarian methods.

By Fritz Schaap in Shashemene - 15. December 2020

Pro-government fighters in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Pro-government fighters in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Foto: Eduardo Soteras / AFP

On this sunny morning, Falma wanted to speak about hate. About the anger and the rage that has destroyed his city and threatens to tear the country apart. He also wanted to talk about the hope that he and many others had felt when a young prime minister, hardly into his 40s, came into office – and of the disappointment that followed. But Falma isn't supposed to talk, not with anybody – and particularly, it would seem, not with journalists.

We had set up a meeting with him in Shashemene, a town located about five hours south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to discuss his country and what the future might hold. Falma is not his real name. He is one of the leaders of the Qeerroo in Shashemene, a group of young activists who are demanding more autonomy for Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region. Qeerroo is one of a several organizations in the country that are fighting for more power and self-determination for their ethnicity. Some with more radical means and some with less. It is a situation that is not to the liking of the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which is currently trying to bring an end to a war against the rebels from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and is concerned about losing control. That's why people like Falma are currently being treated as enemies of the state.

He had warned us of the police over the phone. Just recently, he said, a leading member of his group had been arrested by the authorities. Security, he added, is a huge problem, and asked us to tell him where we were just 10 minutes before the meeting so he could join us.

Just a few minutes before the meeting, we receive a call from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), which is responsible for granting accreditation to foreign journalists. It also has the power to prohibit reporting and can dictate what parts of the country reporters are allowed to visit and what regions are off limits. The northern region of Tigray remains closed, while restrictions are in place for the rest of the country. The head of the agency himself is on the phone, and he doesn't sound happy. He says he knows that we are currently in Shashemene. "Come back to Addis immediately." It wasn't a request, it was an order.

It isn't totally clear how the head of the EBA knows so precisely where a German reporter, a photographer, a driver and an interpreter are currently located. Plus, we have permission from the EBA to be in the region, we're in possession of all the necessary permits and we even obtained permission from the regional government. The interpreter looks concerned. Perhaps our telephones are being monitored, or maybe the agency has informants. Who knows?

When Falma parks his car on the side of the road a few minutes later and approaches us, he first scans his surroundings. A boyish-looking man with the deep voice of an adult, Falma is wearing a white polo shirt. He greets us through the driver's-side window. Immediately afterward, a text message appears on my phone. Again, it's the head of the broadcasting authority. He writes: "Come to Addis Ababa today. Immediately! Report to our office. Period!"

There is only one conclusion for us to draw: The EBA apparently knows who we are meeting with right at this moment.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Foto: Erik Valestrand / Getty Images

Falma looks around, bids a hasty farewell and hurries back to his car.

On the phone later, he says: "Everyone is afraid. There have been a lot of arrests and the security forces have also been ordered to fire on people who are trying to protest." That is why, he says, there are no longer any protests in the area.

A Conflict over Lost Influence

Arrests, protests, firing orders: Such are the realities in the country governed by the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy Ahmed. A trip across Ethiopia in these extremely uncertain times is to encounter omnipresent fear and paranoia. Uneasiness is everywhere, from the bottom all the way to the top. The government is afraid of the disintegration of a fragile country while activists, the opposition and rebels are afraid of being persecuted and, in the worst case, killed by the government, by security forces or by other ethnic groups. Others are afraid of civil war.

The danger of an escalation rose dramatically in early November, when units belonging to the Tigray People's Liberation Front apparently attacked an Ethiopian military base in the north. Abiy's government sent ground troops to Tigray, while warplanes bombed regional government positions.

It is a war being waged far away from the eyes of the global public. Reporters aren't allowed to travel into the conflict regions and telephone service was largely suspended and has only been partly reactivated in recent days. The internet remains shut down. For a long time, not even the United Nations was allowed to deliver aid to Tigray. Last Tuesday, Abiy's government admitted to having fired on a UN team that had been trying to advance into a restricted region.

The conflict is primarily one of lost influence. For decades, the Tigray held power in the capital despite only making up around 6 percent of the population. The country's economy and prosperity grew under their leadership, but freedoms were curtailed and corruption blossomed. Tigrayans had better opportunities than others to benefit from the upswing.

After taking over as prime minister, Abiy Ahmed removed all the old powerful Tigrayan figures from key positions. Since then, those who were removed have been trying to disrupt Ahmed's government at every chance they get. In September, the regional government in Tigray held elections against the will of the central government, an additional step toward complete escalation.

In late November, Abiy announced that the regional capital of Mekelle had been brought under control, but it is doubtful whether that means the conflict is now over. The leadership of the TPLF is currently on the run, but their units still have plenty of fighters at their disposal – and likely heavy artillery and rockets as well. Possibly more than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting, including, presumably, a considerable number of civilians. Around 50,000 people have thus far fled across the border into neighboring Sudan. It is reasonable to assume that the TPLF will now ensnarl the government in a guerilla war, and according to intermittent reports, incidents of heavy fighting continue.

A street scene in the southern Ethiopian town of Shashemene.

A street scene in the southern Ethiopian town of Shashemene. Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

The conflict in northern Ethiopia shows just how fragile the country is. In Shashemene, too, which is located far away from the northern region of Tigray, the wounds of ethnic tension lay open, visible to all. A few hundred meters up the road stands an entire row of burned-out buildings -- blackened by soot, windows shattered and shutters melted into clumps. They stand as silent witnesses to a vast failure. The charred remains of cars and buses still litter the roadsides, rusty brown like the hard earth of southern Ethiopia.

A Promising Beginning

A wave of protests gripped the region of Oromia in late June, after the singer Hachalu Hundessa was gunned down in Addis Ababa. The songs of Hundessa became the soundtrack of the Oromo protest movement, which began in 2014 and ultimately brought Abiy to power in 2018. Thousands poured into the streets after his murder. Many Oromo still believe that Abiy's government is behind the killing.

More than 160 people died during the summer protests, some of them brutally murdered by the mob, others gunned down by the security forces. Homes, factories, shops, hotels, government offices and cars went up in flames. The government was worried that the riots could spread, and it shut down the internet for most of the country. More than 10,000 people fled the violence.

"If we deny our youth justice, they will reject peace."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his speech in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

The unrest was a far cry from the promising start to Abiy's tenure. He had a dream. A vision of nurturing a pan-Ethiopian nationalism to bind the country and its nine regions closer together, thus putting an end to the cycle of tensions that have repeatedly flared up among the country's more than 80 ethnicities. He envisaged a strong country that would provide a democratic home to people of all backgrounds. It was a fine dream.

Abiy promised to loosen the central government's iron grip. Shortly after he was named prime minister, he released political prisoners, allowed opposition leaders to return from exile and proclaimed the unity and the harmony of all religions. At the same time, his government returned a border town claimed by neighboring Eritrea in a bid to reduce foreign policy tensions as well. At an ensuing Ethiopian-Eritrean summit, the two countries finally agreed on a peace deal after 20 years of conflict. Partly as a result, Abiy was chosen last year to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the ceremony in Oslo, he said: "Our young men and women are crying out for social and economic justice. (…) The youth insist on good governance based on accountability and transparency. If we deny our youth justice, they will reject peace." Today, it no longer sounds like a message of hope, but like a dark prophecy.

His attempts to foster unity in the country didn't go well for long. In the Oromia region, despite early optimism among the population there due to Abiy's local roots, a strong opposition developed against the prime minister. In the north, meanwhile, the independence movement grew in strength while to the southwest, the Sidama ethnic group demanded autonomy. It looked as though the country was breaking up into small islands.

Now, Abiy's most bitter opponents include the Oromo in southern and central Ethiopia along with the Tigray in the north. They see his vision of a united Ethiopia primarily as an extension of central state power and an attempt at assimilation. Both groups are demanding more autonomy.

An African Yugoslavia?

For quite some time, Abiy didn't seem to have a plan for dealing with the opposition to his policies. Ultimately, though, he decided to adopt the means relied on by the old regime, which he used to serve – including as head of the agency responsible for surveillance of telecommunications. Since then, the surveillance and repression of critics has steadily increased, and journalists have been silenced and arrested. In Oromia, arrests and killings by security personnel have likewise increased. Abiy is now seeking to regain control through the use of violence – out of fear that the country may otherwise fall apart.

Ethiopia has a long and sometimes bloody history of tensions between its many ethnic and religious groups. In the 1930s, Italian orientalist Carlo Conti Rossini called the country a museum of peoples. He meant it in a positive sense, praising the country's diversity. But the present seems more consistent with the assessment of another man: The country, said the Ethiopian Marxist Wallelign Mekonnen in the late 1960s, is more of a prison of peoples. A nation state that most ethnic groups submit to. Ethiopia has remained somewhere between a museum and a prison to the present day.

There were around 1.8 million internally displaced persons even before the conflict in Tigray. Fighting between the Oromo and Somali ethnicities from 2016 to 2019 alone was responsible for 1.2 million people fleeing their villages. The Somali have also been involved in intermittent fighting with the Afar as well. Meanwhile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in the west, ethnic tensions have increasingly erupted into armed fighting.

And in Oromia, the region that is home to the largest population group, resistance has grown more and more fierce. Rebel groups are increasingly arming themselves and fighting against government troops, but they have also been responsible for killing civilians belonging to the Amhara, the country's second largest ethnicity, which ruled the country for centuries. In the Oromo regions of Wollega and Guji, brutal shadow wars are being fought. There are dozens of fighting fronts in Ethiopia, and observers are concerned that the country could transform into an African Yugoslavia – into a country that tears itself apart in a bloody civil war.

"The war is a gift from God."

Falma, an activist from Oromia

The war in Tigray could light the fuse for a larger conflagration, in part because it will occupy elements of the Ethiopian army for a long time to come. Mostly, though, because the central government is increasingly being seen by its critics and opponents as the aggressor. Opposition-linked journalists in the capital are already speaking of the development of a new dictatorship.

Members of the Tigray report over the phone of arbitrary arrests, dispossessions, work bans and firings. Even at Ethiopian Airlines, one of the country's flagship companies, employees with Tigrayan roots are being dismissed. In Somalia, where Ethiopians represent an important contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Tigray officers are likewise being removed.

An Iron Fist

The preliminary victory over the provincial government in Tigray could ultimately prove hazardous for Abiy Ahmed. Many regions have long had a deeply antagonistic relationship with the Tigray, who were heavy handed during their decades in power. Now, though, because the Tigray are fighting against the increasingly hated government in Addis Ababa, not a few ethnicities have begun seeing the Tigray as the enemy of their enemy. As a possible friend. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's power is partly dependent on whether the mutually hostile groups can form an alliance against him and overthrow his government. Or whether his army will wear down in a multi-front conflict.

Falma, the activist from Oromia, doesn't necessarily think that is a bad thing. "The war is a gift from God," he says over the phone. "The troops should go ahead and kill themselves, Abiy's troops and the Tigrayans." Both, he says, are enemies of the Oromo. "They should all die."

In Shashemene, after our failed meeting with Falma, we begin our return journey to Addis Ababa. But first, we head briefly south, where our hotel is. An hour after the first call, the telephone rings again. This time, it's not the broadcasting authority but the spokesperson from the Oromia government. He says he has already informed the police and security personnel. If we stay even just a minute longer, he continues, we will be arrested. He says he is no longer able to guarantee our safety and that something could happen to us on the return journey.

The next morning, in front of the office belonging to the head of the media authority, it becomes clear that our communications are under surveillance. And then, before we can even carry out even a single interview, we are officially expelled from the country – a country in which a Nobel Peace Prize laureate is trying to hold together his fragile state as the rulers before him once did: with an iron fist.

The article above originally appeared in German in issue 51/2020 (December 12, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.