Worthy and unworthy Ethiopians

Hagere Getnet pays respects in front of a tomb containing the remains of her husband, Tebekaw, 37, his little Brother Alie Abere and his nephew Aynew Mulat located at Abune Aregawi Ethiopian Orthodox Church on March 06, 2021 in Mai Kadra, Ethiopia. They were killed by TPLF allied militants in the town of Mai Kadra in November 2020. Photographed by American photo journalist Jemal Countess
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Persistent bias and selectivity of mainstream media coverage of the recently concluded conflict in northern Ethiopia is grounds for loss of public trust.

A recent report by The Washington Post alleges satellite-based evidence of graves at Enda Mariam Shewito church, near the town of Adwa, in northern Ethiopia is indication of indiscriminate killings of civilians by Eritrean troops in the recent conflict. The post says ‘it reviewed two-dozen satellite images provided by Planet Labs, which also remotely interviewed witnesses. It also says, ‘seven independent experts were consulted’.

Considering the nature of the recently concluded conflict in northern Ethiopia, it is wise not to discount the real suffering of victims on all sides. But to properly honer them, it is important to provide an objective and wholistic account, one that does not discriminate based on a political calculous of who we consider to be a worthy or an unworthy victim. In that sense, this latest report by the post is in line with several prior reports, coming mainly from mainstream news, making big claims with remotely sourced and sparsely corroborated evidence about a distance place in Africa.

Conversely, mainstream news outlets in the West continue to dismiss the exceedingly worse atrocities committed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This is cause for continued doubt in Ethiopia and beyond. Indeed the persistent bias and selectivity of mainstream media coverage of the recently concluded conflict in northern Ethiopia is ground for loss of public trust.

My experience in stumbling across a far larger and far more cut and dried (in terms of its raw evidence) mass grave site in Alamata zone of Ethiopia at the end of 2022 was straightforward. It was undeniable. Yet it needed more forensic investigation- to examine it properly. I had the same conclusion when visiting Gehaneb near the Tekeze river in what locals refer to as the Welkait region. It was a site of an alleged torture and death camp where in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the TPLF imprisoned and tortured its political opponents, many of whom were the Amhara locals of Welkait.  It is one of Twenty-one similar sites strung across the Welkait-Humera region of Ethiopia. These sites have yet to receive a fraction of the acknowledgment they deserves.

To my knowledge, none of these sites have had international news focus on them. In April 2022, Gonder University in Ethiopia excavated the mass grave sites in Welkait. I along with other journalists were witnesses, and it was soon after reported on local media. In his report, American photo journalist Jemal Countess reflected on these atrocities. Unfortunately there has not  been any interest to investigate and report these crimes by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) or Amnesty International.

American Photo Journalist Jamal Countess recounts the mass graves of Welkait. Something we both witnessed in April 2022.

In my assessment local law enforcement in Ethiopia do not currently have the forensic capacity needed to carry out this work. HRW and Amnesty International are similarly not resourced for such work. And this creates a major problem for justice. Especially given that what I found in Alamata was not only a mass grave but a mass grave that appeared to have been created for propaganda purposes to try to legitimize the “Tigray genocide” narrative that the Washington Post has been extensively involved in pushing over the past three years.

My report on the Alamata mass graves summarizes what I witnessed during my visit in early November 2022, immediately after talks on the roadmap of the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement between Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF were held in Nairobi, Kenya. Unlike the mass grave site the Washington Post is reporting based on satellite imagery analyzed in retrospect from thousands of miles away, my visit to the mass grave sites of Alamata took place before fighting had finished and before anyone could have had an opportunity to interfere with the site. When the stench of death was still fresh in the air.

Video I recorded on the 4th of November 2022 shows the mass graves of Alamata region in northern Ethiopia. These were the graves of mostly Amhara civilians killed by TPLF insurgents during their retreat in the second phase of the Tigray War in July 2021. Local here say the insurgents were staging these mass graves sites as evidence for their “Tigray genocide” narrative.

Alamata had been under TPLF control continuously at that point since they retook it in June 2021. I do not know the details of the chain of custody regarding the Mariam Shewito site discussed in the Washington Post investigation, but I hazard to guess with considerable confidence that it has been in TPLF control for most, if not the entire period since the CoH.

Forensic inquiries into the events in multiple localities in northern Ethiopia are needed/required for the sake of the victims and for the sake of the truth. However, at present, most in Ethiopia have little trust in the objectivity of Western agencies or organizations – whose record on such matters during the war, and more recently with the International Commission of Human Rights Experts (CHREE) has been dreadful –to conduct investigation into crimes committed during the war.

Alternatives have been proposed – a multinational task force of investigators for example – working perhaps with the Federal Police and Human Rights Commission of Ethiopia – however there is no funding available for such a project and it will be expensive. More broadly there does not seem to be willingness on the part of the Western countries to push for this kind of an investigation, whereby a broader team of investigators, including those from Africa and Asian countries take the lead.

In the meantime, a warning. All reports from Tigray claiming to have found mass graves containing evidence of massacres and human rights violations need to be read in the light of the fact that there is very clear evidence in Alamata of an active effort by the TPLF to create fake evidence of massacres. I cautioned this possibility at the completion of the report from Alamata in November 2022. This included a cache of documents found in Alamata (linked in my report) from a “Tigray Genocide Commission” headed by General Tsadkan (one of the TPLF’s generals as well as peace negotiators). The documents appear to be part of a Tigray wide plan by the TPLF hierarchy to fabricate physical evidence of a genocide using bodies of civilians and soldiers killed in Amhara during “Operation Mothers of Tigray” (June-December 2021) – the name of which appears to be in reference to the operation being revenge mission against fellow Ethiopians.

These documents were published back in November 2022 with my report, for history’s sake.

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