From an ordinary American of Ethiopian heritage: – A.Workie Briye Retta – March 7, 2021
I believe the position your Administration is currently pushing in the Horn of Africa is dangerous for the entire region. If continued in this direction, I fear that the State Department is on track to asphyxiate a real chance of democratic transformation in Ethiopia and plunge the Horn of Africa into chaos and unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Dear President Joseph Biden,
I am a naturalized American citizen of the Ethiopian heritage. I love my country, the United States, and stand for its cherished ideals and uncompromised values. Although I am of Ethiopia origin, I do not have any financial or proprietary interest in Ethiopia. Nor have I any political affiliation or interest. My only interest lies in seeing strong mutually beneficial relationships between Africa and the United States of America.
I am seriously concerned by the current position of the Your Administration which, in my view, puts in jeopardy the progress of Ethiopia and undermines the longstanding interest of the U.S.A. in the Horn of Africa. The recent call by the State Department for the withdrawal of the Amhara forces from Tigray regional state is not only politically incorrect and dangerous but it is also the reflection of an utter lack of knowledge and information about the diversities and complexities of African countries such as Ethiopia. Therefore, this open letter is intended to provide a brief account of the ongoing situation in Ethiopia and its root causes.
As the reminder of history, on Sunday March 1, 1896 Ethiopians sacrificed their lives at the battle of Adwa defending their country from the Italian colonization unleashed by the Scramble for Africa. Our forefathers fought Mussolini’s occupying forces. My own great grandfather with two of his brothers died in the battle of Adwa and was buried in the historic city of Axum. On March 31, 1936 two of my great-uncles were among thousands of Ethiopian fighters gassed down by Mussolini during the Second Italian invasion.
I migrated to the United States on July 4, 2005, a day of amazing coincidence for someone in search of freedom. I left Ethiopia to the US not only seeking freedom from tyranny but to save my own life. By migrating to the United States, I not only saved my life but thrived. I am now a proud citizen of the United States honored to serve the United States government. The privilege I enjoy and the life I have in the United States would have been a dream too good to be true some 15 years ago, given my humble background growing in a remote village in the northern part of Ethiopia, not far from the epicenter of the 1984 tragic famine.
Like thousands of Americans of Ethiopian heritage, I have been deeply disturbed and distressed by the kind of unjust position your Administration is pushing in the Horn of Africa. The United States is showing unusually high interest in what is happening in the northern part of Ethiopia, an interest never displayed by any US administration in a living memory. American citizens with heritage from that region like myself welcome this interest of the United States. However, the statement released by the State Department on February 27, 2021 and subsequent activities carried out by your office, I believe, is not constructive to the region, and certainly not in the best interest of the United States in the region.
What is happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is very sad and unfortunate to say the least. Like any conflict involving violence, the situation in Tigray has caused death, displacement, property destruction, and untold sufferings.
Mr. President, over the years you let us know you not only as our senator, VP and now president, but also as a human being. I cried with you when I watch you crying while recounting the tragic story of the heart-breaking accident that snatched your wife and daughter from you. I cried with you when you tell us the story of the death of your son Beau Biden at an early age of 46. I do not have of acquaintance or connection with your family but the emotion you display with those stories show your true self. I cried with joy when I watched the video of you hugging and caressing the young Brayden Harrington. Some of these scenes may not be particularly remarkable but to me are windows to your heart and mind. In December 2012, I cried and passed several sleepless nights after I watched the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school of children between the age of six and seven with a machine gun. Similarly, I am distressed and am experiencing sleepless nights over what is going on in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
I am sure, it is that humane side of you that is motivating you to do something about the situation in Tigray. But I am deeply concerned because I believe you are briefed or informed a one-dimensional version of the story from sources with a lot of bias for or against some of the parties involved in the conflict, some individuals who are fighting their own crusade rather than finding a pragmatic and lasting solution to the problem.
I left my country of origin to save my life from the brutal crackdown unleashed by the political group then in power in Ethiopia, TPLF, following a general election held at the end of May 2005. Following that election, on June 8, 2005, TPLF started indiscriminately killing innocent civilians, including many women and children among them. One of my family members still has a picture of the dead body of a16-year-old man dangling on the blood socked seat of my car with his skull smashed with machine gun by government troops.
After I escaped to the United States, dozens of my friends have been arrested with thousands of other Ethiopians, more than 40,000 in total. Some of my friends died of torture in prison. The rest of my friends languished in jail for several years; some of them left the jails on wheelchairs because they were amputated or paralyzed due to torture. Many of the military and intelligence officials of the TPLF had private prisons in the basements of their mansions. I am not talking about Sadam’s Iraq, Ghaddafi’s Libya, Amin’s Uganda, or Assad’s Syria. Rather I am talking about Ethiopia under TPLF between 1991 and April 2018. Many Ethiopians mysteriously disappeared throughout this period and their whereabout unknown except that mass graves are still being uncovered on a daily basis.
On December 13, 2003 more than 450 ethnic Agnuaks in the Gambella region of Ethiopia have been massacred by government soldiers in what is recorded as genocide by all human rights organization. In 2006 and 2007, hundreds of civilians have been massacred by TPLF forces in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. This was considered as war crime by the Human Rights Watch. Mass graves are still being uncovered in Ogden, Somali regional state of Ethiopia. Following the days of the massacre, scores of dead bodies have been left to be consumed by wild beats such as hyenas and vultures.
The story of the torture chamber that lasted for several years under TPLF in Ogaden has no parallel in modern history of persecution. The story of a jail center dubbed by international human rights organization as “Jail Ogaden” is still fresh in the minds of many Ethiopians and Ethiopians of Somali ethnicity in particular. At the time, human rights organization reported that, in “Jail Ogaden”, former inmates who left the jail alive described caged rooms where inmates were thrown to predators such as lions to extract confession from the watching inmates, comparing it to “a scene out of a movie or a fiction book.” I am not a historian but I believe that this has not happened anywhere else any time in the world except in the gladiatorial sports and punishment of Christians about 2000 years ago by Romans or their predecessors, the Etruscans.
In spite of the proclaimed or perceived economic growth, Ethiopia under TPLF was an open-air jail for 27 years alongside destitution and hopelessness. For 27 years, the real story of Ethiopia was in its jails, not in the reports of the government, the World Bank, IMF and other donor entities. Thousands of Ethiopians died in jail or disappeared. Inmates have been hanged from tree branches; HIV positive gangsters have been used as torture paraphernalia to rape inmates, both male and female. Castration of male inmates have been widely practiced throughout Ethiopia. Gangsters have been used to kidnap children of opposition figures terrorizing parents to force them stop opposition activity. Many inmates and opposition politicians died in mysterious circumstances including poisoning. Many Ethiopians in the region called Wolkayit-Tsegede (the now contested Amhara regions) have been buried alive, forced to dig their own grave and executed, tied in groups and thrown off cliff alive. Interrogation officers used to urinate in the mouths of inmates to force confession. In the region called Wolkayit-Tsegede, mothers have been imprisoned and tortured simply because they were caught talking to their kids in their mother tongue, Amharic. Natives in Wolkayit-Tsegede have been killed or disappeared simply because they failed to heed TPLF warnings not to wear their traditional costumes. Inmates have been forced to push walls and told, “see! challenging the TPLF is as futile as pushing a concrete wall”. Exiled opposition leaders have been kidnapped from Yemen, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan; some of them killed by various means including strangulation. This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scale of abuse that reigned in Ethiopia under the TPLF.
After several years of popular protest, a wave of changes had come to Ethiopia in April 2018. However, the respite and hope Ethiopians started enjoying following the changes did not last long. Over the last three years since April 2018, millions of Ethiopians have been displaced from their ancestral lands, thousands died and disappeared. Thousands of Ethiopians have been killed because of their ethnic and/or religious identity. Almost all the violence that took place in Ethiopia after April 2018 have been sponsored, organized and managed by TPLF or some of its leaders stationed in Tigray.
Dear Mr. President, telling the full story of what happened in Ethiopia under TPLF is beyond me and this letter is the not the right place to do so. In short, TPLF has been operating in Ethiopia as a hybrid of a freedom fighter, political party, and organized criminal group engaged in illicit operations including kidnapping, planting explosives at civilian targets (this has been proved by the United States), money laundering, human and illegal arms and drug trafficking, especially after the group lost political power following the April 2018 political changes in Ethiopia.
The tragedy in Ethiopia took a dangerous turn following the attack by TPLF forces of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) stationed in Tigray for more than 20 years, defending Tigray and caring for Tigrayans. On November 4, 2020 almost all of the federal military installations, units and depots in Tigray were surrounded, while many of the soldiers were sleeping, by TPLF Special Force and militiamen. Few days after the attack high level TPLF officials bragged about the attack equating the actions with it a “lightning strike” or blitzkrieg TPLF style.
Hours before the attack, military officers connected to the TPLF destroyed all communication infrastructure and tampered with radio frequencies disrupting communication between different units of the military in Tigray. On the night of the attack, many military officers have been invited by TPLF officials for dinner party disguised as a ceremony “to acknowledge and thank the military and their families for building schools to local communities and for fighting locust invasion in Tigray”. After dinning and wining, the officers were ordered to surrender like an enemy force. Those officers unwilling to surrender have been executed en mass on the spot. Officers and soldiers captured from several stations have been grouped according to their ethnic identity and executed. Women soldiers’ breasts have been cut off. Many soldiers have been lined up on a street and mowed down by heavy military trucks. Women soldiers, heavily pregnant mothers with twins, a father with his six-year-old son have been tortured, and used as human shield by TPLF fighters. More than 600 civilians of Amhara ethnic group have been massacred in the course of two days by TPLF militia named Samry Youth. Mounting evidence indicates that the killing was ordered by TPLF leaders some of whom fled to the Sudan. This happened just a few days after TPLF launched an attack against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force
I am appealing to you and your Administration as I care for human life irrespective of their ethnic origin, religion, nationality or race just as you or any human being do.
I appeal to your humanity to appreciate facts on both sides, to all those hurting in Ethiopia, not only to those well connected, well organized, and those who are proficient in making up high profile complaints. For several years, TPLF has been defended by powerful army of individuals engaged in “reputation laundering”, individuals and lobby firms engaged in cleansing the names of dictators in the likes of TPLF leaders, hardliners in Iran and North Korea, , the Syrian dictator Bashar Alasad, and the ex-dictator of Libya Moamer Ghadafi. Unlike the civilian victims of genocide in northern Ethiopia notably Wolkayit, Tsegede, Raya and Azebo, TPLF has been well connected with individuals of western origin who have access to power-corridors, individuals who have a sophisticated network, a shiny resumé and impressive academic credential.
According to Transparency International, about 30 billion U.S. dollars of foreign aid have been siphoned off to western banks from Ethiopia over the last three decades. Many TPLF officials, including some I know in person own villas, luxury condos, gas stations, apartment complexes, and other property in the US and Western Europe. Because of this, TPLF has been operating as a well-oiled machine, successful in everything it touched for several decades, at least until November 4, 2020.
The problem in Ethiopia is very complex and multi-layered. My intention is only to provide factual information on some aspects of the broad challenges and complex situation in Ethiopia. In that regard, I humbly ask your Administration to do the following;
- As you care for humanity, please try to get facts from the different sides or the different angles of the story. At this time, mass graves are being discovered in Ethiopia almost every day. In my view, war crime and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ethiopia over the last three decades, and all of those crimes need to be investigated;
- When you receive a briefing about the conducts of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and the Eritrean forces, please also ask for independent verification as well as review the track records of the Eritrean military and members of the ENDF; please also kindly ask what happened in a town called Mai Khadra and who did what in that town few days after the breakout of the conflict. There are credible reports that weeks before the break out of the conflict, TPLF manufactured thousands of military uniforms resembling the military uniforms used by Eritrean Army. Just few days ago, several TPLF fighters have been apprehended using uniforms of Eritrean soldiers. In addition, there is mounting evidence that TPLF looted thousands of ENDF military uniforms on the night of its attack of the Northern Command which was later used by its fighters. Similarly, there are credible reports that about 13,000 inmates have been released days before TPLF leaders evacuated the regional town of Makelle. Many former inmates have been supplied with arms and Eritrean and Ethiopian military uniforms.
- When you receive a briefing stating that the Amhara militia has occupied parts of Tigray, I do not expect you to change your mind or what is contained in the State Department’s release, but I implore you at least to ask the following; what are the parts of Tigray occupied by the Amhara militia? How and when were those areas incorporated or annexed into the Tigray region? What is the ethnic identity of the people living in those areas which are now allegedly occupied by Amhara forces? Has any human rights violation taken place in those regions while under TPLF and if so, what type of violation and to what degree? What have those indigenous communities in the localities of Wolkayit, Tsegede, Tselemt, Raya, and Azebo been doing over the last three decades under the TPLF occupation?
- When you receive a briefing stating that the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia is planning to repeal the current constitution of Ethiopia, to reverse the federal arrangement in Ethiopia and return the country into a unitary form of government, or that he plans to reinstitute the “Amhara hegemony”, or that he is taking revenge against former officials of the TPLF, please pose questions as to what the Prime Minister has said and done over the last three years; please take few minutes to talk to the Prime Minister himself. It is well known that until the TPLF started the fighting, many political actors in Ethiopia including TPLF leaders were mocking the PM labeling him coward, deriding him as more of a faith preacher than a political leader; please also try to review the Prime Minister’s vision of democracy, economic development, and turning pages in the Horn of Africa by promoting peace and cooperation;
- When you receive a briefing stating that the problem in Tigray started because TPLF asserted Tigray’s regional autonomy by organizing election, please ask, “is that the real reason? Is that the root cause of the problem?”; please also ask, what was the view and position of the PM about the election held in Tigray. You will find that the election in Tigray was not considered a big deal by the PM at the time;
- When you get a briefing stating that Ethiopia must be punished for building a huge dam to control the flow of the Blue Nile River to hurt US’s important ally Egypt, please ask what the nature of the dam is, whether the dam consumes water or not, how many Ethiopians have access to clean drinking water and electric power in spite of living by the banks of the rivers flowing downstream to the Sudan and Egypt. Nearly 110,000,000 Ethiopians each have invested a dime or penny in that hydro-power project;
- Finally, please apologize that I dare to ask my president to do something which, I believe, you anyways do at any briefing as a US president and as a just man.
Mr. President, I was born, raised and lived most of my adult life (up to this point) in Ethiopia. I grew up at the time when the country was under a Marxist military regime. Thousands of my relatives and fellow-Ethiopians perished as a result of unnecessary wars and famine. I grew up surrounded by human suffering as a result either of war or economic suffering. I grew up at the time when the educational system in the country was dilapidated, cultural fabrics of the society being battered; the goal of life in general in the then Ethiopia was not more than mere survival. That continued over the last several decades after the fall of the communist regime.
Ethiopians of Tigray origin have received more than their fair share of suffering over the last 40 years, even under TPLF. Because of this, Ethiopians of all walks of life are trying their best at this time to address the suffering in Tigray. Over centuries, Tigray has been a gateway to foreign invaders who wanted to control the Nile basin, or to colonize the region, or using religion a pretext. Almost all Ethiopians, from all regions and ethnic identity trace to grandparents or relatives sacrificed in Tigray fighting either Egyptian invaders or Italian colonizers. As I hinted above, my own great grandfather was killed in the battle of Adwa 125 years ago and buried in Axum, one of the most historic and sacred cities in Ethiopia.
Mr. President, the United States is a place where freedom thrives. To me personally, the United States was my ideal place and being a US citizen means to have the liberty and the legal protection to express one’s view, without fear of retaliation or a government agent in plain close following you everywhere you go, a reality many lived in Ethiopia for 27 years. It is in this spirit that I dare to write this letter to you, my president.
God bless the United States of America.
May God guide you to be an impartial judge, fair to all parties involved in the conflict in Ethiopia.
May God protect the Horn of Africa from the impending tragedy.