Ethiopia the war of the NGOs, between silence and propaganda

Francesca Ronchin – Professional Blog

I was walking down the street when they carried me into a truck full of other young people. They told us that we had to go fight >>. Yerusalem is one of the very young fighters who were forcibly recruited by TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) and sent to the front against the enemy.

As she delivers her testimony to a local Ethiopian TV, she struggles to hold the tears. Some minors are even just over 10 years old, they  keep their gaze fixed on nothing. The rebels of Tigray, the region north of Ethiopia that has been fighting with the central government for months, use it as a technique of warfare: sending waves of civilians and very young people toward the adversary to floor it.

The images of minors are published for the first time by the New York Times last July 12th and it seems that news that “child soldiers” are fighting along with the rebels is given by accident since the tone of the story is not of denunciation but rather celebratory. “Highly motivated young resources” as the correspondent Declan Walsh refer to them, and reporting the enthusiastic story of a TPLF commander explains that the cause of the rebels is attracting << thousands of young people, dressed with jeans and sneakers >>.

The photo immediately becomes a case. The use of minors is a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court and after the controversy the newspaper removes the picture.

In parallel, however, something incredible happens. Although social networks and local media keep filling with testimonies and images, the topic will no longer be touched. General silence comes also from the international media and NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch which have been following the crisis in Tigray closely for months.

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<< We are aware of it –  replies to Panorama the spokesman of Amnesty Italy Riccardo Noury – we are carrying out investigations but they are complicated by the difficulty of accessing the territory. For this reason, we are not able to make inquiries to verify this news >>.

Yet, the distance from the places of the conflict has certainly not prevented the NGO from working on various reports of accusations against the Ethiopian federal army and the Eritrean allied troops following a not very reliable methodology. From the report on the alleged massacre at the Axum cathedral to the one published last August 11th about sexual violence perpetrated against women in Tigray, both reports are based on the testimonies collected over the phone or remotely. Precisely among the Ethiopians who fled to the refugee camps in Sudan, where in the last months 2,000 Samri, young TPLF fighters, have also found refuge and therefore are voices all but impartial.

Predictably, these reports get great risonance and great attention is also granted to other events that are anything but verified. In early August, some international agencies report that 50 bodies were found in the Humera area. According to some anonymous sources, the massacre was committed by the Ethiopian army. Within minutes, the news caught the attention of WHO Director and TPLF member Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, USAID head Samantha Power and Amnesty crisis executive Joanne Mariner who shares it via social media. On the contrary, despite the extensive photographic documentation news of minors in the ranks of the TPLF rebels, does not even obtain the time of a retweet.

Still, we don’t have to go that far to find further evidence. Last November, just before the conflict, it was the TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael himself who announced in a video to the population that there would be “a people’s war and that everyone should be part of it, starting with the children”.  Even Meaza Gidey, supporter of the TPLF’s cause, via Twitter,  suggests  << do not post photos of soldiers surrounded by children and civilians because they could be used as evidence >> adding that in doing so << we risk to damage our battle >>.

A very far risk though as so far, NGOs seem to give voice only to the accusations that suit the cause of the rebels with a double standard that reflects that of the American administration.

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Pressed by questions from a reporter who asked what was the Biden administration’s stance on the TPLF’s refusal to accept the truce and on the use of child soldiers, US State Department spokesman Ned Price exercises diplomacy: “We take these allegations very seriously. We reiterate our call for all parties to adhere strictly to international humanitarian law”.

No direct denunciation against the rebels while indirectly the National Defense Army (ENDF)’s responsibilty gets also called into question despite having been out of Tigray for more than a month, when to allow the farmers to proceed with the harvest, opted for a truce.

Choice to which TPLF have instead turned their backs prefering to extend the conflict to the surrounding regions. Yet, despite the clashes causing more than 300,000 displaced people, thousands of civilian victims and the taking of Lalibela, a Unesco heritage city, the reactions from the international community has be weak to say the least, especially from the same who for months, from the US Secretary of State Tony Blinken to the EU High Representative Josep Borrell, have given credit to the accusations made against the Ethiopian government considered the author of unspeakable genocides and of using hunger as an instrument of war. Accusations often denied by the facts given that the trucks of the World Food Program have almost never stopped entering in to Tigray.

An unbalanced attitude which certainly does not facilitate the peace process and which now looks like propaganda. On July 16, Amnesty produced another report against Addis Ababa. This time the complaint concerned “arbitrary arrests” of civilians who speak Tigrinya therefore suggesting another alleged ethnic cleansing operation. As proof of what has been said, the NGO publishes a photo of a policeman who frisked some citizens. After few hours the unexpected happens though. Photographer Amanuel Sileshi, who took the picture, reveals that the scene actually involved normal security checks carried out at polling stations.

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Understandably the atmosphere is getting tenser. The Ethiopian government has suspended 3 NGOs including the Dutch team of Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, considered responsible for spreading disinformation on social networks and for having imported satellite phones without authorization then using them for illegal purposes. In parallel with the field battle, an other fight keeps on being fought on the communication level. Perhaps also for this reason, in an appeal of rare intensity with which the Premier actually broke the truce at the beginning of August, he invited the Nation to remain united and not give in to provocations

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