Teklay Hailay * has been so worried since November 4 that he’s having trouble sleeping. It was then that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared in a televised speech the start of military operations in the Ethiopian state of Tigray in response to what he called “treacherous” attacks on military camps.
The offensive follows growing tensions between the federal government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), which once ruled the northern region of some six million people.
Abiy, who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his efforts to end two decades of frozen conflict with neighboring Eritrea, rushed to declare victory over the TPLF in late November after entering government forces in the regional capital, Mekelle. But the fighting has continued and reports of mass atrocities continue to emerge, raising fears of a protracted conflict with devastating effects on the local civilian population.
What has received less attention, however, is the plight of the Teklay ethnic family: the Irob, a minority group with their own distinct language who live among the much larger Tigray population in the besieged region. Numbering around 60,000, of whom about 35,000 live in semi-arid mountainous areas in the northeast corner of Tigray on the border with Eritrea, the Irob now face an existential crisis in addition to humanitarian suffering. caused by the ongoing conflict, according to activists.
“The social structure of the Irob community has been totally disrupted,” Teklay, who lives in the capital Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera. “Many, perhaps up to 50% of the original population… have fled to regional towns in Tigray and even to Addis Ababa, leaving most of the elderly and children behind. “
Since the early days of the conflict, the Irob district has been under full control of the Eritrean forces who entered Ethiopia to support its federal troops in the fight against the TPLF.
The Eritrean government of Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy took power three years ago, have long-standing animosity over a territorial dispute, complex economic and political process which in 1998 degenerated into a brutal two-year war. which killed tens of thousands of people.
With Irob district inaccessible and subject to a communication failure over the past six months, Teklay has only been able to receive scattered information on the humanitarian situation of people who fled south to other towns in Tigray. and Addis Ababa.
“I helped to carry out commemorative rites [in Addis Ababa] for 63 indigenous Irob killed by Eritrean troops, some of the deceased being my relatives and friends, ”he said. “Among the 63 dead is a young man, whose farmer father was kidnapped by Eritrean soldiers more than two decades ago, never to be seen again. “
The 40-year-old said restrictions in Irob’s areas have made it “impossible to know the true death toll” – but that’s not the only thing that worries him. There are also great fears of famine.
“The conflict started just as the harvest season was about to begin, a major concern for an area already food insecure,” he said.
Teklay and other Irob living in Ethiopia are keeping a low profile, especially after the arrest earlier this year of Dori Asgedom, leader of the pro-Irob Assimba Democratic Party for her opposition to the war, activists say.
This means that it is incumbent on people in the diaspora such as Fissuh Hailu to try to raise awareness of the plight of the Irob community.
Fissuh, deputy director of Irob Advocacy Global Support Group, said the intermittent restoration of telephone lines late last year in major Tigray towns such as Mekelle and Adigrat had enabled him to collect “very limited information. , but very devastating “to witnesses who fled Irob district. .
This is an incomplete list of civilians massacred by # Eritrean Army in #Irob districts only & verified by @IrobAdvocacyMany are kidnapped and still missing. #Irobs refute this unfair decision by the EEBC. # EritreaOutOfTigray @SecBlinken @StateDept @UNGeneva @UNTreatyBodies # TigrayGenocide @UN https://t.co/bGtI8gCiru pic.twitter.com/JoeDbgBUhC
– 𝐻𝒶𝒾𝓁𝓊, 𝐹𝒾𝓈𝒽 (@ fishhailu83) January 30, 2021
“Since the start of the war, Eritrean forces have engaged in indiscriminate killings and bombings in the areas of Irob,” Fissuh said.
“People are terrified and live in constant fear of [a] next round of massacres of civilians and kidnappings by invading forces. Civilian property has practically been looted in the region.
Fissuh also said he had received reports that Eritrea had already appointed local administrators, “the Eritrean army continuing to terrorize, starve the local population and force[m] to slaughter their animals to feed them ”.
The reports could not be independently verified.
While the Irob community, like the rest of Tigray, has suffered the disastrous impact of the conflict which has killed thousands of people and displaced nearly two million, the Irob also fear that if peace comes one day, it could be in their costs.
Indeed, the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) which was formed in the aftermath of the 1998-2000 war handed over about a third of Irob land to Eritrea, even though the decision was not implemented. Addis Ababa refused to apply it unconditionally and instead called for dialogue. Eritrea said there was no need for talks and stressed that the only way forward was unconditional border demarcation.
“If the EEBC decision is implemented as it is, this tiny land and this Irob people will be divided into two belligerent nations. It will almost certainly be the end of the existence of the Irob minority as a viable ethnic group, ”said Fissuh.
He said his community had yet to recover from the effects of the bitter war of 1998-2000 when the new round of turmoil hit the Irob six months ago. “During the two-year border war, the Irob community, just like now, was under Eritrean occupation, with Eritrean forces expelling the residents and forcibly removing 96 members of the community,” Fissuh said.
Martin Plaut, a longtime political observer in the Horn of Africa, said the Irobs potentially see a bleak future, with community division, as envisioned by the EEBC, being the most likely scenario. likely.
“Irob district has effectively been annexed by Eritrea, which treats it as part of its territory,” he told Al Jazeera. “Ties with the rest of Ethiopia have apparently been severed and maps of humanitarian aid show that none appear to be reaching the region – leaving people on the brink of starvation,” Plaut added.
“It is almost as if Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy washed the hands of the Irob.”
Al Jazeera contacted Eritrea’s Ministry of Information and Eritrea’s Mission to the African Union for comment, as well as the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office, but no response was received at the time of the publication. This article will be updated upon receipt of a response.
* Name changed to protect their identity