Ethiopia – Tigray: Addis arrests suspects and organises youth neighbourhood watch groups

By Mazaa Liya
Posted on Friday, 12 November 2021 17:52

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis
People gather under a placard showing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo)

Following a warning from the head of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) earlier this week of an impending advance into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government is tightening measures against supposed sympathisers of rebel forces and organising vigilante groups.

On 8 November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke at a fundraising event for the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). He recounted a story from the Bible in which Jesus calmed a furious storm: when storm waves swept up onto the boat where Jesus and his disciples were, the latter cried and looked for their teacher.

“And for those of you asking, ‘Where is the prime minister?’, he is on the boat. He is there amid every storm,” Abiy said. “There is an enormous challenge; a hefty storm ahead of us. [Yet] this storm, whatever sacrifices it requires, will propel Ethiopia to prosperity – to the peace it deserves.”

Addis Ababa tightens security

Since early November, there have been media reports of the TPLF-OLA advance on Addis Ababa. Several western and a few African countries have evacuated their citizens from the capital.

“They tested us with propaganda. They said Addis Ababa is encircled and called on people to leave as Ethiopia is about to disband…,” Abiy said, in what he describes as “psychological warfare” by the West.

In the capital, daily life and business activities have not been disrupted, but the overall mood has changed since a state-wide emergency decree was imposed on 2 November. The government says the rationale is to “avert the threat [to] the survival and sovereignty of the state.”

In Addis, the decree is said to have become a pretext for the mass arrest of ethnic-Tigrayans, many of them civilians. It is alleged that a joint task force of the federal and city police continues to harass and profile Tigrayan civilians, on the pretext that they support and are linked with the TPLF.

On Thursday, the task force said it had conducted house searches in the city and uncovered weapons ranging from firearms to bombs and military equipment from “suspects, who received a mission from the terrorists TPLF-OLA”. Several people were arrested, including UN staff members thought to be “suspects directly linked with this crime.” The city administration’s spokesperson, Yonas Zewdie, has however downplayed reports of arrests by identity as a “canard”.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has cautioned against arrests that appear to be “based on identity/ethnicity”. International rights groups have also expressed concern over similar waves of crackdowns since November.

Tigrayans in hiding

Over the past week, The Africa Report spoke to dozens of Tigrayans who fear for their lives. Some of them say they have been harassed while trying to look for their arrested families in police stations across Addis.

I can stand the psychological toll. But it has been painful to see my children slurred only for being Tigrayans.

A group of police and a few civilians came to our house and searched every part of it. They found nothing, but they took our older brother with them. We have been looking for him. Our mother has been crying and asking for him at police stations across the city. We have only been mocked and left hopeless,” says a young Tigrayan.

Tigrayans in Addis are also facing growing anti-Tigrayan sentiment from the general public.

“Since the war started, everyone, including our neighbours for years, have been suspicious of me and my family […] we were forced to relocate,” a 49-year-old ethnic-Tigrayan and father of three, who has locked himself inside his house, tells The Africa Report. “I can stand the psychological toll, but it has been painful to see my children slurred [just] for being Tigrayans.”

Neighbourhood vigilantes

Across Addis, the city administration has also organised the youth, under security groups, to defend their areas. Recruiting ‘neighbourhood defenders’ is an activity mainly conducted by Woreda (district) officials as well as peace and security bureaus.

“We protect our area from infiltrators, working for terrorist groups. Our team’s shift is from 6[pm] to 9pm and the next group will replace us. I protect my area three times a week,” says 22 year-old Henock, one of the four young men recruited as area defenders for the Kolfe Keraniyo sub-city.

Each group member is given an orange reflective vest to wear and a stick to hold. One or two members from the city police, armed with a gun, joins them from a close distance.

Youth neighbourhood defenders in Addis Ababa on 10 November 2021 (Official photo from city administration office page)

The Africa Report also witnessed local officials joining in to watch out for potential suspects.

“We had […] training on how we can identify strangers in our area and immediately report them to officials. They will instantly inform [the] security bureau. We travel to many areas, and we have found those cooperating with the TPLF,” Semira, 28, a mother of one who serves as an area defender, tells The Africa Report.

New heights

The war has reached new heights with the advance of the TPLF-OLA alliance. In recent months, the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF), led by the TPLF, have captured major towns like Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara region. By November, the ‘joint’ TDF-OLA force had taken control of Kemissie, a town 325 km from Addis Ababa. It is the capital of the Oromo special zone, predominantly home to the ethnic-Oromo, in the Amhara region.

This week, the OLA leader Kusma Diriba (known by his nom de guerre Jaal Morroo) told AFP that they are inching closer to Addis and another advance will push them towards victory.

Fighting has continued in Afar and the Oromo Special Zone, as the government tries to recapture areas under TPLF-OLA control.

Fear has now started to engulf the Amhara towns neighbouring the special zone. They are in the North-Shewa Zone, central Amhara, which has not recovered from the violent ethnic clashes between the Oromo and Amhara groups in April 2021. Hundreds from both sides were killed.

Ataye, a town in the North-Shewa, was synonymous with the April conflict. As the rebels threaten to push forward, civilian residents in the town, about 280 km from Addis Ababa, tell The Africa Report about the current situation there.

“You can hear gunshots and heavy artiller[y] from nearby rural villages abound [in] the town. The fighting is getting near. The April incident has left a scar on Ataye and the public is frustrated thinking of what might come again now,” says a 27-year-old resident of Ataye, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t deserve another nightmare.”

A civil-servant who lives in Karaqore, a town sharing a district with Ataye, tells The Africa Report that the ENDF and Amhara forces are in control of every part of Northern Shewa Zone.

“Everyone is waiting to defend his/herself. The public and Amhara forces are confident to stop them [TDF / OLA] from their evil doings. I believe it is impossible for them to march ahead to our towns,” the resident says.

However, many in both towns say schools are closed, while transport services and public movements are very limited, and only a few shops remain open during the day.

Little comfort in words

Yet, for many Ethiopians, Abiy’s story from the Bible has done little to calm the storm that descended upon the country a year ago: a ravaging civil war that has since drawn-in several armed actors.

There is no end in sight to calm the ongoing bloodshed. There has been no respite, no clear winner or genuine will to ending hostilities.

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