A year into war, fate of Tigrayan federal forces still a mystery

Ethnic Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian army have been arbitrarily detained and held without charge for months, relatives say.

Ethiopian soldiers train on September 15, 2021 [File: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP]

Simon*, a 24-year-old ethnic Tigrayan resident of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, feels particularly uneasy on the first anniversary of the brutal war that has ravaged the northern Tigray region since last November. His father, a mid-ranking Ethiopian army officer with a three-decade career, has been held in custody without charge since his arrest in Addis Ababa two weeks after fighting erupted.

The conflict that broke out in November 2020 pitted the Ethiopian army and its allies – fighters from the Amhara region and Eritrean troops – against forces loyal to Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s then-governing party. Unarmed civilians have suffered the brunt of the war, including massacres and rape, with hundreds of thousands of people facing famine-like conditions.

Ethnic Tigrayans have also been arbitrarily rounded up and detained in police stations, detention centres and military camps across the country. The mass campaign has also seen ethnic Tigrayans dismissed from their jobs in the civil or security sector, with authorities also shutting down a number of Tigrayan-owned businesses. The government has denied accusations of ethnic profiling but has described its operation as necessary to eliminate the TPLF, which has been designated a “terrorist” group.

But while the plight of those detained Tigrayan civilians outside the region has received media attention, the crackdown on those within Ethiopia’s security forces – such as Simon’s father, who held a non-combatant role – has seldom been mentioned.

“On the day of his arrest, they searched the house for weapons, which they didn’t find, before taking him to a secret location,” Simon said.

Simon and his mother had to scour detention facilities for several days to discover his father’s whereabouts, before a tip-off from a family friend led them to a detention facility in the centre of Addis Ababa.

“Initially, my father … was presented with a seven-page long criminal charge including sending supplies to TPLF, participation in ethnic killings in western Tigray, treason, association with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebel group and planning terror attacks,” said Simon. “But they were rejected by a court and he was given bail in December 2020.”

But after the bail money was paid and his family tried to pick him up from prison, Simon said security forces took his father through a side door and moved him to a detention facility outside the capital. There, he was put in an overcrowded and dirty prison cell and became seriously sick.

Since then, the ailing detainee has been held without charges.

“We believe my father was targeted and put into months of arbitrary detention, not because they found something incriminating on him, but because he was a Tigrayan,” Simon said.

The war in Tigray has killed thousands of people and forced more than 2.5 million from their homes. In recent months, it has expanded to neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. On Tuesday, the Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency after the Tigrayan fighters said in recent days they had made territorial gains deep in Amhara region and threatened to march towards Addis Ababa.

Under the emergency, anyone suspected of having links with “terrorist” groups could be detained without a court warrant – deepening the worries of ethnic Tigrayans.

“Even though I’m not formally under arrest, I feel mentally I’m in prison, as in my home area which has many military families, my every movement is being monitored,” said Simon.

For 20-year-old Hagos, the first-year anniversary of the war comes with a sense of foreboding as he is yet to see his father, another ethnic Tigrayan army officer who was detained a few days after the outbreak of hostilities.

“For three months, I had no idea whether my father was alive or dead,” Hagos said. “But my family eventually heard his voice … through smuggled phones provided by sympathetic prison guards.”

Since then, Hagos has hardly had any news from his father who is being held without charges in a military camp – a fate he claims has also befallen at least 20 ethnic Tigrayan families with military members living in his area in Addis Ababa.

Hagos’s anxiety about his father’s safety was exacerbated recently after local media reported that a military court had handed out a variety of sentences, including death penalties, to soldiers deemed guilty of treason.

The detained military officers were the breadwinners of their families, but their salaries have been suspended and their bank accounts restricted, thrusting their loved ones into precarious economic situations. “My family lives off some financial support from relatives, household food items my mother makes and sells, as well as irregular jobs my older brother is currently engaged in,” Hagos said.

There are no figures of the number of military officers detained. An Associated Press news agency report in April said that more than 17,000 ethnic Tigrayans were in the military when the war broke out and have been detained, according to an estimate given to a researcher by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, a ex-Ethiopian official and Tigrayan who launched the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University.

For Mebrahtom*, an ethnic Tigrayan lawyer who has previously handled cases of detained Tigrayan civilians, the fate of ethnic Tigrayans in the federal security forces who have been detained is an issue that he considers too risky to handle himself.

At the start, however, Mebrahtom said it was not for lack of trying.

“I believe there are tens of thousands of Tigrayans who were working in the army, federal police commission, Addis Ababa city police commission, Intelligence Services and other security services sector are under arrest, but we have no concrete figures, as the government largely doesn’t acknowledge their detention, let alone bringing them to court,” he said.

Mebrahtom said he and his colleagues “tried to inform staff” at the state-appointed Ethiopia Human Rights Commission (EHRC)” but “saw no desire to intervene”. He added that they also opted to not engage directly with the security authorities out of fear for their safety.

Al Jazeera contacted the EHRC and the Ethiopian government for comment but did not receive a reply by the time of publication. Previous statements by the EHRC on reports about the detention of ethnic Tigrayans have stressed that it is “imperative to ensure due process for all persons currently in detention”.

“There is no access to information of their whereabouts, how many are detained and in which places they are detained, how many have been sentenced to death, was there enough evidence presented against the convicts,” Mebrahtom said. “This has been the fate from the foot soldier up to lieutenant generals.”

Meanwhile, with no confirmed reports of prison exchanges so far between the warring sides, Simon said he was pessimistic about his father being released any time soon.

“[Prison exchanges] would’ve happened by now if there were any negotiations. I think the war will only end and my father’s fate will finally be decided when there is a clear victor,” he said.

“For now, I only see salvation in my father’s and others’ plight not in domestic institutions, which I believe are against my father and his ilk, but only in pressure from international institutions or regime,” added Simon.

*Name changed for safety reasons

Source: Al Jazeera