Anxiety in Australia as conflict ravages Tigray region of Ethiopia …

Anxiety in Australia as conflict ravages Tigray region of Ethiopia
By Max Walden
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As a situation described by the United Nations as a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” unfolds in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, members of the community say at least 50 Australians are stuck in the conflict zone.
Key points:
– Members of the Ethiopian community in Melbourne have told the ABC at least 50 Australians are stuck in the Tigray region
– Many others are stuck in other parts of the country, with limited travel options due to COVID-19
– Both sides of the conflict have been accused of deliberately killing civilians
Australians in the Ethiopian diaspora have told the ABC they are worried about the country’s continued slide into civil war and the wellbeing of family members not only in the affected Tigray region, but across Ethiopia, amid reports of civilians being massacred.
Making matters worse, the Ethiopian Government cut off telecommunications in the Tigray region in early November, meaning Australians have been unable to contact their families there.
Civilians in and around Tigray’s highland capital Mekelle have been urged to “save themselves”, and rebel forces have been given 72 hours to surrender, as government troops prepare for an offensive to take the city.
But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is refusing to give up its rule of the northern region, says rebel forces are digging trenches and standing firm.
“People have [lost] connections with their families now for 19 days,” said Saba Alemayoh, a Tigrayan woman from Melbourne.
The UN has warned of possible war crimes, including the mass killing of civilians, in the Tigray region.
The Ethiopian Government over the weekend rejected an offer from the African Union to send special envoys seeking a ceasefire and mediation talks.
Melbourne woman Mahtut Yaynu has not spoken to her mother, who is in Tigray, since the blackout began. Her sister is in Addis Ababa, the national capital.
Ms Yaynu declined to name them for fear of reprisals.
Ms Yaynu told the ABC there were no available flights until December and she was worried about her mother and sister’s safety in the interim.
Plane tickets from Addis Ababa to Sydney during December are upwards of $6,500. Flights on November 24 — the earliest listed online — are $13,700.
“What’s going to happen until December? We have no idea,” Ms Yaynu said, adding that her sister refuses to return to Australia without her mother.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has urged Australians in Ethiopia to contact the embassy if they seek to be evacuated, and has warned against travelling to Tigray.
But members of the Ethiopian community in Australia told the ABC there were many Australians who had struggled to return even from the capital due to limited flights as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Contacting people in the Tigray region is virtually impossible.
“If your family’s in Addis, there’s hope that … maybe they will just make it through,” Ms Alemayoh said.
The ABC sent a series of questions to DFAT, including regarding the number of Australians stuck in Ethiopia and what the Government was doing to help them return home, but did not receive a response by deadline.
From Nobel Peace Prize winner to alleged war criminal
Just over a year ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel Peace Prize for ending a conflict with neighbouring Eritrea that spanned two decades.
But now he’s encouraging Ethiopians to “stand for the honour” of the country’s military as it launches airstrikes on the Tigray region, with missiles fired at Eritrea’s capital Asmara during the fighting.
“There were so many of us speaking out against his Nobel Peace Prize reception because we were saying ‘all of this is false’,” said Manal Younus, who was born in Eritrea and lives in Adelaide.
She told the ABC the conflict was “terrifying” for Eritreans, as “we’re already part of the war … we have to expect to be attacked from Tigray”.
“I declare that we Ethiopians should unite and we will do all we can to shame and destroy this force,” Mr Abiy said in early November, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — the ruling party in the Tigray region.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for 27 years until the election of Mr Abiy in 2018.
Mr Abiy recently ordered an assault on the TPLF-run regional government of Tigray after they held September elections in defiance of a national order to suspend elections due to the pandemic.
President of the Tigray region Debretsion Gebremichael has accused Mr Abiy’s Government of punishing the region for the elections.
Bez Zewdie is a Kenyan-born, Ethiopian Australian whose parents fled Ethiopia in the late 1980s.
“I think it’s important to make the distinction that the TPLF are a political party and the Tigray people are whole another thing.
“Whenever I hear a lot of people I know talking about it, it’s always, ‘I don’t support the TPLF, I just support the Tigray people and I don’t want them to be casualties in this war’.”
The UN Office of Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect has since warned that “ongoing ethnic rhetoric, hate speech and incitement to violence” has put the conflict on a “dangerous trajectory” that “heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
It has condemned “targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity of religion”.
Ms Younus said Australia should “speak out against the injustice, and bring back its citizens”.
“The racial discrimination in the country has gone way beyond Tigray itself,” she said.
Amnesty International reports at least 500 civilians have been killed, with reports of both the TPLF and Ethiopian military massacring civilians.
“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.
Tigray is also one of the hardest-hit regions of Ethiopia in terms of COVID-19 and there are grave concerns about food security.
“Restricted access and the ongoing communication blackout have left an estimated 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance and out of reach,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF told reporters last week.
Ms Alemayoh said “we’re not asking for any outcome that favours either party”, just a stop to the bloodshed.
Community in Australia reels from violence
According to the 2016 census, there were around 15,000 people in Australia born in Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as 17,000 people born in neighbouring Sudan.
A majority of these people came as refugees, or through family reunion, having been displaced by the Ethiopian civil war between 1974 and 1991. Others fled political persecution at the hands of the Derg dictatorship.
“Australia was one of the first countries in 1984 … to step up and help with humanitarian aid, NGOs, to assist with the war and famine that was happening,” Ms Yaynu said.
“There is a history of Australia helping the people of Tigray.”
Gideon Kibret fled Ethiopia as a refugee and was resettled in New Zealand 26 years ago. He now lives in Sydney.
Mr Kibret told the ABC that “what governments like Australia can do, is to ensure that [Ethiopia] doesn’t descend into a failed state”.
“The worst thing that can happen to a country is to descend into a failed state … my pragmatic view is that this central government prevails and then it will help stabilise the region, to open the political space for political contests through ideas not arms. Just like it should be,” he said.
The renewed violence threatens to destabilise the volatile Horn of Africa.
The violence has already displaced tens of thousands in a region that itself is home to millions of displaced people.
The UN refugee agency says 4,000 women, men and children have been fleeing into Sudan — a country already home to nearly 1 million refugees — every day since early November.
The agency is planning for a total of 200,000 people to end up there.
“The number of refugees already exceeds the capacity of the two sites designated by the [Sudanese] Government for this influx and the border areas are congested with people waiting to be relocated,” said humanitarian organisation CARE’s program director in Sudan, Tesfaye Hussein.
“People are arriving exhausted and afraid — it is truly a terrible situation.”
Members of the Ethiopian community in Australia have collected the details of some 50 Australians thought to be in the Tigray region.
They want the Federal Government to do more to ensure the safety of Australians stuck in Ethiopia.
This includes urging the Ethiopian Government to lift the telecommunications blackout in Tigray so that they are able to contact loved ones.
The Federal Government last month announced eight charter flights would be repatriating some 5,000 Australians stuck in the UK, India and South Africa before March next year.
“Our families give up any kind of official connection to our home countries to be Australian,” Ms Zewdie said.
“When something like this goes down, what do we need to do to be seen as Australians?”
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