A bishop living in the midst of what he calls a “devastating genocidal war” and humanitarian catastrophe in the Ethiopian region of Tigray has issued a heart-wrenching appeal for international help as he describes “horrifying acts of brutal crimes” and an unimaginable “magnitude of pain.”
In an Oct. 4 statement, Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin of the Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, in eastern Tigray, decried the extent of “extreme brutality,” adding that “no one can assume this magnitude of pain endured by the entire population, under siege and total blockage from all basic services for so long.”
In addition to the violence halting almost “all live-saving humanitarian operations” including food and basic supplies due to a continuing blockade by the Ethiopian government, Bishop Medhin said innocent civilians have faced “all-round attacks with drones and warplanes.”
These have targeted “crowded places, urban and semi-urban centers, marketplaces, health and education facilities,” he said, including a health center run by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul that has been helping thousands of Tigrayans, many of whom are starving children and mothers.
“It is very painful and shocking to see horrifying acts of brutal crimes, indiscriminate rain of artillery, shelling and bombardments of civilians, and then be unable to get support to treat them,” Bishop Medhin said in his appeal. “The continuous brutal shelling and air-bombardment” in Tigray’s northern and eastern border areas “are bringing incalculable destruction of lives and property,” he said.
The conflict in Tigray, which erupted in November 2020, has longstanding and complex causes rooted in a mix of power politics and ethnic rivalries in a territory prized for its copper and gold deposits.
In addition to the bloodshed, since June 2021 the Ethiopia government has imposed a blockade on the region, preventing communications and basic activities such as trade and banking among Tigray’s seven million citizens. This has led to a dire economic situation, food shortages and starvation, as well as obstructions to aid corridors and a ban on internal media reporting on what’s happening to the outside world.
The U.N. has said war crimes during the conflict — fought principally between local Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) helped by Eritrean and other forces — have been committed on all sides, but with the majority committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
Monasteries, clergy and faithful in the region, whose Christian heritage dates back to the fourth century, have also been attacked. Pope Francis has issued several appeals for peace on behalf of the Tigrayan people, almost all of whom are Orthodox faithful. Ethiopia as a whole has less than 500,000 Catholic faithful, many of them located in the highlands of Tigray.
‘Voice for the Voiceless’
Bishop Medhin, who has been issued a number of impassioned statements over the past year, referred in April to “genocidal massacres of civilians, rampant rape and gender-related violence, looting and burning of property, homes, destruction of places of worship (churches, mosques), economic installations, health institutions, schools, museums.”
Now he says the situation has worsened and noted difficulty in moving around the region due to “no fuel” and survivors of “brutal rape” being unable to receive care due to the blockade. He also said extensive criminal activity is an additional scourge, and over 1.5 million schoolchildren “have been deprived of their right to education for three years.”
In light of the widespread atrocities, Bishop Medhin appealed to local and international institutions to “exercise their moral duty” and be a “voice for the voiceless.” And he called on governments to become aware that this is currently the “largest active war” in the world, to “condemn these brutal genocidal acts,” and bring a “ceasefire and political dialogue to ensure lasting peace.”
A more detailed report on the suffering in Tigray was sent out to media by Vincentian Sister Medhin Tesfay, also from the Adigrat diocese, who wrote of “severely limited supplies and means of survival.” Since the blockade began, she said, Tigrayans have been brought to the brink of starvation partly due to “looting and destruction of farming equipment by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.”
“On the streets of Tigray, it has become commonplace to see children folded over in hunger begging for bread and mothers desolately looking for anything to do to make sure that their children don’t perish,” Sister Medhin said. “Hundreds and thousands of desperate people knock on the doors of the Daughters of Charity seeking critical support. There are scores more starving in their homes forgoing food for days on end to make sure that the meagre supplies they have remaining help them last for as long as possible.”
In a Sept. 22 oral statement to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a non-governmental organization, agreed with the Council’s commission of experts on human rights in Ethiopia that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that “war crimes and crimes against humanity” have been committed “in several instances.”
They also concurred with the commission that the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and allied forces are responsible for “widespread and egregious acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayans throughout the course of the conflict,” while Tigrayan forces “have committed the same crimes, albeit on a smaller scale, targeting Amhara civilians and Eritrean refugees.”
“The ENDF and its allies have also used starvation as a weapon of war, as well as air and drone strikes on civilian structures, including hospitals, displaced persons camps, educational establishments and markets,” CSW’s oral statement continued, adding that there is enough evidence to suggest the Ethiopian government has been deliberately trying to “systematically destroy a people group.”
On Aug. 24, the ENDF launched a new, largescale military offensive involving “indiscriminate bombing and destruction.” CSW also noted that the first World Food Program airlift in over six weeks recently pulled 34 staff from the region and brought no humanitarian aid, despite an urgent appeal for insulin.
On Oct. 6, the European Parliament passed a resolution that included calling for an immediate ceasefire; condemning the Eritrean forces for invading Tigray and for war crimes and human rights; calling on both the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes; and calling on EU Member States to impose sanctions against perpetrators.
The Tigrayan people are “living in fear day and night,” a priest who had fled the region told the Register Oct. 14. He also drew attention to a video, posted on social media, of a Tigrayan woman, whose father was killed in the conflict, confronting Ethiopia’s Minister of Finance at the World Bank. She held him responsible for many of the atrocities and accused him of visiting the institution to raise funds to buy more arms.
Holding On to Hope
Despite the worsening situation and encouraged by the power of the Cross, Sister Medhin said she and other Tigrayans continue to have “hope that the end to the war is near” and that “a new chapter for healing, peace and prosperity could be opened.”
“We welcome all who are moved to offer us support in giving our community a chance to survive, and all who can amplify our voice so that the suffering of innocents and the madness that has spread widely ends soon,” said Sister Medhin. “We will continue to pray for deliverance and our efforts to support those in need during their times of need.”