Sitting opposite a bomb-damaged building with shattered windows, three friends in their mid-20s were sharing lunch at a small café in Nefas Machew, a town in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region, one afternoon this December. They had just completed several weeks of training after signing up as militia to fight the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group. The next day, they were due head to the front and into battle for the first time.
Their training was basic, mostly consisting of physical exercise drills. None had been in combat before and they were still waiting to be given guns. They did not expect to receive any pay. Yet all three were eager to join the fight. “It will be over very soon,” said Ashenafi Assefa, who usually works as a barber. “All we need to do is bury them.” The Amhara Region, Ethiopia’s second biggest, has been the scene of fighting since late June, when the TPLF recaptured much of Tigray from federal forces and then pushed into neighbouring areas. In November, after making several unsuccessful attempts to cut the vital road linking Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the Tigray rebels launched a stunning surge south through Amhara, which brought them within 200km of the capital. But an equally dramatic government counterattack has repelled this push, rolling back the rebel gains.
Total War The Amhara Region responded to the rebel incursion by mobilising for total war. In August, its then-president urged secondary school and university students to join the struggle while describing the TPLF as a “threat to our very existence”. A curfew has been imposed under emergency rules that also allow civilian cars to be commandeered for military use, and there are stories of civil servants hiding in the countryside to escape conscription. At petrol stations near the front, pump attendants refuse to dispense fuel to vehicles not aiding the war effort.
Tens of thousands of young Amhara men like Ashenafi have joined militia units. Fighting alongside federal and regional troops, these forces are loosely organised, hastily trained and lack heavy weaponry. Sometimes, they are equipped with little more than ancient bolt-action rifles. Most are armed with their own weapons or wait for ones captured from the TPLF, and they often lack vehicles to ferry them to the front. Yet these fighters are also highly motivated, galvanised by reports of vandalism and atrocities committed by the TPLF in their region. These include gang rapes of Amhara women documented by Amnesty International in Nefas Machew, the town where Ashenafi’s group was having lunch, which was briefly occupied by the rebels in August. A woman at the same café said her son, a tuk tuk driver, was killed by the rebels when they first took the town.
Elsewhere in the Amhara Region, the Tigray rebels have been accused of summarily shooting civilians and looting schools and factories, inflicting economic damage that the state authorities say will take decades to repair. In total, 1.1 million people have been uprooted by fighting in Amhara and 5.6 million people there are in need of aid, according to government figures.
Choosing to fight For its part, the TPLF claims it is fighting in Amhara in order to force an aid corridor to Tigray, where the UN estimates 400,000 people are facing famine, although the rebel group has also called for the removal of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Federal troops and allied Amhara and Eritrean forces have themselves been accused of widespread rights abuses in Tigray. “We were forced to join the Fano because of what the TPLF is doing,” said Ashenafi who, like his two friends, lives in Addis Ababa but was born in Lalibela, an Amhara town famed for its centuries-old rock-hewn churches, which is currently under TPLF control. Ashenafi’s uncle and brother were shot there by the rebels. “I have no fear, the only option is to fight,” he said.
The Fano is an armed ethno-nationalist Amhara group that is distinct from the state’s constitutionally mandated regional force and local militias. Before the conflict, it formed a fragmentary, informal opposition to the state authorities, occasionally clashing with the regional security forces that it is now fighting alongside. The movement has been particularly active in western Tigray, a region annexed by the Amhara authorities shortly after the conflict started. Amhara forces there stand accused by US officials of “ethnic cleansing” for forcibly evicting tens of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans, alongside other atrocities.
Fano fighters Menber Alemu, a former Amhara civil servant and current Fano fighter who also hails from Lalibela, said he was fighting to thwart what he described as a “genocide” being perpetrated by the TPLF against the Amhara people. Wearing a pair of hiking boots and a black bomber jacket, with a grenade strapped to the green belt around his waist, he spoke near the front line at a town called Gashena, and his words were accompanied by the shuddering boom of artillery firing nearby.
“After the TPLF entered our region in June, we mobilised to resist them because they want to make genocide against our people,” he said. “I had to fight because many women, children and elderly have been killed. There is no alternative.” Another fighter, Masresha, a farmer wearing a baggy civilian suit and carrying a machete, who I met on a cold mountainside above the town of Debark in September, had similar reasons for joining his local militia unit. “The TPLF wants the Amhara people beneath their feet,” he said. “They want to rule over the Amhara people and region because they feel superior to other ethnic groups in Ethiopia.”
Views like this have become deeply entrenched across the Amhara Region, where a war that began as a political dispute between the TPLF and the federal government is now widely seen as a battle for ethnic survival. Shortly after speaking to Masresha, I visited a school serving as a camp for the displaced in the town of Debark, where several people who had fled fighting further north said they believed the TPLF entered their region because its primary objective is to destroy the Amhara people, rather than to secure the Tigray Region.
No longer talking One woman at the camp said she no longer talks to her aunt because the aunt has a Tigrayan husband. Although some camp residents made a distinction between the TPLF as a political group and ethnic Tigrayans, a group of six million people, she and many others did not.
“I don’t want to see her face anymore,” the woman said of her aunt. Referring to the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s politics for nearly 30 years until it was forced out by protests in 2018, she said: “They want to destroy the Amhara. They are looting our property and making us poor so they can come back to power.”
The Amhara people are historically linked to Ethiopia’s ruling elite, a source of emperors and progenitors of the country’s national language. However, retired academic Christopher Clapham describes the advent of a group consciousness centred upon Amhara ethnicity as a new phenomenon, with its roots in the federal system of government set up by the TPLF in the 1990s, which divides Ethiopia into semi-autonomous regional states based on ethno-linguistic identities.
“For a long time, Amhara tended to regard themselves simply as Ethiopian,” said Clapham. “It has only been the creation of the ethnic structure from 1995 onwards that has turned Amhara into being a distinctive distinct ethnic group, like others in Ethiopia, rather than a people who simply regarded themselves as bedrock Ethiopians.”
Under attack Attacks on Amhara communities in Benishangul-Gumuz and parts of Oromia within the context of the upheaval and intercommunal violence that rocked Ethiopia in 2016-2018 sharpened this newly formed sense of identity, said Mehdie Labzaé, a sociologist who studies Ethiopia.
“This idea that Amharas should mobilise first as Amharas, not as Ethiopians, really began in 2016,” said Labzaé. “It is something that has been crafted by diaspora Amharas, citing massacres and killings in the periphery, and then it was taken over by the state authorities last year, when war started.” Western Tigray, a region bordering Sudan with a large mixed Amhara and Tigray population, looms large in the contemporary narrative of Amhara nationhood. Before the TPLF instituted ethnic federalism, western Tigray was administered from Gondar, a city with strong ties to the Amhara. But the TPLF incorporated the area into its own Tigray state following its insurgency against Ethiopia’s communist Derg regime in the 1980s, when mass famine made securing supply routes to Sudan, via western Tigray, a priority for the group. By annexing the region when war erupted last year, Amhara nationalists say they have simply reclaimed land wrongfully taken from them by the TPLF.
The status of western Tigray will be a major sticking point in any future talks between the TPLF and the federal government. The TPLF has said it will not enter negotiations while Amhara and Eritrean forces remain in the territory. Meanwhile, with Amhara leaders refusing to surrender the region and also opposing talks with TPLF while it still occupies Amhara land, the federal government risks making an enemy of the Amhara forces if it eventually strikes a deal not to their liking.
Will the be a durable peace? “I support Abiy […] but if the central government negotiates with the TPLF, automatically it will be at war with the whole Ethiopian people,” said Menber, one of the fighters from Lalibela, expressing a view shared by many of his comrades. “The TPLF is a terrorist group that must be destroyed.”
Disbanding the Amhara militias will be key to any durable peace. However, the failure of the federal government to immediately stop the TPLF’s thrust through Amhara has fostered a deep sense of mistrust in the region towards Addis Ababa. This will likely hinder the future demobilisation attempts, said Zola Moges, a member of the Amhara regional parliament for the ruling Prosperity Party.
“Our region was occupied by the TPLF and one lesson we have learnt as a people is that we must defend ourselves, we cannot rely on external parties such as the federal government,” said Zola. “I don’t think these groups will accept being demobilised by the federal government because the federal government could not protect the Amhara region after it withdrew from Tigray in June.”
Added to this is a lack of clarity regarding the aims of the militia groups. Some Amhara fighters say their objective is simply to rid their region of the TPLF, but others say they will not stop fighting until they reach Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. Meanwhile wild conspiracies circulate among some Amhara activists alleging that the federal government allowed the TPLF to advance through Amhara because it wanted to weaken the region.
“I am kind of afraid of what will happen after the war,” said Zola. “Now you have many different armed groups that don’t have one command structure. How do you deal with this after the war is finished? That is the biggest issue the region will face. But right now everyone is focused on winning the war, and no one wants to deal with what is going to happen after repelling the TPLF has been achieved.”
To save Ethiopia Kassahun Berhanu, a political science professor at Addis Ababa University, said Amhara fighters were chiefly motivated by a genuine desire to save Ethiopia from disintegration, as well as “feelings of anger and revenge” borne from TPLF atrocities, but he added that spread of heightened ethno-nationalist feelings across Ethiopia could continue to destabilise the country once the fighting has finished. “I don’t think the future will be more peaceful and stable because of extreme nationalism now prevalent in the country,” said Kassahun, adding that these extremisms “will derail any attempt to forge a sense of common belonging and nationhood” among Ethiopia’s peoples. Indeed, Abiy’s political philosophy centres on the concept of “medemer” or togetherness, which aims to bind Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, and his government has a strong centralising focus. Months before war erupted with the TPLF last November, regional Amhara and federal forces made moves to disarm the Fano militia, according to the International Crisis Group, viewing its skirmishes with other militia and occasional attacks on officials as security threats. Yet now the group is stronger than ever before, bolstered by thousands of new recruits.
For the time being, questions about what comes after the war are back of the minds of militiamen like Ashenafi and his friends. They are focused on just one thing: defeating the TPLF. Before he left for the front, Ashenafi underlined his reasons for signing up. “I do not have any fear,” he said. “There is nothing. War has no use at all, but to free my family […] the only option is to join the front line.”
(c) 2021, The Africa Report