This op-ed talks about the ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and forced famine underway in Tigray.
I had taken the power of the internet for granted.
On any given day, I post on four different apps: TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. My virtual life is abundant. The internet has been a source of personal and professional growth, creativity, and kinship for me. As a content producer, lifestyle vlogger, and fashion enthusiast, I understand the power of the internet as a space to create, share, and commune with online friends. I alternate between advocating for important issues and using my extensive archive of SpongeBob memes to express my current mood.
After November 4, 2020, the day of the U.S. elections, the internet became more important to me than ever. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, shut off telecommunications in Tigray, which many thought was an excuse to commit atrocities in the dark. It worked. For nine months, my homeland of Tigray in the northeast region of Ethiopia has been facing genocide. Haven't heard of the Tigray Genocide? No surprise.
Today marks nearly 300 days of almost no contact with our families. During this period, Tigray has experienced massacres, chemical warfare, vandalized hospitals, looted universities, destroyed churches and mosques; humanitarian aid blockages, man-made famine, and weaponized rape (yes — intentional, systematic rape). Most nights I’m restless, my chest tight, knowing that soldiers are going door to door to harass, loot, and devastate our families. My body struggles to comprehend their starvation — not simply the ambiguity of hunger, but the firm knowledge that there is no food and food will not soon appear. We are witnessing ethnic cleansing, mass rape, forced famine, and more, and yet the world's leaders refuse to label what is happening in Tigray a “genocide.” Everyone from the head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church to a former president of the country has used the term to describe the facts on the ground. Although “genocide” is a difficult label to use definitively, especially to describe an ongoing crisis, because governments obviously will not admit that’s what they’re carrying out, we are using the power of the internet and demanding everyone call the crisis what it is: a genocide.
The Tigrayan diaspora, meanwhile, has used the internet to bring awareness to the ongoing genocide — from making TikToks about what constitutes genocide, to sharing personal accounts of escaping the region. We are advocating for our humanity through each post because Ethiopia’s federal government strategically removed the world’s ability to witness the atrocities our families are facing.
On the few occasions in which phone lines have been sporadically open in Tigray, we rush to get through to our families. One morning, we dialed my aunt’s number. The anticipation twisted our stomachs with anxiety. Upon hearing her voice, relief, joy, and grief enveloped our bodies. Hesitantly, we asked how they were doing. With profound sadness, she informed us that my grandmother had passed two months prior. Two months.
Two months delayed, my family learned a piece of us was gone. My mother felt like a stranger to her own mother’s death due to her inability to access Tigray. She had also lost the ability to grieve in harmony with her family. The inhumanity laced through every layer of the genocide continues to leave me speechless.
The road and telecommunication blocks in Tigray imposed by Ethiopia’s government prevented us from hearing about my grandma’s declining health. Humanitarian flights providing aid were also blocked. Removed was the possibility of sending her medicine, food, money — anything to sustain her health or provide comfort in her last days. The communications blackout collapsed our access to what our families are experiencing: their inconceivable hunger, fear, and loss. How can we help them without knowledge of what they are going through? How can we help them without being able to send resources to the region? I’ll never shake the feeling of helplessness I felt at the moment I learned she was gone.
When Prime Minister Ahmed blocked communications in Tigray, he rendered it impossible for Tigrayans to experience their full human rights. The internet is a forum for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Without equitable access to it, fundamental rights are threatened. The internet is not simply a luxury, a place for personal growth, or a channel for consumerism. It’s a multifaceted tool belt that allows us to witness people’s lived experience and to organize to alleviate the injustices they face. It’s a critical tool of self and political expression for marginalized people around the world.
I have not been able to reach my family since hearing about my grandmother’s death. I do not know who remains and who doesn't. The trauma around what information I’ll learn during the next rushed connection fills me with an ever-present anxiety.
My family in Tigray may be cut off from telecommunications, but I am not. It is my responsibility to share what’s happening and ask those in my digital community to not take for granted the access we have to voice pain, injustice, and hope. As we are witnesses to one other's lives, let us also be witnesses to the lives of others and act to preserve their right to live, express, and connect.
Join me in using the power of the internet. Contact your legislators, demand they call what’s happening in Tigray a genocide, ask them to pressure the Ethiopian government to turn the phones and internet back on. Tweet with me, use the hashtags #CallitaGenocide, #KeepItOn, and #TigrayGenocide to amplify what's happening in Tigray. All of this and more can be found at TigrayActionCommittee.com.
You have the same amount of power as I do and together we can save lives.
(c) 2021 Teen Vogue