NAIROBI — After a year of grinding conflict in Ethiopia’s mountainous north, thousands of opposition forces this week pushed their way to within 200 miles of the capital Addis Ababa, forcing the city’s residents to gird for the possibility that the war will soon be on their doorsteps and triggering a cascade of frantic preparations across the region.
The Ethiopian government has called the fight against former government soldiers and volunteers from the country’s Tigray region an “existential war,” and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, has vowed to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones.”
Abiy declared a state of emergency that allows for conscription of “any military age citizen who has weapons.” The mayor called on residents to take up arms to secure their neighborhoods. The military asked veterans to reenlist. The U.S. Embassy urged its citizens Friday to leave the country “as soon as possible.” Later Friday, the U.N. Security Council called for an end to the conflict and expressed concern about the impact on “the stability of the country and the wider region.”
Police in Addis Ababa have begun going door to door, searching for Tigrayans who may be sympathetic to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which is leading the rebel offensive and whose members the government considers secessionist terrorists. The TPLF dominated the country’s politics for three decades before Abiy took power, and are deeply resented by many of Ethiopia’s non-Tigrayans.
“I live in an apartment, and I have neighbors. In ordinary times, they heard me speak Tigrinya on phone, so some must know,” said Alula Mikaelson, 30, speaking by phone from Addis Ababa. Like many Tigrayans, Alula fled to Addis Ababa at the beginning of the war, seeking to blend in. Tigrayans speak their own language but are physically indistinguishable from numerous other Ethiopian ethnicities.
“Even right now, I am speaking to you in a low tone because if someone hears me, they can call the police who will come here and take me,” he said.
The crackdown has highlighted the increasingly ethnic nature of the war. Government officials including Abiy have increasingly used inflammatory language when referencing Tigrayans, and the TPLF argues it is fighting for the survival of its people in Tigray, who have been under an effective blockade since the war began last November.
The intransigence on both sides has scuttled hopes of a cease-fire that international mediators including the African Union and the United States were pressing for, and fears have pulsed beyond the country’s borders as the heavyweight of this volatile region teeters on the brink of chaos.
With more than 110 million people, Ethiopia is the 12th most populous country in the world and dwarfs its neighbors in population.
“If it is existential for Ethiopia, it is existential for us, too,” said a senior Djiboutian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. He and other diplomatic sources said they were concerned that a rebel push toward Addis Ababa would lead to a surge in refugees seeking to cross into neighboring countries.
Unpublished contingency plans being made by the U.N.'s refugee agency and reviewed by The Washington Post predict hundreds of thousands of refugees may try to enter Djibouti, Kenya and Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia.
Addis Ababa, home to around 5 million people, is sometimes referred to as the “capital of Africa” — hosting the African Union headquarters, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s largest and most essential for trade and travel.
While life for some continued on as normal, Tigrayan residents described a fast-moving police operation that had upended any sense of safety in the city and driven most into hiding.
“Everyone is absolutely terrified,” said Lemma, 27, an Addis Ababa resident who recently fled to Kenya and spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her second name for fear of reprisals against her family in Ethiopia. “Most of my family do not have passports, and they are being rounded up as we speak and taken to unknown concentration camps.”
She said that on Tuesday her 75-year-old uncle, who is diabetic, had been picked up by police at his office, two more cousins on their way to buy food had been detained after police checked their identification cards, which marked them as Tigrayan, and a friend’s father was detained at the airport as he tried to board a flight to Rwanda for a medical checkup. None have been reachable since.
Asked about the crackdown, police officials told Reuters that they had made many arrests in recent days of people accused of supporting the rebels.
“We are only arresting those who are directly or indirectly supporting the illegal terrorist group,” police spokesperson Fasika Fanta said. “This includes moral, financial and propaganda support.”
On Wednesday, the United Nations and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights body co-released a report detailing the “extreme brutality” meted out by both sides of the conflict on civilians over the last year. The report, while not exhaustive and hampered by restricted access to the conflict zone, documented some of the volleys of heinous recriminations that have driven this war.
Independent human rights groups and news outlets have reported on dozens of atrocities and rampant hate speech. The conflict has taken thousands of lives and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The TPLF claims to be pushing toward Addis Ababa as a way to force the government to lift restrictions on aid flowing to the region.
While stopping short of saying the government was committing genocide or using starvation as a war tactic, the report alleged extensive crimes by government forces and their allies that could constitute war crimes and decried heavy restrictions on aid supplies to Tigray that have brought hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine. The TPLF also carried out indiscriminate massacres, forced displacement and rapes, the report said.
On Wednesday, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, removed a post of Abiy’s from Sunday that called on Ethiopians to “bury” the TPLF. Hours later, Abiy posted on Facebook that “a rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to its death.”
Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said there should be “no moral equivalency between a democratically elected government and a terrorist group,” and pointed to her own posts on Twitter, where she referred to reports in Western media outlets as “alarmist” and “perpetuating terrorist propaganda.” The Ethiopian government has barred access to the conflict zone and denied visas for most foreign journalists hoping to cover the conflict.
The TPLF has marched on Addis Ababa before. In 1991, the group, forged in Tigray’s stark mountainous landscape as a guerrilla militia, stormed the city and deposed a Marxist-Leninist regime known as the Derg, which had carried out ethnic cleansing campaigns, killed tens or hundreds of thousands of political opponents, and presided over one of the deadliest famines in modern times.
Then, the TPLF was generally welcomed. But over the next three decades, the group consolidated power and created its own repressive regime. While cultivating close ties with Western powers that saw the group as favorable to the Derg and cooperative on regional security, the TPLF suppressed many of Ethiopia’s much larger ethnic groups, including the Amhara and Oromo, creating deep animosity that led to Abiy’s rise to power. Abiy is half Amhara and half Oromo.
The Oromo, who make up more than a third of the country’s population, in particular have argued that successive Ethiopian governments have actively suppressed them. Many who saw the possibility of change in Abiy were furious when his government jailed the country’s prominent Oromo opposition figures. Huge Oromo protests have repeatedly rocked Abiy’s tenure as prime minister.
Over the course of 2020, a political dispute brewed between Abiy and the TPLF, which governed the Tigray region. On Nov. 4, 2020, according to the government’s version of events, Tigrayan elements in the national military mutinied, killing thousands of non-Tigrayan soldiers and triggering the wider war.
Until this June, the government appeared to be prevailing with military assistance from neighboring Eritrea, but the TPLF has resurged with superior military structure and capabilities cultivated during its years in power, according to former and current diplomats.
For the meantime, the Eritreans have largely withdrawn from the war, though they continue to occupy some areas along the border, the diplomats said, and the Ethiopian military is on the back foot having suffered huge losses through attrition. The TPLF is attempting to build a broader front of armed groups together in opposition to Abiy.
Ethiopia’s most powerful Oromo militia, the Oromo Liberation Army, recently joined its forces with the TPLF on the highway leading toward Addis Ababa. The OLA’s spokesman claimed that hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers have defected to their side in recent days, and that tens of thousands of Oromo youth have voluntarily joined their ranks. Neither claim was supported by evidence.
On Friday, nine militant groups including TPLF and OLA signed an alliance, claiming to represent a vision of Ethiopia more similar to that which prevailed under the TPLF, privileging ethnic autonomy and federalism, as opposed to Abiy’s overtures toward centralizing power and creating a more unified Ethiopian identity.
Even as regional leaders such as Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta pleaded with the warring sides to stop fighting, and U.S. special envoy to the region Jeffrey Feltman held talks in Addis Ababa, neither the TPLF nor the government has publicly spoken in favor of a cease-fire.
The U.S. Embassy began authorizing nonessential diplomatic staff to leave the country, and numerous other missions began considering evacuation options. Feltman did not respond to a request for comment on Friday after meeting with Abiy and Ethiopia’s defense and finance ministers.
“We are preparing for the government to impose a total communications blackout,” said one non-Ethiopian delegate at the African Union who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. “But we have no idea how we’ll leave. Prices for flights have jumped to thousands of dollars. It makes me think about what happened in Kabul earlier this year.”
For Tigrayans who can’t leave Addis, the TPLF’s advance is only stoking more fear.
“My family members are telling me, ‘It doesn’t take long to execute someone. The TPLF won’t be able to save us,'” said Lemma. “So as they get close to Addis it is going to get worse — way worse.”
Rael Ombuor in Nairobi contributed to this report.