Ethiopian diaspora torn by ethnic tensions in Tigray war

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Thousands of miles away from the war in Ethiopia, the ethnic cracks have started to show in an Ethiopian church in Ohio, in a lawsuit between trustees and clergy.

The original trustees of the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Columbus have accused its clergy of switching the language of services from Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, to Tigrinya, the language of the Tigray region. They say the clergy is taking sides in a war between Tigray leaders and the Amhara, allied with the Ethiopian government, with an estimated tens of thousands of dead.

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The clergy in the church in Columbus, which is home to about 40,000 Ethiopian-Americans, says Tigrinya was added on as a language rather than replacing Amharic to better reach the congregation. Church leaders say the changes weren’t political in nature.

The tensions in the church reflect how the war in Ethiopia has fueled divides across the more than 3 million members of the diaspora.

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“The Ethiopian social fabric … has been torn apart,” said Tewodros Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America, based in North Carolina.

The war started a little over a year ago, when a political dispute between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray leaders erupted into violence after a dispute over elections. It has now spiraled to the point where some Tigrayans are starving under a government blockade and atrocities have been reported on all sides, with the worst and most to date reported against Tigrayan civilians.

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The conflict entered a new phase in late December when the Tigray forces withdrew into the Tigray region after approaching the capital, Addis Ababa, but are being pushed back by a drone-supported military offensive.

Deep disagreements about the nature and even the facts of the conflict are splintering families, friends and communities in the diaspora. Some consider themselves supporters of Tigray or of its political leaders, who belong to a party called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF. They argue that Tigrayans are being threatened with genocide — profiled, persecuted and killed for their ethnicity.

Saba Desta, who works in health insurance in New York, worries that ordinary people are being forgotten. Desta said she’s tried to get her parents out of the northern city of Shire in Tigray, but her father is ill and unable to leave without a nurse’s assistance.

“It’s been breaking me, reading the reports of closing of hospitals and health centers, the restricted access to medicine,” she said. “I can only believe that he’s OK, that he’s alive. I only have this hope to bank on.”

Desta said five of her cousins, all brothers, were shot to death in front of their elderly mother by the military from neighboring Eritrea, which has been in Tigray alongside Ethiopian soldiers. Their mother died shortly after “from heartbreak,” she said.

“I’m so numb,” she said. “I can’t even cry anymore.”

Other Ethiopians see this as a necessary war against Tigray leaders, who once ruled Ethiopia and were accused of human rights abuses while growing the country’s economy.

The former ruling coalition, dominated by Tigray leaders representing 6% of the nation, appointed Abiy as prime minister in 2018, a choice largely celebrated by Ethiopians across the globe as a step towards peace and unity. Abiy transformed the federal coalition into a single Prosperity Party, and Tigrayan leaders later withdrew. Many Ethiopians feel that Tigray leaders are angry because Abiy leads with more than Tigray’s interests in mind as he seeks to centralize power.

“I had been there since they were established and I had seen their plans when I was very young, and that never changed,” said Teferi Zemene, a Toronto-based union organizer who grew up watching the TPLF rise to power three decades ago.

Zemene returned to Canada recently after 2½ months in Ethiopia. He visited his hometown of Dabat, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) from the northern Amhara city of Gondar, and asserted that it was destroyed by Tigray forces.

“If you see Dabat now, you would cry. They devastated the place. There’s no place to even rest,” he said.

Zemene said he lost relatives in the war and that he felt “the need to fight.” He and other Ethiopians who oppose the Tigray forces have expressed concern that the international community and even foreign media are bent on promoting intervention by the U.S.

“We should be able to solve our problems ourselves,” he said. “We didn’t ask for any help.”

The complexity of the war has made some rethink their position on it. Ethiopian-American journalist and activist Hermela Aregawi advocated for humanitarian work to help Tigray in the early days, but eventually distanced herself from those fundraising efforts when she felt they became politically motivated in favor of Tigrayan leaders.

“I’m Tigrayan, I care about Tigrayans, I care about Ethiopians as a whole,” Aregawi said.

Negasi Beyene, a biostatistician and human rights activist in Washington, feels similarly. “My motto is, ‘humanity before ethnicity,’” he said.

Growing up in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, during an earlier war, Beyene felt pressured to choose between the TPLF and other political groups when he was just 17 years old and kids his age were either killed or recruited to fight. He ultimately sided against the TPLF, and holds what he considers a minority view among Tigrayans that they started the current war.

“My sister, brother, I don’t talk to them,” he said. “Because they think TPLF is doing good … Maybe the TPLF idea – if you’re not with us, you’re against us – has penetrated all of society.”

A year into the war, there’s no clear end in sight. Some support the independence of Tigray, while others don’t want to see Ethiopia torn apart.

Adem Kassie Abebe, a program officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in the Netherlands, said that for each side, the anger and longtime grievances are real.

“Saying ‘I understand you’re angry,’ that would go a long way (for) both sides,” he said. “That opens a channel.”

Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America blames the war on a federalist governing system that ties the country’s dozens of ethnicities to land and power, pitting them against each other. So long as Ethiopia has this system, he said, “there will be another war.”

What he and others note, though, is that more Ethiopians are now determined to be heard.

“It’s good to see so many Ethiopians actively involved,” he said. “We’re not coming (together) as one, but hopefully one day. We’ll be a force.”

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