/ 9 February 2023

The war in Ethiopia is not over

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In November, a peace deal was signed between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), ending a civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Photo: Supplied

Berhane escaped one massacre only to find herself in the middle of another one. The first was in Metema Yohannes, her hometown in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Bodies were scattered along the road and people wandered among them, searching for their loved ones in the faces of the dead.

Eventually she recognised a neighbour, his face marred by early signs of decay. “At night I could not forget his face,” she says. 

Berhane and her family are Qemant, a minority nationality targeted in Metema Yohannes in 2019. They fled to a town called Mai Kadra in the Tigray region, a refuge until war broke out in November 2020. Then, it became a site of violence in which at least 700 were killed. 

“What I saw in Metema Yohannes, I saw again in Mai Kadra,” she says. “I knew I had to leave Ethiopia.”

Berhane, who like others in this story was given a pseudonym due to safety concerns, is one of many Qemant refugees who now support the goals of the Qemant Liberation Army (QLA), an armed group fighting for a “regional state” in Ethiopia. 

In November, a peace deal was signed between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), ending a civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Implementation has begun but many issues remain unresolved, particularly for ethnic minorities.

In the shadow of the Tigray war, smaller wars are being fought over land, identity and representation in a country that has long struggled to reconcile its wealth of languages and ethnic groups with a cohesive national project. For minorities such as the Qemant, political autonomy is becoming associated with security — and failing to address their grievances could pose a long-term threat to Ethiopia’s stability.

Teshome, a shopkeeper who now fights for the QLA, also survived the massacre in Metema Yohannes. In 2019 he relocated to Shinfa, which was attacked in 2021.

Before the war he wasn’t very political. His mother spoke Qemanti, and Teshome identified as Qemant, but he didn’t feel his ethnicity divided him from Amhara friends and family.

In the mid-2000s, a cultural committee sought to restore the Qemant language and religion, which was nearing extinction due to assimilationist politics and a lack of official recognition. Tensions rose in 2017 when a referendum was held on Qemant self-administration. In seven out of eight districts with a significant Qemant population, voters chose to remain part of Amhara, although the results have been contested.

In Ethiopia, ethnic groups have the constitutional right to self-determination but Amhara politicians, who have a political rivalry with Tigray’s leaders, saw this as a TPLF-led plot to destabilise Amhara. 

Qemant land claims might have been encouraged by Tigray’s leaders in response to 2015 Amhara claims to Wolkait, Western Tigray, but Qemant political questions predate these disputes, say two Ethiopian researchers, who requested anonymity due to fears of reprisal.

Amnesty International found state security forces complicit in violence against Qemant from 2018 to 2020. Amhara civilians were also killed and displaced then, though reporting suggests not at the same scale (in regions where they are the minority, Amhara civilians have suffered similar atrocities).

Five months into the Tigray war, Teshome survived another attack, this time by government forces and an Amhara militia called the Fano. He saw two neighbours get shot as they ran from a burning house.

“I didn’t understand. Qemant were not part of that war,” Teshome says.

The Qemant were soon drawn into the conflict. After Qemant leaders declined to fight for Amhara, the government accused Qemant politicians (and civilians) of working for the TPLF. These claims were used to justify attacks in Qemant civilian areas. Large-scale attacks lasted from April to late September 2021 but violence against civilians has continued.

The QLA says it was recruiting from April 2021 onwards, though some analysts believe a less organised armed element probably existed before. In November 2021, Qemant politicians aligned with a TPLF-led coalition, which they said was their best bet for achieving regional statehood. Statehood brings many benefits in Ethiopia’s federal system, including economic resources and the right to a security force — an attractive proposition for minorities targeted by state security.

After his shop was destroyed in Shinfa, Teshome hid in the countryside hoping the violence would subside. It didn’t. Two months later, he joined the QLA.

Prior to the peace deal, the QLA was coordinating with the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), though members of both say they were fighting in separate locations. The peace deal means the QLA no longer has its powerful ally but they said they have no choice but to continue to fight.

“Where can we return to?” asks Yonas, another QLA fighter, reciting a long list of Qemant towns and villages that are still occupied by Fano.

Refugees receive regular reports of extrajudicial killings by Fano militia and all said they cannot return home if Fano remains active.

But Fano have been empowered during this war, and despite some crackdowns, they show no signs of disarming. Refugees believe Qemant farmland has been given to wealthy investors close to the regional government. The situation, they say, is similar to Western Tigray, where land remains occupied by armed forces aligned with the government, despite the peace deal.

“What happened in Western Tigray was tested on the Qemant,” says a rights researcher who documented pre-war violence in the region, who asked to remain anonymous.

Genet, a woman in her twenties, fled to Sudan from Shinfa town in July 2021. “[Federal forces] searched us and burned houses,”she says.“They said Qemant were TPLF.”

Her sister Hirut decided to hide in the countryside, optimistic that the violence wouldn’t last long. 

“She said I can’t leave my business, everything I’ve done.” When Hirut returned in August, Genet says, she was raped by four federal soldiers. “After, she was afraid to leave [for Sudan]. She believed she would be killed along the way.”

The last time the sisters spoke, over a year ago, Hirut said she was being threatened by a Fano man occupying a displaced neighbour’s home. He wanted to “make her his wife”.

Hirut warned her not to call again, as people were being arrested for getting calls from Sudanese numbers. This was echoed by other refugees.

An untold number of Qemant have been kidnapped by Amhara forces and conscripted to fight, according to six sources who witnessed a kidnapping or lost a loved one.

Eshetie Tarekegn, a Qemant diaspora organiser, believes an armed struggle was not inevitable. Among Qemant political actors, it remains controversial.

“If there was equality and justice in Amhara region, there would be no need for a regional state,” he says, noting how Amhara and Qemant share a language and have a long history of living together peacefully.

As the Qemant and others push for statehood, analysts worry there could be violence and reversals of political gains as the government tries to halt fragmentation.

“The government thinks they have been too lenient on the Qemant question,” says an Addis Ababa-based political analyst, requesting anonymity. “Civilians, who have borne the brunt of atrocities, might see things get worse before they get better.”

In December, more than 400 politically involved Qemant surrendered to the Amhara regional government. They say they were promised political amnesty. Qemant leaders who still believed in a peaceful struggle encouraged others to surrender and negotiate, according to sources close to the Qemant Democratic Party. Instead, they were arrested and their phones were seized. Sources believe officials are searching for digital evidence linking them with the QLA.

“They were deceived,” says an exiled Qemant academic, noting 134 people are still being held without charge in what he calls a concentration camp near Seraba military base.

Government officials have not responded to requests for comment.

A QLA member said they had not surrendered, pledging to continue fighting for “equality and justice”.

How this conflict is resolved could have implications beyond the Qemant community. Across the country, insecurity and land disputes are driving support for political autonomy, raising questions about the durability of Ethiopia’s peace.  

This article first appeared in 

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