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In Ethiopia’s civil war, violence against civilians is eroding support for the government

Minority groups like the Qemant are caught between competing visions of the country’s future

- December 17, 2021

Ethiopia’s year-long civil war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is affecting civilians across the country. Members of the Qemant community, a minority ethnic group in the Amhara region, have experienced violence, arbitrary arrests and destruction at the hands of government security forces and militia.

Over 2,000 Qemant refugees have fled into Sudan since July, according to U.N. reports, and thousands more are believed to be displaced. In October, Al Jazeera documented the destruction of hundreds of buildings in Qemant communities along the Shinfa River, near the Sudanese border.

In the town of Aykel, attacks by Amhara regional security forces and Fano militia since April resulted in the deaths and displacement of many Qemant civilians. Photos geolocated to Aykel show burned buildings and disturbing scenes of violence.

As Ethiopia’s conflict drags on, minority groups like the Qemant are caught between competing visions of the country’s future. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies appear to favor a more “unitarist” political identity and a centralized Ethiopian state, and believe the identity-based politics of the past 30 years has fomented divisions between ethno-linguistic groups. The TPLF and its allies accuse Abiy of promoting assimilationist politics that prevents these groups from protecting their cultures and pursuing regional political interests.

To understand how experiences of violence have shaped the Qemant’s relationship to Ethiopia’s political divide, I interviewed survivors of violence, victims’ families and activists. Testimony from these remote interviews was corroborated by satellite imagery, photo and video analysis, and secondary sources.

Planet Labs satellite images, with analysis by Vigil Monitor, help document structures destroyed in Qemant communities along the Shinfa River, in western Amhara, from May to October 2021. Source: Shared with permission from Vigil Monitor.
Planet Labs satellite images, with analysis by Vigil Monitor, help document structures destroyed in Qemant communities along the Shinfa River, in western Amhara, from May to October 2021. Source: Shared with permission from Vigil Monitor.

Who are the Qemant?

The Qemant have long been suspicious of assimilationist politics, which resulted in the near-eradication of their language and religion over the course of several hundred years. Qemant was removed as an identity from Ethiopia’s 2007 national census — activists believe this was the culmination of efforts to assimilate them into the Amhara region’s predominantly Amhara identity.

Qemant communities have experienced escalating bouts of political and communal violence since at least 2015. There have also been incidences of communal violence between Qemant and Amhara, and Amhara civilians also have been killed.

Aykel is culturally and politically important to the Qemant people — it is home to the Wonber, the Qemant religious leader, as well as the Qemant Democratic Party (QDP).

On Nov. 5, the QDP and its diaspora group, the Qemant Rights and Justice Movement (QRJM), joined several other minority groups in a coalition led by the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army. The coalition says its goal is to bring down the Abiy government and end the war.

African and Western diplomats want the fighting to stop in Ethiopia. Less pressure might help.

The violence is rising

The Amhara regional government denies targeting civilians in its security operations. But it alleges (without providing evidence) that Qemant groups have been operating on behalf of the TPLF, or “junta,” as the government refers to them. Qemant interviewees I spoke with deny these allegations. They say government violence against their communities is opportunistic, designed to quash long-standing land claims and demands for greater political autonomy within Amhara.

There is little evidence substantiating competing claims about whether Qemant groups were operating on behalf of the TPLF before aligning with the coalition. But my research suggests that the violence against civilians has increased during the conflict, and these experiences have fueled Qemant desires for self-governance. It’s difficult to overstate the trauma and distrust of government that experiences of violence have generated in Qemant communities.

Thousands of Eritreans fled repression at home. Many got caught up in Ethiopia’s fighting.

When I last spoke to Tesfa (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), he was on the outskirts of Aykel town, trying to rebuild his family home. His was one of many homes that were burned to the ground by the Amhara Special Forces and local Fano militia during an attack on April 13. “My family went to hide in [the] countryside. We stayed for two weeks because there was no food. But town is not safe either,” he said. “On September 1-2 there was another attack and the government is putting Qement in prison. They say we are junta [the government’s term for the TPLF].”

Tesfa was arrested in early October, according to his family and friends. He has not been heard from since. His experience is not unique. “They are burning houses, killing kids. They destroy livelihoods, loot villages,” shared Eshetie Tarekegn, a diaspora-based activist originally from Aykel. “Junta is not a house, it’s not a kid. But they kill us all as junta.”

In 2019, Negesu Nega lost four of her siblings in a massacre in Azezo, near the Amhara city of Gondar, by the Fano militia. “Fano set fire to my home while my sisters and brothers were inside,” she told me. “When they tried to escape, they were shot, and their bodies were [attacked with machetes]. Security forces and the federal police were there, but they refused to help.”

Negesu said she believes self-governance and justice for atrocities is desperately needed. “I have lost everything,” she said. “I want the killing to stop. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like I am suffering.”

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Moving forward

Despite deciding to join the TPLF-led coalition, Qemant interviewees were critical of the TPLF-led government that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, which they say also failed to protect them. But they fear Abiy’s current allies in the Amhara regional government, and believe that greater autonomy will be impossible in the current situation.

“Qemant don’t want secession,” explained Emebet Derjew, a diaspora QRJM leader. “We want to govern ourselves so we can be safe, to develop our community and protect our language, which is endangered. The conflict is not with Amhara people, it is with the political leadership.”

When asked whether the QDP’s decision to align with the TPLF would place Qemant communities in danger, Emebet replied: “They made so many excuses for why they are massacring us. Perhaps this will be another. But it is important to align with other nationalities who are struggling to survive.”

Whether the TPLF-led coalition holds, and whether it would serve the interests of civilians from minority groups like the Qemant, remains unclear.

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Claire Wilmot is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and a research officer at the UK Research and Innovation’s GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. You can follower her on Twitter at @claireLwilmot.