Acknowledging the suffering and injustice - Solidarity visit by a KAAD / KASHA delegation to Tigray

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From 10 to 11 July 2023, the head of the Africa Department, Dr Marko Kuhn, together with two leaders of the Ethiopian KAAD network KASHA (KAAD Association of Scholars at the Horn of Africa) visited the Eparchy of Adigrat in northern Ethiopia.

Until recently, a horrific war raged in the province of Tigray, with many civilian casualties. For KAAD, the Eparchy of Adigrat is very important as the place of origin of many scholars. The purpose of the visit was to learn more about the local situation, to get familiar with the structures of the Catholic Church in Tigray and to visit the largely destroyed University of Adigrat. The host, Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin, has had strong ties to KAAD for many years.

Only recently has this area been accessible to people from outside again, and journalists or visitors can also get an idea of the situation. In Europe, there is little awareness for this war, which has claimed between 600,000 and one million lives. Only local people of the church have been trying to keep exact records of the atrocious acts and the victims.

The structures and representatives of the local Catholic Church were important to the local people already before the conflict; they endured during the conflict and are at the side of the people now that this conflict is hopefully abating. The visit of the small KAAD/KASHA delegation intended to show solidarity towards the bishop of Adigrat and show sympathy to his staff and the people there for the suffering and injustice that has befallen them. An important component of the visit was that the two companions Dr Ephrem Tekle Yacob and Tsegaye Yoseph are from the part of Ethiopia that lies on the other side of the conflict. There were initially reservations about the visit of the two, which only dissolved during the visit, when they listened to the people and felt with them. Tsegaye Yoseph is a building contractor and completed a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, before pursuing a master's degree in Stuttgart as a KAAD scholar. During his bachelor's degree he was particularly active in the Catholic student association IMCS (International Movement of Catholic Students) and also became the president of this group for the whole region of northern Ethiopia. During this current visit he was able to tie in with the time long before the war and long before the people from both parts of Ethiopia felt they were enemies. Dr. Ephrem Tekle Yacob, who works as an educationalist at a state university in Addis Ababa after completing his KAAD-funded doctorate in Heidelberg, holds an important position in the Council of Catholic Laity in Ethiopia. The delegation was also joined by two KAAD alumni who work in Tigray: Yohanes Hagos Giday, InCountry-Scholar for Masters in Sociology, who works for the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Axum, Tigray. He himself comes from the Diocese of Adigrat and knows the bishop and his staff very well. Alumna Nakai Munikwa from Zimbabwe works in the regional capital Mekelle for the UN Children's Fund UNICEF and was also on assignment there during the war. Nakai Munikwa then led the group to the UNICEF office, where the Cluster Approach in Humanitarian Response was presented. Another station in Mekelle was the regional headquarters of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which is supported by the Catholics of the United States of America. Here an intensive exchange took place about the humanitarian intervention of church actors and the devastating effect of the cessation of food aid by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). At the beginning of May, WFP temporarily stopped its food distribution throughout Ethiopia, which in many places deprived the starving people in war-torn Tigray of vital supplies. In April 2023 it became known that relief supplies had not been distributed to the needy free of charge as planned, but had been sold on a large scale. The delegation learned that CRS has only been able to alleviate the hunger of the population through clever stockpiling until, hopefully, large-scale deliveries start again.

The peace agreement in action now is very fragile and in many places seems to be deliberately not thought through to the end. In this situation, hunger is a devastating component in Tigray. Much of the infrastructure and many access routes for food aid were destroyed by the war. The KAAD/KASHA delegation was able to get a first-hand impression when they visited one of the camps outside of Mekelle, where many thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) live. Talking to the staff of an infant feeding station made it clear that here the warning signs are getting stronger. The situation is now assuming proportions similar to the great famine in the same place in 1984/85. At that time, the international community was shaken up, everyone showed solidarity, and the largest benefit concert in history was organized in a short time. Today hardly anyone seems to be interested in what is happening in northern Ethiopia.

The core of the visit was the meeting with the bishop of Adigrat, Tesfaselassie Medhin. He described impressively what had happened to his diocese and the local people during the time of the direct armed conflict. The teaching staff at the Catholic Seminary there also reported systematic rapes, looting and shootings outside of combat. Almost every one of the people here has lost several family members, neighbours and friends in this way. The main perpetrators in the extreme north-east of Tigray were mainly the troops from neighbouring Eritrea which were called for help by the Ethiopian central government. These soldiers harbour great hatred for the people of Tigray, stemming from the Ethiopia-Eritrean border war in the 1990s. In the Eparchy of Adigrat too, the visitors could see for themselves the tireless work before the war, during the war and after active combat operations. The employees of the Catholic secretariat presented the focal points of their work and their projects and at the same time showed how much they are personally affected and often traumatized.

Impressive and, at the same time, depressing was also the visit to the state-run Adigrat University, a pre-war flourishing institution of higher learning whose technical equipment was among the best in all of Ethiopia, since the focus here was on information and communication technologies. During the occupation of Adigrat by Eritrean troops, they used the university grounds and its buildings as their army base. During this time (and especially before leaving campus), the soldiers engaged in an orgy of destruction and looting. There is hardly an undamaged piece of furniture or a door that has not been kicked down; hardly a screen that wasn't broken or taken to Eritrea. Then, after the shift of the front line, soldiers of the Ethiopian Federal Army lived here and the area came under shell fire from Eritrea. The KAAD/KASHA delegation was able to get an idea of the traces of this destruction. It was very impressive to hear and experience how the management team of the Adigrat University, under the leadership of President Prof Zaid Negash, is now daring to start again with modest means and the few parts of the building that have already been cleaned up and will soon be welcoming the first students again.

The mechanisms of ethnically shaped wars in Ethiopia are the same as in Ukraine or in the Balkan wars of the 1990s: Ethnic identity politics induce hatred, warlords play their cynical game and the ordinary people who are defenceless are the ones who suffer. In this case, the Irob ethnic group, from which so many of Ethiopia's Catholics come, has been particularly hard hit. Their territory lies exactly in the border region with Eritrea, which is still occupied by hundreds of thousands of Eritrean soldiers who do not feel bound by the peace agreement of Pretoria, in the negotiations of which Eritrea was not included. The bishop of Adigrat is therefore still unable to enter 13 of his parishes, and the humanitarian and pastoral work of the church is only possible to a very limited extent there.

Unfortunately, religious components cannot be denied in the present conflict, even if they do not run between members of different religions or denominations. The believers in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Tigray felt and still feel massively abandoned by their brothers and sisters in the south, i.e. outside of Tigray, because no bishop intervened with those in power in Addis Ababa, no prominent church voice was raised against the killings and massive human rights violations in Tigray. Shortly before the visit of the KAAD/KASHA delegation to Adigrat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had finally apologized to the local church and the population for its passive role during the war in Tigray. It failed to act in time to end the war and failed the people, a statement of 6 July said. Unfortunately, however, this did not bring about the desired steps towards coming together. While the KAAD group was in Adigrat, a delegation of bishops led by Patriarch Abune Matthias arrived in Mekelle to try and reconcile with the bishops of the Tigray region. However, they all stayed away from the meeting and subsequently pushed ahead with the attempt to found an autocephalous Tigrayan Orthodox Church.

The situation is very similar on the Catholic side: the Diocese of Adigrat covers the entire region of Tigray and Bishop Tesfaselassie would not have been able to receive the KAAD delegation if he had travelled to Addis Ababa for the meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference. But he was the only one who did not take part in this, because it is not (yet) possible for him to sit together with his fellow brothers without coming to terms with what happened, without asking about the lack of solidarity with the people in the north and the members of his Diocese (Eparchy) to deal with. Also against this background, the solidarity visit of the KAAD/KASHA delegation was an important first step towards a possible reconciliation. This can never succeed if a person does not want to see the suffering of the other until the other has also admitted his own wrong. Steps toward reconciliation are always a step to be done before knowing the next step and therefore a risk—outside and inside the church.

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Meeting with the Leadership of Adigrat University

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The KAAD- / KASHA-Delegation with Bishop Tesfaselassie and the team of the Adigrat Diocese Catholic Secretariat

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During the visit of Adigrat University (1)

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During the visit of Adigrat University (2)