“We lost our comrades in the last war with Eritrea,” said Mrs. Nigsti, owner of a grocery store, referring to the terrible conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea of 1998-2000 during which some 70,000 people died and almost no land changed hands.
The Tigray is at war again, this time with the federal government in Addis Ababa, and observers fear it will escalate – with huge consequences for the Horn of Africa. “In a war there will be no winner,” said Nigsti, after Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, this month sent troops and planes to attack the region, which is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
There are already signs of how badly this conflict in northern Ethiopia could turn out. On Saturday, the TPLF fired rockets at airports in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Bahir Dar in Amhara state, neighboring Tigray, as well as across the border in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. . Amnesty International reported last week that hundreds of non-combatants were stabbed or killed to death in an incident that bears all the hallmarks of an ethnic massacre. Witnesses blamed forces loyal to the TPLF, but its leaders denied any involvement.
The fighting is the culmination of a bitter feud between the TPLF and Mr. Abiy, who took office in 2018 and purged his ruling coalition leadership of many Tigrayans. The TPLF, in turn, defied the postponement of the national presidential poll due to Covid-19 by holding regional elections in September, deemed illegal by Addis.
Months of tension escalated into armed conflict this month after an alleged TPLF attack on a federal military base in the Northern Command. Mr Abiy said he expected what he called a “law enforcement” operation “to end soon”.
Many security experts doubt it, saying the hostilities could drag on and turn into a real civil war. “The TPLF is a former guerrilla soldier. . . who knows this game very well, ”said Rashid Abdi, an independent expert on the Horn of Africa. “They are attacked on their territory and anyone who knows the geography of Tigray knows that it is difficult, mountainous and rugged territory – ideal for guerrillas.
Western diplomats fear the conflict could even spark more wars in a country torn by ethnic rivalries.
Shishay Adane, a Tigrayan activist living in Mekelle, the regional capital, said he feared Ethiopia “would become another Yugoslavia”, a reference to the country’s break-up in the 1990s along ethnic lines. He urged the international community to put pressure on the federal government led by Mr. Abiy, which he called “authoritarian”.
The African Union called for an immediate ceasefire; The UN says the clashes have already sent more than 14,000 refugees across the Sudanese border, and Pope Francis has called for a “peaceful end” to the conflict.
For the moment, hostilities are escalating. Thousands of grêle liyu, or special forces, and an alliance of militia fighters from the neighboring Amhara region – which has disputes with Tigray on land – have been deployed to the regional border, according to local officials.
“The conflict is between the TPLF and the whole country, not just Amhara,” said Gizachew Abebe, a senior government official in Amhara, calling the TPLF “evil.” The central government accuses the TPLF, which it has described as a “belligerent clique” and “criminal clique”, of fueling ethnic violence in other parts of the country.
The Tigrayans have long been fighting Addis Ababa. They did this in the 1940s against Emperor Haile Selassie in the so-called Woyane Rebellion. Forty years later, they waged a successful guerrilla war against Derg’s Marxist regime, coming to power in 1991 after marching in the capital.
The TPLF then ruled the country, as a dominant member of a four-party government coalition, until 2017, overseeing what is often described as Africa’s most successful economic transformation in a country of over 110 millions of inhabitants. Once associated with famine, Ethiopia, though authoritarian, has been Africa’s fastest growing large economy for 20 years.
But resentment has grown against the Tigrayans, who make up just 6% of the population. After years of protests, Mr Abiy, from the much larger Oromo ethnic group, came to power, promising democratic reforms and peace with Eritrea, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, experts warn, fighting with Tigray could attract Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afewerki has become close to Mr. Abiy, but who hates the TPLF. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which crossed the border into Tigray, left Tigray with around a quarter of a million armed fighters, according to the Crisis Group.
“They know how to fight and they can fight to the end with a knife between their teeth,” said Samahagn Genet, a 17-year-old former soldier who handled bombs in the Ethiopian army during the war. with Eritrea.
“Tigray’s special forces are powerful,” said Abel Kidanu, security analyst in Mekelle. “Most of them are young. They received modern training from the generals and commandos who served Ethiopia for so many years.
Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the TPLF, said there had been shelling by federal forces in several parts of eastern Tigray. Most of the federal army stationed in Tigray was now under TPLF control, he said, which the Ethiopian government had denied.
The Ethiopian parliament has given Mr. Abiy the power to replace the Tigrayan government. “If they feel that the Tigrayans must be under their feet, how can we live together?” Asked Mr. Debretsion. “They have gone too far.” Eritrean troops had already started attacking Tigray, he added, a claim Addis Ababa rejected.
Enyew Meseret, a 25-year-old Amhara special forces soldier stationed near the border with Tigray – where ambulances and soldiers’ trucks have become commonplace – said he was reluctantly ready to fight Tigray . “We all want peace, not fighting between brothers,” he said. “But the TPLF has done some really bad things, so I’ll fight if I have to. “