Prisoners in Ethiopia have experienced a long history of abuse and mistreatment, and new witness testimony and evidence show the brutal treatment of Tigrayans in Ethiopia to the point where this can be considered genocide.

Tigrayans, an ethnic group that has dominated the Ethiopian government and military for nearly three decades, have been particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse by prison guards.

In 1974, when a Marxist military junta overthrew the government, it intensified the repression. Thousands of people were arrested and held without trial in appalling conditions. In 1977, Amnesty International published a report on prison conditions in Ethiopia, which described torture, lack of food and medical care, and executions.

The Tigrayan ethnic group has played a prominent role in Ethiopian politics and society for centuries. But that changed after Abiy Ahmed was appointed Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018. Ahmed is from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in the country. As a result, tensions between the TPLF—the political party associated with the Tigrayan ethnic group—and Ahmed’s government quickly escalated.

Tigray People's Liberation Front
(Source: Paul Kagame/Flickr)

The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, from a different ethnic group, has pledged to end discrimination against Tigrayans and other minority groups. However, his relationship with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that has dominated the Ethiopian government for many years, quickly soured after he took office. Tensions between the two groups led to violence and abuse against Tigrayan prisoners.

The mistreatment of prisoners in Ethiopia is not limited to Tigrayans. According to witnesses, guards have killed imprisoned soldiers in at least seven other locations. In a Washington Post exclusive, these massacres have not been reported previously. All of the victims were members of minority groups persecuted by the Ethiopian government for many years.

In early 2019, soldiers from the TPLF were arrested after they attempted to overthrow the government. The massacre at the camp near Mirab Abaya was the deadliest killing of imprisoned soldiers since the war started, but not the only one. Guards have killed imprisoned soldiers in at least seven other locations, according to witnesses, who were among more than two dozen people interviewed for this story. None of these incidents have been previously reported either.

Then in November 2021, another massacre occurred as the Ethiopian guards gathered Tigrayan prisoners and started shooting them.

“By sunset the next day, around 83 prisoners were dead and another score missing,” according to the report by the six survivors.

Though most of the attacks came from the guards, other Tigrayan prisoners were also “hacked to death” by the villagers who taunted their ethnicity.

“They were stacked on top of each other like wood,” recounted one detainee who said he saw the aftermath of the slaughter.

The dead were all Tigrayans, members of an ethnic group that has suffered from discrimination and violence at the hands of the Ethiopian government for many years. Some believe that the treatment of the Tigrayans was because of fear. The government is reportedly trying to silence them because of their potential influence and power if they decide to mobilize locals again. However, newer accounts show us the inhumane treatment of Tigrayan men and women targeted by the Ethiopian government and its police.

A Long Way to Peace

PM Abiy Ahmed
(Source: World Economic Forum/Flickr)

Since coming into power in April 2018, PM Abiy has made tremendous strides in trying to unite the country. He has released political prisoners, ended the state of emergency, reached out to opposition groups, and started the dialogue with neighboring countries like Eritrea. These moves have won him widespread international support. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome, chief among them the simmering tensions between ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been in power since 1991 and is seen by many as wielding too much control over the government and economy. On the other hand, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is a rebel group from Ethiopia’s most populous Oromia region fighting for the rights of the region’s people. The OLAs claim to have taken three towns, including Dessie and Kombolcha, two key towns 200 miles on the road to Addis Ababa.

However, one of the biggest challenges to achieving peace in Ethiopia is the ongoing conflict between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

The TPLF is a rebel group that once ruled and dominated politics in Ethiopia. It was supported by the OLA, a rebel group from Ethiopia’s most populous Oromia region fighting for the rights of the region’s people. The rebels claim to have taken three towns, including Dessie and Kombolcha, two key towns 200 miles on the road to the capital.

There is still a lot of mistrust between these groups, and unless it is addressed head-on, there is a real danger of this conflict escalating into an all-out civil war. PM Abiy has his work cut out for him, but he seems determined to succeed where others have failed. Only time will tell if he can bring peace to this war-torn country.