The War Behind Closed Doors

The author’s identity has been protected for the safety of their family members.

By now, much of the world is aware of the atrocities occurring in Tigray, committed by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Fano forces. Yet little is known of the silent war waged against Eritrean civilians prior to and in tandem with the war in Tigray. Understanding this silent war not only gives more awareness to the complexities of this war, but also the knowledge that this war has more victims than is being touched on in much of the international media.

The bombs appeared to crash down from nowhere. Then a couple weeks later, another round of bombs hit Asmara, Eritrea. People watched the news for some explanation of what had happened. Yet the bombs that rang in the ears of many did not warrant a single word on the state-owned media network, Eri-Tv. Knowledge of where they came from only coming from families’ frantic calls overseas, who knew more than they dared mention, but were not even 100% sure of what was happening. Then the draft notices came. No explanation given, but to report for duty. Yet this was not even the beginning of a war that began behind closed doors.

At the onset of Covid-19, the whole of Eritrea was put under a brutal lockdown. Schools were shut down. All workplaces deemed non-essential shut down without any word of when people could return. All public transport ceased to exist, and travel from one town to the next strictly prohibited. People resorted to horse drawn wagons to get around for essential travel. Food prices skyrocketed, which led to a hunger crisis within the country.

These restrictions which at first seemed preventative, in hindsight are questionable. Eritrea was already reporting low cases, and at one point even reported that all known cases had recovered. Yet there was never a let up on restrictions. Then September came, and one restriction was partially lifted. 11th graders would be allowed to go to school. The catch was, as per the Eritrean school system, they would not be in a classroom. They were to be bussed off to the military camp, Sawa, where they would not only read, but learn how to carry a Kalashnikov. The bombs came two months later. Why was it that a country that had been under lockdown for months, allow teenagers to train to be soldiers, in cramped quarters, despite virtually every single part of society ceasing to function? Then said country is bombed two months later…

Many Eritreans believe that the concern for Covid-19 was a false pretext aimed at covering up the war that Dictator Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, and his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed had been planning. In Eritrea word of mouth, only amongst those you trust, is one of the few ways information can be exchanged. Even that is impeded by the constant fear that you will be overheard by a government authority or spy. There is no freedom of press or speech and as illustrated earlier, state owned media often fails to report on important internal affairs. This network of word of mouth was completely destroyed by Covid-19 restrictions. Thus, these two leaders were able to quietly scheme a genocide, visit each other’s military bases, and engage in other pre-war activities, without the Eritrean public able to piece things together, and possibly rebel. By the time they figured out what was happening, they were already starving, confined to their homes, and being bombed.

So, in silence, the youth were drafted into a war that the Eritrean government kept denying their involvement in. Some report being kidnapped by government forces while trying to flee the country, and taken to Tigray to fight. Others were jailed as they attempted to cross into Tigray, a warzone, because they decided fleeing into a warzone would be better than fighting in this war. Some youth have been taken as POWs within Tigray. In silence, Eritrean refugee camps were destroyed by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, and some refugees dragged back to Eritrea. Refugees report being attacked by Tigrayan militias as well. In silence the youth feared for their lives, while soldiers carried out massacres that have still to be heard.

This same tactic of attempting to keep things in the dark was used against the people of Tigray as well. The internet is frequently cut off, phone lines disrupted, and some afraid to describe what is going on exactly to their families overseas. Victims of the soldiers’ crimes, particularly survivors of rape, are told to keep quiet or they will be killed. Third party access to the region to conduct investigations was barred for months, and even then, limited. Whether in Tigray or Eritrea, the aim was clear; keep things quiet for as long as possible in order to commit the gravest atrocities.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments attempt to cover up what it is doing to its civilians must not be allowed. To be silent, to not uncover what they wanted to have done in the dark, would be complicity in one of the most horrendous crimes of modern history. Let every injustice be uncovered. Let the silent war be silent no more.

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