Natnael Tsigab and Lwam Gidey have always been tech-savvy, but until last month, they had never used those skills for activism.
Then tensions escalated this fall between Ethiopia’s central government and the regional government of the Tigray state, in the northern part of the country. Now the couple – ethnic Tigrayans living in Washington, D.C. – spend hours each week building and managing a website to promote fundraisers and marches in cities around the world.
“It’s very time-consuming, but it has been a bonding experience,” said Tsigab.
The site, Stand With Tigray, is part of an international effort by Tigrayans in the U.S. and abroad to direct public attention to the conflict and encourage international intervention. In past weeks, hundreds of Tigrayans have staged protests in cities including Boston; Portland, Maine; Toronto and London.
Tigray’s regional government – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF – has been fighting the central Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since Nov. 4.
The latest conflict arose after Ethiopia’s election board decided in March to postpone national and regional elections from August to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF went ahead with its regional council elections in September despite the federal government warning that the vote would be illegal.
The move exacerbated existing tensions between the TPLF and Abiy’s central government, who declared a state of emergency in the region. Tigrayans have told The New York Times of random military shelling, as well as killings, rapes and looting by militias aligned with the central government. Human rights groups have documented at least one large-scale massacre, and roughly 1 million Tigrayans have been displaced. Approximately 50,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan, and 2 million are in need of assistance in the region, according to UN News.
An Internet blackout in the northern region of Tigray left residents unable to communicate with their families abroad, according to NetBlocks, a nonprofit organization that monitors internet censorship worldwide.
Tsigab has not been able to speak to his grandmother in Tigray for the past month. “It’s been hell,” he said.
For many members of the Ethiopian diaspora, the community activity represents their first experiences with activism.
“We’re a whole network of people who did not know each other. We’ve just come together as Tigrayans to figure out what’s going on,” said Tsigab.
Wegene Wells-Bogue, a Tigrayan who was adopted from Ethiopia and grew up in New Hampshire, also had not previously been active in Tigrayan affairs.
But on Nov. 25, he drove to New York from his home in Washington, DC, to attend a protest outside the United Nations as the UN Security Council met about the conflict. “We want to tell [the United Nations] we are concerned,” Wells-Bogue said.
He and his brother, Merhawi Wells-Bogue, have also started hosting weekly Facebook Live discussions to educate friends and family about the conflict and its impact. The first two events drew a total of 2,400 viewers. The brothers plan to host the events every Saturday.
The pair have sisters, nephews, and uncles living in Mekelle city, the capital of Tigray, where much of the fighting has been taking place.
“Now I am more involved than I have ever been,” he said.
Hundreds of people in the Tigrayan diaspora have been contributing to the Stand With Tigray website by offering details of upcoming campaigns and protests, Tsigab said. The couple also manages Stand with Tigray’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.
The team has also been seeking political intervention by calling and emailing U.S. lawmakers including Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat whose family fled their Somali homeland when she was young.
“Omar knows what it feels like to live in a refugee camp,” Tsigab said.
Activist efforts also include fundraising, petitions and shared planning. The Tigray Development Association, a non-profit organization founded in 1989 to support educational development efforts in Tigray, launched a GoFundMe page that has raised over $2 million for medicine, food and other humanitarian supplies for people affected by the conflict.
More than 5,000 people have signed the Petition2Congress petition asking U.S. lawmakers to “denounce the unelected and illegal federal government of Ethiopia and its genocidal war.”
Following the UN protest, the Tigray Development Association organized a Zoom call on Nov. 28 for more than 600 Tigrayans from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. The discussion focused on how to spread the word that Eritrean army divisions are helping the Ethiopian federal government fight in Tigray. Eritrean involvement in the conflict has been a source of contention between the TPLF and the central government.
“We’re not going to stop,” said Wegene Wells-Bogue.
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said the community outcry has been encouraging. “I think that diaspora activism has the potential to shape congressional interest,” said De Waal, who published an opinion piece in The Guardian calling for international condemnation of the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
U.S. officials have given some attention to the crisis. On Nov. 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to cease fighting in the region. And on Dec. 9, Republican Sen. Jim Risch and Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF to “cease all hostilities, protect the human rights of all Ethiopians, and pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.”
So far, the European Union has stated that it may suspend budget funding to Ethiopia over the conflict in Tigray. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has launched a humanitarian response plan to aid the growing concentration of refugees in eastern Sudan.
Meaza Gidey, who lives in Washington, DC, helped organized a protest of about 400 people there in November, and she uses her Twitter account to counter statements released by the federal government in Addis Ababa.
“As difficult as the situation has been, it also became an opportunity for those abroad to reconnect with their community,” said Gidey.