H.A., which is what he has asked me to call him because of the very real threat of reprisal against his friends and relations abroad, knows what violence looks like. Born to a well-to-do family in Addis Ababa, he was imprisoned by the Derg communist junta that ruled from 1974 until 1991 before coming to this country with his parents. He is familiar with torture, and with Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing techniques.
So when he told me that what is going on in Ethiopia now is worse than anything he has ever seen in his native country, and far worse than what had been reported in Western media until very recently, he was worth taking seriously: "I had never heard of hyenas eating dead people, so many dead that you couldn't bury them."
H.A. is one of only a few American citizens to have been in Ethiopia late last year and to have made his way back to the United States. He survived the mid-November bombing campaign in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, where genocide and ethnic cleansing are being carried out by the Ethiopian government with the cooperation of the Eritrean armed forces.
"We were scared," he said. "I could see the pilots, the planes from my room. They came at least 30 times. I was sleeping so I had to fall from the bed. I was taking a nap. I didn't know where to go."
H.A. also confirms what some outside observers have suspected, namely that in Ethiopia there was violence well before November, when reports first emerged of a government-forced blackout following a canceled election. In the countryside, he said, militias were stealing food and burning crops in October. Women were raped, children were murdered. At a farm owned by one of his relations, all but one of the farmhands were killed; at a looted factory owned by a business associate, no one survived. Ethiopian military personnel claimed that nothing could be done.
He says at first it was rumored that children were responsible. "This guy was telling me, 'They are burning our farms.' 'Who is burning them?' 'They are kids.' Then we would hear, 'Oh, at this church the priest was killed.' People were running away. The militia would come to the houses and rape indiscriminately, saying 'We'll take your food, whatever is not good enough, we'll burn it.'"
The militia in Tigray have seemingly been the vanguard of Eritrean forces, whose war crimes in the region have been reported by The Associated Press and Amnesty International. "The Eritreans, they can do whatever they want," H.A. describes. "Here, they put the Ethiopian army or militia in front, and then when the local people get really weak, that's when they come and push them away and then kill more of the people."
After spending most of 2020 in Ethiopia, where he had been engaged in business activities and found his ability to travel limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, H.A. says he was cut off from his bank account at the end of the year, stuck in a hotel that he could not leave because he had no hard currency. He had to undergo a military interrogation before finding himself at the mercy of an airport ticket agent who had been ordered to ethnically profile passengers. "After I left the counter someone shouted, 'He looks Tigrayan, stop him!' At the last gate I explained that I had been interrogated by someone senior. There was name-calling. They do not talk to you the way they did before this war." He was finally able to leave only thanks to the assistance of the Red Cross in the United States after a friend guaranteed payment for his airfare.
The ethnic profiling of Tigrayans is one of the reasons H.A. says the situation in Ethiopia is worse than it was during the long years of communist rule. "The Derg tortured me for being the son of a wealthy man, to brainwash me. But this is worse, because if you accepted, they were okay. But this time, because of your ethnicity they will kill you and rape the women. If you run, they shoot you, and if you don't run they collect you and shoot you."