Adey Hagos doesn’t sleep much these days. Her mornings start early and her evenings run late—perhaps not surprising for a parent of two school-aged boys who owns and runs a successful restaurant. But the toughest part of the day for Hagos, 40, doesn’t arrive until well after 10 p.m. when she closes the doors of Cafe Romanat, her Ethiopian eatery near Lake Merritt, and taps open her phone.
That’s when she settles in to pore over the stream of texts and voice recordings left by family members, friends, and acquaintances back home in Tigray, the northernmost state in Ethiopia. Their messages, which Hagos gets through the instant-messaging app Telegram, tend to bring news not of an auntie’s birthday celebration, a nephew’s graduation, or village gossip, but of attacks, disappearances, and dwindling food and household supplies. Often, the messages are pleas for financial help.
“People have no electricity. They have no food. There is no salt. They have typhoid. There is no clean water,” said Hagos, who sat with The Oaklandside one recent morning at Cafe Romanat before opening her restaurant. “I don’t want to open Telegram sometimes because I just want to have a good day with my kids. But I do it.”
Like thousands of Tigrayans and other Ethiopians living across the U.S. and elsewhere, Hagos spends her days worrying about loved ones back home. For over 20 months, a civil war fueled by longstanding ethnic and political divisions in Ethiopia has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a Tigrayan himself, called it “catastrophic” during a press conference in Geneva.
“There is nowhere on earth,” said Ghebreyesus, “where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.”
Some estimates put the number of deaths caused by the war in Tigray at 500,000, due to battlefield casualties, inadequate medicine, and starvation. According to the United Nations, more than 13 million people across northern Ethiopia need food assistance. Over 400,000 Tigrayans are at risk of starvation, according to the World Food Programme. According to the U.N., roughly 4.5 million Ethiopians have been internally displaced, largely due to the war.
“The world’s deadliest war isn’t in Ukraine, but in Ethiopia,” an opinion piece in the Washington Post posited this spring.
Despite this horrific scale of suffering and the fact that the Bay Area has one of the most sizable Ethiopian populations in the U.S., Hagos is sure that the vast majority of people who walk through the doors of Cafe Romanat are entirely unaware of the civil war, the humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, or the near-constant state of anxiety that she and other Ethiopians in Oakland are living in.
In Oakland and elsewhere in the U.S., despite in-depth reporting by news organizations like Reuters, CNN, and The New York Times, general awareness of the crisis has felt close to non-existent. And unlike the war in Ukraine, U.S. officials have been slow to denounce the atrocities in Ethiopia or call for a political solution.
The United States, mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development, has sent close to $1 billion in humanitarian aid to northern Ethiopia through emergency food assistance and medical resources since the crisis began more than 20 months ago in November 2020. Meanwhile, the U.S. has committed roughly $7 billion in aid to Ukraine over the past five months.
A large map of Ethiopia adorns the wall of Cafe Romanat. Hagos opened it in 2011, 10 years after she arrived in the Bay Area. She named it after her hometown, a village outside the Tigrayan capital Mek’ele. Hagos, her parents, and her younger sister fled Romanat during an earlier large-scale crisis, the Eritrean War of Independence against Ethiopia. Hagos’s mother died during the upheaval of that war, unable to get basic medical attention after a burst appendix.
Keeping up with news of Tigray from Oakland over Telegram feels like reliving those terrible days. “I don’t sleep. Every day I’m up until 2 or 3 a.m. because of the time change at home,” said Hagos.
Hagos sometimes attempts to explain to patrons where Tigray is and what’s happening there. But her words are often met with incomprehension. “They don’t know, some of them, what it’s like when I try to explain,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
A conflict rooted in longstanding ethnic and political divisions
This tragedy in Ethiopia is the latest in a long line of ethnic and political tensions. A thorough unpacking of that history would fill volumes. But to understand the current crisis and its impact on the Tigray region and diaspora communities in Oakland and elsewhere, it’s helpful to know some facts about Ethiopia’s people and recent political history.
Ethiopia’s borders encompass more than 80 ethnic groups with distinct languages and traditions. The country’s 10 regional states are divided, to some extent, along ethnic lines. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group is the Oromo, who account for roughly a third of the country’s roughly 120 million people but have largely lacked political power. The next largest group is the Amhara, who comprise about another third of the population and have ruled politically throughout much of the country’s history.
Tigrayans, at about 6%, are a minority in Ethiopia, as they are in California and other U.S. states with sizeable Ethiopian diaspora communities.
For much of the last 30 years, Ethiopia was led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a political party that started as a rebel movement against Ethiopia’s military government in the mid-1970s. The TPLF’s rule coincided with a period of economic growth in Ethiopia, but its record was far from unblemished. International human rights organizations reported killings, torture, rapes, and other abuses. Widespread protests in 2018 led to the party’s removal from power, paving the way for a new, non-TPLF government under current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ahmed quickly established a reputation as a reformer, winning accolades within Ethiopia and the international community. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019 for his role in smoothing relations with longtime rival Eritrea, giving many a reason to believe the country was entering a new era of peace.
Within months, those hopes began to evaporate. As Ahmed was being honored for his peacemaking with Eritrea, political tensions inside the country rose as he sought to strengthen the federal government and diminish the influence of the TPLF and Ethiopia’s regional political parties.
TPLF leaders defied Ahmed in September 2020 by mounting their own regional elections. Two months later, things escalated after TPLF forces attacked a federal military base in Tigray.
On November 4, 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed responded by sending troops into Tigray to quell the TPLF. He promised a quick military campaign with minimal casualties, but the fighting spiraled into a full-scale civil war, with heavy casualties and atrocities committed on both sides. Constant telecommunications and electricity blackouts in northern Ethiopia made it increasingly difficult to get accurate information about what was happening there. In Oakland and other places across the world, Ethiopians living abroad feared the worst.
By early spring of 2021, reports surfaced that the government was engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans. As the year wore on, international human rights observers began to report mass killings, forced displacement, sexual violence, and other abuses against Tigrayan civilians.
Shockingly, considering the two countries’ histories, Eritrean soldiers were reportedly fighting alongside the Ethiopian military and ethnic militias in Tigray and committing some of the worst atrocities. CNN and the Associated Press reported civilian massacres in Tigray by Eritrean forces. Meanwhile, fighters aligned with the TPLF were accused of atrocities in Amhara.
The region breathed a collective sigh of relief this past March when Prime Minister Ahmed and the Tigray Defense Force, the military arm of the TPLF, agreed to a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into northern Ethiopia. In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development released a statement saying it would send humanitarian assistance to the region and that as many as one million Ethiopians were “expected to face famine-like conditions by June.” It said that 90% of the population in Tigray needs aid.
But information about what’s happening on the ground in northern Ethiopia, including the success of recent humanitarian efforts, remains hard to obtain. A June 2022 situation report published by the United Nations confirmed that while a major food shipment had reached the Tigray capital of Me’kele in late spring, only a quarter of it had been distributed due to the difficulty of getting to hard-to-reach areas.
Also in June, the largest and only remaining hospital still operating in Tigray, Ayder Referral Hospital, announced it would be suspending services due to a shortage of medical supplies. Hospital officials there said they’ve been out of basic supplies and experiencing power outages and fuel shortages for the past 20 months, a situation they blame on the Ethiopian government for imposing what amounts to a blockade on the region.
“This isn’t like the 21st century anymore,” one doctor told The East African. “It’s more like the 16th or 17th. Patients just die in front of your eyes.”
‘I’ve got to do something’: Local Tigrayans have been organizing to raise awareness
For most of his life, Daniel Hagos (no relation to Adey Hagos) wasn’t one to be politically outspoken. He grew up in San Diego abiding by an ethos of staying humble, working hard, and keeping his “nose out of trouble,” values his Tigrayan immigrant parents ingrained. They’d fled the country along with many other Ethiopians in the 1980s, partly to avoid ethnic persecution at the hands of the military regime that ruled the country for more than a decade after the overthrow of Ethiopia’s monarchy.
Hagos left home to attend UCLA and later moved to Oakland, another city with a sizable Ethiopian population. Over 250,000 people of Ethiopian ancestry live in the U.S., with tens of thousands in the Bay Area. Ethiopians migrated to Oakland in large numbers in the 1980s, driven by conflict and political instability back home. Today, Ethiopians are highly visible members of the community, operating local associations, Ethiopian Orthodox churches, popular restaurants and cafes—including many nestled in North Oakland along Telegraph Avenue—and other establishments.
Over the past eight year, Hagos has lived a quiet life in Oakland, where he works as an associate director at a local housing nonprofit. “I was fulfilling the American narrative of an immigrant,” Hagos said. “Just work hard, don’t ask for too much, maximize whatever opportunities are given to you, and do so without getting in anyone’s way.”
That all changed when the war began in Tigray, where Hagos’ maternal grandfather and extended family live. Like other Tigrayans living abroad, Hagos began hearing of abuses against civilians and catching horrifying glimpses of the violence in news reports and on social media.
“The brutality of what was transpiring is just utterly gut-wrenching because these are people that more or less look like me. They talk like me, in our native language. They celebrate the same customs; they wear the same clothes,” he said. “And so, for this to befall a group of people that I have such affinity and ties to—I kind of woke up and was like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
Hagos drew on his experiences working in government and the nonprofit sector and began trying to make non-Tigrayan U.S. citizens aware of what’s been happening in Ethiopia. “I wanted for other people to be aware of this—[people] that don’t look like me,” he said. “I’ve always been a huge proponent of coalition-building because that’s how I see things get done.”
He began “hitting the pavement” in Oakland and San Francisco with other local Tigrayans who’ve connected through grassroots advocacy organizations that sprung up in the conflict’s wake, like Mekete Bay Area, and has protested with Tigrayans in other parts of the country as well. He’s engaged with local nonprofits and elected officials in Oakland and reached out to Senator Dianne Feinstein to push for a legislative response to the war and humanitarian crisis.
Hagos said refashioning himself as an activist has been neither easy nor come naturally. “It’s been admittedly a really uncomfortable experience because I’m dealing with secondary trauma from all this,” said Hagos, who, along with hearing firsthand accounts from people impacted in Tigray, regularly monitors human rights reports and international media accounts, which sometimes include graphic scenes of famine and human suffering. “I’ve had to come out of my shell and I’m not completely comfortable with it, still to this day.”
Left: Daniel Hagos covers his face with the Tigray flag. Many Tigrayans in the U.S. feel unseen and unheard by the global community, despite the dire humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia. Right: Hagos holds a sign calling for an end to violence against the ethnic Tegaru, or Tigrayan, people. Credit: Amir Aziz
Finan Tadesse spent most of her life in Ethiopia before moving to Oakland in 2013 at age 19. Her Tigrayan parents had come to the Bay Area about a decade earlier, preferring that their daughter stay behind until she finished high school. Although Tadesse experienced culture shock upon arriving, she quickly became engrossed in the diversity and community ethos of Oakland and the Bay Area.
Moving here was “a beautiful experience because Oakland is all about love and community and culture and a lot of positivity, even though it has a lot of negative connotations around it.” She maintained ties to her home culture through her family; her mother used to “drag her” to a local Ethiopian church. She also made non-Ethiopian friends as a junior college student working service jobs. Eventually, she said, Oakland began to feel “like a home away from home.”
Tadesse, 27, was initially surprised in late 2020 when it became clear that the government’s military campaign in Tigray would not end quickly or quietly. Her concern turned to horror as the fighting and abuses spiraled. “A lot of people thought that this war would’ve ended a lot sooner; we didn’t expect it to turn into a genocidal war,” she said. “When it started to drag on, I couldn’t just sit still.”
Tadesse and several other young Tigrayans began organizing with elders in the community through Mekete Bay Area. They helped launch social media accounts for the organization, gained a following among Tigrayans from Fresno to Sacramento, and organized demonstrations as the months went by, including one at the Lake Merritt farmer’s market. In late spring of 2021, Tadesse helped organize a two-day demonstration to mark the 200-day anniversary of the war. Organizing became all-consuming, although the returns were often disappointing.
“We live in a time of COVID and there’s so much chaos happening in the world. A lot of people have been desensitized,” said Tadesse. “Plus, genocide is not something that they think about as happening right now. They think it’s something, like, in a history book. But there are those that do ask a lot of questions—and ask how they can help.”
Organizing has taken a psychological toll, with bouts of depression and feelings of helplessness. Earlier this year, Tadesse decided to take a step back to focus on her own wellness. She took a job unrelated to the war in Ethiopia, working to improve her leadership skills for a struggle that she once considered short-term but now views as a “long haul.”
While the world reels at atrocities in Ukraine, Ethiopians push to be heard
When Oakland resident Esayas Hailemariam spoke to The Oaklandside in April, it had been six months since he’d heard from his parents and siblings in Tigray. As a legal scholar and a member of the Northern California chapter of the Global Society of Tigray Scholars and Professionals, a group formed in 2010, Hailemariam is no stranger to studying and writing about African geo-politics. Since the beginning of the current conflict, he’s been advocating for Tigray to lawmakers and members of the media.
Hailemariam and other Tigray activists in the U.S. have been advocating for Congress to support two pieces of pending legislation, H.R. 6600 and S.3199. The proposed bills would formally acknowledge the Ethiopian government’s abuses in Tigray and its role in facilitating the current humanitarian crisis, impose sanctions, and have the U.S. take additional steps to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict.
“This is our full-time job, trying to bring the atrocity to global attention. There’s an emotional side to this, a time investment,” said Hailemariam. “And I think the accumulative impact of that is tremendous. It’s not easy.”
Several Tigrayans who spoke with The Oaklandside feel exhausted and disappointed by the relative lack of attention and global response. That was magnified tenfold in February, when much of the world seemed to recoil in unison at the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine.
Meaza Gidey Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan advocate in Washington D.C., has been working to raise awareness in the U.S. of the Tigray crisis, as a spokesperson for the advocacy organization Omna Tigray.
“I am very much pleased and happy that people in Ukraine are getting the kind of support they deserve,” Gebremedhin told The Oaklandside. “But I am also asking myself, like every day, why isn’t the world reacting the same way to what’s happened in Tigray? Sometimes you’re left to ask if this has something to do with the color of your skin or the fact that you don’t have blue eyes,” she said. “Or even with the fact that there is no oil in Tigray. So is our humanity based on our political interests and our race inclinations? Or do we genuinely care about human lives?”
Daniel Hagos believes that race and place—the fact that Ethiopia is in Africa—have a lot to do with the tepid international response to the country’s suffering. “There is some untended, unintentional, and systematic racism at play. That’s not fun to say, and I don’t think people wake up and say, ‘Let me be racist and not report or underreport things in this part of the world,’” said Hagos.
“There’s a lot of energy and gravitas around Black Lives Matter here stateside,” he added. “But we tend to forget that Blackness, and brownness, for that matter, has been the target of a lot of oppression around the world. And if we’re going to apply that lens here, I think it’s in good practice to apply it elsewhere. It’s been disappointing.”
Hagos has no interest in participating in “oppression Olympics” with people who are also suffering and believes Ukrainians deserve all the support they can get. Still, he said, after watching governments and corporations “do somersaults” to ensure that Ukraine feels supported, he can’t help but wish that a fraction of that concern would go to Tigray.
Tadesse said the comparative lack of coverage for Tigray speaks to the continued importance of the diaspora’s organizing efforts. Raising awareness, she said, is the first and most important thing that she and others in the diaspora can do to help.
“Even though there are newspaper articles, or the House of Representatives have spoken about it, or senators have spoken about it, the general public doesn’t know,” she said. “And if the general public doesn’t know, then it kind of just feels like it doesn’t matter.”
Ethnic violence has spread beyond Tigray
As Tigrayans in Oakland and abroad have suffered, so have other Ethiopians. The civil war that began in Tigray has since spread south into other parts of the country, where the government has been either unable or unwilling to rein in ethnic militias—some aligned with the government against the TPLF, and others who’ve chosen to side with the Tigrayan forces. In many cases, civilians have been caught in the middle.
In June, it was reported by the Associated Press and The New York Times that a massacre occurred in the Oromia village of Tole. The victims, over 200 according to those news organizations, were ethnic Amharas. An independent investigation published by the Amhara Association of America reported that closer to 500 people were killed. Eyewitnesses claimed the attack was carried out by members of the Oromo Liberation Army, a militia now politically aligned with the TPLF. But OLA officials denied the accusation and told AP the killings were perpetrated by regional government soldiers as punishment for the victim’s perceived support of the OLA.
It was one of the deadliest reported incidents of ethnic violence against Amharas since the early days of the military invasion and heavy combat in Tigray in November 2020, when Amnesty International reported that dozens and likely hundreds of Amhara day laborers were slaughtered. In February 2022, the same human rights organization also reported atrocities committed by Tigrayan forces against dozens of Amhara civilians, including women and girls. And targeted killings of Amharas in Ethiopia far precede the current war between the government and the TPLF. Human Rights Watch reports from as far back as the early-1990s describe deadly attacks against Amhara settlers in Oromia.
In the Bay Area, some members of the local Amhara community responded to the recent massacre in Tole with a rally earlier this month in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, denouncing the violence and accusing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government of allowing the OLA and others to carry out war crimes against Amharas.
On a call with The Oaklandside before the demonstration, organizers Hanna Tamrat and Biniam Ambachew echoed some of the fears and frustrations shared by Tigrayans we interviewed. They talked about feeling invisible on the world stage while an ethnic cleansing campaign against their people is occurring back home.
“My hope is that we get, as Amhara people, recognized. Our livelihood here has completely changed because every day we’re hearing about massacres,” said Tamrat. “We’re asking for compassion from other people for the pain we’re going through.”
Tamrat, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, expressed empathy for those suffering on all sides of the conflict. She decided to raise her voice once reports of ethnic violence targeting Amhara civilians in places like Oromia—initially far removed from the war in Tigray—started to occur.
“It’s just about humanity. As far as the war, I was against it from the beginning because civilians are dying on all sides,” she said. “But my concern has been that the focus has just been on the northern part of Ethiopia when there are so many ethnically targeted killings being supported by the government in other parts of the country as well. So I’m concerned about everything happening with the war, but also outside the war. That has been kind of neglected.”
Like other Ethiopians we interviewed for this story, the civil war has been a source of deep pain for Ambachew, 30, whose parents are from the Gonder region of Amhara in northern Ethiopia. He lost his brother, a paramedic, who he said was shot and killed by TPLF soldiers while attending to wounded people during fighting in that region.
“The local community in the Bay Area and the U.S. is heavily impacted and many have lost family members. It’s not only physical pain but psychological pain,” said Ambachew.
Even as direct combat becomes more sporadic in some regions, he said, it’s been replaced by lawlessness and starvation. Millions of Amharas and other Ethiopians have been internally displaced by the conflict, making them even more vulnerable. There are 1.2 million internally displaced Ethiopians currently living in congested and substandard living conditions in Afar, Amhara, Benishangul Gumuz, Oromia, SNNP, Somali, and Tigray regions, according to the United Nations.
“The displacements—these people have been neglected by the international media outlets. A lot of children are malnourished, have lost their homes, and have given up hope as far as rebuilding,” he said. “Women and children have been raped. Mentally, people have been put in a position of weakness.”
However, the enormous number of internally displaced Amharas, stressed Ambachew, should not be viewed as merely an extension or a symptom of the government’s war against the TPLF.
“It’s also the result of the ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide against Amharas,” he said. “Amharas have been ethnically targeted in every corner of Ethiopia, and this is a fundamental structural problem that persisted for decades. And recently, the proportion and brutality of these acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing have been intensified in Oromia region, and we want the world to know, and to act swiftly to end the Amhara genocide.”
Having lost confidence in Prime Minister Ahmed’s ability to bring peace, Ambachew, Tamrat, and other members of their group, San Francisco Bay Area Amhara Ethiopians, are calling for the immediate resignations of Ahmed along with Oromo Regional State President Shimelis Abdisa. They want an independent international investigation into war crimes committed against ethnic Amharas.
For Ethiopia to have lasting peace, Ambachew believes it must also fundamentally change how it governs its people. Ethiopia adopted a system of ethnic federalism under the TPLF-led coalition government in the 1990s, a change from previous decades when the country functioned as a republic with a strong centralized government. The new constitution was created to ensure rights to land and political representation for Ethiopia’s numerous ethnic minorities. Instead, argues Ambachew, it has pitted ethnic groups against each other and helped to create the conditions for ethnic violence against groups internally displaced by the war.
“This ethnic constitution is the cause of all this war and misery in the country,” said Ambachew. “Now, Amharas in Oromia are treated like second-class citizens. People from the Tigrayan, Amhara, Oromia parts of Ethiopia need to sit down and discuss the future, and a new constitution for the country.”
Ambachew also lamented what he sees as a lack of urgency on the part of U.S. politicians and media outlets to decry the violence occurring against Amharas in Ethiopia. “We’re like the forgotten, unheard people of East Africa,” said Ambachew. “Amharas are being targeted. Many need safe passage out of the region. We need the world to know, to hear the pain that Amharas are going through.”
The conflict has opened old wounds in the Ethiopian diaspora
Oakland resident Negga Wulderufael, 73, understands the ethnic and political tensions at the heart of the current crisis better than most. Eritrean by birth, Wulderufael grew up in the Amhara province of Ethiopia, is married to a Tigrayan, and has family members on both sides of the war.
“Some of them had crossed the border and they were in the refugee camps. Some fled to Libya. One made it to Europe. Some, unfortunately, were in the Eritrean army and did participate in this war and are now severely disabled. And there are many that we don’t know if they’re alive or dead,” said Wulderufael. His wife has experienced similar fears about her family members in Tigray. “It’s been a total news blackout for eight months, until about two months ago, when we somehow miraculously got a phone call. And luckily, it seems that everyone is okay. But it was a nightmare. We had no clue if people were alive, dead, or starving.”
Wulderufael’s life experiences are intertwined with decades of conflict in the Horn of Africa. As a young man in the early 1970s, he served as a health officer in Hummer, Welkait (a contested area between Amhara and Tigray). He later lived in Eritrea and served in the Eritrean Liberation Army for a few years, and worked for the Swiss Red Cross in a Sudan refugee camp. He emigrated with his family to Oakland in 1982, graduated from Stanford, and worked at Highland Hospital until retiring.
Despite now having spent more years in the United States than in East Africa, Wulderufael is an astute observer of politics in the region and active in the Bay Area chapter of Bayto Yiakl U.S.A., a political organization working to bring democracy to Eritrea.
“I’ve been here for 40 years,” said Wulderufael, “and it’s amazing how everything happening back home immediately reflects here.”
In Oakland in the 1980s, he recalled Ethiopians of different backgrounds worshipped together more often. Ethnic differences, particularly among northern Ethiopians, mattered less. That began to change in the late-80s, he said, when the TPLF came to power. Like many Ethiopians back home, said Wulderufael, some in the diaspora could not bring themselves to accept an Ethiopian government led by Tigrayans.
Those same deeply held resentments, he said, led some Ethiopians and Eritreans to support the military campaign in Tigray and made it difficult for many in the diaspora to condemn or even acknowledge the government’s abuses. “To see that Tigrayans are being hurt, and to see that people are not sympathizing with that pain, for people to shrug their shoulders,” said Wulderufael, “it’s painful.”
Wulderufael knows some of his own family members in Eritrea have been directly involved in violence. “Who would want their nephews and nieces killed, and to be killing, to be causing war crimes?” he said. “Our Eritrean people are being sent to a war that they really have nothing to do with. That’s the sad part. It’s like what Americans went through during the Vietnam War.”
For the younger Tadesse, the diaspora’s response to government abuses in Tigray—sometimes muted, other times outwardly supportive of the government—came as more of a surprise. “A lot of us were really blindsided when this war started happening and everything was being directed at Tigray,” she said. “A lot of people that we thought were close to us and cared about us were supporting it, or not saying anything at all.”
Overlooking or accepting that has become nearly impossible, she said. Friendships Tadesse held with people in the wider Ethiopian community slowly eroded.
Ambachew, the organizer with SF Bay Area Amhara Ethiopians, said he too has observed ethnic divisions widen in the local community as a result of the civil war. “I see it in my own local church—I go to a local Ethiopian Orthodox church here in Oakland. People have separated from even their worship and have created a separate church where they only worship with people from their own background, with their own ethnic group.”
The divisions have even extended to Ethiopian youth soccer leagues, said Ambachew, which in the past were a place for young people from across the diaspora to come together. Now, he said there are separate leagues for Oromos and Tigrayans, and some in the Amhara community are also considering forming one of their own.
“And so it goes, from church to football, to every aspect of society, even to restaurants. The diaspora is a reflection of what’s happening in Ethiopia,” he said. “And it’s very much rooted in systemic and institutionalized hatred against each other.”
“There are folks throughout Ethiopia and throughout the diaspora that simply say, ‘Well, for 27 years, this is what transpired,’ said Daniel Hagos, referring to the period the TPLF ruled Ethiopia. “Or they’ll simply say, ‘Hey, we recognize [the situation in Tigray] is an issue, but your government deserves it.’”
Hagos accepts that people have legitimate grievances when it comes to the TPLF. But he can’t accept that the sins of a past government justify atrocities being committed by the current one.
“I need to be objective and know that [the TPLF] made some missteps,” he said. “But those missteps were never enough to justify an active genocide and the extermination of a group of people.”
One ugly interaction that Tadesse had in Oakland earlier this year with a fellow Ethiopian left an especially harmful mark and conveyed the depth of the rift. When the man approached her on the street to ask where she was from, Tadesse replied that she was from Tigray. “He looked at me and he did the thumbs down. And then he said, ‘You guys are gonna die every week, Tigrayans are gonna die,’” said Tadesse. “He’s walking away and he’s screaming that at me.”
But things like that are the exception, not the norm, Tadesse said. “We’re very lucky in the Bay Area because the Ethiopian community doesn’t actively try to come out and counter-protest us. So we don’t have to have a face-to-face interaction. And when we do, we just try to be as civil as possible.”
Seeing and moving past the immediate anger and pain to reach a place of dialogue, said Ambachew, will not be easy. But younger members of the diaspora, he believes, can play a role.
“To really fundamentally change the future of Ethiopia, if we’re going to find a solution out of this, we need people from every part, every ethnic group, to extend their hand and reach out and try to communicate with each other,” he said. “That has to begin as a part of reconciliation, and facing the problems that we face.”
This article was updated on July 27 and on Aug. 1, 2022.