When a tremendous bang on their front gate woke them up in the middle of the night at their house on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, the family realised what had happened.
Police officers barged into the house without a warrant, searching the living room and beneath the mattresses for evidence. Among those taken into custody were a 76-year-old amputee who was dragged from his bed as his sons pleaded to be allowed to take his position in the procession of the family.
Ethiopians belonging to the Tigrayan ethnic group have been picked up and arrested in large numbers in the capital and elsewhere in recent weeks, maybe hundreds of thousands of people.
Ethiopia’s prime leader, Abiy Ahmed, has been conducting a bloody campaign against Tigrayan insurgents in the country’s northernmost area for the better part of a year and a half. Until Mr. Abiy took over the Ethiopian government and army in 2018, Tigrayans had held sway over the country’s political and military institutions for decades. However, since the beginning of the battle, the Tigrayans have beaten the Ethiopian army in Tigray, surged south, recently conquered two major cities, and threatened to push on the Ethiopian capital city.
Those of Tigrayan origin have been targeted in roundups since the government announced a state of emergency on Nov. 2, despite the fact that many of those targeted had no links to the rebels or even a sense of affection for them.
They have been apprehended on the streets, in their homes, and even in their places of employment — including banks, schools, and shopping malls — and detained in overcrowded cells at police stations and detention facilities, among other places.
The authorities have targeted Tigrayans based on a variety of signals, including their surnames, personal information included on identity cards and drivers licences, and even the way they speak Amharic, Ethiopia’s native language, among other things.
According to information supplied by the police, human rights organisations, and opposition parties, the campaign of arrests, which has also targeted members of several other ethnic groups, has swept up individuals in cities around the nation. Ten United Nations employees and 34 subcontracted drivers have also been apprehended, according to reports.
In addition to the ethnically driven detentions, there has been a substantial increase in online hate speech, which is simply adding gasoline to the civil conflict that is ripping apart Africa’s second-most populous country. Reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing, and widespread sexual assault by all sides in the conflict have cast doubt on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of Ethiopian unity, which he promised when he came to power more than three years ago. Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has promised to bring Ethiopians together.
Increasing economic pressure from the Biden administration, which has slapped sanctions on Mr. Abiy’s military supporters in neighbouring Eritrea and barred Ethiopia from duty-free access to the United States market, seems to have only fueled Mr. Abiy’s desire to continue the battle.
TPF sympathisers were detained, according to police authorities, who said they were targeting supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the country’s previous dominating party, which Ethiopia now considers to be a terrorist group.
The state of emergency laws, on the other hand, according to activists, are so vague that they offer security personnel free discretion to do anything they want. Upon “reasonable suspicion” that a person is collaborating with terrorist organisations, the rules allow for the search of their house or their arrest without the need for a warrant.
Many ethnic Tigrayans have expressed concern about leaving their homeland. It was almost unanimous among those who consented to be interviewed that they did not want to be recognised by name for fear of being jailed or facing reprisal.
Some Tigrayans in and around Addis Ababa have claimed that they are living with non-Tigrayan acquaintances in order to avoid being arrested. Several others said that they had ceased using the Tigrinya language in public places and that they had removed any music or papers from their smartphones that would have identified them as belonging to a certain ethnic group.
According to human rights organisations, police stations in Addis Ababa are so overcrowded with inmates that the authorities have transferred the excess to strongly guarded improvised facilities, which include youth entertainment centres, warehouses, and one big jail. Some relatives of inmates have said that they would not attend these institutions because they worry they may be jailed as well since they do not have access to attorneys.
Digital activists, notably Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower, have long alleged that the social media platform fails to censor abusive inciting speech and content. As public criticism mounted, Facebook removed a message by Mr. Abiy earlier this month in which he urged residents to “bury” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Many Tigrayans are concerned that it is just a matter of time until they are apprehended and deported. One businessman, who paid a $400 bribe in exchange for his release, said that officials informed him that they would return for him.