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Op-ed: Victory by Tigray-born athletes at World Athletics should put more spotlight on Tigray siege


From left: Gudaf Tsegay, Gotytom Gebreselase and Letesenbet Giday. Pictures: compiled from Getty Images/World Athletics

By Seife Gebremeskel @seifgebre

Addis Abeba – In an extraordinary win in its history of athletics, Ethiopia bagged a total of 10 medals, including four gold, four bronze, and two silver at the 18th World Athletics Championship of Eugene, in Oregon, USA. This put Ethiopia second only to the United States in the overall medal table. Competing under Ethiopia’s name, Three of the four gold medals and one of the silver medals are won by Tigrayan athletes. Letesenbet Giday prevailed in women’s 10,000m, Gotytom Gebreselase grabbed the women’s marathon, Gudaf Tsegay triumphed in women’s 5,000 m, and a silver medal in women’s 1,500m.

Under normal circumstances and in a nation where everyone equally belongs to and shares the pain and gains, such impressive achievements would have been a reason for national celebrations. It would be cherished as excitement that binds every citizen. Under normal circumstances, the winner belongs to all and identifying the winners by ethnicity might not be necessary. These past years however have been anything but normal in Ethiopia.

Since November 2020, Ethiopia/Tigray has been the scene of the world’s deadliest conflict. Ethiopia is now full of killing fields. The proxy for war between the government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray regional state began with a political dispute between the federal government and Tigray with Ethiopia’s decision to postpone the regular election under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic and Tigray’s decision to hold its elections on September 9, 2020. Tigray viewed the election postponement as an illegal act by the government in Addis Ababa to extend its grip on power beyond its mandated term. This dispute eventually escalated to armed conflict on November 4, 2020. However, there are indications that the war’s preparation started well before November 4, 2020. The war also broke out during what the United Nations, at the time, called the “worst locust swarm in 25 years”.

Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia have also been subjected to arbitrary arrest, thrown into Nazi-type concentration camps and their businesses confiscated

For the past 20 months, the war has caused unimaginable suffering to the people of Tigray. Over 500,000 Tigrayan civilians have been killed, more than 2 million are internally displaced, over 6 million need urgent humanitarian aid, 70,000 became refugees in Sudan, and about 400,000 are in famine-like condition. Women and girls in Tigray were targeted for rape and other sexual violence by Ethiopian troops & forces aligned with the Ethiopian government. Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia have also been subjected to arbitrary arrest, thrown into Nazi-type concentration camps and their businesses confiscated. Tens of thousands of Tigrayan members of the federal armed forces are thrown in prison due to their ethnicity. Tens of thousands still remain in concentration camp detention [Guardian]. Ethiopia and its allies have deliberately destroyed and looted Tigray’s infrastructure, agriculture economy, schools, and health care system.

In 2021, while on a trip to Ethiopia, the then European Union Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that Ethiopian officials told him that “we are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” What happened and continues to happen to Tigrayans in Tigray and throughout Ethiopia in the past 20 months corroborates Mr. Haavisto’s statement. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in February of 2021, also told the US House Foreign Affairs Committee of ethnic cleansing being committed in Western Tigray by Ethiopia federal forces and Amhara regional militia. A large body of evidence, including well-researched reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watches, points to ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray & gross human rights violations throughout Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia by Ethiopia and its allies.

Tigray has also been under deliberate blockade by Ethiopia and its allies. It remains under blackout and communication, electricity, and banking services have been deliberately cut, and access to humanitarian aid has been blocked for the past 20 months.

It has been almost two years since Tigrayans at home and abroad—including those athletes who participated in the World Athletics Competition in Eugen, Oregon— heard from or saw their loved ones. The cry for unimpeded access to humanitarian aid and the lifting of the Tigray siege by the international community has been echoed without success since the start of the war in November 2020.

Against this backdrop, this year’s world athletics competition took place, and Tigrayan athletes participated, representing Ethiopia. It is not hard to imagine the feeling of the Tigrayan athletes: a mix of pride and agony. Pride because participating in such global events is the childhood dream of any world-class athlete and the fruit of the labour of hard work and sweat to reach the pinnacle of the sport. The agony lies in the thought of a once peaceful and thriving Tigray deliberately turned into a war zone, atrocities, and starvation, all created by the Government of Ethiopia and its allies. Gotytom Gebreselase’s post-victory interview in Eugen, Oregon sums up the feeling well: “I am happy for the win but have mixed emotions. I would have liked to hear and see my mother and father celebrating just like all Ethiopians. The win was great, but I am also a little confused.” She expressed these feelings while under the watchful eyes of those who monitor Tigrayan athletes at the competition. Gotytom’s mother also expressed similar mixed feelings; she felt sad because she could not talk to her daughter but was happy about the win. The parents of Letesenbet Gidey also echoed the same sentiment mentioning that they had not heard from or seen their daughter for two years due to the blockade.

The government in Addis Abeba and its officials are exploiting the victory for political purposes and reconstructing a false narrative around it rather than addressing the serious concerns of the athletes, their families, and the people of Tigray

Days after the world athletics events ended, authorities have yet to allow Tigrayan athletes to directly speak to their families in Tigray by phone/video call or seem to not have any plan to let them travel & visit their loved ones in Tigray. It is also apparent that Tigrayan athletes do not have the freedom to express their feelings about the current situation. In one instance, an Ethiopian athletics official had clearly silenced Gudaf Tsegay from responding to a question at a press conference.”This question is not good for us,” the official said before he whisked her away.

The government in Addis Abeba and its officials are exploiting the victory for political purposes and reconstructing a false narrative around it rather than addressing the serious concerns of the athletes, their families, and the people of Tigray. The regime frames the win as something unique to Ethiopians to show the world that they love Tigray and Tigrayans–as their dear fellows Ethiopians. It presents the narrative that Ethiopians only hate the TPLF, that the conflict is with the TPLF, not the people of Tigray. As the world knows well, the 500,000 civilian Tigrayans killed, the millions displaced from Western Tigray, and tens of thousands kept in concentration camps across Ethiopia are not TPLF. They are just ordinary people who happened to be Tigrayans. The victory is also being exploited for domestic politics to rally the public for another military adventurism, in what the regime calls a “repeat of the athletics victory in the war front to keep the national unity”. Tigrayans and other marginalized communities know very well they do not feel the unity; rather, Ethiopia victimizes everyone, including its world-class athletes.

The government in Addis Abeba is determined to keep Tigray under siege, out of sight of the world and in perpetual darkness until Tigray is annihilated. For example, on Tuesday, July 26, 2022, the president of MSF, Espagna Paula Gil, said she was not granted permission by Ethiopian authorities to visit Tigray and pay tributes to the three MSF staff killed last year. This suggests that it will be long before the athletes are allowed to travel to Tigray to visit their loved ones. A deliberate siege compounded by rising food prices creates a perfect storm for a major humanitarian disaster in Tigray. The famine-like situation in Tigray is the product of a war whose goal is the complete annihilation of Tigray. The enemies of Tigray have laid siege, cutting Tigray off from the rest of the world to erase it from public consciousness.

The results of Tigrayan athletes, their agony, and the suffering of their families should bring much attention to the ongoing siege on Tigray. One of the blessings of the extraordinary achievements– apart from the pure joy and excitement it gave us – is the opportunity to bring the war, displacement, and destruction to the forefront of media attention. This is what sport and athletics excellence can do. In a recent interview with VOA-Amharic, athlete Gotytom said that “if there was a phone connection to Tigray, I would have called my mother first. Still, because of my win, at least I saw her face on a video of an interview she gave.” Gotytom’s words demonstrate the cruelty of the siege on Tigray that even athletes are denied the opportunity of sharing once in a lifetime joy with their loved ones. The achievements of Tigrayan athletes at the 18th World Athletics Championship have certainly cemented their place in the history of the sport. The win also put once again the Tigray siege on international attention and, surprisingly, helped at least the athletes and their families see and hear each other over recorded videos.

The international community and the sporting family should capitalize on this opportunity to put maximum pressure on the government in Addis Abeba to permanently lift the siege and allow unimpeded access to Tigray as well as restore all services.

Let Letesenbet, Gotytom, Gudaf and other athletes from Tigray travel to their homes and celebrate this once-a-lifetime achievement with those who gave birth to them, raised them with purpose, and helped shape their greatness. AS






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