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Arts and Letters

Wellspring of Peace

Understanding Ethiopia's Tigray War

Martin Plaut and Sarah Vaughan
Hurst, pp. 392, $34.95


In the icon I brought back from Adwa, Tekle Haymanot stands on his left leg, his arms cradling a cross and a Bible, his body flanked and canopied by wings. His right leg sits in the foreground by itself. It looks like he’s removed the leg on purpose, in order to shock us with its display, not unlike my middle-school shop teacher, who would detach his prosthesis and wave it in the air whenever we stopped paying attention.

It is said that Tekle Haymanot was so devoted to God that he spent years continuously praying while standing up. This angered Satan, and so he took Tekle Haymanot’s right leg. The monk barely noticed and went on praying on just his left leg—planning even to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Debre Damo, an ancient Ethiopian monastery in the Tigray region. This too angered Satan, and so, when Tekle Haymanot began his descent from Debre Damo, whose high plateau is accessible only by rope, Satan cut the line.

I went to Debre Damo in 2013. To get there, you have to hike or hitchhike about ten miles from the main road before coming to the rope that takes you up to the plateau. My wife and I were teaching for the Peace Corps close by in Adwa, and my friend Josh, who had talked us into joining the Peace Corps a few years earlier, was visiting. He had read about Debre Damo in a travel guide, and I was up for the challenge, so we filled a few backpacks with water bottles and granola bars and set off before dawn in a minibus.

We stopped the bus at a sign that marked the dirt road to the monastery and hiked for about an hour through the dry plains and jagged hills, which are typical of the region. Eventually, a van stopped and offered us a lift. A Tigrayan woman currently living in Minneapolis had rented the van to make a pilgrimage to Debre Damo. But since women aren’t allowed near Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries, she had also commissioned a cousin to come along and climb the rope to collect a few jerrycans of holy water. We made it to Debre Damo before noon. It was just starting to get properly hot when we said goodbye to the lady from Minneapolis, took off our shoes, which are not allowed on the plateau, and climbed—or, rather, were hauled up—the rope.

The monastery at Debre Damo is important apart from its association with Tekle Haymanot. It was founded in the fifth century by Abuna Aregawi, one of the nine Syrian saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. Its relics, manuscripts, and other religious artifacts are among the treasures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its architecture is said to synthesize the ancient Axumite tradition with the Christian Byzantine tradition imported by the nine saints.

Much of this was lost on me at the time. Before making the trip, I’d read only the paragraph on Debre Damo from Josh’s travel guide. I had spent a year in Adwa, and I spoke pretty good hotel and restaurant Tigrigna, but I couldn’t carry on a conversation with the monks about history. Though a devout Christian, I knew very little about Ethiopian Orthodoxy, which seemed to get only more mysterious the more I was exposed to it. Still, while standing barefoot and looking at Abuna Aregawi church set high above the dusty plains, I was struck by the monastery as being a fundamentally peaceful place. Here was a place where men came to separate themselves from the world and humble themselves before God, a place where things were ordered as they should be. It seemed like I’d discovered the wellspring of peace that fed the rest of Ethiopian society. When my neighbors offered profuse declarations of peace by way of greeting or issued blessings of peace at the end of coffee ceremonies, they were talking about this peace, the peace of Debre Damo.

We went back down the rope. Josh and I put on our shoes and set off down the dirt road, which was now abandoned. I hadn’t been paying attention to landmarks when we’d come in with the van, and the sun was pretty much directly overhead now, so I wasn’t sure which way would take us south to the main road.

Over the course of our friendship, Josh and I had gotten lost in a variety of places: Cleveland, Chicago, New York, forests in Indiana and British Columbia. In each case, we followed the same tacit protocol—take stock, pick a direction confidently, and don’t admit that you’re lost until you’ve made it home. I saw a group in the distance and, figuring that they too were headed south, followed them. We walked for some time before we came across an old woman coming towards us on the road.

“Excuse me, Mother,” I said in Tigrigna, “where is the asphalt road?”

“My poor white sugar!” she said. “The road is the other way—you’re almost to Eritrea!”

My hands came up to the top of my head. Josh looked at me, confused. “Did she say ‘Eritrea’?”

“Yeah, we should probably turn around.”

The Eritrean border sits about ten miles north of Debre Damo. We couldn’t have been within five miles of the border yet, but according to the Peace Corps, this was much too close. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war from 1998 to 2000, which had ended in a prolonged cold war. During this period, the border was a common site of kidnappings and host to a remarkable density of land mines.

Shortly after we passed the monastery on our journey back, a truck full of soldiers heading south took us down to the main road. We caught a minibus back to Adwa and made it home at around sunset. By dinner it all seemed like ancient history, and Josh and I were able to tell my wife about that time we got lost near the Eritrean border.

Debre Damo was an early casualty in the recent Tigray War. According to reports from Eritrea Hub, a blog run by the veteran B.B.C. journalist Martin Plaut, the plateau was bombed for hours by Eritrean soldiers on January 11, 2021. Though Abuna Aregawi church and the monks gathered praying within it were miraculously spared, everything else—all of the monks’ homes and possessions and an older monk who was in his home when the bombing started—were decimated. The Eritrean army thought the monks were sheltering soldiers of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. After the shelling, they inspected the plateau and, finding no enemies, left.

The attack on Debre Damo doesn’t enter into Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, the book Plaut co-wrote with Sarah Vaughan and published just this spring. It’s understandable. When placed in the full context of the war, one atrocity among many, the attack begins to look minor. According to Plaut and Vaughan, the war had three main stages. The first, lasting from November 2020 to November 2021, saw an initial surge by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces into Tigray followed by a long counteroffensive. The T.P.L.F., the party that long controlled the government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, had been slowly marginalized after Meles’s death in 2012 and then largely eliminated from national politics after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s election in 2018.

In November 2020, the T.P.L.F. held elections in defiance of Prime Minister Abiy and Ethiopia’s central government. In response, Abiy began what he described at the time as a quick, strategic invasion of Tigray to root out T.P.L.F. leaders and unite the country. What actually followed was a terrible spasm of indiscriminate violence, featuring massacres and the use of rape as a weapon of war. In just a few weeks, the Ethiopian government’s troops—allied with their former enemies from Eritrea—seemed to have won the war, but the T.P.L.F. regrouped and eventually repelled them. Then the T.P.L.F. slowly advanced into the region of Amhara. They pushed further and further south, almost reaching Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. With the T.P.L.F. at its doorstep, the Ethiopian army regained control, using a new fleet of drones to drive the rebels back into Tigray.

After a year of fighting, the T.P.L.F. controlled most of Tigray, but were hemmed in by Ethiopian troops to the south and east and Eritrean troops to the north and west. The second stage of the war, from November 2021 to August 2022, primarily took the form of a siege in which Tigray’s internet, telecom, and banks were shut down while trade and international aid were stopped by Ethiopian and Eritrean blockades.

With both sides exhausted, the Ethiopian government and its allies crushed the T.P.L.F. in the war’s third and final stage. There was intense fighting from August to November 2022 which concluded with a peace deal favorable to the Ethiopian government. Prime Minister Abiy ended up getting what he wanted: the destruction of the T.P.L.F. and control over the Tigray region. The price exacted by the war, though, was staggering. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were displaced within Ethiopia and as refugees in Sudan. Plaut and Vaughan cite scholars at the University of Ghent who hypothesize that, along with tens of thousands of combatants, over six hundred thousand civilians died from fighting and starvation. If those numbers are correct, about one in ten of the people living in Tigray was killed over the course of just two years.

No political group in the Horn of Africa emerges from Plaut and Vaughan’s telling of the war looking good. The T.P.L.F. failed to meet even its most basic objectives and, in reckless pursuit of these objectives, provoked the mass slaughter of its constituents. Like the T.P.L.F., other insurgent groups in Ethiopia lack a coherent plan for replacing the current government. And the current Ethiopian and Eritrean governments almost certainly committed war crimes.

The book also documents the failure of international authorities. In 2019, for instance, the Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the Peace Prize for improving Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea—an act that, in retrospect, looks like mere preparation for the massacres of 2020. When international authorities were more clear-sighted, they were still ineffectual. Foreseeing, in 2021, the famine and starvation that would be caused by the siege of Tigray, Martin Griffiths of the United Nations urged the Ethiopian government to end its blockade and “get those trucks moving.” In response, the government denied that there was a blockade and expelled U.N. workers from the country. Once the trucks finally got moving in 2022, it was so hard to find fuel in Tigray that they kept running out of gas.

Against this bleak backdrop, what are the hopes for a true and lasting peace in Ethiopia? Given Plaut and Vaughan’s analysis, reconciliation seems to require some institution that lands in a kind of middle ground—transcending regional political differences while maintaining sufficient authority within the country to prompt real changes. It’s my prayer that the Ethiopian Orthodox and (much smaller) Ethiopian Catholic churches could occupy this middle ground to bring about peace. And, indeed, one gap in Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War is that Plaut and Vaughan ignore the church’s role in Ethiopia’s deeply religious culture.

Ethiopian politics need not work in the way Plaut and Vaughan describe it—as nothing more than a naked power struggle between Amhara, Tigray, and Oromia. The church, which spans each of these regions, ought to be able to speak for the common good and direct followers to achieve this common good. There were glimmers of this during the war. Orthodox Patriarch Abune Mathias and Catholic Bishop Tesfasellassie Medhin separately issued statements condemning the war that were crucial—given the Ethiopian government’s lies and the dearth of journalists covering the war—to alerting the outside world of the real state of things in Ethiopia. These statements, Abune Mathias’s in particular, would also have carried more moral weight within Ethiopia than statements from the United Nations, European Union, or United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (to list a few examples of international authority that Plaut and Vaughan cite). The church, as a part of Ethiopian culture without being reducible to it, is better situated than an entire cavalcade of Western N.G.O.s to act as a counterbalance to ethnic, will-to-power politics. Even more importantly, it has the theological resources to offer a compelling definition of peace.

If the church is to be an instrument of peace in Ethiopia, it will need to overcome internal divisions. It’s worth noting that Abiy’s government has encouraged the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to become increasingly factional. Tigrayan bishops are currently alienated from the Holy Synod and refuse to normalize their relations because of the role some Amhara churchmen took in driving the conflict. It’s unclear exactly how the Tigrayan bishops could be reconciled, but it would seem to require bishops outside of Tigray to apologize and make some reparation for the atrocities of the war—something that would set them against Abiy, who has consistently ignored, or at least minimized, the gravity of the war when speaking publicly. Meanwhile, to the south, Oromo nationalists have split with the Holy Synod and named their own bishops, a move that Abiy’s government has supported, making it illegal to protest the schism.

Though there are undeniable barriers to the Ethiopian church rising to meet the challenge of promoting peace, it’s unclear to me what other institution exists that can produce peace and reconciliation in the region. And there is reason to hope. After all, as Saint Paul tells us, God’s peace is one “which passeth all understanding.”

I sometimes wonder what it is like to fall from Debre Damo. I imagine that, after briefly seeing his shadow on the rock and feeling the rope go limp in his hand, Tekle Haymanot reeled backward and looked up into that unrelenting blue, which is the uniform of Tigray’s dry season. He could see no clouds, no birds, just a single shade of blue, slightly muddled by the heat rising from the rocks below and filling his cloak with the wind as he fell. He wouldn’t have had much time to speak, but what would have sprung to his mind? In that situation, I might spend my final moments rehearsing a brief theodicy—how could a good God have let this happen? Tekle Haymanot, though, his mind shaped by decades of continuous prayer, would doubtless have thought differently, the expanse of the sky calling to mind a prayer to Saint Michael or, perhaps, words from the Canticle of the Three Holy Youths: “Blessed art thou, O Lord God of our fathers: and to be praised and exalted above all for ever. Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven: and above all to be praised and glorified for ever. O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.”

As he fell, Tekle Haymanot is said to have undergone a transformation. It must have felt like the wind catching in his cloak had grown suddenly less intense. Upon realizing this and wondering why he hadn’t yet landed on the rocks, Tekle Haymanot moved his gaze from the sky to see that his shoulders had sprouted giant, bird-like wings. I imagine his brother monks gathering to watch him circle the monastery in vast ascending spirals and then shoot into the distance, vanishing at the northern horizon as he sped towards the Red Sea and Jerusalem.

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