(ETHIOPIA) — As chaos envelops Kabul after Afghanistan’s government collapsed and the Taliban seized control, horrific stories and heartbreaking images also pour out of Ethiopia. Some in the U.S. with a connection to the African country are feeling a call to action.
In Washington, D.C., home to the largest concentration of Ethiopians in the U.S. and the largest Ethiopian population outside Africa, there’s an intense debate over the war and who’s at fault.
“Tigray is part of Ethiopia. Tigrayans are Ethiopians until they decide otherwise. So any war, any suffering in Ethiopia, should be a pain to everybody,” Assefa Fisseha, a man who fled the country 20 years to begin a new life in America, told ABC News.
In Fisseha’s homeland, within the northern region of Tigray, millions are caught in the middle of civil war between Tigrayan defense forces and the Ethiopian government.
Each side has been accused of atrocities throughout the conflict, with systemic rape and starvation used as weapons of war, according to the United Nations, senior U.S. officials and monitoring groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Roads, bridges, hospitals and farms have been destroyed, exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe, according to aid groups.
But information can be hard to come by. Internet outages by the Ethiopian government have disconnected families inside and outside the country for days, weeks or even months at a time, according to Internet monitor NetBlocks.
With over 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa. The conflict has left thousands dead and displaced roughly two million people in Tigray, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
“On the ground, what I’m really seeing is just hungry people there, people are extremely paranoid and protective,” Leoh Hailu-Ghermy, who made a two-day trek to the region to deliver supplies and aid to refugees, told ABC News.
Hailu-Ghermy is one of the voices in the movement to end the war many activists call a modern-day genocide.
Earlier this month, more apparent victims of the atrocities in the brutal, 10-monthlong civil war washed up on a riverbank in neighboring Sudan. Fifty bodies were believed to be Tigrayans from a nearby village, according to The Associated Press.
There have been reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual assault by Ethiopian government troops, according to Amnesty International.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. has seen “acts of ethnic cleansing,” but stopped short of calling the atrocities genocide — a specific legal term in international law. The Ethiopian government has fiercely denied such accusations.
“It’s really heartbreaking to see that people’s livelihoods can be stripped away from them in such an unfair way and that the world wouldn’t care because of the geography of that place or because of the race of those people,” Hailu-Ghermy said.
Just last week, the Biden administration called out the Ethiopian government for obstructing humanitarian aid, including convoys, saying aid workers will run out of food this week.
In May, President Joe Biden issued a lengthy statement, calling for a ceasefire, negotiations to halt the conflict and an end to human rights abuses, including the widespread sexual violence.
The Biden administration also tapped a special envoy for the region to push for a diplomatic solution — and fired a warning shot at the Ethiopian government, a critical U.S. partner, by imposing limited sanctions.
In May, the State Department said it imposed visa bans on officials from Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea — whose military crossed the border to fight Tigrayan forces. Because visas are confidential by law, it did not say who was impacted but the U.S. Treasury slapped financial sanctions on Monday on General Filipos Woldeyohannes, the chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces, accusing his forces of massacres, looting, rape, torture and extrajudicial killings of civilians.
Hailu-Ghermy and other advocates say they are looking for more action.
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed was once seen as a popular reformer when he came into power in 2018, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-long war with neighboring Eritrea. His election unseated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia politics prior to his administration, and tensions between his federal government and their regional leaders exploded into conflict last November.
“Now that the conflict has been ongoing for several months, it produces its own logic. And so every atrocity, every retaliation begets another retaliation and unfortunately, another atrocity,” Aly Verjee, a senior adviser to the Africa program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told ABC News.
Tigrayans celebrated when Abiy declared a ceasefire in June, but now their forces are on the offensive and Abiy responded with a call for all capable citizens to take up arms and join the fight to show patriotism.
“Ethiopians at home and abroad, your motherland calls upon you. History has shown that there is no force that can stand in our way when we say no more,” he said in a statement.
Analysts fear the conflict will spiral further out of control, putting hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine and potentially spilling over borders to Ethiopia’s neighbors.
“Let’s not forget that the reason the majority of Ethiopian Americans are in the United States is because, at one time or another, there was conflict in Ethiopia. Let’s not see another generation of Ethiopians feel that they have to leave the country because of conflict,” Verjee said.
ABC News Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.
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