A N.H. activist is speaking out about the war in Tigray, Ethiopia: ‘This is your responsibility, too’
This month marks two years since the civil war broke out in Ethiopia, with troops from the Ethiopian government and surrounding countries deployed to attack the northern Tigray region. Since then, a UN led investigation has found evidence of ethnic cleansing, massacres and sexual violence. Famine-like conditions are widespread.
All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa spoke with Samrawit Silva, an activist who was born in Tigray and lives in Concord, who has been speaking out about the conditions in her home country. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Julia Furukawa: Samrawit, you're from Tigray and you still have family there. Can you give us an idea of what the conditions are in the region right now?
Samrawit Silva: I can try. Obviously, or for those who don't know, Tigray has been in a complete blackout, so there's a lot of unknowns, but things that are for certain: I have my mother, I have my siblings there that I'm not able to talk to. So, Tigray is currently facing one of the world's longest Internet shutdown. Hunger is being used as a weapon of war. Sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war. Medicine is not able to get to the people and so already there's 600,000 Tigrayan civilians that have been killed, including my family members. It's been called the world's deadliest war, basically "Hell on Earth," as the director of the [World Health Organization] called it.
Julia Furukawa: As someone who exists - and I'm talking about myself right now - in a world [where] news is constantly evolving and it's constantly a part of my life, I feel like I hear stories every day about the war in Ukraine. I feel like I have not heard the same level of coverage of the war in Tigray. Do you think that this blackout, this Internet shutdown, where people are not able to communicate with the outside world, has something to do with it? Are there other factors?
Samrawit Silva: That definitely has a huge role to play because the Ethiopian government knows that if [Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] can keep Tigray in the dark, then all the horrific things that are happening, if it were to come out, I think the world would be like, they would have nightmares to come. And so that's a part of it, is the fact that independent journalists are not allowed in. But also there's that factor that the people that it's happening to are Black. And just to be very blunt about it, that plays a really huge role. And I know people can say maybe it's proximity, it's because it's happening in Africa, but there are people that live far away from Ukraine that still know about it, that still care about it, that have compassion for people that look like them. And we have heard reporters using very problematic words, but being honest and saying, these are blue-eyed, blonde-haired children. These are people that you could imagine living next to. These are civilized people. So everything that's happening in Tigray, if it was happening in a European country and it was happening to white people, I wholeheartedly believe that the world would have a stronger reaction. And we've seen this because what's happening in Ukraine, it's so devastating. I speak out about it. I stand with the people. But what's happening in Tigray, 600,000 people, civilians killed, and the majority of the world either doesn't know it or they don't care or they don't feel like it's their responsibility. And it comes down to the skin color. For me and for many others, we feel like the world is continuously showing us Black lives don't matter.
Julia Furukawa: You have helped organize some demonstrations to raise awareness about what's been going on in Tigray. Can you tell me about those?
Samrawit Silva: Like throughout all of the U.S., [members of the] Tigrayan diaspora have been getting together and putting together demonstrations for two years straight. In New Hampshire we had one…Boston, Vermont, California. Every single state in the U.S. has had demonstrations, multiple demonstrations, and they look different. In the beginning, we were doing a lot of marching and that was starting to spread awareness. But we needed more people that maybe might not be on the streets to hear us. So people would do interviews, either within U.S. media outlets or outside of the U.S. media outlets as well. More recently, we've upped our demonstrations because we peacefully marched on the streets for two years, and people still are not hearing us, they're not feeling us. And so we really are trying to do more civil disobedience. So we've shut down multiple highways throughout the U.S. now, and that's gotten a lot more coverage. And obviously it's not convenient for people, but like we say, traffic can wait, Tigray can't wait. People are being starved to death. They're dying from lack of medicine. And we want to tell people, hey, this is your responsibility, too. This genocide that's happening, you should care.
Julia Furukawa: You mentioned that you've organized some demonstrations in New Hampshire. What can we do?
Samrawit Silva: At this very moment, it's still raising awareness. But more than that, once you are spreading that there's a genocide happening, we need to reach our local officials. So we have two Ethiopia peace bills that are in Congress that we need everyday citizens to care, to push these politicians to take action so that we'll get unfettered humanitarian access as well as there are opportunities to donate. So there are organizations that are working on getting medical and humanitarian aid to the people. Also, seeing what your skills are. If you are a school teacher, you could be advocating for the schools that were bombed, just relating it to yourself and really using everything in you to try and help the people. If you're a therapist, you know, there's a lot of mental health within the diaspora, within your own community. Like me, myself, I've struggled with depression, not being able to talk to my mother or my losing family members left and right. And it's not just me. There's so many, even just in the diaspora that are dealing with that. And then on top of that, once Tigray is opened, being able to offer your services to the people. I just want to remind people that these are not just numbers. Like we say, over half a million Tigrayans have been killed, but that's our family members. And so I just want people to be able to attach the numbers that they're reading with the faces and the stories and the heartbreaks that come with all of these people that are being killed for absolutely no reason other than their ethnicity.