by Ronnie Estoque
“Stop bombing Tigray! Stop the genocide in Tigray!” chanted members of Seattle’s Tegaru Community as they gathered for a candlelight vigil at Westlake Park on Christmas Eve. The memorial gathering served to honor those killed in the recent civil war that has displaced an estimated 1 million in Tigray, a northern region in Ethiopia. The event was organized by the Tigrean Community Center and the Tigray Youth Association.
Fighting broke out on Nov. 4, after the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuseded the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of ambushing a federal military base. According to AP News, more than 45,000 Tegaru refugees have fled to Sudan, where they have taken shelter in crowded camps with no COVID-19 testing or treatment facilities.
The pandemic has made the holidays extra difficult for families that are disconnected by distance, but for many Tegaru living in Seattle, the inability to even contact their families back home in Tigray has made it an intensified season of uncertainty and fear.
“We haven’t talked to our families; we haven’t been able to communicate with anyone in the last 52 days,” said Helen Gebregiorgis, an Ethiopian American from the Tigray Region who helped organize the event. “I don’t know where my family is.”
Earlier this year in January, Gebregiorgis opened up her own medical clinic in Tigray, the Five Angels Health Center. Since coming back to Seattle in August, she is unsure if her clinic is still standing, and whether patients and staff are able to utilize the space she had built for her community back home. She’s worried they may have been killed or had to flee due to increasing regional violence because of the war.
“Right now we’re speaking up for those people who can’t speak up. … This is genocide,” Gebregiorgis said. “Not being able to sleep and not being able to talk to your family; it hurts. This is the only way we can come together.”
Nahom Kahsay, who is one of Gebregiorgis’ cousins, also helped organize the candlelight vigil and led many of the chants in the native Tigrinya language.
“I am here to show respect and commemorate the innocent lives that are lost because of the war going [on] back home,” Kahsay said. “He’s [Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] been bombarding our cities; he’s been killing innocent lives.”
Kahsay believes that intervention from the international community is necessary to end the war being waged against Tigray and that more awareness of the situation in his home country needs to be raised. He noted that the lack of communication lines, electricity, internet, bank services, running water, and medical services in Tigray has dismayed him.
“The next Rwanda is happening in Tigray right now, and unless they [U.N.] intervene right now and stop this mad prime minister and president, millions are going to be lost because we’ve already lost thousands,” Kahsay said.
Kahsay believes the war was initiated due to recent elections in the Tigray region and opposition from the federal Ethiopian government. He also stated that Ethiopia has over 80 ethnic groups and that many in the Tigray community feel that the war is an attempt to assimilate minority ethnic groups in the country into one nationalized cultural group.
Bereket Kiros, board member of the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees, and Communities of Color, also spoke at the vigil.
“International humanitarian rights must be respected and protected across Ethiopia,” Kiros said. “We, the Tigrayan-Ethiopian community in Seattle, strongly condemn the declaration of the federal council of ministers’ state of emergency in Tigray region and the bombing against innocent Tigrayans.”
The Tigray Women’s Association in the Central District has been collecting children’s clothing and over-the-counter medications to send to Sudan where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 50,000 Tegaru refugees have sought safety. Those interested in donating to provide humanitarian assistance can also donate to this fundraiser organized by the Tigrai Development Association.
“I just want to let my people in Tigray know that we will always be beside you,” Gebregiorgis said, with the sound of Tegaru chanting for justice in the background.
Ronnie Estoque is a Seattle-based storyteller and aspiring documentarian. He is driven to uplift marginalized voices in the South Seattle community through his writing, photography, and videography. You can keep up with his work by following his Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image by Ronnie Estoque