“One day, very soon, this silence is going to be so deadly and people will not be able to carry its weight anymore.”
One of the more insidious aspects of state violence and genocide lies in the lengths perpetrators go to silence and ignore victims. Worse still is that survivors must contend with the obstinate indifference of the wider world even as they speak out.
The conversation below—between a Tigrayan survivor of war, a Kashmiri scholar-activist evading Indian state surveillance, and myself, a Sri Lankan Tamil trans woman and journalist who grew up in the United States—attempts to challenge these dynamics. The Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces have perpetrated atrocities in Tigray, including mass killings and weaponized rape, not unlike their Indian counterparts occupying Kashmir. By discussing their experiences, both interviewees demand recognition and solidarity for their communities’ struggles.
Located on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Tigray has been caught in a vicious pincer assault by both countries’ armed forces. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spearheaded this attack in hopes of crushing the region’s historic calls for self-determination and keeping the Ethiopian state consolidated under the supremacy of the Amhara ethnic group.
“Tsinia’t,” a writer from Tigray who has repeatedly had to conceal his name, joined this conversation after witnessing this gruesome endeavor firsthand. Under the Amharic pseudonym “Mister Sew,” he documented how the groundwork was laid for a manufactured famine (a brutal repressive tactic used throughout Ethiopia’s history) and how even burying loved ones killed by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers has become grounds for extrajudicial execution. Tsinia’t means “to persevere” in Tigrigna.
The Indian military has occupied the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir for more than 70 years. Despite having their territory divided between rivals India, Pakistan and, later on, China, Kashmiris have long demanded respect for their right to self determination. Following armed uprisings in the 1990s, India’s response to Kashmiri aspirations became especially brutal. The state of constant siege has made Kashmir the most militarized place on Earth.
Indian soldiers in Kashmir have total impunity to abuse the population. Below, “Bint Ali,”—a scholar-activist from Jammu and Kashmir who is also using a pseudonym to protect herself from the Indian government—explains that the military presence, the New Delhi government’s repeal of the territory’s limited autonomy, and laws enabling settler colonialism represent a mandate to seize Kashmiris’ land and wipe away their identity.
While Tigray and Kashmir are both geographically distant from each other, they both face settler colonial violence. Could you explain the broader history of the violence Tigrayans are facing now?
It goes all the way back to the way the Ethiopian state was made. The Ethiopian state is, I would say, an empire, and the Ethiopian state was also a colony. Not a white colony, but a Black-on-Black colony. The current borders of the Ethiopian state were made by colonizing the people in the southern part of Ethiopia, for instance the Oromos, and the people from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s region (SNNPR) who make up about one third of Ethiopia, and the more than 50 ethnicities in that region.
It [is similar to] the Europeans coming and colonizing the rest of Africa, it’s just this one is a Black-on-Black colony.
Abyssinia, or the highlands of Ethiopia, has a long history. And the lowlands, the other southern parts of Ethiopia, have their own civilization and their own history as well. But when Ethiopia as we know it today was established by Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century, the Neftenya system was [introduced]. In the Neftenya system, the people from the highlands, specifically from the areas of the Amhara, would establish themselves as landlords and would basically enslave the native people in the southern parts of Ethiopia to do their work. And the native people would till the land and give [the landlords] the whole yield. As tillers, they could get one third of the yield.
Tigray was part of the highlands, part of the former Abyssinia. So, it’s not one of the regions that [was] subjugated by the Neftenya system. But Tigray, despite coming from this part of Abyssinia, recognizes the right of self-determination or the right to rule oneself, because Tigray has been an independent state for close to 3,000 years.
This is where the clash with the Ethiopian colonizers comes because the colonizers want an Ethiopia that is in the image of them, that speaks the Amharic language, that has the Ethiopian culture. And this was actually very well recognized by the socialists—many of whom were Amhara—and by the leftist movement within the student movement around the 1960s and 1970s. So, resisting colonization was also part of the movement. By 1991, there were 17 armed groups that wanted to secede from Ethiopia and form their own nation or form their own state.
Tigray’s strong sense of self-rule was considered a setback to the formation of Ethiopia as a nation-state with one language and one culture. This is the root cause of the conflict.
How has the government of Abiy Ahmed continued this agenda of creating a consolidated Ethiopia under the auspices of Amhara supremacy?
Very good question. So, Abiy Ahmed is actually Amhara. His mother is from Amhara. His father is from Oromia. But more than his ethnicity is his actual line of thinking—Abiy Ahmed is infatuated with the idea of becoming an emperor and, like Menelik or Hailie Selassie, he wants to be a king. He doesn’t want nations that want self-rule, that want classification of power between federal and regional states. If it was about ethnicity, the Oromos would have accepted him.
But most Oromo intellectuals are against him because Abiy Ahmed represents everything that they fought against, everything that was undone by the 1974 revolution. The student movement that I mentioned, in the late 1960s and 70s, had two fundamental questions. The first one was the land to the tiller—they wanted to undo the Neftenya system so there would not be any landlords and the tiller should own the land. The second one was the question of nations and nationalities. Nations and nationalities should be recognized and should have the right to express themselves in their own language. They express their culture and rule themselves. This is the right of the nations and nationalities.
So, Abiy Ahmed wants to roll this back, all these gains, and take us back to 1974. That’s why the Oromos are also against him because his ideology is more in line with the empire of Ethiopia than an Ethiopia that recognizes its citizens, that recognizes that there are 80-plus nations and nationalities inside [Ethiopia] now.
Do you see parallels between the story of Tigray and the story of Kashmir’s refusal to be incorporated into the Indian Republic, and also its history of fighting for self-determination that goes back to resisting British colonialism in the 19th century and beyond?
So, Kashmir wasn’t ever directly ruled by the British. The British did however sell us to the [Dogra dynasty].
But, of course, there are a lot of similarities. What really hit me was when [Tsinia’t] was talking about land to the tiller in Tigray because, in Kashmir, we have something similar. It was brought into place around the 1950s by Sheikh Abdullah, and Kashmiri people love[d] him for that. The older generations because they were poor and they were tilling this land for the landlords, for other people, and they were barely getting anything for themselves. Everybody in Kashmir owns some kind of land now and it’s because of that land-to-the-tiller act.
First and foremost, it’s not just the land that [India wants] to take away. It’s not just the land that the Indians want. It’s also an assault and an attack on our very ethnic and indigenous identity. They want to change the names of our places, they want to turn us into something that we are not. They want us to forget our language and basically mold us into something, but not Kashmiris. They want Kashmiri land but they don’t want Kashmiri people. They want to make Kashmiris into something else—maybe more obedient, maybe [so] the resistance in them is not alive anymore.
Looking at the things that keep changing in Kashmir every single day and the level of oppression that people are under, I honestly have to refresh my Twitter to see if any news is coming out officially, [if] any Kashmiri is tweeting anything. There is hardly anything at all, because all of us have been silenced. But does that mean that we have been put into this mold and made into something else? No, absolutely not. As much as I feel hopeless, I know that one day, very soon, this silence is going to be so deadly and people will not be able to carry its weight anymore. They are going to burst and that will bring out some change and that would be something that India cannot handle. That’s where resistance comes in.
If you look at the history of Kashmir, we have not had a single ruler for many years. We have been ruled by Hindus, by Sikhs, by Mughals—there have been so many different rulers in Kashmir but everyone’s kingdom came to an end. And so will this. India’s and Modi’s regime may come to an end at some point—it’s not me telling you this but the history of Kashmir that will tell you this.
One very striking similarity between the war in Tigray and India’s state violence in Kashmir is the use of information blockades and communications shutdowns. I was wondering if the two of you could comment on how you have navigated those restrictions and how they have affected your political activity.
When [people] think about internet [and communication] blackouts in Kashmir, 2019 immediately comes to their minds, but [blackouts have] been happening ever since we had telecommunication and ever since we [got] internet. Internet became common in Kashmir in 2008. It was literally right around that time that internet blackouts also became common.
I think in 2001, or sometime around then, phone networks were not working. You couldn’t even send an SMS to somebody, you know? There was no internet those days in Kashmir, just mobile phones to call and text people.
In the 1990s, when people started revolting against Indian rule, many Kashmiri men would cross the border, go to Pakistan, get armed training as well as guns, and come back to try and fight the Indian army in Kashmir. I did not see [women] as a part of it when this whole thing was going on. And then this [arm]ed resistance sort of faded around 1996. It wasn’t over, but it did definitely fade. Organizations sort of surrendered their leaders.
But in 2008, when this discourse of Kashmir—this discussion of Kashmir wanting freedom and Kashmiri people resisting—came into online public spheres, onto Facebook and Twitter, women and men were fully a part of it. They started talking about resistance and what it meant to them. And people actually started organizing on these platforms. Somebody would be killed somewhere, and there would be a call on Facebook—“Assemble here, there’s a protest.” And you would see huge protests in Kashmir in 2008, 2009. For example, if a local rebel would get killed in an army fight, thousands of people would attend the funeral.
There was a little bit of space for that kind of dissent. There was a little bit of space for protest. There was a little bit of space for at least mourning and expressing your grief. And that was completely, completely taken away from us in August 2019. India basically monitored everything—how Kashmiris breathe and eat and sleep, they monitored it and they came up with ways to stifle Kashmiris in each and [every] possible way.
You know, it’s interesting what technology does and how it makes you feel. I was in Kashmir that August. I literally remember waking up into this kind of absurdity and hollowness. I suddenly felt like [I was] thrown into some kind of a black hole, you know. I couldn’t locate myself, I couldn’t map myself, where I was and what I was supposed to do. And there was absolute silence everywhere because it was not just the communication, it was that there was a complete curfew. You couldn’t go outside your home. You didn’t know what was happening just one mile away in your friend’s or relative’s home. People died and their relatives and immediate family wouldn’t even know. So all that trauma gets triggered when I start talking about it, and in that time I even had to leave my home and go abroad and study. And for months to come I had no idea if my family was alive, and they had no idea what I was doing.
Internet bans still happen in Kashmir. Just two weeks back the internet was banned for a week in most areas in Kashmir. I mean, this is heartbreaking. We didn’t even have internet to download directions and guidelines for [what we were] supposed to do in this COVID pandemic. What is the pandemic, how [are we] supposed to keep ourselves safe? There were no resources. Forget about watching a YouTube video telling you how to be safe or how to clean your stuff. The pandemic as well as the existing lockdown in Kashmir was a deadly combination. It hampered people’s lives.
The worst part is the level of censorship we face. We really don’t have platforms and avenues to go and tell our story and say these things. Many places don’t want to publish [anything] about this. They’re like, “Oh, we don’t like to publish about Kashmir because it’s very controversial.” Isn’t this your responsibility?
In spite of all this violence and this intense, intense censorship that we are going through, no one else is speaking when it should be their prerogative. If I can’t speak about Kashmir right now you should be talking about it! If Tsinia’t can’t talk about Tigray right now using his name, I should be talking about it! We have to take up each other’s cause! Only then can we sort of achieve this ideal and this future of global justice where we imagine communities not living under occupation and war anymore.
What about the impact of the Ethiopian state’s information ban around Tigray?
Tigray has been in communication blackout for more than 100-some days now. This is retaliation for Tigrayan victories in June 2021.
When they started the war in November 2020, they blocked the power. They turned off the internet. They turned off communication like telephone and everything. Because of this, most people don’t have enough batteries on their phones to record atrocities. That was a deliberate strategy starting [in] November when they were moving in. And then in the last 10 months they continued with this. This deliberate strategy was part of the genocidal act.
Rape was used as a weapon of war, where soldiers were, in an institutionalized manner, encouraged to rape women. More than 22,500 women, according to the United Nations, [were] raped. You know that if one woman said that she [was] raped, there are at least 20 that [aren’t] in the report, so we can multiply the numbers.
Besides that, there are atrocities. More than 250 massacre sites and 250 massacres have been recorded so far by the University of Ghent, even with all these communication blackouts. So, you can imagine that if there is no communication blackout, this number would skyrocket.
There is also now a man-made famine in Tigray. All the yields of the farmers were destroyed, deliberately destroyed. Anyone that was found farming was shot, especially by the Eritrean soldiers. Now they have closed Tigray, put it under a Gaza-like siege, and are not allowing humanitarian aid to go into Tigray. In the last 86 days, there were 900,000 people under famine-like conditions. That’s almost a million. Out of the Tigrayan population, 91 percent needed humanitarian aid to survive. So you can imagine after 86 days of blockade, where only 5 percent of the food that was needed for this 900,000 to survive was allowed to come in … 5 percent of 900,000 were allowed to survive, basically. The other 95 percent were doomed and condemned to be killed by starvation.
What is making this worse is the communication blackout. There is no internet, there is no telephone, [and] even the United Nations cannot move food because they don’t have fuel. Fuel is not allowed either. So people are killed in darkness by starvation, and death by starvation is the worst of its kind. You are dying a very slow, excruciating, painful death. This is what the genocide has come to.
The world cannot see this because the world cannot see Tigray because it’s in complete blackout. Not only internet, not only telephone, but also power, banking, fuel, everything. Places that were lively are now quiet. People that are well-to-do, even if you have 1 million birr in the bank, you can’t use it. You will starve to death because there is no banking service because all the money is locked by the Ethiopian government. I have friends that are well-to-do in the capital city of Tirgay, Mekelle. They are starving and I cannot help them. I wish I could send them money. How can I send them money? There is no banking.
In relation to [the] communication blackout, you can’t even speak about this because you are blocked. You’re in darkness. The world only gets to hear about this cruelty through information that’s trickling out.
In the piece you wrote for Ethiopia Insight, you noted that people were being killed for trying to bury the dead. I was wondering if you could comment on the impact of this sort of disruption of grief as well … not even just destruction and darkness, but you can’t even mourn.
This is not accidental, where a disgruntled soldier wouldn’t allow you to bury, for instance, your daughter [who] was killed or your father [who] was killed. This was actually a policy, especially by the Eritrean government—they wanted to break the morale of the people, they wanted to subjugate them—[that if] they killed someone inside your house, they wouldn’t allow you to bury them. You’re supposed to live with the body that’s smelling for days, and they come daily and check whether you bur[ied] it or not. So …
They actually check?
Yes, they come and check—that’s why I’m saying it’s not an accident. If it had been a onetime thing, you would say it’s maybe some barbaric commander. No, it’s institutionalized. They come and check whether you buried that body or not. And they want you to live with that body because they want to traumatize you. And they want to subjugate you. You are not allowed to mourn. You are not allowed to bury your dead. They make sure that they leave someone to live, to be traumatized. When they leave them, it’s not out of kindness. It’s out of hate … out of the need to make them suffer.
The funny part is that it didn’t actually subjugate the people of Tigray. It made them much more resilient, much stronger to fight back.
[In the] recent agriculture study from the University of Ghent that I told you about, they found out that the number of people that joined the resistance corresponds to the amount of cruelty that was committed in a given village. For instance, in one small village, 13 people were killed. So every youth in that village went and joined the resistance.
They tried to subjugate us, but the more savagery that they showed, the more atrocities that they committed, the stronger the resistance became, the stronger the will of the people to fight to death became.
The detail is … is sickening but I also think what you’re describing … obviously, there are many mass graves in Kashmir.
I was wondering … going to Kashmir, [Bint Ali] if this at all reminded you of the Indian state confiscating the body of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the use of enforced disappearances?
Honestly, I’m still processing the details. And I’m so sorry. Of course, saying sorry is not enough. I wish these awful and horrendous things were not happening. But it’s also heartwarming that people are resisting and not just bending down to what’s coming their way.
In Kashmir, sexual violence has been used against men and woman. Men have been tortured, sodomized, [and] forced to masturbate in front of each other. And then women have been raped and entire villages have been raped, like Kunan Poshpora in the 90s. The men were rounded up outside and all the women were raped, from eight-year-olds to eighty-year-olds. And they are still seeking justice! India, in fact, never acknowledged that the Indian Army did this.
Another thing in Kashmir is, of course, enforced disappearances, which leave behind families or half widows or children or parents. It’s absolutely disturbing. Then people end up in these mass graves. Two years back, an organization in Kashmir called Jammu Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society, [came out with a] study that found out [that] there were so many hundreds and hundreds of mass graves where unidentified people were buried. And the man who was responsible [for burying] them in this far-flung village in Kashmir, he had kept like bits and pieces of whatever they were wearing as, you know, their identity. Families literally live the rest of their lives in trauma and go in search of these people who have been disappeared, [hoping] they’ll find them somewhere. So this man had kept those small, small things, maybe by which their families would identify them. That guy also passed away, may his soul rest in peace.
Another thing is how India controls bodies that are dead. [I]n [the] case of a lot of other local rebels who were killed by the Indian Army, and even this year teenagers who were killed by the Indian Army, their bodies were not returned. They were not rebels. They were literally taken away from their home and then killed … . And then India says, “Oh, they were militants. That’s why we killed them.” Or, “We don’t know how they got killed, et cetera, et cetera,” to label civilians as militants and all these things. They were juveniles, and their families were mourning.
Not that [the families] expected any justice—they just wanted the dead bodies. They just wanted closure, to bury them themselves with their hands. The right of mourning, the right of burying bodies has been taken away from Kashmiris. And recently we saw it in the case of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, may Allah have mercy on him. But it has been happening all along with the bodies of so many other Kashmiris. They get buried in very, very, very remote areas of Kashmir so that the families can’t even reach there.
Is there a way you can see Kashmiris and Tigrayans developing bonds of solidarity? What would you say for people outside of these respective communities who are interested in seeing justice done for those who have been violated and in supporting liberation from these oppressions?
You can start with the reports from Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. They have reported about the weaponized rape, about the massacre scene in Axum, where there was a massacre during a major religious holiday. But the funny part is that while they were massacring [people] on that very day, they had live transmission saying that everything was fine from the city. People were interviewed at gunpoint, forced to say that everything is fine. This is from one of the reports from Human Rights Watch and from Amnesty as well. There are also reports about the use of food as a weapon of war. You can find this from OCHA reports from UN [and] Human Rights Watch. And from World Food Programme reports.
About massacres, University of Ghent has an Atlas of the humanitarian situation in Tigray. It has [well documented accounts of] atrocities. This is what they can find on satellites. Of course, a lot of reports from CNN, about one incident where soldiers were killing for pleasure—soldiers killed people and [threw them off] of a cliff, and they are recording it and are laughing about it. Because it’s a genocide. They have dehumanized people, so killing them has become fun already. These are reports from CNN, from [the investigative journalism site] Bellingcat, from the BBC.
There are so many resources, and everything is online. If somebody wants to learn about what is happening in Kashmir, a lot of human rights–related work is on the website of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, and then to make it easy for you[rself you] can just go to the Stand With Kashmir website. They have put together resources, lists of books, and [a] syllabus that you can actually read to be educated about Kashmir. And then you can follow credible voices from Kashmir.
People who come out for different causes, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Palestine liberation, should also come out for lesser-known causes like Kashmir, like Tigray, because there cannot be peace in the world unless there is peace in these less-known regions. And as much as I pray for Palestine every single day, and Inshallah I hope Palestine will be free, I also pray for other regions of the world. They do not have to be Muslim regions or Muslim countries, it is just that we really need to bother about other causes.
[O]ne good thing about talking about issues and bringing different people together is [that] it does help. We start these conversations among ourselves. As much as we need solidarity from the rest of the world, we need solidarity from each other. Because we would understand each other’s pain way better than somebody who has [not] actually lived it. And there are so many of us, so if we join hands, we can actually change the course of action, we can actually change our present. So, it’s very important for all of us to have solidarity between each other and then the rest of the world to have solidarity with us.
Thank you both so much for your time and for spotlighting these resources.