Welkait: The Redline that cannot be crossed in Ethiopia – By Wassy Tesfa

When looking at the Senate and House bills, HR. 6600 and S. 3199, that are currently being pushed through the US Congress, and the discussion about the conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), there is an area in Northern Ethiopia that is central to the discourse. It is one of the main reasons for the protracted and unending nature of the conflict, yet it is not referenced in the bills. This is the region that encompasses Welkait, Tegede and Tselemt.

The area was quietly and methodically annexed to the Tigray region by TPLF during their three decades in power to create the artificial construct of “Western Tigray”.

It is the ancestral home to the Amhara who have documented evidence that they resided there for a millennia. Also, more recently, interviews with both Prince Ras Mengesha, the grandson of Emperor Yohannes of Tigray, and TPLF’s leaders Aregawi Berhe and Gebre Medhin Araya, have verified that there is no question that this geographic and strategically important region belongs to the Amhara and the land beyond the Tekeze river where this area lies was never Tigray.

This large region bordering Sudan and Eritrea is rich in farmland and resources. The TPLF has systematically and brutally tried to erase all trace of Amhara ever living there. The identity, history and cultural makeup of the Welkait was forcibly transformed by the TPLF. Moreover, many thousands of Amhara were displaced, killed and imprisoned.

When TPLF was defeated following its failed coup attempt in November 2020 it withdrew back to the borders of Tigray proper. On its way, through Welkait, it killed and looted, targeting mostly Amhara. Somewhere between 500-1200 civilians were massacred in Mai Kadra as they sought refuge in neighboring Sudan. When former Ethiopian Dictator Meles Zenawi and the rest of the TPLF leadership were fighting the military dictatorship DERG in the 80s it is through this area their weapons came from the Sudan, Egypt and other sources. So, for the TPLF, annexing Welkait is a simple matter of resource. Welkait is not only home to the Amhara but it is central to the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. While the TPLF continue its efforts to declare independence and tear the country apart, it is critical this region is protected as Ethiopian sovereignty.

Throughout Ethiopia’s very long history people from Tigray came and worked and even settled in Welkait living in harmony with the local Amhara, and indeed there are people who are dual language speakers of Tigrigna and Amharic. But the population of the area before the TPLF took over and the last open census that was done showed more than 80% of the population were Amhara with only 6% from Tigray. When we look at the latest census data these numbers have been changed to reflect that the overwhelming majority of the population is of Tigrayan origin. Even if the number of the census are inflated to favor TPLF, this begs the question what happened? How can the demographics of a whole region be so drastically changed in such a short period?

Below are the methodical and systematic actions taken by the TPLF during its 27-year rule to try and erase the Amhara out of Welkait. The plan to do this was agreed even before TPLF came to power. It was mapped out in the greater Tigray aspirations of the TPLF which incorporated the annexation of this area.

  1. The systematic killing of Amhara people as soon as the TPLF took power. The most drastic of this incident was the rounding up of Amhara boys and men over the age of 13 who were thrown into  holes (called “Gehaneb”, hell), either killing them with bullets or smoking them to death so the “bullets would not be wasted”. Recently some of these mass graves have been dug out by members of the University of Gonder, and the fossilized remains of these men and boys were recovered. It is estimated that this was the fate of 50,000 people.
  2. Forcefully impregnating Amhara women, one Tigrayan man was to impregnate at least 5 Amhara women. This policy was carried out by forced marriage or rape of Amhara women.
  3. Linguistic and cultural domination was carried out by changing the official language from Amharic to Tigrigna so Amhara children would grow up speaking Tigrigna while at the same time the history of the area was rewritten. Meanwhile, the elders who were the sustainers of culture and history were killed so they could not pass on history.
  4. Amhara’s were forcefully removed from their homes and lands by levying exorbitant taxes so people had to give up their land or business, and finally, Amhara’s were officially kicked out by being told this is Tigray you have to leave. Most of the displaced people went to Gonder, and other places.
  5. Demographic engineering was further conducted by mass resettlement of Tigrayans into the area from Samri, Shere, Tambien to change the ethnic heritage of the populace.
  6. Ensuring that the area becomes isolated from the rest of Ethiopia and the world by not allowing any NGO’s, investments nor journalists into the area while they “cleaned up” so there are no witnesses to their crimes.

The TPLF had 27 years to refine their transgression and implement their macabre plan. But what remains encouraging today is that the people of Amhara have managed to keep Welkait within its ancestral borders. No matter how aggressively the TPLF has tried to take back Welkait, it has not been able to since they were kicked out in November 2020.

All peace-loving Ethiopians are very much looking at and waiting for Prime Minister Abiy’s administration to disclose the plans for this region (Welkait, Tegene, and Tselemt) post-conflict. I believe like most Ethiopians; it will continue to stay within its ancestral borders for Amhara, this issue for me is non-negotiable.

I also believe the process of unifying Welkait and the whole region has already taken place by the fearless people residing there and only needs to be ratified by the Abiy administration. There has been enough delay that is feeding all kind of speculations as to where the government stands on this issue. The Abiy administration should expeditiously and unequivocally lose all officious blockades to expedite the solution. Budgetary resources should also be made available through the Amhara Regional or Federal administration and not held back because of bureaucracy. I would like to note that PM Abiy’s government reported as they spent over 100 billion Ethiopian Birr to support the recovery of Tigray after its first round of law enforcement operations. On the other hand, the people of Welkait were forgotten for nearly 18 months. The lack of resource going into Welkait is very demoralizing for the inhabitants and makes them feel unwanted. This needs to be resolved. Welkait has basic needs that cannot wait until the constitution has been revamped or until the national dialogue is conducted. People live there, children need to go to school, health care should be available as well as food and shelter.

As I write, the TPLF is mobilizing its forces for the final battle, its international allies have already started the false propaganda. The truth is the ethnic based violence in Welkait was against the Amhara who were killed, displaced and denied their culture and whose history was almost eradicated.

Wassy Tesfa is a leading member of AEPAC and Vice President of GLEAN