On Saturday, hundreds of protestors marched from Yesler to Broadway, demanding swift action to prevent hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans from starving to death at the hands of the Ethiopian government. Despite over a year of demonstrations, many speakers at last weekend’s event said they felt all but ignored by every level of government, the media, and public discourse, especially compared to the recent outpouring of support for Ukraine.
"We are happy they are helping Ukraine – we actually had the Ukraine flag in our demonstration – but the same attention is required for Tigray and we haven't forgotten that,” said Maikele Mengesha, a Tigrayan who has lived in Seattle for 30 years.
Mengesha and the Seattle Tigray Network (STN) began protesting Ethiopia’s Tigray war soon after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Nov. 4, 2020. The Ethiopian government imposed what the United Nations calls a "de-facto blockade" in July 2021, which for months has restricted aid deliveries to 10% of what is needed in Tigray. In a strategy to starve out the resistance, the Ethiopian government has pushed 80% of Tigray’s population into food insecurity, up from about 15% before the war broke out, according to U.S. officials. Recently, the Ethiopian government announced an “indefinite humanitarian truce” in Tigray to allow relief supplies into the area.
Still, on its Instagram STN posted that half of the region’s population could starve to death in the next month without swift action. Similarly concerned, the head of the World Health Organization said that “nowhere on earth” is the health of millions under greater threat than in Tigray. (Though Yemen is certainly up there, too.)
But as all eyes watch Russia continue to bomb and kill Ukrainian civilians, STN noted a more energized response to the conflict in Ukraine than they ever saw for Tigray.
Even though Tigrayans struggle halfway across the globe, Mengesha said the war is a Seattle issue. After all, according to the Seattle Times, Seattle is home to one of the largest Tigrayan populations in the country, and Tigrayans in Seattle have not been able to contact their families in the war-torn region for over a year.
Both the city and the county signaled solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The county flew the Ukrainian flag outside of the County Administration Building. On April 4, the Mayor, the County Executive, and more than 30 mayors from around King County hosted a benefit concert to help raise money for Ukrainian refugees in Europe, as well as refugees in King County. I looked for such hubbub for the war in Tigray, but, simply put, I could not find it. I wrote to city, county, and state agencies to ask about the local response to the war and I will update if I hear back.
We're flying the Ukrainian flag today at the King County Administration Building in support of the people of Ukraine and our local Ukrainian community.
King County is home to 20,000 people who identify as Ukrainian, including 12,000 people who immigrated directly to the U.S. pic.twitter.com/hrx4KdFpVG
— King County, WA (@KingCountyWA) March 10, 2022
But the support – or lack thereof – is more material than a bunch of blue and yellow flags in Twitter bios. The U.S. has spent about $660 million aiding the Tigray region throughout the entire 17 month-long war. Less than a month after Russia began attacking Ukraine, the U.S. spent $1 billion to support Ukraine, for a total of $2 billion to the country since the start of President Joe Biden’s term.
“Nancy Pelosi will send emails asking for campaign donations – I’m thinking, ‘I won’t send you money when you let people over in Tigray die of hunger,’” Mengesha said, adding that STN demands that Congress pass the Ethiopia Stabilization, Peace, and Democracy Act.
This isn’t the first time that the global community has ignored conflict in Africa while aiding victims of war in Europe. In 1994, the U.S. let people in Rwanda starve under siege for over a year, but later quickly organized to help out in Kosovo. President Bill Clinton later apologized for the selective interventionism, saying guilt from his inaction during the Rwandan genocide inspired the quick response for Kosovo.
“They apologize. They say, ‘never again,’ but we have been under siege for 17 months,” Mengesha said. “They ignore Africa. It’s chronic.”
Even as Seattle, the country, and the world watch Russia’s war in Ukraine with bated breath, STN will continue to fill the city’s streets with red and yellow until leaders take action to stop the Ethiopian government from starving Tigray.
“We’re going to keep going. We don’t have any other choice,” Mengesha said.