Ethiopia: The Bogeyman Gets Smaller

After months of being overlooked by the Western media, TPLF soldiers make a cameo… And neither they nor the reporter can impress.

I don’t know about you, but I feel that this war is missing something. It’s got moral indignation, alleged and sadly real atrocities, it has the unintended surrealism of Alex de Waal mourning lost and very fictional fruit, and it has the sheer buffoonery of Tigrai Media House’s Stalin Gebreselassie believing that bullets can shoot through tanks. But something’s missing… Something, I don’t know…

Oh, yeah. Actual fighting.

Keep in mind that when this whole thing began last November, we heard the expression “battle-hardened troops. ” We heard so often from reporters and crisis merchants about the TPLF, their “battle-hardened soldiers,” etc. that I was beginning to wonder who was getting hardened. You recall the Western media was positively salivating over the prospect of war and expecting a nice, long one.

And yet, despite the constant, relentless barrage of stories alleging everything from mass rape to the looting of church relics to now, the supposed use of white phosphorus, you hardly, if ever, see a story in the mainstream news about the TPLF guerrillas themselves.

As I’ve commented before, this must be by design, because it would undercut the whole victim narrative, and that narrative itself has evolved. First, it was about protecting civilians (despite starting a war that put them at risk), then came the allegations of sexual-based violence, and now we get everything from accusations of looted relics to today’s outrage du jour, alleged traffic in organ harvesting.

Got to push those donor buttons, kids. Got to stoke those fires.

But at the same time, the TPLF and their keyboard warriors would like everyone to believe that the Tigray Defence Force is almost invulnerable, their victory inevitable. Ethiopia’s bogeyman is out there.

If you show the Tigray Defence Force actually fighting, however, Western reporters — who already brazenly root for you as plucky heroes fighting for independence (instead of noticing you’re a bunch of ragtag terrorists) — might start to switch on their brains on and ask some very inconvenient questions.

Like the ones I want to ask now. Because surprise! Someone seems to have dropped the ball and let a correspondent for Radio France Internationale, Sébastien Németh, interview a TDF cell.

Having worked in radio and TV news as a reporter, talk show host, and producer (this was back in the Jurassic Age), I can appreciate that stories will be short. Because attention spans of listeners and viewers are short. But even allowing for brevity prompting you to deliver just the broad strokes, Németh’s report has problems. Whatever the length, the story should have substance.

Well, we don’t get that. Németh’s most important source is a Colonel Mabratu, who declares, “Even if they have tanks, we are ready to fight with our bare hands, because we are fighting for our freedom.” Another interview subject, Biniam, says, “Federal soldiers have arrived. They killed children, elders, mothers. They gathered residents into houses and set it on fire. We do not have the choice. Rather than staying at home and being slaughtered, you have to fight.”

These are not interview quotes — they’re recruiting slogans.

Another guerrilla, Halami, says, “Hospitals were destroyed, there were drug shortages, and [his father] died. All of this is planned to kill the Tigrayans.”

Why do these blanket statements go unchallenged and without even any context provided?

The soldier is suggesting hospitals (which ones?) were deliberately destroyed, rather than perhaps being accidentally hit in the regular course of war. He says there are drug shortages, which don’t have to be deliberate either in a war. We know this because duh, the entire world has drugs shortages right now over Covid. Instead, Halami echoes the party line of #TigrayGenocide.

But you’d expect a reporter to follow up with: “Whose plan? Do you think it’s the government’s plan or do you think of other ethnic peoples as your enemy? The Amhara or the Oromo, etc. Who? But that doesn’t happen.

Németh is with a TDF cell, and yet he apparently has no hard questions at all for his subjects. It’s understandable that he doesn’t give a specific location for where the cell is — that’s a natural part of the deal, in the same way that embedded American reporters were expected not to give away coordinates when they tagged along with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But surely, we could be told about one of the cell’s recent victories. What kind of opposition did they run into? How big were the Ethiopian units, and what did they think of their enemy’s fighting capabilities? Nope, don’t get any of that either.

Mabratu is supposed to be a career soldier. Where did he serve? Does he have any regrets in terms of betraying his former comrades-in-arms?

Was he there when units attacked troops of the ENDF, and did he take part in killing soldiers in their beds or hacking off the breasts of female soldiers?

Can he confirm that TDF units stole Ethiopian army uniforms, both from the Northern Command stores and from the bodies of the thousands slain following the TDF’s brutal attack on them?

Can he confirm they sometimes use the stolen uniforms to pass themselves off as their enemy? Even if Mabratu refuses to answer, mentioning that the question was asked would tell us something.

In fact, Mabratu makes the seemingly innocuous comment that the guerrillas steal the federal side’s equipment. What kind of equipment? Is it simply military equipment or perhaps other things as well?

Because I wonder why virtually the entire Western media, with blind stupid faith, accepts photos that purport to claim Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers looted facilities, shops, etc. when we have an admission right from the horse’s mouth that the guerillas steal?

We’re told Halami “has never been a soldier.” Okay, how does he feel about killing? Then there’s Biniam, a 37-year-old former civil servant, and he says there’s no choice but to fight. Interesting language. Is it possible that he’s fighting under duress? That he could face the same brutal fate as the ENDF Northern Command soldiers did?

We don’t know, because this question doesn’t seem to have been asked.

Assuming he’s a genuine true believer, he was once a guy behind a desk, and no matter how justified he may feel his war is, aiming an AK-47 assault rifle at someone and pulling the trigger is going to change you. Has he killed anyone yet in combat?

Moreover, if Németh is well connected enough to go interview a TDF cell, why can’t the big guns at the TPLF steer him towards a unit that can explain major things to us? I, for one, would really like to hear their defense of their conduct at Mai Kadra on November 6.

And there are some very interesting things that Németh’s story leaves out.

He does not ask about child soldiers — nor does he comment at all on the youth of the guerrillas. To be fair, maybe this cell had guys all in their twenties to forties, so maybe it was a non-issue. But here was the perfect opportunity to ask. Do you have kids fighting in other units?

Notice what else is missing? We just had wall to wall, round-the-clock, carefully managed shock and awe over the alleged use of white phosphorus — still without even a shred of damn proof and only the opinions of a couple of experts in the Telegraph story. I’ve already written up how there’s a bad smell to this reportage, and it’s not from the chemicals.

But remember what we were told in that Telegraph story? Their very words were that white phosphorus “can be used legally to illuminate the battlefield at night or to provide tactical smoke screens.”

But the guerrillas in this story have nothing to say about that.

Check the RFI story. Colonel Mabratu mentions, “We are launching attacks at night.”

He does not mention any of his men getting injured by white phosphorus or even that it poses a tactical obstacle in their skirmishes.

Now don’t you think that if the Ethiopian army regularly used an incendiary chemical, the guerrillas would have faced it? You think the army would just waste it on decimating civilians but not use it against the TDF? And if so, wouldn’t some guerrillas have suffered injuries from that and mention it?

Okay. Let’s give Németh some credit. This story was published on May 23. Brown and Kassa’s Telegraph article was published the very next day, May 24. Németh obviously was in the field with the guerrillas at least a couple of days ago, so he couldn’t know about the allegations of chemical weapon use. But —

In his story, the guerrillas tell us hospitals have been destroyed. One tells us, “They killed children, elders, mothers. They gathered residents into houses and set it on fire.” Notice, by the way, they don’t say, “I saw a hospital set on fire,” or “I saw soldiers gather residents into a house and set it on fire.”

The story reads,According to experts, the gravity of the crimes reinforced Tigrayans’ sense of injustice and led to recruitment among civilians.” But you don’t need the experts because you have TDF guerrillas right there to ask!

And aside from one guy whose diabetic father died from a drug shortage, there seem to be no personal tragedies that directly inspired them to join the fight. They are clearly giving us the information about hospitals and houses second-hand.

More importantly, we’re told “the rebels” get “food and clothing donated by the community.” Mabratu claims, “To communicate, we go through the population, because this war is also theirs.”

Well, communication runs both ways. So again, if the Ethiopian Army made regular use of a chemical weapon on the civilian population, wouldn’t the TDF guerrilla units be the first to know? In fact, wouldn’t they have it on the list of the war crimes they mention to Németh?

But. They. Don’t.

Colonel Mabratu is convinced he’ll win, and the RFI print story ends with “According to several experts [we’re not told which ones], the war could still last for months or even years and only a dialogue could end the conflict.”

Hey, these wouldn’t be the same experts who bragged about battle-hardening, would they?

The experts, whoever they are, are also being disingenuous. As every Ethiopian knows, the Abiy government, elders, mothers…every sort of respected societal representative in Tigray begged the TPLF to engage in dialogue before the conflict, and they weren’t having it. They didn’t suggest dialogue themselves until they tucked their tails between their legs near the end of last November.

It’s interesting as well that RFI doesn’t bother at all to quote an Ethiopian army officer or official in Addis for balance.

I can give you two reasons off the bat for how we know the war is going very badly for the TPLF. One is that we have increasingly shrill and desperate pitches for intervention from the trolls on Twitter and their media allies. Such pleas and manipulations will continue for a while because sanctions won’t force Abiy to a negotiation table, and they do nothing to help the guerrillas squatting in caves. In the story, one guy complains that he’s been wearing the same underwear for months. The goal has never been to bargain in good faith. The goal behind the steady online diet of fake atrocity is to feed the TPLF army.

But the other reason their war is going badly is that we haven’t heard a lot of bragging of late. Debretsion Gebremichael, after all, is the very person who undermined the Axum Massacre story because he sent text messages to Reuters, boasting his army had taken Axum on the days it was supposed to have happened. As I’ve pointed out, he either lied then or he lied later. In January, BBC and Reuters were happy to be the megaphones for Debretsion as he vowed to fight on. But where is he now? In fact, where is ol’ Yoohoo Mulugeta? Ethiopia’s bogeymen keep shrinking…

Unless you subscribe to the online newsletter of the Europe External Programme with Africa, you’ll search for ages to find a story that talks in detail about a guerrilla victory or even combat engagements. And as I’ve mentioned before, you can’t trust the EEPA’s numbers, especially when the TDF won’t share their own figures on dead and wounded.

The Western experts — who keep getting it wrong and further eroding their own credibility — seem to forget that even if there is a residue of sympathy for the TPLF in Tigray itself, ordinary people sooner or later will realize that the infrastructure the guerrillas are destroying is their infrastructure. When the TPLF steal aid supplies (and that has already started and is getting under-reported), they are stealing from them.

When the Patriot heroes attacked railway trains and other targets of the Italian Occupation in the late 1930s, the ordinary people had no real stake in that infrastructure. The Italians, after all, had built the roads for themselves, not them.

But the TPLF left Tigray to starve before it started this fight, and even though it managed to con the rest of the world into thinking the fault lay with Addis Ababa, Tigrayans are not stupid and can notice who’s feeding them now. People need power. And the Internet. Lying that the government was the one who deprived them of these things can work for only so long, because it’s the government who keeps fixing these networks and giving them back.

Of course, the TPLF are talented magicians. And magic relies heavily on misdirection. They have called on members of the audience — in this case, the U.S., UN, WFP, etc. — to come up to the stage and help them make things disappear: their own war crimes, aid packages, and now, all of their forces.

A TPLF news release was put out today that claims: “…the TPLF never maintained an army after the demise of the Derg regime thirty years ago… the TPLF has no army of its own.”

If you stop a moment and listen, you can hear the bitter laughter at this nonsense ringing all the way across the Horn.

After all, here is Kjetil Tronvoll a full year ago: “Historically it has been the Tigray militia that has been the strongest in numbers and battle-hardened…” And he made a point back then of quoting Alula Hailu of Salsay Woyane party: “The new generation of soldiers are not brainwashed. Therefore, they are nationalists, not TPLF’ites. You do not have to be a party member to be recruited. They are not joining to save the TPLF, but to defend and save Tigray.”

If political affiliation wasn’t a factor or relevant, why go to such great pains to discuss it? Nobody bought this foolishness then, and nobody with a brain buys it now. The lie of “we never had an army” will be hard one to sell given that the U.S. and UK spent millions on arming and training the TPLF for years.

So, after all the shouts of slogans and screams about everything from Russian mercenaries to white phosphorus, what about the actual fighting? Which is what we asked about in the first place.

Federal sources have their side of the story, too — that would be the one that keeps getting left out of the Western mainstream reports. And it runs like this:

The situation in Tigray is much quieter than CNN would like us to think (I recommend a great drinking game in the future; count how many times Nima Elbagir says Tigray is “besieged”). Most civil service workers are back in their jobs, as is a good majority of the regional police force. Humanitarian assistance is working very well, despite the breakdown in communications between UN offices in Africa and New York; sporadic fighting has been almost completely reduced based on the ENDF strength and the hundreds of lingering TPLF militia who have recently surrendered.

Electricity and telephone lines are now restored. Banking and financial systems are recovering, and factories can now export their goods again. Six new mobile health facilities have been provided, four clinics specifically for Internally Displaced Persons, as well as social support and psychiatric assistance for IDPs. Fourteen hospitals are functioning. There are 1,300 Tigrayans included in the recent batch of the new national volunteer peacebuilding program, and 4,000 regional police have completed training, while 2,000 civil servants “have participated in the national dialogue process.”

Sounds too nice, doesn’t it? I mean it’s so… positive.

Yeah, that’s what stability is supposed to look like.

See, the problem with a magic show is that eventually it has to end. You can only wave your arms in the air for so long until people look at their watches, and they want to go home.

And journalism has always focused on bad news rather than the good, because things are supposed to run efficiently. People holding jobs, having their power on… these things are supposed to be normal. No enticing headlines in all that. Having swallowed the big lies and jumped into bed with the TPLF for months, Western correspondents can’t possibly admit that they’ve been suckered. They still want to pretend the magic is real. And they will do almost anything now to keep on believing and try to persuade the world that Ethiopia is not getting back on its feet and rebuilding Tigray. They paid too much for the show.

Only that puff of smoke on the horizon is probably not white phosphorus. It’s for the last, pitiful remnants of TPLF guerrillas who will try to slip back into the darkness.

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Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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