Ethiopia: The TPLF’s Sacrificial Lambs

Jeff Pearce
13 min readJul 19, 2021

The truth about child soldiers is slowly coming out

The most infamous image of child soldiers in Tigay taken by Finbarr O’Reilly.

First, the photos and video were published, and the media operations who took them or accepted them and spread them around didn’t hesitate for a moment to glorify children used as weapons.

Now the gory details are starting to trickle out. It was inevitable.

Bekele (not his real name), 35, is a U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent, a professional working in Addis Ababa. He phones virtually every day to his parents in “what the terrorists call South Tigray” and what the rest of the country knows as Raya. He shared with me what his family members have disclosed to him.

“They told me that there are a lot of young children who were forced and brought to the front from central Tigray. Some of these kids are begging the local [women] to hide them. They do not know where they are right now. And they do not even know the road and direction to go back to their parents.

“Even if they know, they cannot go back, because TPLF will arrest or kill them if they are caught on their way back home.”

The TPLF are not only in the towns, but also in the rural areas. On an almost daily basis, the soldiers have approached members of a local community, including members of Bekele’s family, with flour and demanded they cook a meal for them. Naturally, a family can’t say no.

In encounters like this, the TPLF will look for potential recruits. Some of the local kids are high school graduates. Bekele advised his family members, “Don’t show that you’re smart.” For instance, if they try to demonstrate for one of the kids how to use a gun, he or she should pretend that they’re stupid.

His cousin, 30, has seen the TPLF soldiers passing and remarked, “Oh, there are so many young children here.”

The child soldiers range in age between nine and fifteen years old.

It was only seven days ago that the New York Times went big and bold with Declan Walsh’s reportage from inside Tigray, with photos by Finbarr O’Reilly.

There was an immediate rush of back slapping all around. Rashid Abdi called it “groundbreaking war reporting/journalism.” Simon Marks, who got kicked out of Ethiopia, suggested, “Give [Declan Walsh’s] thread a read.” To no one’s surprise, Cameron Hudson wrote, “bravo for the amazing reporting.” The Telegraph’s Will Brown gave it three clap emjois. Journalist Hasfa Halawa called it “powerful work.” Journalist Claire Bolderson called the photos in the article “extraordinary.”

And yes, they are. And some of them are frankly disgusting.

Not one of these “reviewers”analysts and journalists — with their glowing raves saw fit to comment on or notice a HUGE problem. It’s staring everyone in the face with Finbarr O’Reilly’s shots, some used in the story while others he posted online.

They glorify child soldiers.

Walsh himself refers in his article to “highly motivated young recruits.” Which is a hell of a euphemism. It means he saw what O’Reilly saw and photographed. And the Times’ Chief Africa Correspondent didn’t see fit to ask his interview subject, TPLF top dog Getachew Reda, about the obvious use of child soldiers. It is an appalling lack of journalistic ethics.

As outrage grew last week over social media, the New York Times blinked. Someone on Twitter with the handle @Samriethio apparently spoke to a news editor at the paper, who pledged to take down shots of the child soldiers. But while I applaud the good intentions, I think this might have been a mistake. All of us had to scramble to preserve screen shots of the offending images as the Times and O’Reilly himself tried to bury the evidence of what I consider “journalistic kiddie porn.”

Exposing child soldiers within context is one thing, glamorizing them as freedom fighters and without mentioning that this is an international war crime is contemptible.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press earned their own scandal over child soldiers when they went big with a story focusing on a young girl, a child soldier recruit. As of this posting, the AP still hasn’t amended its story. And it’s important to note, its reporters didn’t interview the girl, Meron Mezgeb — they “obtained” the video of her, “smuggled out of Tigray.” More on that in just a second…

It’s sunk in for the TPLF that their media publicists have screwed up big-time. In attempting damage control, it’s stayed true to form and chosen to lie multiple times in a news release issued July 17. Now we’re told that the photos were taken after the “end of active hostilities in the region.”

Well, that’s hilarious bullshit right there, because Walsh started his article for the Times right off the bat with Tigrayan fighters “whooping” and “whistling” after shooting down an alleged military cargo plane. (By the way, while Walsh supplies video of smoking wreckage, he doesn’t offer proof that this was a military cargo plane either in his thread or in the story. Any identifiable plane markings? Any fragments of cargo?)

But let’s get back to the kids. So the article itself clearly shows “hostilities” were still going on.

And my question is… If it was the end of hostilities in the area and the children came out to meet the fighters, why did they bring rifles?

What do children need rifles for at a celebration?

Finbarr O’Reilly has this tacked on at the end of a blurb for his story with Walsh:

No, you didn’t just “see” them. You took several shots of them. Which you posted and which were in some cases used by the Times.

And you and your pal Declan didn’t consider the ethics of doing this or the issue of consent or question who was using these kids like weapons until days after you flew away, safe and sound, and people caught you out.

UPDATE: O’Reilly is apparently more concerned about protecting his product than letting it be used to shed light on a war crime. He sent a “cease and desist” letter to a couple of article writers on July 24.

If nothing else, O’Reilly’s admission on Instagram puts the lie to the TPLF claiming there are no child soldiers. In typical fashion, the terrorist group will throw anyone under the bus if it has to, even its media allies, to stay on message.

Unfortunately for them, they outed themselves long ago on using this practice. Last November, Debretsion Gebremichael promised, “The whole public will take part, therefore we call it a people’s war… People’s war means a war conducted by a civilian population, it means everyone will get involved. Starting from the children [my emphasis], everyone will be taking part.”

And no one wailing about imminent “Tigray famine” or #TigrayGenocide expressed horror that the leader of the TPLF openly admitted that he would put civilians in harm’s way.

Nor has the mainstream Western media learned at all from its mistake. On Saturday, July 17, Reuters posted to YouTube and on Twitter a voiceover report that began, “In a northern Ethiopian town, young men and some women walk to a Tigrayan training camp.” Only it’s not just young men and men. Here are two stills from the video:

That’s an obvious child in the forefront of the shot, the one wearing red. Let’s say for the benefit of the doubt, that the boy is walking along with his brother or a friend to accompany him part of the way, playing “tag along.” But here is another still:

Two more young boys are visible, and we clearly see the boy in front has a backpack just like the other recruits who are obviously taking their belongings to the recruitment camp.

Again: the evidence is coming from the Western media itself. There is no denying what the TPLF allowed to be photographed and captured on video and spread to the rest of the world.

And now the media is screwed. It can either go on pretending child soldiers don’t exist, denying what its own footage reveals, or it can own up to its breach of ethics and properly examine the issue.

That will mean asking hard questions of their best buddies, Getachew Reda and Debretsion Gebremichael, who won’t like that one bit.

Unfortunately, the media is ever ravenous for a good story, and this is a juicy one. As I’ve warned before, the Western “publicists” for TPLF can only run for so long with tales about the “scrappy Tigrayan force” (Walsh’s words). Their heroes can’t keep the lid on the murders of interim administration officials forever, nor how they force children to be cannon fodder.

A hungry dog has no loyalty. The media will turn on them. It’s only a question of when. Or the TPLF — angered over being challenged — may choose first to “sacrifice” a few reporters and then blame their murders on Ethiopian forces.

In the meantime, however, it is both fascinating and grotesque to watch the partisans on the TPLF side try to muddy the waters over the issue of child soldiers and in at least one case, actually try to defend the indefensible.

Lauren Blanchard, an African Affairs Specialist for the Congressional Research Service, tried on Twitter to impugn the sincerity of people horrified by the practice, but many pointed out that Ethiopians have expressed concerns on the issue going back as far as November. Blanchard also insisted that analysts such as Ann Fitz-Gerald prove the scale of the problem instead of joining them in condemning it. As someone on Twitter pointed out, “Is she suggesting that there is a number of child soldiers we should be comfortable with before we start condemning the act of recruiting child soldiers?”

Blanchard also tweeted, “The International Criminal Court defines the recruitment and use of child soldiers as a war crime. Ethiopia is not, however, a party to the Rome Statute. Such issues should, though, presumably fall within the scope of the OHCHR/EHRC and ACHPR inquiries.”

Funny how she left out the fact that the United States isn’t a party to the Rome Statute either.

Meanwhile, analyst Bronwyn Bruton highlighted the most glaring omission of all: that Western scholars, media, humanitarian agencies, and governments were quick on the spot to condemn alleged Ethiopian army and Eritrean atrocities, but what do we hear from the international community over TPLF child soldiers?

Complete. Silence.

It’s been seven days since the New York Times story. Where is the condemnation of the TPLF’s use of child soldiers from the UN?

Where is the condemnation from U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken?

Why has Amnesty International — which has kept busy taking a Getty Images photo and brazenly stealing an Ethiopian news photographer’s shot, using both out of context — not condemned the TPLF use of child soldiers?

Where is Human Rights Watch?

Playing favorites again. Laetitia Bader was happy to talk about the suspension of the Addis Standard’s license but has had nothing to say so far about child soldiers.

For the international community, it’s clear that some children are worth caring about more than others. A woman on Twitter, Hermela Tsegaye, zeroed in on racial aspects of this which are also being ignored: “The deafening silence on TPLF using child soldiers is also a reminder of a painful truth that some in this world do not see black boys as innocent children that deserve to have a semblance of a childhood. But instead, black children are adultified based on racial bias.”

“This adultification of black children,” she went on, “drives the perception that they are adult-like and can endure the physical/mental responsibilities of an adult. [The New York Times] has contributed to and glamorized the robbing of these kids’ childhood instead of calling for their protection.”

I expect the denials over child soldiers will continue for some time. Consider the ones from Patrick Wight, a scholar from Montreal who I genuinely believe will be tomorrow’s Alex de Waal with the same level of mendacity. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Development and is a self-described Marxist (yes, kids, the Fates really can make a stupid unicorn).

He also deleted several of his more embarrassing tweets which turned out to be either highly offensive to Ethiopians or revealed his rather shaky grasp of Ethiopian history (being a petty son of a bitch, I have managed to save several of them; it makes me sooooo happy keeping the record of such cowardice). There is no love lost between Wight and me, so you may dismiss my opinion of him as biased, but I hardly expected him to crawl out on this limb:

In a reply to Ann Fitz-Gerald of Balsillie School of International Affairs, he barked, “You saw a picture of two kids carrying guns (likely left behind by the ENDF) and concluded that TPLF is ‘comparable to J Kony’s LRA.’…This is the type of hack research that allows you to be director of @BalsillieSIA?”

Well, we could ask Wight in turn: how did you ever manage to earn a doctorate being this painfully dim?

How much research did it take to assume that the weapons were “likely left behind by the ENDF?”

If they were left behind, why would TPLF soldiers allow valuable weapons to be carted around by children? Remember, the TPLF’s own news release claimed that the kids had these guns after the “end of active hostilities in the region.”

Why would children be handling them at all?

And that’s the sad-ass story you’re going with? Whenever we see a kid with a gun, we’re supposed to assume Tigrayan children collect rifles like seashells on a beach?

But nobody bothers to pass them along to adult combatants or put them in what passes for their weapons storage in camp?

Oh, and while we’re at it, what self-respecting parent — I don’t care what culture or country you’re in — lets a child that young wander about with a presumably loaded weapon?

Because remember, baked into their denial, is the implication that someone is looking after these kids, that they are cared for. If you deny they’re child soldiers, you still have some very shitty, negligent guardians for them. Either way, the logic is ridiculous.

Then Wight upped the ante. “You guys have provided no evidence of the TPLF recruiting children. If some children are fighting, it’s because of the ENDF and EDF order to rape, kill and starve them. They have no choice but to defend themselves. Now go buy your pro-genocide pom-poms.”

The problem here is the evidence is already in photographs taken by O’Reilly, who again, admitted on Instagram, “On multiple occasions, I saw Tigrayan children carrying weapons,” and then cited the statute of the ICC on child soldiers himself.

Really, Wight? You want to stick with your fairy tale that every Tigrayan kid is the equivalent of a golf caddie, only with rifles?

The evidence is in the video used by Reuters and by Associated Press which proves children are being used as recruits.

Wight then goes on to say, “If some children are fighting…” Wait, didn’t you just deny their existence and claim there’s no evidence? But if they do exist, “They have no choice but to defend themselves…”

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how international law works. (It’s not how common sense works either.) Make a quick visit to the UN’s website for Children and Armed Conflict, and you can find a definition of a child soldier:

“A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.”

It does not say, “But there’s a White Dumbass in Quebec Exception that kids aren’t child soldiers when our side claims they have to defend themselves.”

Because people with brains will quite rightly point out that by having children near a recruit training camp or any kind of military compound at all — even for a ludicrously implausible “celebration” visit — you are putting those children at risk for being close to a legitimate military target.

If by definition, children are civilians, they belong in civilian homes, whether in the towns or out in rural areas, or in IDP camps, well and safely away from combat.

There is no middle ground on this, no rationalizations around it. You are putting them in danger.

And you are exposing them to psychological harm and to violence.

Meron Mezgeb is a child soldier recruit, and for all we know, by now she could be a fully trained child soldier. She’s only sixteen. Check the definition above.

Those boys in the Reuters video are child soldier recruits.

Those boys in O’Reilly’s photographs are child soldiers.

By forcing a generation of children into the sausage grinder of war, the TPLF are robbing Tigray itself of its diversity, its promise. All these kids could be tomorrow’s engineers, doctors, tech wizards. Many will never find love, marry, have kids of their own.

Instead, they’ll die. Or they’ll need prosthetics after their wounded limbs have been amputated, or they’ll suffer nightmares of trauma.

They’ll see things that cut like a shard of glass into their minds and which amputate that spark of joy that is every child’s birth right.

And yet some psychopaths say, as one said online, presuming to speak for Meron Mezgeb, “If I am old enough to get raped, I am old enough to fight.”

Children are not supposed to know of such things. A soldier enlists. Even a terrorist has a choice. A child cannot consent.

TPLF trolls such as @Tseday have fired back, “If you care…” And it’s not an accident that their justifications read like a ransom note. They will shove these young lives on to a hill to face a tank or an artillery barrage, and they’ll pose with crocodile tears over small bodies. Their “parents” in the photographs by the New York Times or AP will be strangers who refused to help return them to their real homes.

And in years to come, if the bastards slip away, they will keep the embers of hate glowing for their targets — Abiy, the Amhara, Eritrea. They’ll keep stoking that hate. The skinny boys and girls who each carry a gun now would no doubt shudder in awe if they could see the diplomas they’d earn, the families they’d have. If only. If only…

One day, this war will be over. But thanks to the TPLF, for many young souls, it will be over too soon with a bullet —and for others, it will never be over, the nightmares and trauma going on for years.



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.