A man is filmed dying under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis. Riots break out, statues are toppled and the Western world erupts with civil unrest. More than 50,000 people are massacred, tortured and raped, leaving orphaned children to forage for food and find their drinking water in puddles. Some of it is caught on camera. Nobody turns a hair.
In this social media age, activists tend to focus with great intensity on a narrow, politically-approved range of issues. Israel-Palestine, food banks, structural racism, unconscious bias, trans rights. You know the list. But fewer people seem to care about people being killed, mutilated and starved in Ethiopia.
In case you missed it, months of brutal fighting in the northern region of Tigray has left tens of thousands dead and many more malnourished, with almost five million people cut off from aid supplies. In recent weeks, videos of brutal executions of civilians in rural communities have emerged. Due to a media blackout by the Ethiopian government, they cannot be verified and must be taken as such. But they do seem to match the facts.
Part of the problem is that NGOs and journalists are largely being barred from the area. There have been some eyewitnesses, however. Ato Abera Tola, the Ethiopian Red Cross president, who recently visited the squalid displacement camps in the northern town of Shire, warned that tens of thousands would perish from starvation within eight weeks. Women and children, he said, were ‘all emaciated...their skin is really on their bones’.
Those who made it to the camps were the lucky ones, he suggested. In rural areas, away from the camps, people are suffering unimaginably. ‘We have to get prepared for the worst, is what I’m saying,’ Abera said. Further east, in an act of ‘systematic aggression to health facilities’ in the regional capital of Mekele, hospitals have been looted, leaving them with no medicines or essential supplies. Basic vaccines have expired, and HIV drugs have run out.
‘I have never seen a place (like it) where a simple antibiotic is not present,’ Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said. ‘This is unacceptable. There is a high risk of an outbreak of cholera or other diseases.’
The catastrophe is rooted in Ethiopian political history. The richness of the country stems from its diversity of culture and civilisation (it is home to one of the world’s oldest forms of Christianity). The state is a federation of ten different ethnic and linguistic regions.
Prime minister Abiy Ahmed has tried to enforce a pan-Ethiopian, nationalist agenda, aiming to unify the ethnic factions under a single banner. This has butted against the pride of minorities. In September, under pressure of Covid, there was a disputed election in the fiercely independent Tigray region. Ahmed – who, ironically enough, won a Nobel Peace Prize two years ago – sent federal forces in, sparking conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Eritrean troops weighed in behind him.
‘The fighting made people want retribution for old grievances,’ Ahmed Soliman, an Africa expert at Chatham House, told me. ‘On the Eritrean border in particular, there has been conflict between communities on either side.’
As the unrest spread, local fighters saw themselves as battling to correct historic wrongs. There was looting in the towns. Numerous lives were lost to missiles, rockets and bombs from Chinese-made drones, and there were accounts of mass executions of civilians, some conducted with knives and machetes. After Rwanda, everyone vowed never again. How's that going?
Where were the petitions? Where were the street protests? Where were the security council resolutions, the outrage, the international solidarity? The African Union sent three former presidents to Addis Ababa in an attempt at mediation. It flopped. The UN and EU struggled to get to grips with the crisis. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, made a half-hearted visit in January. The NGOs were in despair. But overall, the level of urgency does not seem commensurate to the horrors. And that is bound up with public opinion.
The hard fact is that the hellish suffering of millions of Ethiopians has failed to move Western hearts and minds. This may be depressing, but it is not entirely surprising. I remember, for instance, waiting grimly for news outside the morgue in Colombo while covering the horrific Easter bombings in Sri Lanka for the British press a couple of years ago. The question from editors wasn’t about the number of victims. The question was: 'How many Brits?'.
Some argue that by covering stories the way it does, the media shapes its audience’s priorities, rather than the other way round. There may be some truth in this. More often, however, the reader is master and the hack must jump to his bell.
Human nature is not always a pretty thing. A wealth of psychological research has shown that people instinctively feel empathy and affection for those similar to themselves. That informs what they want to read and watch, which in turn drives the ugly side of our trade, pithily expressed by the late American foreign correspondent Edward Behr: ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’
Making people care about a story is about making it relevant to them. And – as appalling as it is – one man who died at the hands of a cop in Minneapolis holds more emotional currency for many people than piles of corpses surrounded by unbearable tragedy on the other side of the world.
So much for the media. But what about the international community? Last year, the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israel 17 times. By comparison, it issued just six critical resolutions for the rest of the world combined, from China to North Korea to Yemen (not to mention Ethiopia).
Imagine the outrage if the 50,000 dead Ethiopians had actually been Palestinian, and the aggressors Israeli troops. It would never happen, of course. But the street protests, the petitions, the Security Council resolutions, the diplomatic pressure, the social media campaigns would speak for themselves (not to mention the synagogues attacked in France). And Tigray? Tumbleweed.
Human nature may have its ugly side. But I’m an optimist. It is within our gift to care. If man is part angel and part ape, I’m with Disraeli: we can strive to be on the side of the angels, especially when it comes to the desperate people of Tigray. What stands in the way, however, is the noisy, virtue-signalling obsession with things like Israel, or unconscious bias, or misgendering, or mixed-sex lavatories, all given rocket boosters by social media.
And you thought that black lives mattered.