Abebe Kahsay believes his people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the Jews could soon share a deadly resemblance.
Unless things change quickly, both will have endured a time when six million of their people were killed – the Jews during the Holocaust, Tigray today.
Kahsay’s home region in northern Ethiopia is gripped by a two-year-old civil war that has claimed thousands of lives. Without intervention, things could soon get much worse.
“There is a resemblance” with the Jewish experience, said the former army and air force commander in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. “These people are in hunger, these people are in the process of dying because of lack of food, medicine and other services. Unless the international community reacts as soon as possible, it will be a catastrophe.”
The 69-year-old asylum-seeker and his family, forced to flee Ethiopia, where his fellow Tigrian officers have been arrested, now live in Louisville, and the Jewish Family & Career Services has been assisting Kahsay in finding work.
That’s how he came to my attention. Desiring to speak to the Jewish community about the unfolding catastrophe in his country, the JFCS put him in touch with me.
Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that monitors mass atrocities around the world, tweeted on May 12 that six million Tigrians (probably more now) were at risk of starvation, despite a cease-fire and promises that food and other aid would be sent by trucks to the region.
That aid has been blocked from getting through, tweeted Samantha Power, administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “Progress has been made to increase the trickle of aid previously allowed through,” she said, “but we need a flood to make up for lost time.”
Specifically, Kahsay said at least 500 trucks a week are needed.
“It is genocide in every aspect in Tigray,” he said.
Anxious for Jewish Louisville to know that something just as dire as the war in Ukraine is happening on the horn of Africa, Kahsay noted the long relationship between Jews and Ethiopia. Both are ancient civilizations, he said, and the Queen of Sheba, who visited King Solomon, according to legend, is an ancestress of the Ethiopian Jews, many who live in Israel today.
“I want the Jewish community to stand for human rights and to help these people get food, get medicine, get services,” Kahsay said. “I want the Jewish community to be the voice for the voiceless.”
The civil war in Ethiopia, which started in 2020, has been a brutal affair. Pitting government forces against Tigrian rebels, it’s hard to say how many people have already died. But an estimate from Belgium’s Ghent University says the figure could be as high as 500,000, including 50,000 to 100,000 killed in the fighting, 150,000 to 200,000 dead from starvation and more than 100,000 from the lack of medical attention.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization and an Ethiopian himself, has warned that Tigray is on the edge of a humanitarian disaster. “[There is] nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat,” he said, according to Bloomberg News.
In addition to starvation, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has confirmed that “ethnic cleansing” had taken place in western Tigray. There are reports of mass graves and bodies being burned in advance of a possible investigation.
Kahsay wants to bring this information to the Jewish community. He still has family in the region, including a brother with type 1 diabetes; Kahsay doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead.
He understands the world’s preoccupation with Ukraine, where eight million people have been displaced, cities flattened and Russian forces stand accused of war crimes.
He only asks that we not forget his suffering people.
“There should also be some kind of attention to Africa,” he said. “I’m not saying there is not attention, but there’s not enough.”
(Lee Chottiner is the managing editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)