Ethiopia’s historic Armenian community is bracing for renewed fighting as the country’s year-long civil war reaches the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. With rebel fighters from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reportedly taking up positions less than 400 km from the city, Ethiopian authorities have declared a state of emergency and urged citizens to mobilize.
"Our country is facing grave danger to its existence, sovereignty and unity. And we can’t dispel this danger through the usual law enforcement systems and procedures," said Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos during a press briefing on November 2, 2021. Rights groups have warned that local authorities have also begun the widespread arrest of ethnic Tigrays living in the capital, as the TPLF and eight other anti-government groups announced a formal alliance to oust Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and form a transitional government.
Ethiopia is home to one of Africa’s most ancient and vibrant Armenian communities, with roots dating back to the 15th century. Most Armenians in Addis Ababa trace their roots to the merchants and craftsmen who began to flock to the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, several of whom found their way to the Court of the Emperors of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known at the time. Many more found refuge there in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century. The community continued to grow as they, in turn, invited family, business associates and spouses to join them in the relative safety of a fellow Orthodox Christian country. Perhaps most famous is the story of 40 Armenian orphans who were personally invited to Addis Ababa by Emperor Haile Selassie himself—better known in the West as Ras Tafari—after hearing them perform at an Armenian orphanage on a trip to Jerusalem. These children formed Ethiopia’s first orchestra, and their conductor, Kevork Nalbandian, even composed the country’s first national anthem.
This anthem, as well as Emperor Selassie’s reign would be short-lived, however, as the country fell under the rule of a marxist military junta known as the Derg in 1974. Today, there are few Armenians still living in Addis Ababa, remnants of a once-thriving community once numbering some 2500. These Armenians imported hardware, lead, silk, cotton, glassware, dyes, cars to Ethiopia and exported beeswax, ivory, fur and coffee.
Under the guise of redistributing resources in line with their Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the Derg expropriated land, factories, small businesses and other wealth from the local bourgeoisie class. The Armenian community was particularly affected by the purges, with thousands being driven into exile. Records show that some 156 homes and 15 factories were confiscated by the regime during the Red Terror. For those who remained, food scarcity, security checks and uncertainty became routine. Still, some chose to endure the hardships until the Derg regime was finally overthrown in 1987 by a coalition of rebel forces, which included the TPLF. The 150 Armenians who still call Addis Ababa home continue to maintain a local church, social club, school and a restaurant.
The fall of the Derg regime represented a second renaissance for the local Armenian community, as several decades of robust economic growth encouraged them to reopen once-lost businesses and their reputation for craftwork spread. “Every Ethiopian knows about us Armenians,” a local Armenian says. When she travels outside the city, bemused locals sometimes ask her why foreigners would speak Amharic. Upon being told that they are Armenians, the villagers usually reply “Ah! You are one of us!” Despite their diminished presence, Armenians continue to feature prominently in Ethiopian civic and cultural life.
Indeed, a shared Christian faith has long tied the Armenian and Ethiopian peoples. For centuries, Armenian and Abyssinian clerics maintained ties through their representations in Jerusalem. These early diplomatic relations were only cemented last year, when Armenia finally opened an embassy in Addis Ababa.
But the recent breakout of fighting in Ethiopia has put Armenia, as well as the local Armenian community, in a delicate position. Abiy Ahmed, who was elected Prime Minister in 2018, ended almost three decades of rule by the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Abiy rapidly garnered international praise for his apparent commitment to democratic reforms and fight against corruption, even being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a decades-long border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
It wasn’t long before the African Prime Minister—once hailed as “the next Nelson Mandela”—faced mounting criticism for human rights abuses. Simmering tensions with the rival TPLF boiled over last November when Tigrayan rebels, denouncing Abiy’s alleged use of the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretense for delaying national elections, assaulted a military facility near the Eritrean border. Abiy responded by ordering the national army to invade the region, triggering a brutal civil war which, watchdogs warn, threatens to plunge the region into a human catastrophe not seen since the famine in the 1980s.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed extreme concern over the situation on Tuesday, warning that “the stability of Ethiopia and the wider region is at stake.” The UN estimates that tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, while at least two million have been displaced, as famine looms. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also released what amounts to the first international investigation into alleged war crimes in the conflict. The report, which documents numerous atrocities, including mass rapes, torture, extrajudicial killings, looting and repression of media, accuses all parties involved of violations possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. “The primary responsibility for addressing the violations rests with the State, as part of its obligation to respect and protect human rights,” the report concludes. The U.S. has responded to these reports with threats of sanctions and cutting Ethiopia out of a lucrative trading program.
A year into this ongoing war, the federal government finds itself in an increasingly strained situation. In a reversal of fortunes, Tigrayan rebels are now on the advance. The strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha fell to the TPLF in late October 2021, threatening to cut off the capital from its main supply ports in Djibouti. Prime Minister Abiy called on Ethiopians to use “any type of weapons to block the destructive [rebel] advance.” A new alliance between the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which claims to represent the largest ethnic group in the country, has complicated matters further by threatening to fracture the country along ethnic lines.
“We Armenians have great relations with everybody,” insists another local Armenian. “We’re all Ethiopian.” Still, avoiding bringing attention to itself, the Armenian community has remained on the sidelines in this conflict. Many have friends among all ethnic groups. Some of these friends have already disappeared without a trace.
Local Armenians tell EVN Report that, despite alarming reports, life in Addis Ababa continues at a normal pace, but uncertainty fills the air. “In Addis, it’s ok. It’s quiet. Outside Addis, it’s a different story,” explains another Armenian living in Ethiopia. EVN Report chose to conceal their name for security considerations. People are going to work, and stores still have goods. ”We’re just hoping things will settle down soon and pray that everything goes back to normal,” they added.
With several key road links to the capital already under rebel control, there is concern of potential chaos if desperate people were to rush to the airport. The U.S. embassy has already begun evacuating non-essential personnel, in spite of government claims that the capital is not under imminent threat. Addis Ababa, one of Africa’s most populous cities, is also home to the African Union, UN Economic Commission for Africa and other international organizations, garnering it the moniker of the “political capital of Africa”. The restraining influence that the presence of such global institutions provides has Armenians hoping that violence will not reach the city.
But unlike Ethiopia’s historic Greek and Italian communities, whose members are citizens of EU states and enjoy the protection of their respective embassies, most native-born Armenians hold only Ethiopian passports due to Ethiopia’s longstanding ban on dual citizenship. Still, many have applied for and received Armenian special residency passports (a special entry document for diasporan Armenians which does not grant Armenian citizenship), which do facilitate exiting the country. However, notorious bureaucratic hurdles often translate into time-consuming turnover rates for new passport issues. Some Ethiopian-Armenians fear that time may be in short supply.
While Armenia has yet to formally issue any reaction to the events transpiring in the Horn of Africa, the potential threat to the local Armenian community has not been ignored. The embassy in Addis Ababa does keep a record of all the Armenians in Ethiopia, regardless of citizenship. “We are closely following this developing situation in Ethiopia, and are exploring possibilities for assistance,” High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs Zareh Sinanyan told EVN Report. One such option may involve facilitating resettlement in Armenia, if necessary. Armenia has positioned itself as a refuge for Armenians fleeing violence across the Middle East in recent years, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
“I’ve always felt that, if Ethiopia is my physical home, Armenia will forever be my home as well,” our contact proclaims at the prospect of permanently relocating to her ancestral homeland. In 1974, there was not an independent Armenia to seek refuge in.