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Complicated Moral Choices – Pursuing Graduate Studies While Advocating to End Mass Atrocities

Moral Choice
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By Hone Mandefro Belaye

On a sunny morning in September 2018, I attended my first seminar class at Concordia for my PhD studies in Social and Cultural Analysis. I had a strong sense of motivation and was excited, driven by the opportunity to further my intellectual and career pursuits. Looking back, I had no idea how a set of political events in my home country of Ethiopia would alter my relationship with the PhD process.

Following the ascendency of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed Ali to power in Ethiopia in 2018, there was widespread hope that things were finally changing for the better. His rhetoric of democracy, unity, and reconciliation dominated domestic and Western media, and his youthful, playful, and deceptive personality made many fall in love with him. A sort of “Abiymania” ensued, leading to him becoming the recipient of high-level honours such as the Noble Peace Prize and the Hessian Peace Prize.

But beneath the Abiymania were the complex problems that had plagued Ethiopia for decades, such as ethnic polarization, poverty, and a culture of impunity. Instead of creating a comprehensive reform agenda to address these problems, PM Abiy opted to run (successful) PR campaigns that masked these problems and led to the aforementioned awards. The Western media oversold the PM because his veiled rhetoric fit their preferred narrative of an African leader. Those who called out his lack of a comprehensive agenda were accused of being pessimists.

Things began to unravel very quickly, and the true persona of PM Abiy and his policy began to emerge. In 2019, identity-based attacks and inter-communal violence led to the country having one of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Oromia and Benishangul-Gumez Regions became ungovernable and out of PM Abiy’s party structure. In 2019, a family member of mine studying for his bachelor’s degree in the Oromia Region was killed in identity-based attacks. Then in November 2020, as I was entering the third year of my PhD and the world was reeling from the COVID-19 global pandemic, the eruption of war in Northern Ethiopia took the crisis to an unprecedented level. In the summer of 2022, my family members, including my mother, became IDPs.

Not all conflicts matter equally

Many in the global North keenly follow the war in Ukraine but know little about the two-year-long war in Northern Ethiopia, considered the deadliest in recent history. Western universities have increased their rhetoric of increasing support for students from conflict-affected countries, but that list of countries does not include Ethiopia. There is little to no acknowledgment of the impact of Ethiopia’s conflict, which is devastating for many Ethiopians, including those living in other countries.

For me personally, I feel a moral responsibility to tell the world about people’s sufferings. This responsibility comes directly from my contacts in the country, who beg of me to let the world know. Bewildered by the level of crisis and targeted attacks such as those against my ethnic group, the Amharas, they hope that if the world knows what is happening, things will change for the better.

How do I tell them that not every life matters equally in this world? And even more so, how can I possibly deny their requests to “let the world know” when I have the ability to do so from where I currently “sit” – in a country that affords me the safety and privileges that most in my country can only dream of in this very moment.

Thus, in 2019 I began documenting targeted attacks against Amharas in Ethiopia through the Amhara Association of America (AAA). When I started this work, the killings of Amharas were concentrated in a small area in Oromia (where my extended family member was killed). As the years passed, this area became wider, and the number of killings has grown from tens of Amharas to hundreds of Amharas being killed in a single incident. AAA recently issued a report that shows how these atrocities against Amharas have fulfilled all requirements to be designated as genocide. Over time, it has become impossible for a small organization like AAA to document this large number of massacres. Support from well-known human rights groups continues to be unavailable for reasons too complex to explain. Our two-person team has scaled up to over a dozen volunteers in North America and seven hired investigators within Ethiopia.

While the documentation work has proven to help improve awareness about the ongoing atrocities against Amharas, the task has been all-consuming. The time is one factor; the emotional toll is another. I wake up each morning to yet another report of hundreds of Amharas being killed. The weight pulls on me as I rise from bed and engage in what has become a daily challenge and moral dilemma: muster the mental energy to address the mountain of missed and upcoming PhD deadlines or respond to the demands of the advocacy cycle and get media coverage as soon as possible on yet another massacre? Someone’s being let down, no matter which I choose, but the former seems of little consequence when life and death drives the latter.

Such moral choices are complicated

When I reflect on the emotional burden and stress I have endured as I have tried to manage these conflicting priorities, I cannot help but wonder what could be different. I have also wondered how many other PhD students find themselves in a situation like mine, struggling to meet the demands of their PhD due to conflict in their home countries. I am certainly not the only one.

My hope in sharing my story is that universities do better to recognize that many students – especially those whose home countries are under conflict – do not have the privilege of “pausing life” to get a degree. Such recognition should add impetus to improving support packages for international students from conflict-affected countries across the globe and fixing the problems and limitations with universities’ mental health support systems. Recent initiatives to support students from Ukraine should be applauded, but these efforts do not go far enough. Universities should be urged to make these initiatives into sustainable policies that can be applied to international students from all conflict-affected countries. All conflicts (and students) should matter equally.

Immediately, I sent a message to the health center director stating the government’s plan to exterminate Amharas, slowly. He responded saying “the vaccination is EAPDA approved and planned by EMH-Ethiopian Ministry of Health. He underlined the conviction to give these vaccines and expressed that opposing advice against this campaign would be ridiculous. It is not easy to explain to him that such campaigns are directed by the government who deploys the national defense force to obliterate towns and villages supported by airstrikes. The OLF Shené terrorist group, now at a honeymoon in Zanzibar by the name of negotiating with the government who once labeled a terrorist, is disclosed to be a section of the government’s army that has been deployed to cleanse Amharas from Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regions. This government costs anything to exterminate Amhara. In this circumstance, the nurse argues with me about the government approval of these vaccinations. Government approval means the same process as the one Dr Tedros did to us a decade ago. What has been changed to us since then, if not has it ever been aggravated? How on earth is it possible for people to trust the government to this level, even when it is in active war to eliminate themselves? I read an article written by Professor Girma Berhanu about peoples’ long-standing default attitude of trusting the government. However, how long and until when is attitude sustaining as ‘default’, please? As of the day this essay is written, the Amhara region is literally in a war fighting the Oromuma government; and yet, takes vaccinations that their perpetrator approved. Are my people normal? 

Recently, I saw a daring government press release on the half million girls from Amhara region recruited for domestic work in Saudi Arabia. It is also stated that the salary of these girls will not be paid to them directly. Instead, their employers will deposit the salary, amount that the employer agreed with the Ethiopian government, in the Ethiopian government’s account. Okay, what is slavery, then? If the worker has no right to compete or negotiate on remuneration, or worse than that, if the worker has no right to receive wages from the employer, the worker is reified. Worker is no longer considered a human being. That is much worse and beyond the concept of alienation. It is a part and parcel of the ongoing genocide on Amhara people. In the softest version, it is an attempt to keep these young women away from men in their fertile age so that the population growth stagnates. There is also a desire to maneuver the demography in some places where Oromuma plans to resettle proffered clans in parts of Amhara lands. Meaning other people will be settled in places of the pulled half million Amharas. 

Removing these youth Amhara has a multifold advantage for the regime. One, it already has a commitment to exterminate Amhara; and if any popular force such as Fano stands to resist, the youth women will be highly instrumental to support Fano in preparing and supplying logistics. Hence, sending them away weakens the regime’s opponent. The necro-politics as Prof Girma explained, is mastered by Oromuma, and fully applied on Amhara. Two, in their stay abroad, they make money that directly falls in their account, which supports the acute need for foreign exchange that they needed to purchase drones and long-range rifles to abolish Amhara. Thus, these Amhara women help the regime kill their own families. 

Generally, ignorance of the Amhara people themselves is the undeniable contributing factor for the most part of their own plight.  The regime has already expressed its dedication to break and eliminate Amhara. Yet, the victims hardly seem to understand what is going on. The Amhara elite seems to have nothing to provide for its people to withstand the attack. Most of them even proudly support the regime. 

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  1. In unrelated story USGS has detected an earthquake in Bahr Dar area this morning and was registered at 4.4 on the Richter scale. I hope and pray that the quake did not cause any detectable damage to the property there. I hope our dear editors will give us a more detailed scoop on the incidence.


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