Ethiopia's Tigray conflict revives bitter disputes over land
As rifle-toting militiamen fired celebratory rounds into the air, young men marched through the streets denouncing the former ruling party of Ethiopia's Tigray region as "thieves."
The party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), is the target of military operations ordered by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year's Nobel Peace laureate, that have reportedly left thousands dead since early November.
But the impromptu parade this month in Alamata, a farming town in southern Tigray flanked by low, rolling mountains, was unrelated to any kind of battlefield victory.
Rather, it was to hail the release of Berhanu Belay Teferra, a self-described political prisoner under the TPLF whose pet issue, analysts warn, risks becoming Ethiopia's next flashpoint.
In 2018, Berhanu, 48, was detained by the TPLF for advocating that his homeland — located in an area known as Raya, of which Alamata is the biggest city — had no business falling under Tigrayan control.
Berhanu argued that the TPLF had illegally incorporated the famously fertile land into Tigray after it came to power in the early 1990s.
He was detained for more than two years — enduring beatings and long stretches of solitary confinement in a cave — before pro-TPLF forces, fleeing the government's assault in November, let him go, setting the stage for his triumphant homecoming.
Now reunited with his wife and four children, Berhanu is back to agitating for the transfer of Alamata and its surroundings to Ethiopia's Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south.
"We don't want to live with Tigray people who don't know our culture and traditions," Berhanu told AFP a few days after the parade marking his return — a moment of joy he said was unrivalled by every other event in his life besides his wedding.
Raya is not the only place in Tigray where, since the onset of fighting on November 4, 2020, some residents have been clamouring for change.
A similar dynamic is playing out in western Tigray, where activists and politicians also accuse the TPLF of annexing land historically administered by ethnic Amharas.
In both areas, Abiy is, at least for the time being, relying on Amhara special forces to provide security now that the TPLF has been kicked out.
Amhara officials are leading transitional administrations in multiple towns and cities.
And the word "Amhara" has been scrawled on countless abandoned homes and shuttered storefronts like a hastily graffitied claim of ownership.
William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), described what is happening in western and southern Tigray as "unconstitutional de facto annexations" that "set a destabilising precedent for the federation".
Some newly-installed officials make clear they want nothing to do with Tigray, raising the possibility of future conflict over the land.
"First we were forced to become part of [Tigray]. Now by force this area is liberated," said Alamata's new mayor, Kassa Reda Belay, adding he hoped Abiy would "answer the question of the people" -- meaning place the area under Amhara authority.
"If not, there will be a lot of bloodshed, and there will be a civil war," Kassa said.
Path ahead uncertain
It is not clear what the federal government's long-term plans are for the contested territory.
The Amhara region's president, Agegnehu Teshager, has said Amhara security forces did not get involved in the conflict to reclaim land.
But Zadig Abraha, Ethiopia's democratisation minister and an Alamata native, told AFP that the city could one day fall under Amhara control.
"The people have asked loud and clear to be part of it. There is a possibility for that to happen and we will have to wait for some time," Zadig said.
In the meantime, Abiy's government is working to prop up a caretaker administration in Tigray led by Mulu Nega, a Tigrayan former higher education official.
Yet any attempt by Mulu to exert authority over Alamata is unlikely to go over well.
"If Dr Mulu Nega comes here, there will be two or more demonstrations against it. We don't want him to come. From now on... we want to live with Amhara people," said Kassa, the Alamata mayor.
'I don't feel safe'
That kind of language strikes fear into the hearts of men like Hailay Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan who has owned a clothing shop on Alamata's main street for six years.
In November, when fighting broke out in the mountains around Alamata, he stuffed his sneakers and other merchandise into burlap sacks and ran home, where he huddled for weeks.
Hailay reopened his shop earlier this month because he'd run out of money and food, but he's not sure what kind of life he and his fellow Tigrayans can have in the city.
"I don't feel safe here because there are people going around saying, 'Oh, we've defeated them, we've broken them, now they will leave,'" he said.
The ICG's Davison said "there is likely to be sustained Tigrayan resistance if territories are taken out of Tigray, in the same way that Amhara activists have long agitated for the 'return' of them."
There are also some activists who believe Raya should become its own region, belonging to neither Tigray nor Amhara.
For now, though, such voices are quiet in Alamata.
Fear of reprisals
Hailay told AFP he's afraid even to speak in Tigrinya, the Tigrayan language, for fear of reprisals from Amhara officials and security forces.
As he spoke, he looked out towards the roundabout where large crowds gathered during the parade welcoming the return of Berhanu, the self-described political prisoner.
Planted in the grass was a picket sign that, to Hailay's mind, read like a threat.
"The Amharas wait patiently," it said, "but they cannot be broken."