He is the doctor in the world and has tirelessly led the global response to the coronavirus pandemic for months while having a pervasive fear in his private life. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, has largely kept his pain a secret and has maintained a stoic public front. But when I did some research, he cried.
Tedros is from Tigray, a part of Ethiopia that has committed crimes against humanity by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers since November. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described atrocities in western Tigray as ethnic cleansing, but the world was largely indifferent.
Tigrayan children starve to death, men were beaten to death, and women and girls were massively raped. Ethiopian opposition parties claim that more than 50,000 people have been killed – this is not verifiable and the number is unknown – and the levels of torture, hunger, murder and destruction in recent months may have been the worst in the world.
» Hunger is armed, rape is armed, there is indiscriminate killing, « said Tedros. “The whole region is hungry.” His cousin, a 68-year-old woman, was killed trying to take refuge in a church, he said. Another relative, a 16-year-old student, was shot dead in the street. Internet and phone connections have been cut so Tedros cannot reach family members in Tigray for more information on who was tortured or murdered.
My Times colleague Declan Walsh has reported atrocities, like a 26-year-old man who was beaten to death with bottles of beer and girls aged 8 who were sexually assaulted. United Nations humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock described a woman whose husband was killed, who lost her unborn baby, and who was then raped in front of her children.
While Tedros is one of the most recognized officials in the world, he may be become a refugee. He is now based at WHO headquarters in Geneva but probably wouldn’t be safe if he tried to return to Tigray. Ethiopia’s military chief has denounced him as a criminal.
I have known and admired Tedros for 15 years, but we regularly got tangled up over his respect for dictators. I asked Tedros about it, but he didn’t want to discuss any politics, including whether countries should pressure Ethiopia to stop the slaughter of Tigrayans. He seems to be in deep conflict, torn between what he sees as a professional duty to his organization to be impartial and the horror of ethnic cleansing of his own people.
Presiding over these crimes against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 and was initially celebrated as a great reformer, leads humanity in Tigray. In 2019 he even won the Nobel Peace Prize. Abiy is a pro-Western personality over whom the United States has significant influence – if we only use it.
The Tigray crisis is rooted in ethnic tensions and a power struggle. For almost three decades, people from Tigray dominated the Ethiopian central government. Tedros became Ethiopia’s highly respected minister of health, then minister of foreign affairs. This Tigrayan-led government ruled effectively and significantly increased the standard of living, but it was also repressive, tortured critics, imprisoned journalists and aroused deep resentment among other Ethiopians.
After Abiy took power, he reined in the Tigrayans and posted him November troops to crush what he called a mutiny in the region. This sparked a civil war with Tigray fighters and Eritrea’s army stepped in to support the Ethiopian armed forces. There is also a risk of a major war with Sudan.
All parties to the conflict have committed atrocities, but by far the most serious and credible allegations are against the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and their allies.
As WHO chief Tedros sought to distribute vaccines more equitably around the world as he dealt with President Donald Trump’s dire decision to pull the United States out of WHO (overturned by President Joe Biden on his first day in office). In public, Tedros is focused on COVID-19 and has remained largely silent about atrocities in Tigray.
« The public sees Tedros devoting himself every day to fighting the pandemic, but privately he also takes care of his pain related issues on Tigray, « said Dr. Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, advisor to Tedros.
Tedros hesitated to give this interview, but when he did, his agony was unmistakable. “We have COVID and are doing our best. Beyond that, to have that pain, ”he began, and then the stoic collapsed. He couldn’t speak for more than a minute and sobbed.
I respect a man who loses it when he thinks about war crimes. I wish more would. And I hope President Biden and other world leaders will hear this agony on behalf of so many people in Tigray who are starved, raped and murdered and use their influence to end this disaster
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