People gather to protest against the treatment of Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo group, outside Downing Street in London, Britain,…
FILE - People gather to protest against the treatment of Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo group, outside Downing Street in London, Britain, July 3, 2020.

LONDON - The conflict in Ethiopia is sparking a lot of discussion among the country’s diaspora, and those who share their views online have noticed they often get strong pushback from people who hold opposing opinions. In some cases, the division is ruining friendships.   

When the fighting started between the Ethiopian army and forces in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, London-based Melat Tesfay was worried for her family, stuck in Tigray. She started sharing her opinion about the conflict on her social media accounts.   

Ethiopians check newspapers and magazines reporting on the current military confrontation in Ethiopia's Tigray region, at a news stand on a street in the capital Addis Ababa, Nov. 7, 2020.

Tesfay said people from the British Ethiopian diaspora community would send her messages. They said her online posts offended them, as she does not support the attack on the Tigray region. Tesfay says she was taken back by the response from some people she had considered to be friends.   

“It’s a real-life situation that affects me and my family. So, a lot of those people that were pushing for the war to go ahead, a lot of them I’ve either deleted or unfriended on a lot of my social media platform. I'm becoming very withdrawn from the people that I usually used to associate myself with and stuff like that. So, I feel like it’s having a domino effect on me without realizing it,” she said.

Despite the backlash, Tesfay hasn’t stopped posting and sharing online.   

More than 2.5 million Ethiopians live abroad. Besides sending home billions of dollars in remittances, the diaspora has for years been actively involved in organizing and leading online campaigns.   

Seray Delnissaw considers herself an active member of the Ethiopian diaspora community in Britain. But the intensity of the debates on social media has left her much more careful about what she shares online. 

“Sometimes I posted things, and straight away in my inbox, I'm getting messages. And it's like, well, actually, you shouldn't really say this, you shouldn't say that. With posts that I have put up personally I've had people contact me with positive messages and negative so it's been 50-50,” she said.  

People posting messages that support Tigray are often seen by others as denying the dominant role the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) played in Ethiopian politics for many years, while opposition to the TPLF is often seen as endorsing the army’s offensive.    

FILE - People walk in front of the head office of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the region, in the city of Mekele, northern Ethiopia, Sept. 6, 2020.

Azeb Madebo is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California focusing on Ethiopia diaspora and media. Madebo says the diaspora can bring awareness to problems, but that these social media campaigns often rely on simplified narratives misrepresenting complex realities. 

“What we find online is more and more division and politicization of ethnic identities. The diaspora has to find a way out of the quagmire of ethnic politics to help create a country that is reflective of our collective identities, our struggles and our hopes. Otherwise, the diaspora’s current social media engagement will just help incite and justify further trauma,” she said.  

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 16, 2020.

Tensions between the central government and the northern region escalated two weeks ago after forces from the TPLF attacked an army base in what it called an act of self-defense. Neighboring countries are now also involved after the TPLF fired missiles on Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara. More than 20,000 people have fled to Sudan seeking safety.