internet shutdown #KeepItOn

Voices from Tigray: ongoing internet shutdown tearing families, communities, businesses apart


Content note: The following post contains references to war crimes, sexual assault, murder, and death.

Since the start of the Tigray conflict in November 2020, warring parties in Ethiopia have used internet and telecommunication shutdowns as a weapon to control and censor information. The Tigray region has been in the dark for over 300 consecutive days, with both broadband and mobile internet shut off. 

This region-wide blackout is not only making it difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to document and uncover heinous crimes against civilians — including mass rape and sexual violence, mass murder, and abuse of refugees committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia — but it’s also tearing families, communities, and businesses apart during already challenging times. 

First-hand stories from those impacted by the current shutdown in Tigray, gathered through Access Now’s Shutdown Stories Project, highlight how the blackout is making it extremely hard for people to connect with their families, sustain their livelihoods, and maintain their mental health. Below we share survivors’ stories, and provide insight as to how you can support our global #KeepItOn campaign in the fight against internet shutdowns. For safety reasons, contributors in this blog post are identified by their first names or pseudonyms, while some are anonymous. 

For Berhane, a software developer in Tigray, the shutdown has affected his relationship with family, and his ability to reach out to people and engage with them in meaningful ways: “[The shutdown] prevented me from staying in touch with my family, and from supporting them. It has also impeded the possibility to engage and encourage our people. Furthermore, it has taken away business opportunities for many in the community to work and sustain themselves.” Timestamp: April 20, 2021

An anonymous contributor and health worker in Tigray says the shutdown is “a total disaster,” while Assefa, an MSc student, remarks on the emotional and social impact it has had, affecting aspects across his whole life: “All members of my family and friends live in Tigray. Due to the shutdown, I could no longer stay in touch. This affected my life immensely. I still don't know the whereabouts of many of my friends.” Timestamp: April 21, 2021

Ashenafi, another MSc student in Gulo Mekeda, emphasizes the severity of the damage the shutdown has caused to his relationships with his loved ones — and the relationships of those around him — and more specifically the constant worry of not knowing if they have food to eat or water to drink: “The shutdown kept me in the dark. I couldn’t know how my family members are, how Tigray is ... I am living a dreadful life, not knowing whether and when I will hear about the death of my loved ones. I do not know what my family is eating; I do not know if they have water to drink. Nor do I know if there are healthcare providers around to go to when they get sick. The shutdown has affected my health and studies immensely. Now, it is my daily prayer to be able to hear the voice of my mother soon.”

For an anonymous lawyer in Tigray, the shutdown has interfered with people’s lives in many different ways, including economically and socially, but also by limiting freedom of expression: “It has significantly impacted digital marketing, for instance. The same is true when it comes to social interactions. It has also stifled the freedom to express oneself.” Timestamp: April 21, 2021

When the war erupted and the shutdown started, Zara, who is a software developer and consultant in Germany, was traveling to Ethiopia after her father died in Tigray. This impeded communication with her family in Ethiopia during this distressing time, as well as with her colleagues back in Germany. “Last year, I traveled to Ethiopia, as my father who had been living in Germany died in the capital of the northern province of Tigray. Due to Covid-19, I went there by myself; unfortunately, after three weeks, a war broke out. From day one, there had been an immediate and ongoing shutdown of all communication. The landlines were opened, but then closed again, yet the internet always remains shut down. I had not been able to call my family back home for most of the time while I was in Tigray, that was 5 — 6 weeks. This has been very difficult for all of us, as there were airstrikes in the city more or less every day [...] The internet shutdown and general lack of communication also stopped me from getting in touch with the German embassy and finding an easy way for myself to leave that region. [...] In the end, everybody was just glad that nothing more had happened to me than a little trauma, however since I am back in Germany, I do have concerns about my family who are living in Tigray. I have not ​​communicated with my father’s family who live in Mekelle and other areas of Tigray for almost three months now. ” Timestamp: September 1, 2021

Mulu, who is based out of the country, highlights how the shutdown has made it almost impossible for him to check-in on his family. “The shutdown imposed on Tigray — and has now lasted months — is having an immense impact on my life, and I doubt if words can really express it. In short, it has changed my life. It felt like my worst nightmare. In the light of the fact that killings, starvation, sexual violence, and massive displacement was common place in Tigray, not knowing whether my family members were alive, or are sick was extremely excruciating. As my mom struggles with her health, I used to call her almost on a daily basis before the shutdown. With the shutdown, I almost convinced myself that I would never hear from her. I missed her voice. Hearing the atrocities being committed in the region from international media and not being able to call and console people I know was genuinely painful. They were the darkest of months. The worst part is that it still continues.” Timestamp: September 9, 2021

The shutdown has made communication between Siri (pseudonym) and her family very difficult. She shares her story below about how the inability to contact her loved ones has disrupted their lives, and left them in constant worry over the past months of digital darkness: “My family in-law whom I love and care about deeply lives in Tigray, Ethiopia. My partner and I live in Norway. The shutdown of telephone and internet services had a huge impact on my partner and myself, especially during the weeks immediately after the government bombed the city in which our family lives. It was extremely difficult not knowing if our loved ones were alive, or if they had enough food and other essentials. It was overwhelming and led to many traumatic reactions in us both. We had trouble sleeping and it was difficult to breathe. We suffered from intense anxiety, shock, and depression. When the phone was reconnected in December, it helped a lot to know our family members were alive and okay. It made a big difference to talk with them regularly, and to know how we could support them. My partner’s little sister is 10 years old, and it’s so painful to know that she is experiencing war, and cannot go to school. Being able to call her and have some "over the phone-schooling," as well as singing and laughing was really important. It helped knowing we could offer her some emotional support. At the beginning of July, the government shut down the phone services again. They’re still down. It’s just really difficult and I feel really angry.” Timestamp: September 10, 2021

How you can help fight shutdowns in Tigray and elsewhere

The human cost of internet shutdowns is immeasurable. But by sharing your stories, survivors — you — can help bring attention to this growing form of censorship and contribute to the fight to #KeepItOn. Governments around the world continue to impose shutdowns that interfere with people’s lives and even put them at risk. 

Help us amplify the negative impact of internet shutdowns under the #KeepItOn campaign, and shine light on the ways we can fight against them, by taking the following steps:

  1. Share this blog post on social media using the hashtag #KeepItOn and #InternetShutdown to raise awareness about the devastating impact of internet shutdowns on people’s lives.
  2. Share our Shutdown Stories form (also available in Tigrigna) with people in your network affected by a shutdown, to help us gather more testimonies to strengthen our advocacy work. Your stories serve as evidence of harm in court and at international forums. 

Learn more

#KeepItOn is a global campaign that brings together over 240 organizations from around the world united to end internet shutdowns through grassroots advocacy, direct policymaker engagement, technical support, and legal intervention.