Behind the front lines: How guerrilla fighters routed Ethiopia’s powerful army

Simmering feud between PM Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders erupted into war last November

The Tigrayan fighters whooped, whistled and pointed excitedly to a puff of smoke in the sky where an Ethiopian military cargo plane trundling over the village minutes earlier had been struck by a missile. Smoke turned to flames as the stricken aircraft broke in two and hurtled toward the ground. Later, in a stony field strewn with smoking wreckage, villagers picked through twisted metal and body parts. For the Tigrayan fighters, it was a sign.

"Soon we're going to win," said Azeb Desalgne, a 20-year-old with an AK-47 over her shoulder. The downing of the plane on June 22nd offered bracing evidence that the conflict in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia was about to take a seismic turn. A Tigrayan guerrilla army had been fighting to drive out the Ethiopian military for eight months in a civil war marked by atrocities and starvation. Now the fight seemed to be turning in their favour.

The war erupted in November, when a simmering feud between prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders, members of a small ethnic minority who had dominated Ethiopia for much of the three previous decades, exploded into violence.

Since then, the fighting has been largely hidden from view, obscured by communications blackouts and overshadowed by international outrage over an escalating humanitarian crisis. But during a pivotal week, I went behind the front lines with a photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly, and witnessed a cascade of Tigrayan victories that culminated in their retaking the region’s capital and altered the course of the war.

We saw how a scrappy Tigrayan force overcame one of the largest armies in Africa through force of arms and by exploiting a wave of popular rage. Going into the war, Tigrayans were themselves divided, with many distrustful of a governing Tigrayan party seen as tired, authoritarian and corrupt.

But the catalogue of horrors that has defined the war – massacres, ethnic cleansing and extensive sexual violence – united Tigrayans against Abiy’s government, drawing highly motivated young recruits to a cause that now enjoys widespread support.

“It’s like a flood,” said Hailemariam Berhane, a commander, as several thousand young men and women, many in jeans and sneakers, marched past en route to a camp for new recruits. “Everyone’s coming here.”

‘To hell and back’

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and has staked his prestige on the Tigray campaign, has downplayed his losses. In a self-assured address to parliament on Tuesday of a kind that once dazzled admiring Westerners, Abiy insisted that his military’s retreat from Tigray was planned – the latest phase of a fight the government was on course to win.

Seen from the ground, though, Tigray has been slipping through his fingers. In the past three weeks, Tigrayan fighters have captured a wide swath of territory; retaken the regional capital, Mekelle; and imprisoned at least 6,600 Ethiopian soldiers – and claimed to have killed about three times as many.

In recent days, Tigrayan leaders have expanded the offensive to new parts of the region, vowing to stop only when all outside forces have been expelled from their land: Ethiopians, allied troops from the neighbouring country of Eritrea and ethnic militias from the next-door Amhara region of Ethiopia.

"If we have to go to hell and back, we'll do it," said Getachew Reda, a senior Tigrayan leader. Press officers for Abiy and the Ethiopian military did not respond to questions for this article. We flew into Mekelle on June 22nd, a day after national elections in Ethiopia that had been heralded as a major step toward the country's transition to democracy.

In Tigray, though, there was no voting, and the Ethiopian military had just launched a sweeping offensive intended to crush for good the Tigrayan resistance, now known as the Tigray Defence Forces, commanders on both sides said.

An Ethiopian air strike had struck a crowded village market that day, killing dozens. We watched as the first casualties arrived at Mekelle’s largest hospital. Days later, three aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières were brutally murdered by unknown assailants.

In the countryside, the war was moving at a furious pace. Ethiopian military positions fell like dominoes. Hours after the Tigrayans shot down the military cargo plane, we reached a camp holding several thousand newly captured Ethiopian soldiers, about 50km south of Mekelle.

Scattered bodies

Clustered behind a barbed wire fence, the prisoners erupted into applause when we stepped from our vehicle – hoping, they later explained, that we were Red Cross workers. Some were wounded, others barefoot – Tigrayans confiscated their boots as well as their guns, they said – and many pleaded for help. "We have badly wounded soldiers here," said Meseret Asratu (29), a platoon commander.

Farther along the road was the battlefield where others had died. The bodies of Ethiopian soldiers were scattered across a rocky field, untouched since a fight four days earlier, now swelling in the afternoon sun. Personal items cast aside nearby, amid empty ammunition boxes and abandoned uniforms, hinted at young lives interrupted: dog-eared photographs of loved ones, university certificates, chemistry textbooks and sanitary pads – a reminder that women fight on both sides of the conflict.

Stragglers were still being rounded up. The next day, Tigrayan fighters marched five just-captured prisoners up a hill, where they slumped to the ground, exhausted. Dawit Toba, a glum 20-year-old from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, said he had surrendered without firing a shot. War in Tigray was not like he had imagined. “We were told there would be fighting,” he said. “But when we got here, it was looting, robbery, attacks on women.

“This war was not necessary,” he added. “Mistakes have been made.” Driving off, we came across a figure sprawled on the roadside – an Ethiopian, stripped of his uniform, with several bullet wounds to his leg. He groaned softly. The wounded soldier appeared to have been dumped there, although it was not clear by whom. We drove him back to the prisoner camp, where Ethiopian medics did some basic treatment on the ground outside a school. Nobody was sure if he would survive.

Artillery boomed in the distance. The Tigrayan offensive was continuing to the north, using captured heavy guns against the Ethiopian troops who had brought them in. A platoon of fighters walked through, bearing a wounded man on a stretcher.

Teklay Tsegay watched them pass. Before the war, Teklay (20) was a mechanic in Adigrat, 110km north. Then, last February, Eritrean soldiers fired into his aunt’s house, killing her five-year-old daughter, he said. The next day, Teklay slipped out of Adigrat to join the resistance.

“I never thought I would be a soldier,” he said. “But here I am.”

Tigrayan culture

As Tigrayans quietly mustered a guerrilla army this year, they drew on their experience of fighting a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, under the flag of the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Then, Tigrayan intellectuals used Marxist ideology to bind peasant fighters to their cause, much like the Viet Cong or rebels in Angola and Mozambique.

But this time, the Tigrayan fighters are largely educated and hail from the towns and cities. And it is anger at atrocities, not Marxism, that drew them to the cause.

At the recruitment camp, instructors standing under trees gave speeches about Tigrayan culture and identity and taught new recruits to fire an AK-47. The wave of recruits has included doctors, professors, white-collar professionals and diaspora Tigrayans from the United States and Europe, colleagues and friends said.

Even in government-held Mekelle, recruitment grew increasingly brazen. Two weeks ago, a TDF poster appeared on a wall beside St Gabriel’s, the city’s largest church. “Those who fail to join are as good as the walking dead,” it read. Hours later, Ethiopian soldiers arrived and tore it down.

Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe (61), a senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, was visiting Mekelle when war erupted in November. I found him near the town of Samre, a leather-holstered pistol on his hip.

"I joined the resistance," said the academic, who once helped broker a peace deal for the United Nations in Darfur. "I felt I had no other option."

Even some Ethiopian commanders felt alienated by Abiy’s approach to the conflict. Until late June, Col Hussein Mohamed, a tall man with a gold-tooth smile, commanded the 11th Infantry Division in Tigray. Now he was a prisoner, held with other Ethiopian officers in a closely guarded farmhouse. Of the 3,700 troops under his command, at least half were probably dead, said Hussein, confirming that he was speaking voluntarily.

“The course of this war is political madness, to my mind,” he said. He always had serious reservations about Abiy’s military alliance with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, he said: “They ransack properties. They rape women. They commit atrocities. The whole army is unhappy about this marriage.” Still, Ethiopian soldiers have been accused of much the same crimes.

Deserted corridors

I met Hussein in a stone-walled room, with a tin roof, as rain splattered outside. When the room’s owner, Tsehaye Berhe, arrived with a tray of coffee cups, her face clouded over. “Take it!” she snapped at the Ethiopian officer. “I’m not serving you.” Moments later Tsehaye returned to apologise. “I’m sorry for being emotional,” she said. “But your soldiers burned my house and stole my crops.” Hussein nodded quietly.

Even before Ethiopian forces abandoned Mekelle on June 28th, there were hints that something was afoot. The internet went down, and at the regional headquarters where Abiy had installed an interim government, I found deserted corridors and locked offices. Outside, federal police officers were slinging backpacks into a bus.

Smoke rose from the Ethiopian National Defence Forces’ headquarters in Mekelle – a pyre of burning documents, it turned out, piled high by detainees accused of supporting the TDF. Weeks earlier, Ethiopian intelligence officers had tortured one of them, Yohannes Haftom, with a cattle prod. “We will burn you,” Yohannes recalled them saying. “We will bury you alive.”

But after he followed their orders to cart their confidential documents to the burn pit on June 28th, the Ethiopians set Yohannes free. Hours later, the first TDF fighters entered Mekelle, setting off days of raucous celebration.

Residents filled streets where young fighters paraded on vehicles like beauty queens or leaned from speeding tuktuks spraying gunfire into the air. Nightclubs and cafes filled up, and an older woman prostrated herself at the feet of a just-arrived fighter, shouting thanks to God.

On the fourth day, fighters paraded thousands of Ethiopian prisoners through the city centre in a show of triumphalism that was a pointed rebuke to the leader of Ethiopia. “Abiy is a thief!” people chanted as dejected soldiers marched past.

The celebrations eventually reached the house where Getachew, the Tigrayan leader and TDF spokesperson, now descended from his mountain base, was staying. As the whiskey flowed, Getachew juggled calls on his satellite phone while a generator rattled in the background. Abiy had once been his political ally, even his friend, he said. Now the Ethiopian leader had cut the power and phone lines to Mekelle and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Buoyed by victory, the guests excitedly discussed the next phase of their war in Tigray. One produced a cake with the Tigrayan flag that Getachew, sharing a knife with a senior commander, cut to loud cheers. For much of his career, he had been a staunch defender of the Ethiopian state. But the war made that position untenable, he said.

Now he was planning a referendum on Tigrayan independence. “Nothing can save the Ethiopian state as we know it, except a miracle,” he said. “And I don’t usually believe in them.” – New York Times

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