Fear and hostility simmer as Ethiopia’s military keeps hold on Tigray
Bitter civil conflict marked by accounts of rights violations has caused alarm across the world
The Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city, in northern Ethiopia. Photograph: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/ Anadolu Agency via Getty
The calm is deceptive. A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace. Then the stories start spilling out.
Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds – people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew. Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar.
Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.
Of a night-long battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Alefesha Hadusha, her head swaddled in bandages, as she gave a whispered account in a hospital ward. Her parents and two brothers were killed instantly, she said. An X-ray by her bed showed the bullet lodged in her head.
When Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, began a sweeping military operation in the restive region of Tigray on November 4th, he cast his goal in narrow terms: to capture the leadership of the region’s ruling party. The party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had brazenly defied his authority for months and then attacked a federal military base.
But four months on, the operation has degenerated into a bitter civil conflict marked by accounts of rights violations – massacres, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing and fears that starvation is being used as a war tactic – that have set off alarm across the world.
In Mekelle, the region’s biggest city, many Tigrayans say they feel they, not their leaders, are the true targets of the campaign. Hospitals are filled with casualties from the fighting that rages in the countryside, many of them terrified civilians arriving with grievous wounds.
Schools house some of the 71,000 people who fled to the city, often bringing accounts of horrific abuses at the hands of pro-government forces. A palpable current of fear and resentment courses through the streets, where hostilities between residents and government soldiers often erupt into violence.
“We don’t say that everything was perfect under the TPLF,” said Assimee Misgina, a philosophy lecturer at Mekelle University. “But this is a war against the people of Tigray. Basically, we are under an existential threat.”
The Ayder Referral hospital received the bodies of 250 men, aged 20-35
The prime minister, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, denies responsibility for any atrocities, and United Nations officials say that all sides, including the TPLF, may have committed war crimes. But the majority of serious accusations have been aimed at government troops and their allies – the ethnic Amhara militias that moved into the western part of Tigray, and soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbour and one-time enemy.
Abiy’s spokesperson and head of an Ethiopian taskforce dealing with the crisis in Tigray did not respond to a list of questions or repeated requests for comment for this article.
In Mekelle, captured by government troops on November 28th, residents have learned to toe the government line, even if the nearest battleground is 100km away. Restaurants and bars no longer play certain songs in the local Tigrinya language, fearing retribution. A TV station that once broadcast local news now offers the government perspective.
The interim president of Tigray, Mulu Nega, holds court in a luxury hotel where federal soldiers stand guard by the entrance. The internet has been shut down since November.
In late February, when authorities allowed a visit to Mekelle by international reporters, Tigrayans flocked to hotels where journalists were staying, desperate for news of the outside world – and to tell their own stories.
In the lobby of the Northern Star hotel, Berhane Takelle, manager of a garment factory, produced a video that showed the remains of his business in Adwa, 160km to the north – charred machinery, a destroyed roof and garments strewn across an empty floor. It was all that remained, he said, following a series of raids by plundering Eritrean soldiers.
“They took everything,” Berhane said, shaking his head. At the city’s main hospital, the Ayder Referral hospital, officials said they received the bodies of 250 men, aged 20-35, between November 28th, when Ethiopian soldiers seized Mekelle, and March 9th. Four-fifths of the bodies had gunshot wounds, and the rest had knife injuries, said a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
Most of the attacks appeared to have been carried out by government soldiers, he added.
Last month Amnesty International accused Eritrean soldiers of massacring hundreds of civilians in Axum, in northern Tigray, in late November, hours after Tigrayan militants attacked an Eritrean military post in the town.
In western Tigray, US officials found evidence of ethnic cleansing led by ethnic Amhara officials and militia fighters, according to an internal US government report obtained by the New York Times.
A spokesperson for the Amhara regional government told Bloomberg this week that it was pressing to officially incorporate western Tigray into Amhara.
In late February, Abiy said he took the “safety, security and wellbeing of all Ethiopian citizens very seriously” and he was ready to co-operate with any joint investigation of abuses with “relevant human rights bodies”. On Wednesday, the opening of an investigation was approved by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It’s not acceptable that people should die like this. But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it
Before Congress last week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken called the situation in Tigray unacceptable and reiterated calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw immediately. “They need to come out,” Blinken said.
Mulu, the interim leader of Tigray, cuts a lonely figure in Mekelle. An ethnic Tigrayan installed by Abiy nine days into the war, he lives and works from a suite at the Axum Hotel, where he is trying to restart Tigray’s bureaucracy.
Unlike Abiy, Mulu does not deny the Eritrean presence in Tigray. And in an interview, he said he had initiated his own inquiry into reported atrocities. “It’s not acceptable that people should die like this,” he said. “But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it.”
Tigray’s health services, once among the best in Ethiopia, have been ravaged. On Monday, Médecins sans Frontières said dozens of clinics had been destroyed and plundered by soldiers.
Berhanu Mekonnen, head of the Ethiopian Red Cross in Tigray, said in an interview that Eritrean soldiers had killed seven of his workers, including a driver who was dragged from his ambulance and shot.
The Red Cross’s fleet of 254 ambulances has been reduced to 30, Berhanu added. Most were seized by soldiers or destroyed in fighting. Those still in use were often hidden to prevent Eritrean soldiers stealing them, he said.
The battle is also one of narratives. The government often accuses critics and foreign news outlets of falling for TPLF spin, a charge made by backers of Abiy who recently protested outside the New York offices of the New York Times.
In Washington a day earlier, a senior diplomat at the Ethiopian embassy quit his job over the reports of atrocities in Tigray, accusing Abiy of leading Ethiopia “down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration”.
Inside Tigray, soldiers detained Ethiopian translators and reporters working for four international outlets, including the New York Times, last month. Days later, the men were released without being charged, but by then most foreign reporters had been forced to leave Tigray.
I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes
In such a fraught environment, even massacres are contested. Abiy’s officials frequently cite a massacre in Mai Kadra, a town in western Tigray, on November 9th, as an example of TPLF war crimes.
Witnesses cited in an Amnesty International report blamed the deaths on Tigrayan fighters. But at a camp in Mekelle, eight residents of Mai Kadra said the killings had in fact been carried out by the Fano, an ethnic Amhara militia group with a reputation for brutality, and insisted that the majority of victims were Tigrayans.
Solomon Haileselassie (28) said he watched the slaughter as he hid in a rubbish dump. “I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes,” he said.
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said the group had received credible new evidence of Tigrayan deaths, but stood by the finding that the majority of victims were Amharas.
Restricted access and the “high politicisation of violence” make it hard to establish the truth about much of anything in Tigray, Fisseha added. – New York Times