‘Finish them off’: How three aid workers were executed on Ethiopian battlefield

Eyewitnesses say MSF workers were gunned down by government troops on orders of commander

As the fight intensified in northern Ethiopia in June last year, three aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières jumped into their four-wheel drive and raced across the battle-scarred landscape, searching for casualties.

Hours later, they vanished. The aid workers stopped answering their satellite phone. A tracking device showed their vehicle making a sudden U-turn, then stopping. Colleagues frantically tried to locate them.

The next day, they were found dead, their bullet-riddled bodies sprawled on a dusty roadside near their burned-out vehicle: María Hernández, a 35-year-old Spaniard and conflict veteran, in a bloodstained white bib with the Médecins Sans Frontières logo; Yohannes Halefom, a 32-year-old Ethiopian medic, face down in the dirt; and their Ethiopian driver, Tedros Gebremariam (31), lying on the road about 300 yards away.

Médecins Sans Frontières immediately denounced the killings as “brutal murder” but did not identify any culprit. Now one is coming into view. Investigators, senior aid officials and Ethiopian soldiers interviewed by the New York Times said the three aid workers were gunned down by retreating Ethiopian government troops on the orders of a commander who was infuriated to find them in an active combat zone.

"He said, 'Finish them off,'" said Capt Yetneberk Tesfaye of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, who said he heard the command over the radio. The aid workers had their hands over their heads when they were shot, according to another soldier who witnessed the killings.

The brutal slaying in the northern region of Tigray, where a feud between prime minister Abiy Ahmed and the leaders of the northern region of Tigray erupted into war in November 2020, attracted relatively little attention. It was yet another senseless atrocity in a bitter conflict that has been accompanied by reports of massacres, sexual assault, ethnic cleansing and other likely war crimes.

The atrocities are not just in Tigray. A gruesome video that circulated recently showed Ethiopian security forces burning alive three men, believed to be ethnic Tigrayans, in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz. The Ethiopian government pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But the killing of the three Médecins Sans Frontières employees underscored the specific perils facing aid workers in Ethiopia, where hunger and dislocation threaten millions even as the government seems to treat aid groups as enemies rather than allies.

Since last July, when Tigray fell into rebel control, respected aid groups have been accused of running guns to rebels, senior United Nations officials have been expelled from Ethiopia, and the government imposed a punishing blockade on the region that has cut off food supplies to five million needy people, the UN says.

Ethiopia is the world's deadliest country for aid workers, with 19 deaths in 2021, more than in Afghanistan, Syria or Congo, according to the Aid Worker Security Database, a compilation of data on attacks. Local employees bear the greatest risk; of the 129 aid workers who died around the world last year, only three were international staff, including Hernández.

Immediately after the Médecins Sans Frontières team was killed, the Ethiopian government blamed their deaths on Tigrayan rebels. The offices of Ethiopia’s prime minister, attorney general and military spokesperson did not respond to questions for this article.

Dramatic turn

When the team from Médecins Sans Frontières set out on June 24th from its base in Abiy Adiy, in central Tigray, the war had taken a dramatic turn. Two days earlier, the Ethiopian military had abandoned Abiy Adiy in the face of a sweeping Tigrayan offensive. Huge battles were erupting across the region, with significant Ethiopian losses. Tigrayan forces were pressing toward the regional capital, Mekelle.

The MSF team, though, was committed to its mission. Hernández, raised in a tiny Spanish village, found her calling in her early 20s while volunteering in India at a shelter for underprivileged children. "There wasn't a single day that I didn't go to bed without a feeling of peace and joy," she later wrote to her family.

In 2015, she joined MSF, which deployed her to some of the world's toughest conflict zones: Yemen, Mexico, South Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Hernández frequently returned to Madrid exhausted, and worried about finding the time to start a family, said Anne-Sophie Colleaux, a friend from Paris. But work came first.

“For her, it was more important to do what she was doing,” Colleaux said.

Yohannes, an easygoing medic with a quick smile, had joined MSF two months earlier, following a stint as medical director at a nearby hospital. He was equally dedicated to his work, his sister, Wezef Halefom, said in an interview.

Their driver, Tedros, ran a small taxi business in Tigray before snagging a coveted job with an international relief agency. His wife had just given birth to their second child, a girl. They had not settled on a name. The team drove south from Abiy Adiy, passing scattered bullet casings and shellfire craters from recent fighting, said a humanitarian investigator who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals against her organisation.

They found casualties – six wounded Tigrayan fighters and one civilian – who were dispatched to a hospital by ambulance. The team pressed on.

Just after 3 pm, about 1.5km before the village of Sheweate Hugum, their Land Cruiser came up behind an Ethiopian military convoy travelling in the same direction, according to six Ethiopian National Defence Force soldiers who were in the immediate area and were interviewed later for this story.

A spotter on the convoy reported the aid vehicle to their commander, Col Tadesse Bekele, of the Ethiopian military’s 31st Division, according to other soldiers who were listening to the radio channel. Tadesse ordered them to fire on the vehicle.

Hands raised

Bullets thudded into the Land Cruiser, causing the three aid workers to jump out and take cover on the roadside, the soldiers said. A tracking device later recovered by investigators showed that it made a U-turn at 3.11pm, then stopped.

Tadesse ordered his troops to apprehend the aid workers and search their vehicle. But when Hernández and Yohannes began to walk in his direction, hands raised, Tadesse yelled into his radio again. “He asked the soldiers why they were bringing the aid workers to him,” Yetneberk said. “Then he ordered them to finish them off.”

Capt Girmay Moges, positioned about 50m from the aid workers, said he witnessed what happened next. "Three or four soldiers killed them," he said.

The six soldiers spoke at the main prison in Mekelle, where they were held among thousands of Ethiopian troops imprisoned since Tigray fighters captured them in June. The New York Times interviewed them separately and saw no sign that they had been coerced or coached by their captors.

The soldiers said they knew that the incident reflected badly on Ethiopia’s military but agreed to speak out because they believed that it was wrong. Maj Teshome Abera hoped someone would eventually be held to account. “The soldiers would not have taken this action if they had not been ordered to do so,” he said.

But accountability is rare in Ethiopia’s war. The government has charged just 60 soldiers with war-related abuses since November 2020 and convicted 16. The Tigrayan rebels, accused of similar crimes, have not charged anyone.

Video and photographic evidence from the immediate aftermath of the killings showed the bodies of the slain aid workers and their incinerated Land Cruiser. Soldiers said the vehicle had been deliberately destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade.

The Ethiopian convoy continued south, to a town called Yechila, where it was ambushed by Tigrayan fighters. Several thousand Ethiopian soldiers were captured. Tadesse died on the battlefield, several soldiers said. The New York Times was unable to confirm his death.

Humanitarian crisis

Villagers lined the road as a UN-led convoy transported the bodies of the slain aid workers to Mekelle. Some villagers were dressed in traditional white garb, usually reserved for religious ceremonies, in a mark of honour.

But in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's government began to treat international aid workers as foes. In July, Redwan Hussein, a minister with responsibility for Tigray, accused aid groups of supplying weapons to the Tigrayan rebels. Soon after, the government suspended the operations of the Dutch section of Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and then expelled seven senior UN officials it accused of "meddling" in Ethiopia's internal affairs. By then, Tigrayan forces were sweeping south toward the capital, Addis Ababa.

But then the war changed direction again when Abiy, aided by armed drones supplied by Middle Eastern allies, forced the Tigrayans to retreat into Tigray. Now the conflict is concentrated in neighbouring Afar region, where hospitals are filled with badly injured children.

In Tigray, the humanitarian crisis is worsening. A government-imposed blockade means that just 8 per cent of required food aid has reached Tigray since October, the UN said, putting 23,000 “severely wasted children” at risk of imminent death.

Médecins Sans Frontières no longer operates in Tigray, although it continues to work in other regions of Ethiopia. Its employees have been "regularly subjected to harassment, serious threats and detentions", Paula Gil, head of the organization's Spanish branch, said in an email.

The aid group said it had shared the findings of its internal investigation into the deaths of the three aid workers with the Ethiopian government. But the tragedy has also raised questions about MSF’s security procedures. Although its frontline ethos often places its staff in greater danger than many other aid groups, several aid workers said in interviews that the organisation may have taken too many risks in Tigray.

On May 25th, a month before the killings, the aid group Action Against Hunger pulled its staff out of Abiy Adiy after some of its workers were detained, interrogated and beaten by Eritrean soldiers, an official with that organisation said.

The Eritreans, who were fighting alongside the Ethiopian military in support of Abiy, “assumed they were spies”, a security official with Action Against Hunger said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Gil of Médecins Sans Frontières insisted that its team in Abiy Adiy had followed “strict and rigorous security management protocols”.

Hernández was buried at a cemetery in Sanchotello, 180km from Madrid, alongside the grandparents who helped to raise her. A photogaph on the tomb shows a smiling young woman, looking out over the Spanish coast. Yohannes and the driver, Tedros, were buried near their homes in Tigray. Tedros's wife decided on a name for their newborn daughter. She called her Maria. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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