Massacre in sacred city in northern Ethiopia left hundreds dead, says Amnesty

Report details killing of unarmed civilians by Eritrean troops in Axum last November

Hundreds of unarmed civilians were massacred by Eritrean troops in a sacred northern Ethiopian city, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

The human rights organisation said both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops are also potentially guilty of war crimes carried out as they jointly fought to take control of Axum in a large-scale offensive, as part of the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region.

The massacre is said to have taken place between November 28th and 29th last, more than a week after the security forces took over the city, but detailed information is emerging only now, due to communication lines having been cut in much of Tigray weeks before.

Amnesty says it interviewed 41 survivors and witnesses, either in person in eastern Sudan, or on the phone from Axum. They described indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial executions, and widespread looting. Satellite imagery confirms these reports, Amnesty said, and also reveals the sites of mass burials close to two of the city's churches.

Researchers collected a list of names of more than 240 people believed to have been killed.

"The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty director for east and southern Africa.

“This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum’s residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials.”

Ten Commandments

Axum had a population of roughly 60,000 people prior to the war. It is known as a holy city. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe it was home to the Biblical Queen of Sheba, and that it still houses the Ark of the Covenant, a gilded case said to contain the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. The Ark is said to be kept at the St Mary of Zion cathedral, where it can only ever be seen by one guardian, a monk who dedicates his life to protecting it.

Some massacre survivors have suggested that people were killed trying to protect the site, though an Amnesty International spokesman said that did not come up in the interviews it carried out.

War began in Tigray in early November when Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced a military offensive against the region's leadership. Mr Abiy has accused the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) of trying to destabilise the country. Eritrea, once Ethiopia's enemy, has now aligned with Mr Abiy.

The prime minister came to power in 2018, sidelining Tigrayan politicians who had dominated Ethiopia's politics for decades. Last September, after Ethiopia's national elections were postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tigray region went ahead with its own.

The central government decried these as illegal. The war has led to a hugehumanitarian emergency. Tens of thousands of people have fled the country to eastern Sudan, while opposition parties say tens of thousands more have been killed.