In November 2020, as war broke out in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the scale of the suffering was already apparent to anyone on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. As the Ethiopian National Defense Force and allied Amhara militias and Eritrean soldiers swept through the region in a pincer movement, Tigrayans began to flee en masse, walking for days without water to get to safety in neighboring Sudan.
Hundreds of refugees made an almost biblical sight as they traversed the Hamdayet River crossing that separates the two countries. Small boats laden with men, women, and children pushed against the current, ferrying people to safety every few minutes.
On the Sudanese side, middle-class Tigrayan women stood shaded under brightly colored umbrellas, desperately peering into every boat to look for their loved ones they had lost on the other side.
One woman’s anxiety was palpable. She had stood at the river in the beating sun with her baby strapped to her back for several days waiting for her family—and fearing the worst. “Please, help us,” she said. “Take their names and write about them.”
At one point, dozens of refugees fresh from the desert march and fearful of disclosing their identities started to shout out names of people they’d seen killed. One of us, reporting at the border, wrote down six names before the cacophony became overwhelming.
The refugees’ testimonies all pointed to indiscriminate artillery fire on civilian areas, massive looting, machete-wielding ethnic militiamen, and summary executions.
Around 50,000 people from bordering Tigrayan towns made it into Sudan before the Ethiopian army began stationing men in federal army uniforms at intervals along the border, sealing it off.
Some refugees said they had been threatened with death if they kept going. “They threatened to cut our heads off if we kept trying to leave Tigray,” one mother of five said in late November.
Online trolls and officials in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa then launched a systematic campaign to discredit refugees’ accounts, claiming that agents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had infiltrated the Sudanese camps to spread disinformation about atrocities.
Over the last four months, Tigray’s continued communications blackout has made it incredibly difficult to confirm accusations of potential war crimes committed by forces on both sides. Amnesty International says Eritrean troops systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum last November.
Yet information has slowly slipped out from behind the curtain. In December 2020, a news team from Belgium’s VRT News gained rare access to Tigray. They found medical centers ransacked for medication and saw patients, including a small girl, covered in debilitating infections from bullet and shrapnel wounds.
About two dozen photos—far too graphic to publish—sent to journalists by a resident of the regional capital Mekele who escaped Tigray show the bodies of children and adolescents blown to pieces by the government’s artillery barrage of the city.
The United Nations special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, said she has received reports of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting of property, mass executions, and impeded humanitarian access. Nderitu warned that without taking urgent measures, the risk of atrocity crimes “remains high and likely to get worse.”
In February, the Telegraph was sent four-minute-long video of fighters in Ethiopian federal army uniforms walking past dozens of dead men and boys. The clip is the first video evidence to emerge from Tigray, implicating the Ethiopian army in war crimes.
In the clip, which has been geolocated to a village on the outskirts of the 14th-century Debre Abbay monastery in central Tigray and verified as undoctored by the newspaper, soldiers taunt the few Tigrinya-speaking survivors in Ethiopia’s lingua franca, Amharic.
When one adolescent lying on the ground pleads with the soldiers in Tigrinya, one man shouts at him: “Keep talking, I’ll fuck your mother. Keep talking, you son of a bitch.”
With no action, the dire situation in Tigray will only get worse. Humanitarian agencies have been consistently blocked from working in the region and have issued dire statements saying that tens of thousands of people are now facing starvation. Refugees are reportedly turning up to aid centers emaciated. People are reportedly eating leaves to survive, drinking polluted water, and dying of hunger in their sleep.
“There is an extreme urgent need—I don’t know what more words in English to use—to rapidly scale up the humanitarian response, because the population is dying every day as we speak,” Mari Carmen Vinoles, head of the emergency unit for Doctors Without Borders, told the Associated Press in January.
Aid workers have been consistently obstructed from providing emergency relief, however. Even the Ethiopian Red Cross, which has relatively good access compared to other organizations, said earlier this month that it could only reach 20 percent of the people in need in Tigray.
Hard questions need to be asked: Why is the blackout still largely in place, and why are so few aid workers being allowed in? Does Addis Ababa not want people looking into allegations of massive human rights abuses by federal troops? Or is it trying to hide the true extent to which Eritrea is involved in the conflict? Or maybe the federal government simply cannot allow access because it is not in control of vast stretches of the region? The Ethiopian government declined to reply to specific questions from Foreign Policy.