BBC: Ethiopia PM Ahmed Abiy admits Eritrea forces in Tigray

Published by the BBC.

Ethiopia’s prime minister has acknowledged for the first time that troops from neighbouring Eritrea have been in the Tigray region following the outbreak of conflict in November.

For months both countries have denied that troops crossed the border.

Abiy Ahmed told MPs that Eritrean forces came fearing they would be attacked by Tigray’s regional fighters.

The conflict began after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) captured military bases in the region.

The TPLF had been the ruling party in the northern Ethiopian region, but had a massive fall-out with Mr Abiy over the future of Ethiopia’s ethnically based federal system and its role in government.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Tigray over the last five months.

Despite the TPLF being ousted from power in Tigray at the end of November and Mr Abiy declaring that the conflict was over, fighting is continuing in parts of the region.

What was Eritrea’s involvement?

Mr Abiy, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, did not admit Eritrean soldiers had been deployed in Ethiopian towns.

Rights groups allege Eritrean soldiers have committed atrocities in towns like Aksum, which include killing unarmed civilians, raping women and the widespread looting of public and private properties.

The prime minister told parliament that Eritrea had said its soldiers were acting to secure the border, taking over trenches there abandoned by Ethiopian soldiers who had gone off to fight.

He said he had spoken to Eritrean officials about allegations that soldiers from Eritrea had carried out atrocities in Tigray.

“After the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable,” the AFP news agency quotes him as saying.

His Twitter account added: “Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region.

“Regardless of the TPLF propaganda of exaggeration, any soldier responsible for raping our women and looting communities in the region will be held accountable as their mission is to protect.”

BBC: Tigray conflict: World powers condemn ‘human rights abuses’

Published by the BBC.

The G7 group of leading economic powers has said it is “strongly concerned” by reports of human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region.

The group, which includes the UK, US and the EU, called for the reported crimes to be investigated and those responsible to be held to account.

They also urged Eritrea to withdraw troops that are fighting alongside Ethiopia against forces in Tigray.

Both countries’ troops have been accused of numerous rights abuses.

These include mass killings of civilians, sexual violence, looting and the abuse of refugees. A BBC Africa Eye investigation has also uncovered evidence suggesting the Ethiopian military carried out a massacre in which at least 15 men were killed.

Eritrea has dismissed the accusations, while Ethiopia’s prime minister has previously denied that any civilians have been killed.

The conflict began in November after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) captured military bases in the northern Ethiopian region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed then ordered an offensive to oust the group.

The TPLF had been the ruling party in the area, but fell out with Mr Abiy over his efforts to increase the power of the central government.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the fighting began. Tigrayan forces, meanwhile, have also faced accusations of human rights abuses.

“We condemn the killing of civilians, sexual and gender based violence, indiscriminate shelling and the forced displacement of residents of Tigray and Eritrean refugees,” the G7 group said in a statement on Friday.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” it added.

The statement, which was made by the group’s foreign ministers and the High Representative of the EU, also expressed concern over “worsening food insecurity” and called for “immediate, unhindered humanitarian access” to the region.

But it welcomed a recent announcement from Mr Abiy that said Eritrea would withdraw its troops from Ethiopia. He did not specify a date, however, and Eritrea has not confirmed the withdrawal.

There has long been animosity between Tigray and the government in Eritrea, which shares a border with the region.

The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia has proved especially controversial because the two countries fought a bitter border war, which was only officially ended after Mr Abiy became prime minister in 2018 – a move which earned him the Nobel Peace prize the following year.

Thousands of people have fled Eritrea in recent years, largely because of forced conscription which can last for decades.

Last week, UN aid workers reached two refugee camps housing some 22,000 Eritreans in Tigray.

They said the Shimelba and Hitsats camps had been completely destroyed and all humanitarian facilities looted and vandalised.

TIME: The U.N. Is Warning of an ‘Alarming’ Crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

Published by TIME.

UNITED NATIONS — A U.N. humanitarian official warned Thursday of an ongoing crisis in Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region, pointing to targeted civilian killings, over 500 recent rape cases, an increasing number of people fleeing violence, 4.5 million people needing food, and children on the brink of starvation.

Wafaa Said, the deputy humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia who spent 2 1/2 months in Tigray, said in a virtual briefing to U.N. members that the impact of the crisis isn’t fully known because of communications blackouts in large parts of the region and lack of access to vast areas, especially rural areas. “Yet what is already known is quite alarming,” he said.

The U.N.’s humanitarian partners continue to receive corroborated reports of targeted civilian killings, sexual and gender-based violence, forced displacement, restricted movements of civilians and extensive looting of civilian property, Said noted.

No one knows how many thousands of civilians or combatants have been killed since months of political tensions between Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government exploded in November into war. Eritrea, a longtime Tigray enemy, teamed up with neighboring Ethiopia in the conflict.

As fierce fighting reportedly continues between Ethiopian and allied forces and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government, alarm is growing over the fate of Tigray’s 6 million people.

In terms of access for humanitarian staff, Said said, it is hindered by insecurity and clashes that continue in many parts of the region involving Ethiopian forces, Eritrean forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and forces from the neighboring Amhara region.

While it’s impossible to identify the full scale of displacement, Said told the diplomats local officials currently estimate that around 950,000 people fled their homes, most with just the clothes they were wearing.

“They are generally traumatized and tell stories of the difficult journey they took in search of safety,” Said reported. “Some reported walking for two weeks and some as far as 500 kilometers. Of the people who traveled with them, some were reportedly killed, particularly youngsters. People were reportedly beaten. Women were subject to rape. Some were pregnant and delivered on the way losing their babies.”

He said five medical facilities recorded 516 rape cases in mid-March, and given that most health facilities aren’t functioning and the stigma associated with rape, “it is projected that the actual numbers are much higher.”

“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” Said told the diplomats.

Even before the conflict, he said Tigray was facing a deteriorating socio-economic situation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and an infestation of desert locusts. When fighting began, the “harvest was lost or burned, existing food stocks were looted or destroyed.” Food security was also impacted by the disruption of commercial supplies and failure to pay civil servants salaries for past months, he said.

The famine early warning system projected in early February that an emergency was expected across extensive areas of central and eastern Tigray, Said reported. And a rapid nutrition assessment in the first week of March indicated that among screened children under the age of 5, the proportion affected by acute malnutrition “greatly exceeded the emergency threshold of 15%” in all six areas assessed.

Said cited estimates that 82% of the 229 health centers in Tigray are not functioning, or no communication has been established with them.

The Genocidal War in Tigray

Published by Modern Diplomacy

The Horn of Africa is known for its rugged terrain and perpetual humanitarian mayhems. Quite a reality, however, is the recurrent theme of regional conflicts that have seeped within the countries over the decades of escalation. While some ended in negotiation and many were parlayed into diplomatic successes, a handful of conflicts have unrooted the stability of the region. One such crisis is the massacre of Tigray; a northern region of Ethiopia, that has transitioned into one of the bloodiest civil wars in the history of Africa. What started as defiance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) against the government developed into a bloodbath. In a blink of the eye, the region was rocked by heavy weaponry from all corners: both within and beyond the borders of Ethiopia. The conflict has mounted over 1000 deaths in the span of three months with tens of thousands displaced in utter chaos. However, what appears to be a counter retaliation by the government forces, as so claimed by Ethiopian officials, is only the tip of the iceberg as the roots of the conflict trace back decades and involve a labyrinth of regional and ethnic disparities which have exploded into a genocide in Tigray.

Ethiopia is a landlocked East-African country, the second populous country in Africa. Despite an unstable history, Ethiopia is located in a key location marked as the point of stability in the Horn of Africa. This significance is derived by its geographical positioning in the region: wedged between the trio of Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. Ethiopia has served as a point of buffer between these three unstable countries yet with such a sensitive location, Ethiopia has witnessed its fair share of conflicts over decades. The war with Sudan emerged in 1977 over the disputed region in the north of Ethiopia, where the country borders Sudan. Though by 1998 most of the disputes were resolved, the conflict over the northern periphery of Ethiopia, known as ‘Al-Fashaga’, remained a thorn in the budding relations. Jumping ahead a decade, a key campaign was reached by the coalition government of Ethiopia. The deal was championed by the dominating party of the coalition; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The diplomatic strike bargained the historic compromise between Ethiopia and Sudan: the establishment of a soft border, Ethiopia recognizing the contested region as the legal boundary with Sudan. However, what was celebrated once as a victory is now one of the fuelling causes of the genocide against the TPLF and about 3 million Tigrayans. 

Another conflict flaming the deteriorating situation today in northern Ethiopia is the conflict with Eritrea that rattled the region in the penultimate year of the millennial. Unlike the settled arrears of distaste with Sudan, the Ethiopian clash with Eritrea in 1998 was a blood-ridden campaign over the contested land in the north, known as ‘Badme’. The clash costed a cumulative of 80000 deaths, mostly Eritrean soldiers. Despite the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarding the land to Eritrea, the coalition government led by TPLF refused to withdraw from the contested land which gradually built up the tensions with Eritrea in the north. However, the dismay was not targeted towards Ethiopia in general, but TPLF specifically as the eruption of the civil war allowed the sentiments of the Eritrean army to perforate Tigray in an act to avenge the deaths burgeoning in Eritrea at the command of TPLF.

The external conflicts, however, are only the combusting elements of the escalation in Tigray. The fundamental causes root deep in the historical context of Ethiopia itself. Tigray is a region in the north of Ethiopia, dominated and governed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party in Ethiopia. The TPLF had a triumphant contribution to the liberation movement in Ethiopia since 1989. The TPLF led the coalition movement that eventually came to be known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Diplomatic Front (EPRDF). With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Marxist ideology soon perished and the EPDRF overthrew the dictatorial rule to form a government in Ethiopia in 1991. Being the dominant party of the coalition, the TPLF reigned the harness to both military and diplomatic struggles, some of which irked the internal rivals. 

Amhara, the second-largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia, always butted heads with the Tigrayans. Despite the estimated 6% majority of the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, the TPLF enjoyed an oversized majority in the EPRDF coalition which was gradually building a general political dissatisfaction within Ethiopia. Many of the diplomatic turns, including the ‘Soft border agreement’ with Sudan, were cast in the suspicious hue of treason. The grudges and desires surfaced when the EPRDF proposed a country-wide party system to eradicate animosity in Ethiopia. While the TPLF refused to bow down to the inclusive agenda, all the rival parties merged with EPRDF to form the ‘Prosperity Party’, post the accession of the elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. In line with his long-term ambition to recalibrate powers in Ethiopia and eradicate federalism churned by the TPLF, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed established the prosperity party while dismembering the TPLF as the only minority party: after almost 3 decades of its political supremacy in Ethiopia.

However, the TPLF put up a fight and demanded elections in Tigray. The requests were shrugged off by the government on the account of Covid restrictions. This was the point of contention that led to escalation. What was reported as a skirmish between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) was quickly bombarded into warfare in November 2020. The EDF entered Tigray from southern Amhara under the ‘Law and Order Operation’ commandeered by prime minister Abiy Ahmed to crush the TPLF. Over the month, the EDF and the Amhara rebels seized western and southern Tigray while completely shattering the TPLF. 

Adding oil to the fire, the Eritrean forces penetrated northern Tigray and massacred thousands of Tigrayans, including some of the leaders of the TPLF. Notably, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for his remarkable feat of establishing peace with long-term foe Eritrea. However, what then came as a commendable effort renditioned in the chaos of the Tigray genocide. Not only did Eritrean forces systematically overpower the TPLF, the forces allegedly colluded with the Ethiopian defence forces to whelm the common enemy. Eritrea successfully reclaimed the long-lost town of Badme and Amhara decimated the TPLF, all whilst wreaking havoc in Tigray. 

As the Amhara flag flicker on the land of Tigray, the remnants of the TPLF are nowhere to be found. With many leaders perished and the remaining scattered over neighboring countries, the remaining Tigrayans have no voice to harken for justice. The former deputy prime minister of Ethiopia and president of the TPLF, Mr. Debretsion Gabremicael, accused the Ethiopian government of conducting a ‘Genocidal War’ against the people of Tigray. Whilst, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over Tigray in late November. Surprisingly enough, the government neither claimed any loss of civilian lives nor admitted to the infiltration of Tigray by Eritrean forces. With thousands butchered to death, the Ethiopian government banned the TPLF in January 2021 and barricaded any source of relief to Tigray.

“All sorts of genocidal acts have been committed in Tigray”, said Mr. Debretsion Gabremicael. Over 60000 Tigrayans have fled the country as the genocide continues in Tigray. Their sole representation is crushed to the ground whilst a complete communication blackout is imposed in the region. The entrapped Tigrayans are subject to grueling gyrations of sexual assault, target killings, and rampant looting. The Tigrayans have repeatedly appealed to the International community to take action against the genocidal tendencies running wild in Ethiopia; urging the regional countries to advocate a resolve before the minority is wiped from existence. With the UN peddling the rights of Tigrayans, countries including the UK have responded strongly to the plea of the Tigrayans. Recently, the United States deemed the genocide as an ‘Ethnic cleansing exercise’. The US secretary state, Antony Blinken, urged both the Eritrean troops and the Ethiopian defense forces to immediately withdraw from Tigray. 

However, the brazen remarks of the Ethiopian Foreign minister imply anything but a near-end to the genocide. He rebuked the US secretary state: “It [the US statement] is regrettable. It should be clear that such matters are the sole responsibility of the Ethiopian government and as a sovereign nation, it is our responsibility to deploy the security structures where necessary”. While the US has threatened to sever defense aid to Ethiopia, the famine-like situation of Tigray demands a prompt and congregational action. With blockades of food and health facilities in Tigray, no humanitarian access to the welfare groups and continual oppression of the Tigrayans, immediate action and restoration of the victims is dire and of immediate concern as the situation turns graver by the day.

FP: The U.N. Must End the Horrors of the Tigray War

Published by Foreign Policy

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.

Amnesty: Massacre Of Axum Civilians Could Be Crime Against Humanity

Published by Amnesty International

Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray state systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum on 28-29 November 2020, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

Amnesty International spoke to 41 survivors and witnesses – including in-person interviews with recently arrived refugees in eastern Sudan and phone interviews with people in Axum – as well as 20 others with knowledge of the events. They consistently described extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting after Ethiopian and Eritrean troops led an offensive to take control of the city amid the conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in mid-November.

Satellite imagery analysis by the organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab corroborates reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting, as well as identifies signs of new mass burials near two of the city’s churches.

“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 International’s 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.”

The mass killings came just before the annual celebration at Axum Tsion Mariam, a major Ethiopian Orthodox Christian festival on 30 November, compounding the trauma by casting a pall over an annual event that typically draws many pilgrims and tourists to the sacred city.

On 19 November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum in a large-scale offensive, killing and displacing civilians with indiscriminate shelling and shooting.

In the nine days that followed, the Eritrean military engaged in widespread looting of civilian property and extrajudicial executions.

Witnesses could easily identify the Eritrean forces. They drove vehicles with Eritrean license plates, wore distinctive camouflage and footwear used by the Eritrean army and spoke Arabic or a dialect of Tigrinya not spoken in Ethiopia. Some bore the ritual facial scars of the Ben Amir, an ethnic group absent from Ethiopia. Finally, some of the soldiers made no secret of their identity; they openly told residents they were Eritrean.

According to witnesses, the Eritrean troops unleashed the worst of the violence on 28-29 November. The onslaught came directly after a small band of pro-TPLF militiamen attacked the soldiers’ base on Mai Koho mountain on the morning of 28 November. The militiamen were armed with rifles and supported by residents brandishing improvised weapons, including sticks, knives and stones.

Sustained gunfire can be heard ringing out across the city in a video recorded early that day from several locations at the bottom of the mountain.

A 22-year-old man who wanted to bring food to the militia told Amnesty International: “The Eritrean soldiers were trained but the young residents didn’t even know how to shoot… a lot of the [local] fighters started running away and dropped their weapons. The Eritrean soldiers came into the city and started killing randomly.”

Survivors and witnesses said Eritrean forces deliberately and wantonly shot at civilians from about 4pm onwards on 28 November.

According to residents, the victims carried no weapons and many were running away from the soldiers when they were shot. One man who hid in an unfinished building said he saw a group of six Eritrean soldiers kill a neighbour with a vehicle-mounted heavy machine-gun on the street near the Mana Hotel: “He was standing. I think he was confused. They were probably around 10 metres from him. They shot him in the head.”

A 21-year-old male resident said: “I saw a lot of people dead on the street. Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed.”

The killings left Axum’s streets and cobblestone plazas strewn with bodies. One man who had run out of the city returned at night after the shooting stopped. “All we could see on the streets were dead bodies and people crying,” he said.

On 29 November, Eritrean soldiers shot at anyone who tried to move the bodies of those killed.

The soldiers also continued to carry out house-to-house raids, hunting down and killing adult men, as well as some teenage boys and a smaller number of women. One man said he watched through his window and saw six men killed in the street outside his house on 29 November. He said the soldiers lined them up and shot from behind, using a light-machine gun to kill several at a time with a single bullet.

Interviewees named scores of people they knew who were killed, and Amnesty International has collected the names of more than 240 of the victims. The organization has been unable to independently verify the overall death toll, but consistent witness testimonies and corroborating evidence make it plausible that hundreds of residents were killed.

Burying the dead

Most of the burials took place on 30 November, but the process of collecting and burying the bodies lasted several days.

Many residents said they volunteered to move the bodies on carts, in batches of five to 10 at a time; one said he transported 45 bodies. Residents estimate that several hundred people were buried in the aftermath of the massacre, and they attended funerals at several churches where scores were buried. Hundreds were buried at the largest funeral, held at the complex that includes the Arba’etu Ensessa church and the Axum Tsion St Mariam Church.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab geolocated a video showing people carrying a dead man on a stretcher in Da’Ero Ela Plaza (14.129918, 38.717113), towards Arba’etu Ensessa church. High-resolution satellite imagery from 13 December shows disturbed earth consistent with recent graves around the Arba’etu Ensessa and the Abune Aregawi churches.

Intimidation and looting

In the days following the burials, the Eritrean army rounded up hundreds of residents in different parts of the city. They beat some of the men, threatening them with a new round of revenge killings if they resisted.

Axum residents witnessed a surge in the Eritrean army’s looting during this period, targeting stores, public buildings including a hospital, and private homes. Luxury goods and vehicles were widely looted, as well as medication, furniture, household items, food, and drink.

International humanitarian law (the laws of war) prohibits deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and pillage (looting). Violations of these rules constitute war crimes. Unlawful killings that form part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population are crimes against humanity.

“As a matter of urgency, there must be a UN-led investigation into the grave violations in Axum. Those suspected of responsibility for war crimes or crimes against humanity must be prosecuted in fair trials and victims and their families must receive full reparation,” said Deprose Muchena.“We repeat our call on the Ethiopian government to grant full and unimpeded access across Tigray for humanitarian, human rights, and media organizations.”

Guardian: Hundreds died in Axum massacre during Tigray war, says Amnesty

Published by the Guardian

Hundreds of unarmed civilians were massacred in less than 48 hours by Eritrean troops during the war in the restive northern Ethiopian province of Tigray last year, Amnesty International has said.

The soldiers systematically killed hundreds of civilians in the northern city of Axum, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity, it said in a report.

Investigators from Amnesty International spoke to survivors and witnesses who described extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting after Ethiopian and Eritrean troops led an offensive to take control of the city during the conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in mid-November.

Reports of a massacre in Axum have been emerging in recent weeks, along with unconfirmed allegations of looting, killings and rapes elsewhere in Tigray during the war. Amnesty said satellite imagery analysis supported reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting in Axum, and appeared to reveal the sites of new mass burials near two of the city’s churches.

“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,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa.

Ethiopian authorities have not yet responded to Amnesty’s allegations but issued a statement on Friday referring to “complex challenges in the region” and reasserting their intention to arrest senior members of the TPLF, which it described as a criminal “rogue group”.

“The government of Ethiopia will continue bringing all perpetrators to justice following thorough investigations into alleged crimes in the region through our federal institutions … The government of Ethiopia once again reiterates its commitment to enabling a stable and peaceful region in which its citizens’ needs are met and impunity does not prevail for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and crimes against the state,” the statement said.Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched the military campaign on 4 November, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal military camps in Tigray and seeking to destabilise the country. Communications to the northern state were cut and journalists and humanitarian organisations were denied access.

Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, declared victory against the TPLF after federal troops seized the city of Mekelle in late November, and said no civilians had been killed. His government denies the presence of thousands of soldiers from Eritrea.

Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia until Abiy did a peace deal with Isaias Afwerki, the dictatorial president of the small, secretive coastal state, in 2018. Afwerki has seen the TPLF as an enemy for decades and appears to have collaborated in the offensive of last year. The exact extent of the cooperation remains unclear, though Abiy has admitted some degree of assistance.

Yemane Meskel, the Eritrean minister of information, said his country categorically rejected the “preposterous accusations” and accused Amnesty of basing its report on the testimonies of refugees in in a camp in Sudan.

Thousands are thought to have been killed, civilians among them, and nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan. Battles involving tanks and fighter jets – as well as militia from Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south – have flattened villages and emptied towns. One witness told the Associated Press of soldiers bursting into the church in Axum, cornering and dragging out worshippers and shooting at those who fled.

Axum, with its ancient ruins and churches, holds significance for the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful, who believe that the Ark of the Covenant, built to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, is located there.

“They started to kill people who were moving from church to home or home to home, simply because they were on the street,” another witness, Getu Mak, a visiting university lecturer, told the Associated Press. “It was a horrible act to see.”

He watched the fighting from his hotel room, then ventured out as it eased. “On every corner almost there was a body,” he said. “People were crying in every home.”

Another witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said soldiers killed a man at his home near the Zion church. “How can I tell you? So many dead,” said the man.

Amnesty said witnesses could easily identify the Eritrean forces by their vehicles’ licence plates, distinctive camouflage and footwear, as well as their use of Arabic or dialects not spoken in Ethiopia. Some told residents they were Eritrean.

The campaign group has collected the names of more than 240 of the victims. It appears likely that many more died.

Both sides appear to have committed atrocities during the conflict, though exact details are difficult to confirm. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has blamed TPLF-linked militia for a massacre in Tigray of many hundreds of labourers from the neighbouring Amhara region in the first days of the war.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power, and Tigrayan leaders complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.

Abiy was appointed leader of the ruling coalition of Ethiopia and so prime minister in 2018. Though his sweeping reforms won widespread praise, they have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.

The postponement of national elections owing to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions, and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa voted to extend officials’ mandates, Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.

VoA: UN Investigator Probes Alleged Forced Return of Eritrean Refugees from Ethiopia

Published by Voice of America

A U.N. human rights expert is calling for an urgent investigation into allegations that Eritrean forces have forcibly repatriated Eritrean refugees who were living in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray province. His report has been submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, started his mandate on November 1. An Ethiopian military offensive began in Tigray November 4 after months of rising tensions between Addis Ababa and forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF. When the conflict erupted, he said more than 96,000 Eritrean refugees were in four camps.

Addressing the Human rights Council on Wednesday, Babiker said he has received information from credible sources about the precarious situation of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the province.

“I am also concerned about allegations of possible implication of the Eritrean troops in cases of serious human rights violations, including acts of abductions, forceful or involuntary return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, and their imprisonment in different prisons inside Eritrea. Such allegations need to be investigated promptly and thoroughly by independent mechanisms,” said Babiker.

There was no response from the Ethiopian or Eritrean governments.

Babiker said he is particularly concerned about two refugee camps in Tigray that hosted more than 25,000 Eritreans. These, he said, allegedly were destroyed in attacks by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops, acts which would constitute a serious breach of international humanitarian law.

“On 28 January 2021, in my letter to the government of Ethiopia, I called on the Ethiopian authorities to protect the human rights of the Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the Tigray region, and to ensure respect for their rights under human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law,” he said.

Babiker said he wants Eritrean authorities to give him full access to refugees and asylum seekers allegedly in Eritrean prisons. Babiker also said he has received no response to previous requests from the Eritrean authorities to visit Eritrea to assess the human rights situation on the ground.

Eritrean Ambassador-at-Large Tesfamichael Gerahtu dismissed the special rapporteur’s report as being full of senseless allegations and of presenting a bleak, unjustified picture of his country.

He said his government has succeeded in creating meaningful, sustainable development based on social justice. He added it was time for the Council to end its harassment of Eritrea and terminate its mandate on the human rights situation in the country, which has been going on for eight years.

AP: Eritrean Soldiers Slaughter Hundreds of Tigrayan People in Holy City

Published by the Associated Press

Bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the streets for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city. At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew. But they were forbidden from burying their dead by the invading Eritrean soldiers.

Those memories haunt a deacon at the country’s most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum, where local faithful believe the ancient Ark of the Covenant is housed. As Ethiopia’s Tigray region slowly resumes telephone service after three months of conflict, the deacon and other witnesses gave The Associated Press a detailed account of what might be its deadliest massacre.

For weeks, rumors circulated that something ghastly had occurred at the Church of St. Mary of Zion in late November, with estimates of several hundred people killed. But with Tigray cut off from the world and journalists blocked from entering, little could be verified as Ethiopian and allied fighters pursued the Tigray region’s fugitive leaders.

The deacon, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Axum, said he helped count the bodies — or what was left after hyenas fed. He gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials in mass graves.

He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city, and that thousands in Axum have died in all. The killing continues: On the day he spoke to the AP last week he said he had buried three people.

“If we go to the rural areas, the situation is much worse,” the deacon said.

The atrocities of the Tigray conflict have occurred in the shadows. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, announced the fighting as the world focused on the U.S. election. He accused Tigray’s regional forces, whose leaders dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades before he took office, of attacking the Ethiopian military. Tigray’s leaders called it self-defense after months of tensions.

While the world clamors for access to Tigray to investigate suspected atrocities on all sides and deliver aid to millions of hungry people, the prime minister has rejected outside “interference.” He declared victory in late November and said no civilians had been killed. His government denies the presence of thousands of soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray leaders.

Ethiopia’s narrative, however, has crumbled as witnesses like the deacon emerge. The foreign ministry on Thursday acknowledged that “rape, plunder, callous & intentional mass killings” could occur in a conflict where “many are illegally armed.” Its statement blamed Tigray forces for leaving the region “vulnerable” and said any serious offense will be investigated. It did not mention Eritrean soldiers.

Axum, with its ancient ruins and churches, holds major significance for the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful, who believe that the Ark of the Covenant, built to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, is located there.

“If you attack Axum, you attack first of all the identity of Orthodox Tigrayans but also of all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians,” said Wolbert Smidt, an ethnohistorian who specializes in the region. “Axum itself is regarded as a church in the local tradition, ‘Axum Zion.’”

In a normal year, thousands of people would have gathered at the Zion church in late November to celebrate the day Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought there after it disappeared from Jerusalem in ancient times.

Instead, the church had become a refuge for people who fled the fighting elsewhere in Tigray. They sheltered there as worship services were underway two days before the anniversary.

Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers had arrived in Axum more than a week earlier, with heavy bombardment. But on Nov. 28 the Eritrean soldiers returned in force to hunt down members of the local militia who had mobilized against them in Axum and nearby communities.

The deacon recalled soldiers bursting into the church, cornering and dragging out worshippers and shooting at those who fled.

“I escaped by chance with a priest,” he said. “As we entered the street, we could hear gunfire all over.” They kept running, stumbling over the dead and wounded along with others trying to find places to hide.

Most of the hundreds of victims were killed that day, he said, but the shooting and looting continued the following day.

“They started to kill people who were moving from church to home or home to home, simply because they were on the street,” another witness, visiting university lecturer Getu Mak, told the AP. “It was a horrible act to see.” He watched the fighting from his hotel room, then ventured out as it eased.

“On every corner, almost, there was a body,” he said. “People were crying in every home.”

Another witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said soldiers killed a man at his home near the Zion church. “How can I tell you? So many dead,” said the man, who has since escaped to the Tigray capital, Mekele.

After the killings in Axum came an uneasy period with soldiers roaming the streets and families searching for loved ones. At night, hyenas descended from nearby hills.

The city began to smell of death as some bodies went untouched for days.

“I saw a horse cart carrying around 20 bodies to the church, but Eritrean soldiers stopped them and told people to throw them back on the street,” said Getu, the university lecturer.

Witnesses elsewhere in Tigray have reported being unable to bury bodies, calling it an added insult. They say soldiers tell them that “no one mourned our fighters, so why should we let you mourn?”

Finally, when the soldiers left the city to pursue other fighters, residents mobilized to bury the bodies, the deacon said.

“We could not do a formal burial,” he said. “We buried them en masse” in graves near the Zion church and others.

Some of the dead were among the hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray displaced by the conflict and not known to Axum residents. Their identity cards were collected in churches, where they await the discovery of loved ones.

The deacon said residents believe the Eritrean soldiers were taking revenge for the two-decade border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that played out nearby and ended after Abiy became prime minister. Some of the soldiers told residents they had been instructed to kill people as young as 12, he said.

Another witness, a 39-year-old who gave only his first name, Mhretab, and escaped weeks ago to the United States, asserted that Ethiopian federal police did nothing to rein in the Eritrean soldiers.

“I said to them, ’Listen, you’re Ethiopian, they’re destroying Ethiopian cities. How is this possible?‴ Mhretab recalled.

”They said, ‘What can we do? This shouldn’t have happened from the beginning. This is from above,’” indicating that it had been decided by senior officials, he said.

He said he ferried bodies to a mass grave by the Zion church and estimated that he saw 300 to 400 there.

The deacon believes that the Eritrean soldiers, in their hunt for Tigray fighters, have killed thousands more people in villages outside Axum. “When they fight and lose, they take revenge on the farmers and kill everyone they can find,” he said. “This is what we’ve seen in the past three months.”

Getu echoed that belief, citing his uncle, who survived such a rural confrontation.

The deacon has not gone to the villages outside Axum. His work remains with his church, where services continue even as he says the Tigray conflict is as fierce as ever.

“We’re also protecting the church,” he said. “Even now, I’m talking to you from there. We are not armed. What we do is mostly watching. And, of course, praying that God protects us.”

BBC: Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: ‘I lost my hand when a soldier tried to rape me’

Published by the BBC

An Ethiopian schoolgirl has told the BBC how she lost her right hand defending herself from a soldier who tried to rape her – and who had also tried to force her grandfather to have sex with her.

The 18-year-old, who we are not naming, has been in hospital in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for more than two months recovering from her ordeal.

The conflict in Tigray, which erupted in early November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive to oust the region’s ruling TPLF party after its fighters captured federal military bases, has destroyed her dreams, and those of many of her classmates.

Most of them, along with other families in their town, have fled to the mountains – even after Mr Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory following the capture of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, by federal forces on 29 November.

This is because the security forces began an operation to hunt down TPLF members who refused to surrender, which has resulted in allegations of serious human rights abuses being committed against the residents of Tigray. The authorities deny the accusations.

The schoolgirl and her grandfather remained in their home in the town of Abiy Addi, about 96km (60 miles) west of Mekelle, because it was difficult for them to travel far.

On 3 December, the teenager said that a soldier, dressed in an Ethiopian military uniform, entered their house demanding to know where the Tigrayan fighters were.

After searching the house and finding no-one, he ordered them to lie on a bed and began shooting all around him.

“He then ordered my grandfather to have sex with me. My grandfather got very angry and… they started fighting,” she says.

The soldier, she says, took the old man outside and shot him in the shoulders and the thigh and then returned to her, saying that he had killed him.

“He said: ‘No-one can save you now. Get your clothes off.’ I begged him not to but he repeatedly punched me.”

Their struggle continued for several minutes – though she felt disorientated from the blows – and in the end he became so angry that he turned the gun on her.

“He shot my right hand three times. He shot my leg three times. He left when he heard a gunshot from outside.”

Thankfully her grandfather was still alive, though unconscious, and for two days they remained cowed and injured in their home too scared to seek help.

‘No justice at all’

The teenager’s account backs up concerns about alleged rapes in Tigray expressed by Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict.

She said there were “disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence.

“Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centres have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, which is often an indicator of sexual violence in conflict.”

Three opposition parties in Tigray have said extra-judicial killings and gang rape had become “everyday practices”, also citing the case of a father forced to rape his daughter at gunpoint.

A doctor and a member of a women rights group – both of whom wish to remain anonymous – told the BBC in January that between them they had registered at least 200 girls under the age of 18 at different hospital and health centres in Mekelle who said they had been raped.

Most of them said the perpetrators were wearing Ethiopian army uniforms – and afterwards they had been warned against seeking medical help.

“They have bruises. Some are even gang-raped. One was constrained and raped for a week. She doesn’t even know herself. And there is no police, hence no justice at all,” the doctor said.

The rights activist said: “We have also heard similar shocking stories of rape from other parts of Tigray. But because of transport issues we couldn’t help them. It’s so sad.”

Another medic working at a hospital in Mekelle said that recently five or six women a day have been coming to hospital seeking anti-HIV medication and emergency contraception relating to alleged rapes.

Weyni Abraha, who is from the Tigray women’s rights group Yikono (Enough) and was in Mekelle until the end of December, told the BBC that she believes rape is being used as a weapon in the war.

”Many women were raped in Mekelle. This is being done purposely to break the morale of the people, threaten them and make them give up the fight.”

Ethiopia’s army chief Birhanu Jula Gelalcha has denied such accusations.

“Our defence forces don’t rape. They aren’t bandits. They are government forces. And government forces have ethics and rule of engagements,” he told the BBC.

Atakilty Hailesilasse, Mekelle’s newly appointed interim mayor, said the numbers cited by rights groups were grossly exaggerated.

The government recently sent a taskforce to Tigray to investigate the allegations further, including people from the women’s and health ministries and the office of the attorney general, who have established rapes took place, though their full report is not yet out.

Last week the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said 108 cases of rape had been reported over the last two months in the whole of Tigray, though it admitted “local structures such as police and health facilities where victims of sexual violence would normally turn to report such crimes are no longer in place”.

‘I wanted to be an engineer’

The BBC was contacted about the case of the Abiy Addi teenager by a doctor after he had amputated her hand.

She and her grandfather told him how they had been found two days after the attack by Eritrean soldiers who were searching the area – although both Ethiopia and Eritrea deny Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray conflict.

They said the Eritreans had tended to their wounds – and handed them over to Ethiopian troops who took them to Mekelle as the hospital in Abiy Addi was shut.