The horrors of the Tigray war: Eyewitness accounts
Eritrea Hub | This is a slightly shortened article by Alem Berhe
When the war broke out, I was in the beautiful capital of Tigray – Mekelle, visiting immediate family. On November 3, I sat down for dinner at GG Hotel in the Adi Shumduhun area, where I made dramatic arguments to a group of friends about why our regional government had not yet installed a 4G network. The irony was to be played out the next day, as I woke up in a full-fledged warzone, to a complete communications blackout. My life, and the lives of everyone around me, would never be the same. After being stuck in the fire for over two months, I recently and luckily made it out alive to Addis Ababa. Here are my firsthand accounts of what I have seen and heard. Please note only first names of witnesses have been used for safety.
PART I: ERITREAN FORCES, SADISM AND NECROPHILIA:
“You are all an ungrateful bunch of lice. If we followed orders, all of you above the age of 7 would be dead. That is the mission we were given. We were told to exterminate you – all of you. If you don’t stop crying – we will kill the children too.” This is the prevalent line of argument from the Isaias-led Eritrean troops in the areas they de facto occupy in Tigray and openly punish (parts of Eastern, Central and South Western zone). And this, they do with the blessing of the Ethiopian government, which claims it is “simply freeing Tigrayans.” Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group: and this, the Eritrean forces explicitly claim as their mission in the war.
HAWZEN: On January 20, I spoke to Assefa, a Hawzen resident, who had fled to Mekelle fearing door to door killings. Here are his accounts.
“There are corpses all over the road in Hawzen; the stench is overwhelming. They have turned Tigray into a slaughterhouse. They will kill you for no reason. You walk in front of them, they kill you asking “who gave you the authority to walk before us like Generals?” They find you at church or in a mosque, you are dead. If they especially see that you have come back from attending a funeral, they go on a shooting spree yelling “who gave you the right to bury anyone?” If you identify a family member amidst the line of corpses and you cry, they kill you. You can’t shed one tear – mourning is a crime.” He recounts to me the story of an elderly woman about 60 years old who was shot dead by an Eritrean soldier following her discovery of a dead teenage boy in front of a garage and crying out “My son! My dear son! (wedeye! wedey mearey!)” The teenager was in fact not her son, he tells me, and this is just a common term of endearment in Tigrigna. “They also shot another woman after she placed a netella (a traditional, white scarf) over a corpse she found on the road as a sign of respect. She died immediately.”
“Many of the corpses are unidentified. If you notice a family member amidst the bodies, you hold back your tears and beg the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to transport them. If you are lucky, they make you pay money and you wait a few days before you can take your relative’s body – or what’s left of it anyway. Some of the townsmen have been taking the risk of transporting these bodies incognito via traditional carriages when the forces are not around. Since the banks are closed and the little money and property we own has been massively looted, most of us cannot pay for our loved ones’ corpses.”
When I inquire into what has been looted, he snorts: “Why don’t you ask me what they haven’t looted? When they had finished looting and pillaging all our infrastructure and shops, they marched one house to another killing people and taking our clothes and shoes, our bed-sheets and blankets from our beds, our wedding rings, even pissing into our cooking pots. They spared us nothing. You will not find a piece of plate in my house. Not even my wife’s trinket earrings for 2birr. And when they looted, they exclaimed “you guys are living like the Americans, you don’t deserve this.”
I then ask him to give me names of civilians recently killed. He hesitates and his relatives assure him that I am a friend just trying to get word out to the world. He mentions he will only tell me a few. “You should first of all know that pretty much all of the youth in town have already fled the town and scattered everywhere; youth are actively being searched and killed. You will only find women and the elderly in most towns. It is no use if they run though – they are hunting them down everywhere like animals.”
“On January 18, two days before I came to Mekelle, they went on another round of door to door killings – well, what’s left of us anyway. They saw an elderly man named Kidane Abadi, a known tailor in town, who is disabled on his right leg and limps due to a longstanding illness. When they noticed he was limping, they grabbed him right away saying “you are a soldier!” He told them he was a tailor and that everyone in town knew so. They still shot him dead; they said he is a returned soldier injured in the war. But everyone in town knows he has been a disabled man for a long time.” He emphasizes to me how dangerous this is, because on top of the hunt for Tigrayan youth, the disabled population at large is now issued a free death stamp under the guise that they could potentially be “injured rebel soldiers.”
“They also killed Memhir Hagos Girmay on the same day– they killed him in his house because he is a “teacher.”” When I ask if he could explain further, he says “I would, if I understood why being a teacher is a good reason to die. I don’t know what else to tell you: our youth are being exterminated, the disabled are being finished off, they are raping our women – including nuns in convents, they have pillaged our towns, they have ransacked and shelled our churches and mosques, and whoever is left, is just waiting to starve to death.”
“Every time we say we have seen enough, we hear even more appalling stories. I don’t remember the exact date, but the Eritrean forces ran into a dozen monks from a nearby monastery in Hawzen last week. They halted them and forced them to either dance or be shot dead. Many of them refused as part of their religious obligations and were therefore shot at the scene. They are sadists – they will kill them anyway but they always look for ways to make the killing pleasurable. They have been actively killing civilians in churches – in Abune Teklehaymanot, Medhanealem, St. Mary – you mention all the saints. If they are rock hewn churches on the mountain (as are many in Tigray), they deliberately shell them with artillery. If they are built on the ground, they do walk-ins and shoot inside. They know we will not stop going to church. Everyone says, if we die, we might as well die martyrs in the church. And they know this – it’s the place where they can kill many at once. This is what they are calling a law and order operation.”
When I ask him which forces are now operating in Hawzen, he says both the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were present, with the former warning to “call Eritrean forces [on us] if we fail to do what they ask of us – including not complaining about the rampant rape on our women by both forces.” The story of Hawzen is perhaps the ‘kindest of atrocities’ – to use an oxymoron – as compared to all other Eritrean-occupied areas as well as those areas where Eritrean forces are generally present, such as Irob and Zalambesa.
ADIGRAT: In Adigrat, the second most populous city in Tigray, the stories are similar. I received the following account from a priest, Abba (Father) G/Medhin, arrived to Mekelle from Adigrat on 19 January. “On 20 November (11 Hidar EC) – the whole city was consistently and arbitrarily shelled with heavy artillery from 2–6:30pm. Dozens of civilians were killed, including a whole family of five in their home.” I should note here that most, if not all, towns and cities in Tigray were heavily and indiscriminately shelled using tanks and heavy artillery by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces: this war-criminal tactic was thoroughly implemented because the Ethiopian government believed it would render the easy capture of towns without having to do much fighting with rebel forces on the ground. “On 21 November (12 Hidar EC), the Eritreans arrived and indiscriminately killed everyone they found on the streets – I saw 17 dead near my home. When they noticed there weren’t many people on the streets, they went on a door to door killing spree. For instance, they killed a family of three in the area known as 06 and another family of four in Bihere Tsigie. They looted everything. What’s more, they forcefully took youth to round up and carry what they stole – shooting them afterwards.”
“When they were ransacking the Addis Pharmaceutical Company in Adigrat – they took a dozen people to help them load the equipment to their craters and tanks. Once they finished, they shot them dead on the spot. They also killed six of the company guards and threw them in a ditch – the seventh was found alive and he was the one who told the story. This is the same everywhere – in the nearby Goda Adigrat Bottle and Glass Manufacturing Plant – they forced 23 young men to transport and load what the Eritrean forces looted from the factory. All 23 were shot dead afterwards, three being from the same family. Around the area called Commission, they shot dead three civilians on the road – and their bodies remained there for over a month! The Eritrean forces banned any of us from transporting or burying them. They were to serve as “signs of what awaited all Tigrayans.””
Since he is a priest, I also inquire into the targeting and ransacking of holy sites and artifacts in Adigrat. “Churches and holy sites are active targets; they are ruining churches and mosques with a history of over 1000 years. They shelled the historic Meskel Kirstos Church for example (recently established by Aba (Father) Ze Wengel) with 50 projectiles; it is now destructed. We also know that they killed civilians in neighboring churches after they ran away from Adigrat and surrounding areas for fear of dying in the continued shelling. On 30 November (21 Hidar EC), during the Feast of Our Lady of Zion, they came in and shot dead 150 civilians in Mariam Dengolat Church, including a known investor in Adigrat by the name of Esayas Asgedom and his family. They deliberately went to that church because it was an Annual Feast day and they were sure to find “civilians gathered in great numbers.” They also killed 27 civilians in Medhanealem Church in Gulomikhada during the Feast day of the Lord our Savior. They made sure to go during Mass (Divine Liturgy) because they knew that many devotees would gather there early. Out of the murdered, 12 were priests. There was a brave elderly woman who screamed out to them saying “how could you do such a vile thing in the House of God?” The Eritrean soldiers were extremely surprised at this with one Eritrean soldier exclaiming to another “what are you waiting for, pop her dead (Ta’ii abila).” But another replied and said “I am not going to waste my bullet on an old Tigrayan” and cracked her head with a nearby rock, making them all laugh. She didn’t die, but they left her bleeding on the Church floor. The Ammanuel Church in Wuqhro is also destructed – I saw it on my way here. You have already heard about the Al-Nejashi mosque, I am sure.”
“Everyone is scattered. We don’t know if those who left are alive or dead somewhere. If you are lucky, someone finds an ID on a corpse and they try and spread word so families will know that they have a dead family member. I also know that many Tigrayans have been respectfully removing shoes and shirts of dead bodies and placing it on top of them so families will be able to recognize them via their clothing if the corpse remains unidentified for a longer period.”
When I ask him about sexual based violence and harassment, he mentions “It’s not just the rape – it’s the way this is done. I know of a father who was tied up to a chair with a rope between his lips, forced to watch as five Eritrean soldiers took turns to rape his 12 year old daughter. They are even forcing fathers, brothers and uncles to rape their own children and relatives, and killing them for refusing – what Tigrayan will rape his own family member?! They rape pregnant women. We are also hearing accounts of Eritrean forces killing women and raping their corpses after. It’s difficult to find one-time rape victims; even those who have been raped have been raped again. I know these are unconscionable and horrifying to the human mind; I am telling you as a priest – but this is what they are doing. To them, this is law.”
PART II: SECURITY CHECK-POINT ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ETHIOPIAN MILITARY:
The night before the government’s delighted announcement on national television that they would the-next-day indiscriminately shell Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray, many residents had scattered to neighboring rural towns for fear of being stuck amidst the heavy artillery fire. The announcement said, “Tigrayans – no mercy!” On national TV! I stayed – partly because I naively believed the government was bluffing, and partly because rights organizations and high-level leaders like Susan Rice had warned that doing so would account to war crimes. I am an idiot of course – they had already shelled all the towns on their way to the capital and Mekelle was no exception. On 28 November, I woke up to deafening sounds of shells being fired n’importe ou, with around 40 people being killed as a result – including a 15year old girl in my neighborhood and a whole family of five around Ayder Hospital, five minutes from my home.
Recently, I met two close friends, Frehiwot and Birrkhti, who had made the dangerous trip back to Mekelle from the rural areas of Adet and Yechila respectively, where they had escaped to before the Mekelle shelling. I asked them to recount to me their specific encounters with the Ethiopian military on their way to the city.
Frehiwot mentions to me that she and her friends were forced to strip naked as part of the security searches on their way to Mekelle. “I did this three times at various check points and when I got to the third checkpoint around Gijet, I decided to speak up. I told the security officer that we had been stripping naked in all the other checkpoints and that we had been searched so many times already. The security officer then yelled at me. She said to me “it’s better to trust the devil himself than a Tigrayan – even the females. Those are our orders. Just take off your pants.” She also mentions she was scared for her life for carrying an Addis Ababa issued identity card. This meant she had to respond to scrupulous questions like ‘What are you doing in Tigray if you have an Addis Ababa ID?’ “It was such an absurd question and I didn’t really know how to answer it,” Frehiwot tells me. “Not because the freedom of movement is my constitutional right – no. Simply because Tigray was my home and they were threateningly asking me, “why are you home?” How do you respond to that? Is the fact that one is in Tigray a crime by itself? I told them the truth: that I had come to visit family and got stuck in the fire. I also told them that I live and work in Addis Ababa. They yelled at me and called me a liar. They said I was an “undercover junta agent” who had come to Tigray to support the war on the side of the rebels. After much pleading, they let me go but they warned me and said “we are nice, but make sure you don’t fall into the hands of the “other soldiers” because they might not be as kind to someone with an Addis Ababa ID.” She said she did not know whether they were referring to the Ethiopian forces or the Eritrean forces. “Too many of them want to kill us – it’s hard to say whom you will encounter where.”
I ask the other woman, Birrikhti, who took a similar route when she had fled the capital city of Mekelle. She was born and raised in Addis Ababa and had arrived in Mekelle a few months before the war to open an internet café. I ask if she encountered similar problems.
“They are sort of similar. I mean, the questions they ask you at the security checkpoints are quite peculiar. When we were also around Gijet, we were stopped by security officers and told to come off the minibus taxi taking us to Mekelle. We thought they were going to take the taxi and either shoot us dead or leave us stranded, as had been the case with many other vehicles in Tigray. But we were lucky. When the security officers noticed that I didn’t have a Tigrigna accent, they engaged me in further conversation. They asked me whose side I was on and if I knew Debretsion. They asked me if I considered myself Ethiopian or Tigrayan. When I remained quiet, they pointed at everyone and yelled “you are all rats anyway – all of you are hiding Debretsion” Much to my surprise however, she recites the following distressing dialogue with one of the security officers at the checkpoint:
Officer: “Do you know Axum?” (Eshy Brikiti, Axumen tawkiyatalesh?)
Birrikhti: “Yes” (Awo.)
Officer: “It’s a beautifully historic town, isn’t it?” (Mechem konjo tarikawi ketema nech aydel?)
Birrikhti: “Yes.” (Awo)
Officer: “Well guess what – it isn’t anymore.” (Ahun gin aydelechim, atifetenatal)
Officer: “And what about Wukro? Do you know Wukro?”
Officer: “It’s a very pretty, vibrant town, isn’t it?”
Officer: “Not anymore. We have destroyed it.”
She recounts her astonishment. “Not only were the officers declaring that they were deliberately working with the Eritreans to destroy towns and cultural sites, but also that they were proud of this destruction – like it was a goal to be achieved. I kept quiet and looked down to the ground because I knew he was waiting for a reaction.” By the end of the security check, she adds that the security officers singled out the only five men (youth) from the minibus taxi. When they asked why they were being sidelined, they were told “your faces look familiar – we think you are juntas.”
“They took all five with them; everyone knew they would shoot them dead. And for what? For “looking familiar?” We are only grateful we made it back alive.” She recounts that she also met other soldiers on the way who mentioned that they were there “to free the people of Tigray and that no harm will come to us.” “Freedom is slavery,” Orwell would have sneered.
PART III: ADDIS ABABA – THE TIGRAYAN PURGE:
Is this where I was raised? Is this the city that I once called home? These are questions I ask myself a few days following my arrival to Addis from Mekelle. Most people here that I have talked to – with the exception of some Oromos – justify to me why the genocide was necessary. They speak to me in loud voices about why my people deserved this and about how we brought the rampant massacres and rape and starvation unto ourselves. Some who know how outspoken I am carefully warn me: “You should be careful – this is not your home anymore. No one will defend you.”
Tigrayans I know have been summarily dismissed from all governmental and civil organizations, including those who have sacrificed their whole lives to the welfare and development of the Ethiopian state. Some of those I have talked to state that they were not even given notice letters –their names had just been posted outside their respective organizations and guards were warned against allowing them entry. Most surprising to me were my conversations with cleaners who were dismissed in the area known as Kibeb Cafe around the Signal Apartments, including a relative of mine. When I ask her why, she darkly smiles and tries to make a joke: “I do not know. I guess if you have the wrong identity, may be you clean wrongly. What do you want me to tell you?!”
The stories are unending as they are harrowing. Another friend, Kibrom, tells me of his arrest and his consequent two nights in jail (with two of his friends) for speaking Tigrigna in a public taxi, a week after the declaration of war. When I ask how he could potentially be arrested inside public transport, he says a few people in the taxi called them “junta supporters” and “daytime hyenas” and forcefully transported them to the nearest precinct as “suspects.” It should be noted that the derogatory term “daytime hyenas” is a term coined and popularized by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself, in a speech he gave on national TV. This is the same Prime Minister who has called African Americans “lazy” in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
“The funny thing is,” my friend continues “the police actually thanked them for bringing us in and carrying out their civic duties, actively encouraging them to keep doing the same to other Tigrayans. All of that – just for speaking our language.” He also confesses his belief that “such rampant ethnic profiling and purging definitely received further green light following a speech by Adanech Ababe, the new mayor of Addis Ababa, at the start of the war, in which she had bluntly asked citizens “to help the government as it cleans up dirt from the city (kosashan inatsada).”I am sure the larger population translated dirt to be the Tigrayan population at large.”
In Summit Condominium, I go to visit an old family friend, Meseret, and to ensure her safety. She is in disbelief that I have made it out of Tigray alive although failing to recognize me at first due to my severe weight loss. Soon after, she lists to me the names of family friends that have been jailed or forcefully disappeared, herself being fired from a government hospital (which she asks me not to mention for fear of further retribution.) When I ask where our family friends have been jailed, she shakes her head, pointing to me that she doesn’t know. “We just know of detainment camps in Addis and other parts of the country where only ethnic Tigrayans are being held captive (or worse) en masse. The numbers are as large are 20,000. Some are calling them “Tigrayan concentration camps” and I think they are right. I only hope they are not torturing them. You know, when they searched my house, they even ransacked the flour and sugar rations in the kitchen, to see that I was not hiding anything inside food items. I am a nurse – I am not sure what they thought they would find here. They said they would be back – but I have done no wrong. I am not going anywhere.”
When I ask her to tell me elements she found shocking in the aftermath of the aggression on Tigray, she says: “It has been very difficult to see the other kids in the apartment avoiding my kids. We have lived here for seven years and people are acting as if they don’t know us. A few days after the Tigray shutdown, my daughter saw the 5-year old kid, Kidus, two doors down from our apartment and she went to hug and kiss him as she always did. He hesitated. When my daughter asked him what was wrong, he blurted out “Dad says to stay away from you guys; he says you are evil and conniving. He also says the big guys will kill me if they see me with you.” Imagine, we have been loving neighbors for seven years. We don’t know what awaits us tomorrow.” Don’t tell kids any secrets, am I right?
CONFIRMED POGROMS UNDER BLACKOUT:
- Axum (Mary of Zion) Massacre: 750 ethnic Tigrayans mass murdered in the church square of the Church of Mary of Zion by Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Amhara militias; 15 December 2020
- Mai Kadra Massacre: 600-1000 ethnic Tigrayans mass murdered by Amhara militia and youth group (known as Fano); 10 November 2020
- Zalambesa Massacre: 400 ethnic Tigrayans mass murdered by Eritrean forces in door to door killings; 13 November 2020
- Wuqhro Massacre: 200 ethnic Tigrayans mass murdered by Eritrean forces whilst defending the Saba Leather Factory from being looted
- 60,000+ refugees in Sudan; 2.2 million internally displaced; 4.5million in need of emergency food assistance
SHORT READINGS AND RESOURCES:
- Opinion: A Pogrom is happening in Ethiopia – The Globe and Mail
- ‘He’s planning to exterminate us all’: Ethiopians Speak of Ethnic Massacres – VICE
- ‘Choose – I kill you or rape you’: Abuse accusations surge in Ethiopia’s war – Reuters
- Who will call out Eritrea’s war crimes in Tigray? – World Peace Foundation
- Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: ‘My wife died giving birth to twins while we hid’ – The BBC
- The war in Tigray: Abiy, Isaias, and the Amhara elite – The Africa Report
- Ethiopia’s government appears to be wielding hunger as a weapon – The Economist
- ‘I don’t know where my children are’: Ethiopian refugees recount horrors of war – VICE
- Extreme urgent need: Starvation haunts Ethiopia’s Tigray – Washington Post
- Ethiopia’s leader must answer for the high cost of hidden war in Tigray – The Guardian
- Witnesses: Eritrean Soldiers loot, kill in Ethiopia’s Tigray – The Associated Press
- US ‘directly’ presses Eritrea to withdraw forces in Tigray – The Associated Press
- 750 Christians die defending Ark of the Covenant – Persecution
- Opinion: Ethiopia’s leader won the Nobel peace Prize. Now he’s accused of war crimes – Washington Post
- War in Tigray destroys human lives and important world heritage – Martin Plaut
- Disturbing rape allegations in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: UN – Aljazeera
- WHO warns of diseases spreading in Tigray because of conflict – VOA News
- Tigray: Ethiopian army kills ex-Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin – Aljazeera
- UN warns of ‘serious’ rape charges in Ethiopia’s Tigray – The Associated Press
- Western concern mounts over Ethiopia Crisis – Financial Times
- Journalist shot dead in Ethiopia’s Tigray – aid worker, residents – Reuters
- Fabled ark could be among ancient treasures in danger in Ethiopia’s deadly war – The Guardian
- Dam down, water supplies failing in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray – Reuters
- In Somalia, mothers fear sons were sent to Ethiopia conflict – The Associated Press
- Anger in Somalia as sons secretly sent to serve in Eritrea military force – Reuters
- Starvation looms as aid groups seek urgent Tigray access – Aljazeera
- Ethiopia’s worsening crisis threatens regional, Middle East security – United States Institute for Peace
- Ethiopians dying, hungry and fearful in war-hit Tigray: agencies – Reuters
* On 4 November 2020, the Ethiopian government declared war on the small region of Tigray, one of the ten regional states in the country. It claimed the war to be a “law and order operation” to arrest “dissidents” of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the rightfully elected regional government of the Tigray region. Above, I recount accounts of a “law and order” operation turned rogue into a genocidal mission, involving various internal and external actors. Currently, the following actors, all with different aims and agendas, are active in Tigray: the Amhara militia, youth and special police; regional special police from all states in the federation; Eritrean forces (Sha’bia); Emirati drones; along with recently credible reports of Somalian soldiers also involved. Tigray is home to around 6 million people – why the world is standing by as a whole nation, ethnic group, and region, is being conjointly exterminated by a myriad of actors under the guise of a “law and operation” is beyond me. As I write this, I am a “non-human being” and a stateless citizen in Ethiopia: one who has lost all her individual peculiarities and experiences, and collectively – with other fellow Tigrayans – is being defiled and purged as “louse/daytime hyena/dirt” – derogatory terms for our ethnic group.
NB: I do not include here reports of genocidal atrocities committed by the Amhara militia, youth and special police because I have not encountered an eye witness fleeing areas neighboring the Amhara region. The below resources I have included have some reports on massacres carried out by Amhara forces – including the very first massacre in the region – the Mai Kadra Massacre. I will be writing more on that after I find eye witnesses, although ample has been done on this front by gathering stories from refugee camps in Sudan.
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