Scale of Tigray horror adds to pressure on Ethiopian leader
New claims emerge of sexual atrocities and massacres by troops
Pressure is mounting on Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, as the scale of horrors from his war against the northern Tigray region gradually emerge, revealing massacres, mass sexual violence and fears of ethnic cleansing.
Ethiopia has for months insisted that its army’s operations, which began in October last year, have officially ended and solely targeted the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership and forces, which ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades before Abiy came to power.
Abiy’s government has repeatedly played down the most severe allegations against its forces in Tigray, and denied reports that Eritrean armed forces were active in Tigray fighting the TPLF.
Yet last week he finally conceded that Eritrea’s soldiers were “at the border area” between Tigray and Ethiopia’s former foe turned ally. Eritrea’s army was now retreating from Ethiopia, he said. Eritrea’s government has not publicly acknowledged any role in Tigray or confirmed its troops would retreat.
The independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission last week said its investigations found over 100 people in the historic Tigrayan city of Axum were killed by Eritrean soldiers in November, confirming earlier revelations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Reports confirming atrocities by Eritrean soldiers present in Tigray and revelations of the devastation of the past five months have fuelled international condemnation of both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The EU placed sanctions on Eritrea this week, amid concerns that many of the attacks could amount to crimes against humanity.
Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have revealed several massacres and an explosion of sexual violence, torture and destruction of Tigrayan cultural and religious monuments and property.
Since aid groups and observers were granted access earlier this month, there has been a drip feed of shocking revelations. Last week, the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said its staff had witnessed extrajudicial killings on the road from Mekelle to Adigrat by Ethiopian troops. “We are horrified by the continued violence in Tigray, Ethiopia. This includes the extrajudicial killings of at least four men who were dragged off public buses and executed by soldiers while our staff members were present, on 23 March,” said Karline Kleijer, its head of emergency programmes.
Earlier this month, MSF said most of the more than 100 health facilities it had visited across Tigray had been looted, vandalised and destroyed in a deliberate and widespread attack on healthcare. What Abiy has insisted was a military operation against “criminals” has instead emerged as a bitter conflict waged against millions of civilians, with mass attacks and sexual violence driven by ethnic and historic regional divisions.
The military campaign against the TPLF, whom Abiy accused of attacking federal military camps and aiming to destabilise the country, has quickly recast the image of one of Africa’s youngest leaders who was awarded the Nobel peace prize for ending the long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Amid a telecommunications blackout and the restricted movement of aid groups and international observers, many fear the true toll of the conflict may never be ascertained.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and aid groups have condemned violence in the region in recent weeks.
Thousands are thought to have died, with vast swathes internally displaced in the mountainous, agriculture region of five million people.
Nearly one million people remain inaccessible to aid groups, according to the UN, amid armed conflict with TPLF forces, which Ethiopia still maintains has officially ended.Earlier this month, in a leaked recording of a meeting between foreign diplomats and an Ethiopian army general, Yohannes Tesfamariam, he described the conflict in Tigray as a “dirty war” and civilian victims as “defenceless” in the most significant acknowledgement from Ethiopia’s authorities that fighting and threats to civilians were ongoing, particularly in Western Tigray.
The UN last week condemned “horrific forms of sexual violence” with more than 500 cases of rape reported in just five clinics in Tigray, and the numbers of actual cases likely to be far 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,” explained Wafia Said, the deputy UN aid coordinator in Ethiopia in a briefing to member states.
On March 10, the US secretary of state condemned the violence, ramping up pressure on Ethiopia to end atrocities in Tigray. Following investigations, Antony Blinken said he had seen “very credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities,” and that “forces from Eritrea and Amhara must leave and be replaced by ‘a force that will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray or commit acts of ethnic cleansing’.” Ethiopia dismissed Blinken’s statement as unfounded but said it would permit an investigation by the African Union.
On Monday the EU announced sanctions on Eritrea, dismissed by the country’s ministry of foreign affairs as “a futile attempt to drive a wedge between Eritrea and Ethiopia.”
Nearly 70,000 refugees have fled to camps in neighbouring Sudan since November, some suffering physical injuries from attacks in Tigray, others suffering from the horrors they witnessed before they escaped.
Before 26-year-old Elsa Berhe fled to Hamdayet town in Sudan, she was a midwife in Adwa, eastern Tigray and lived a comfortable life. In November, shelling and fighting destroyed much of Adwa. By early this year, several hospitals and clinics were destroyed, looted and taken over by Ethiopian forces. “I was secretly delivering home-to-home services for pregnant women,” she said. “There is gunfire every day, there is questioning every day,” she said, from the camp overlooking the Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. Attacks on medical officials had driven her to leave, she said.
“I saw an ambulance with a patient and a nurse,” when they were stopped by Ethiopian soldiers. “They killed the driver and the nurse and they drove away.” Later, she witnessed Eritrean forces gang rape a woman, Berhe said.“The international community has done nothing to stop the war. Destruction is happening, rape is happening daily and civilians are being killed.”
According to Adem Abebe, an expert at the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the horrific nature of the conflict so far will probably lead to the TPLF remaining a long-term threat to Abiy. “Unless there is a negotiated settlement, the conflict will definitely be prolonged. But Abiy may now think that he has pushed the TPLF into a corner and that he is in a much stronger position to negotiate.”
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