Mass graves testify to the brutality that has been meted out in Tigray as long-simmering tensions boil over and unleash a campaign of murder and rape in which 1.7 million people have been displaced

Fred Harter in Dengelat, Tigray, Ethiopia
7 May 2021

Source: The Times

From his hiding place in a patch of thornbushes, Yibrah watched the soldiers arrive at his family’s home, round up his male relatives and lead them to a dry riverbed near by.

His mother and aunts screamed frantic pleas. The soldiers ignored them, and shot the men one by one.

“I saw everything,” Yibrah said through tears, standing next to the spot where his father, two brothers and four of his cousins were killed. “I told them to run. I begged them so many times to leave but they didn’t listen.”

Like other residents of Dengelat, a village ringed by sheer red cliffs in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, Yibrah’s family had gathered together to mark an Orthodox Christian holiday in late November.

The celebration turned into a massacre after the soldiers — identified by locals from their uniforms, accents and ritual face scars as Eritreans — arrived and began shooting.

Mass graves are now scattered across this dry, rocky valley. So too are the twisted belts and ragged scraps of old rope witnesses said were used to tie up many of the victims before they were shot.

The burial sites are easy to find: residents have marked them with stones painted bright blue in the hope satellites might spot them from space and bear witness to the atrocities. Many are topped with bloodstained pieces of clothing or shoes. One, locals said, contained the bodies of a dozen young people aged 14 to 22.

Bloodstained shoes mark a mass grave in Dengelat, where locals said a dozen young people were buried FRED HARTER FOR THE TIMES

In total more than 160 people died here, according to church officials. They are among thousands that rights groups say have been killed since fighting broke out in Tigray in November.

At the heart of this conflict are long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the country at the head of a multi-ethnic coalition for nearly three decades until it was forced out by protests in 2018.

Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister — a young reformer from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest — assumed office that year and initiated a range of sweeping democratic changes, freeing political prisoners and inviting exiled opposition groups back to the country. In 2019 he won the Nobel peace prize for bringing an end to war with neighbouring Eritrea.

Critics say, however, that Abiy, 44, has also moved to centralise power in a way that alienated the Tigrayan leadership and other groups. Things were made worse when the pandemic postponed until June this year elections planned for May last year, sparking a political crisis when the government’s mandate expired in October.

The TPLF pushed ahead with an unauthorised election in Tigray in September and then ordered an attack on a federal army base on November 4 after the government cut off funding for its regional government.

In response Abiy ordered troops into the region, calling the move a “law enforcement operation” intended to round up a “criminal clique”. Within four weeks federal soldiers had captured Mekelle, the region’s capital, and Abiy announced that the army had “completed and ceased” military operations.

Months later, however, the conflict has morphed into a protracted struggle with no end in sight. As the region comes out of a communications blackout, stories of atrocities have emerged.

“This is a conflict that has largely been fought behind closed doors,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said. “But there is ample evidence from organisations like ours and others that atrocities have been committed. It’s difficult to see any part of the civilian population that has been left unscathed.”

In the town of Axum, home to a church supposedly holding the Ark of the Covenant, witnesses say Eritrean troops shot hundreds of men and boys on November 28, supposedly in retaliation for an attack by Tigrayan militia and city residents.

The government places the blame for the conflict squarely on the TPLF, which it has designated a terrorist group, and rejects claims that its soldiers have killed civilians. In March, though, after months of denials, Abiy finally confirmed that Eritrean troops were in Tigray. He added that they had been provoked into entering the region by TPLF rocket attacks on Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

“Claims that Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) soldiers are targeting civilians is an outrageous claim as the ENDF serves to protect civilians,” Billene Seyoum, the Ethiopian prime minister’s spokeswoman, said. “There have been indications that TPLF fighters dressed as civilians have been actively attacking ENDF soldiers in the past months.”

About 1.7 million of Tigray’s six million population have been displaced by the violence. Many are living in cramped, airless classrooms at schools serving as camps. They tell stories of fleeing fighting with nothing except the clothes they were wearing and then walking hundreds of miles to safety.

In western Tigray, near the border with Sudan, militias from the Amhara ethnic group have been accused of evicting Tigrayan farmers from their land. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has described the situation as “ethnic cleansing”, a charge Ethiopia’s government flatly rejects.

Kibrom, six, and his father are from a town called Dansha, where people rely on livestock. Kibrom was playing with his mother when militiamen arrived at their home and started shooting, wounding him in the stomach.

Afterwards the family hid in a cave for two months with hundreds of other frightened people. There were no medical supplies so Kibrom’s parents treated his wound with hot saltwater and bandaged it with torn-up clothes. Now they are staying in a scruffy, half-built nursery in Mekelle, and their son is permanently disabled.

“They took everything we had and told us western Tigray is Amhara now,” Kibrom’s father said, adding: “Along the roadside I counted dozens of bodies. Some of them were my neighbours. I said their names as I passed them.”

Sexual violence is another grim aspect of this hidden war. Wrapped in a ragged white shawl, Tirhas recalled how she was at home in Adwa, a town in central Tigray, when Eritrean soldiers burst in and accused her of harbouring rebel fighters.

She said they took her and her two-year-old daughter to a disused factory on the edge of town and locked them for seven days in a store cupboard where she was raped by two Eritrean officers.

“They had a rota,” she said. “One would come in the day and the other came at night.”

On several occasions, Tirhas said, they raped her while her young daughter sat beside her; on others, they locked her daughter outside during the attacks. “She would cry and knock on the door until she was let back in again,” Tirhas said.

In a rundown bedsit, Makda described how she was travelling in a minibus when it was stopped by Eritrean soldiers near the town of Edaga Hamus, about 60 miles north of Mekelle. They pulled her off the bus, blindfolded her and led her to a nearby patch of scrubby ground. When she screamed, she said, they gagged her by stuffing soil into her mouth.

For the next ten days, Makda said, she was tied up as a group of 20 Eritrean soldiers abused and raped her for hours at a time. “They told me, ‘We’ll kill you, you’ll never survive. We will throw you away and find a new one to rape,’” she said.

Eventually the soldiers left her for dead in a ditch where she was found by locals who took her to hospital.

Like most of the rape survivors The Times interviewed in Tigray, Makda says she will never tell her family about her ordeal. Her brother, who is helping to care for her, has been told she cannot walk because she was in a car accident.

“We have seen so many cases,” said Sister Mulu Mesfin, a nurse at a clinic in Mekelle that has treated more than 350 rape survivors. “But these are only the tip of the iceberg. Most cannot access our services because fighting has closed the roads and there is little transportation.”

The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “Allegations of sexual violence as well as other human rights violations are subject to joint investigations that are in the pipeline through the collaboration of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and other international bodies.”

The focus now is on getting Eritrean troops to leave. Eritrea’s dictator, Isaias Afwerki, who has been in charge since the country’s independence in 1993, sees the conflict as an opportunity to settle scores with its old foe, the TPLF, who led Ethiopia during a bloody border war against Eritrea from 1998 to 2000.

Last month Ethiopia’s foreign ministry announced that Eritrea had “started to evacuate” the Tigray region but there is little sign of meaningful withdrawal.

“Eritrean forces are still here,” Abebe Gebrehiwot, the vice-president of an interim administration in Tigray, said. “They are hindering our food distribution and the access of mobile clinics.”

When The Times tried to reach Samre, a region then cut off from aid, the checkpoints were manned by unsmiling soldiers in Eritrean uniforms and the villages were ghost towns of looted homes, their doors kicked in.

Farmers on the roadside said the soldiers beat them if they tried to plough their land. They also said two women in the area, aged 17 and 65, had died from starvation.

Locals say the soldiers stole animals and sacks of grain. Near the town of Hawzen, farmers pointed to a pile of ash, the charred remains, they said, of 100kg of barley torched by Eritrean troops who had no means of carrying it away.

Trucks bearing vital food supplies have started to roll into the region but are still unable to access large areas of the countryside cut off by fighting. One aid agency said the Eritreans simply tell the drivers to turn around. Almost half of pregnant women in some parts of Tigray are suffering from malnutrition, the UN says.

Tigray was the epicentre of the 1983-85 famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in northern Ethiopia, and led to the Live Aid relief effort in the West.

“Hunger is a huge problem,” one UN worker said. “We’re not seeing mass deaths from starvation yet but, if things continue as they are, it could definitely head that way.”

Back in Dengelat, beneath its rocky escarpments, farmers are ploughing their fields before the rains in June. The fighting in November broke out as they were harvesting their crops, so they were unable to collect any seeds to plant, but they are preparing the land in case they receive some.

In the centre of the village, others hold on to passport-sized pictures of their murdered loved ones, and want to tell their stories.

“We are still in mourning,” said Yibrah. “Everything here has turned dark.”•The names of rape survivors have been changed to protect their identities.

Source: The Times