Massacres, starvation and wanton destruction: The international community must act swiftly to save Ethiopia’s Tigray region

There are worrying indications that atrocity crimes may be underway in Tigray, where civilians are bearing the brunt of a conflict pitting the armies of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and an allied ethnic Amhara militia against the forces of the former regional administration.  

In a tragic irony, the government of Ethiopia, one of the first nations to sign the 1948 Genocide Convention, currently stands accused of permitting and participating in violence that could amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Equally ironic is the fact that the future of a Nobel Laureate who professes Evangelical Christianity, is now inextricably linked with that of the leader whose regime is deemed to have committed crimes against humanity, including the crime of religious persecution that largely targets Eritrean Evangelical Christians.

For Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afewerki, the war on Tigray is the fulfilment of a long-held vendetta against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He has effectively groomed the leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia, aided in this endeavour by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s own antipathy towards the Tigrayan leadership and ambitions of centralising power.

This perfect storm is perhaps epitomised most starkly by the murders of three prominent elderly and disabled Tigrayan politicians, one of them an internationally respected former foreign minister, who Ethiopia claimed had died in a fire fight, and whose bodies have been displayed across social media.  However, a senior Tigrayan official contends the three men had been “staying in a village, and they didn’t have an army. They were just in a secluded area. They caught and killed them. It was the EPLF [Eritrean People’s Liberation Front] that killed them.”

“They kill whomever they find”

A communications blackout imposed on Tigray by the Ethiopian government since hostilities began on 4 November has failed to obscure the egregious human rights violations underway in the region, for which Eritrean soldiers reportedly bear primary responsibility.

These include large scale sexual and gender-based violence –  at times forcing male family members to choose between raping female relatives or death – indiscriminate bombing, extrajudicial killings – especially of young men and boys – and comprehensive looting of homes, businesses, and historical sites.  Reports also indicate that Eritrea is effectively administrating the region: the Eritrean flag has been hoisted in the town of Shiraro, Eritrean soldiers have allegedly replaced Ethiopian forces in the regional capital, Mekelle, and Eritrean identity cards have reportedly been distributed to people in Irob, in the northeast.

Tigray’s world heritage sites have not been spared, with several damaged by shelling and/or looted.  Among them are a renowned monastery established in the 6th Century on the Debre Damo mountain by Abuna (Father) Aregawi, and the al Nejashi mosque near Wukro town, one of the oldest in Africa, from which religious letters and manuscripts dating back to the 7th century have reportedly been looted.  Saint Emmanuel Orthodox Church, situated close to the mosque, has also sustained damage.  A delegation from the Ethiopian Catholic Church that visited its Diocese of Adigrat in mid-January to check on the welfare of the local Bishop reported that the area had been damaged extensively. Moreover, a church’s compound had been used as a military command centre despite the presence of clergy and nuns; and the Adigrat minor seminary building, its water tanker, a chapel at the cemetery, an Orthodox church and a mosque had all sustained damage.

However, the event that brought the plight of world heritage sites into sharp focus also involved the extrajudicial killing, allegedly by Ethiopian forces and allied Amhara militia, of around 750 people at the Maryam Zion Church in Axum, which is believed to house the biblical Ark of the Covenant. 

While details of this massacre have been slow to emerge, it is currently believed the victims were attempting to prevent the Ark from being seized and relocated to the Amhara Region. This is one of four confirmed massacres in which over 2000 Tigrayans are estimated to have died.

Clergy and worshipers have died in significant numbers. On 20 December 2020 CSW received allegations of the deaths of 154 civilians, including a priest named Hailu Abraha, during heavy bombardment of the Maryam Dengelat Church near Adigrat, that is believed to have occurred on 30 November.  In late January 2021, reports emerged of the murders of around 48 Orthodox priests in a church in Adi Fetaw village, close to the Eritrean border, and of 24 priests in Edaga Arbi, an area known for its monastery.  Details are also emerging of the murders of 27 people, including 12 priests, in Medhane Alem Church in Gulomikhada

The attacks on churches appear to be timed to coincide with annual religious festivals, possibly to inflict maximum casualties.  According to the Tigrayan official quoted earlier: “They kill whomever they find in whichever village they get in. In the village I was in yesterday – it’s a small village – they killed 21 people, out of which seven of them were priests of that small village.”

Nothing left

The war on Tigray has also heightened the vulnerability of the estimated 100,000 Eritreans who had sought refuge in Ethiopia from their repressive government.

Human Rights Concern-Eritrea has received eye-witness accounts of how eight Tigrayans suspected of being sympathetic to the TPLF were brought into Shimelba camp in early November and executed in front of the refugees, along with four refugees from the Kunama tribe, a group that is deemed to have suffered the atrocity crime of persecution

The remaining refugees were subsequently ordered either to march to Shiraro town or face a similar fate. Once there, many were loaded into trucks and forcibly returned to Eritrea. CSW recently received unconfirmed reports that others, largely from the Kunama ethnic group may have been forced to return to Eritrea on foot. Satellite imagery confirms that Shimelba camp was subsequently destroyed.  

The residents of Hitsat camp were similarly terrorised. On 23 November 2020, ten were killed and over 40 injured on their way to a service at St. Mary Church. After three painful days without medical attention, the wounded returned to Eritrea in a military truck, alongside injured Eritrean soldiers.

By December 2020, the sick and elderly who were still in the camp were beginning to die due to the lack of food, water and medication. Then, on 5 January, the remaining refugees, including pregnant women, small children, the sick, the elderly and the disabled, were ordered to walk to Shiraro, where they too were forcibly returned to Eritrea. Satellite imagery appears to corroborate reports that 14 buildings were set on fire on 5 January, with 55 other buildings damaged or destroyed.

In what would amount to a gross violation of the United Nations (UN) and African refugee conventions, at least 6,000 refugees are alleged to have been forcibly returned to Eritrea, and to a government that violates the rights of citizens grossly and comprehensively.

In January, a UNHCR assessment team was allowed to visit the remaining camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, where buildings and structures were found to be still intact. However, a critical shortage of potable water had given rise to diarrhoea-like illnesses, and while the refugees were yet to be impacted directly by the fighting, they were being attacked, harassed, threatened and robbed by a variety of armed groups which access their camps at night. Additionally, some 5,000 refugees who had made their way to Shire town are “living in dire conditions, many sleeping in an open field on the outskirts of the town, with no water and no food.”

Eritrean soldiers are also embarking on extensive looting. Civilians are forcibly deprived of money and jewellery, while homes are comprehensively cleared, including of blankets, cutlery, shoes and clothing.  Hospitals have been emptied of medication, factories of equipment and stores and storage facilities of goods and produce. Anything that is not transported to Eritrea is destroyed.  Livestock are seized and eaten, while crops are burnt in fields, compounding food insecurity at time when access humanitarian organisations, including the Red Cross and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), continues to be restricted. 

Starvation is now rife; the UN estimates some 2.3 million people – around half of the Tigrayan population – are in need of assistance. Children in the town of Adwa, where the Ethiopian army famously defeated the Italians in 1896,are reportedly dying in their sleep, while around eight people are said to be dying daily due to illnesses exacerbated by the lack of medication.

The extensive destruction and looting, including of sites of historical religious importance that generate income from tourism, point to a deliberate effort to deprive the region of every means of survival and recovery.

It is also an indication of the significant degree of deprivation in Eritrea itself, where starvation looms, largely on account of a stringently enforced COVID-19 lockdown that has been in place since March 2020.  Eritrea’s Catholic Bishops, who had earlier issued a strong appeal for the “immediate cessation of this destructive hostilities” and an end to “inflammatory words and propaganda,” are subsequently reported to have urged Eritreans not to purchase looted goods.

Significant efforts appear to be underway to prevent information reaching the outside world, including the alleged destruction of computer hard drives by Eritrean soldiers.

On 19 January the bodies of Tigrayan journalist Dawit Kebede Araya and his friend, Bereket Berhe were discovered in a car in Mekelle.  Both were reportedly shot in the head.  CSW has also been informed that in the aftermath of an attack near Adigrat in which Eritrean troops died in large numbers, 14 local youth were told to gather their bodies together so they could be transported elsewhere. Once this was done, and seemingly in a literal effort to bury these events, soldiers open fire on them, killing 13, while one managed to escape.

Regional and international ramifications

The war on Tigray is already regional in terms of its participants, and its ramifications increasingly threaten the stability of East Africa. To prosecute the war, Ethiopia withdrew and reassigned troops who were combatting Somalia’s al Shabaab terrorist insurgency, disarming and demobilising those of Tigrayan descent as part of a nation-wide campaign of ethnic profiling undergirded by hate speech and othering. Somalia, which has reportedly suffered significant casualties, has witnessed  protests by hundreds of parents demanding to know the whereabouts of their children, who were sent to Eritrea for military training.

Tensions are rising dangerously along Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, with a military build-up on both sides due to contested land that was re-occupied by Sudan as fighting raged in Tigray. There is also ongoing friction involving Sudan and Egypt arising from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).  Members of the Ethiopian military have been captured on video complaining about the presence of Eritrean troops and the prevalence of rape, and there are unconfirmed reports of disputes between Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers near Mekelle, in Adigrat and in Endabaguna. Meanwhile ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in the country and the human and economic costs of the war threaten the stability, growth and prosperity of Ethiopia itself.

International calls for a ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access have largely gone unheeded. Prime Minister Abiy palmed off initial interventions by the African Union (AU), which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and has effectively disregarded appeals from the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary General, among others. A call from researchers and fellows of the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies at the University of Hamburg for cultural heritages sites to be respected and preserved also appears to have had little effect.

More recently, four former United States (US) Ambassadors to Ethiopia issued an open letter calling for the protection of civilians, an independent human rights investigation and unrestricted access to Tigray for humanitarian agencies. The ambassadors also urged the convening of a national dialogue to address “worsening ethnic tensions throughout the country, reflected by the proliferation of hate speech and rising ethnic and religious violence.”

The US State Department has “pressed senior levels” of the Eritrean government to withdraw its troops immediately, conveying the new US administration’s grave concern about ongoing human rights violations. However, an activist network operating inside Eritrea recently warned that this largely verbal pressure from the international community has served to galvanise the government’s efforts to complete preparations for a “final offensive to annihilate TPLF.”

The current situation constitutes a threat to both regional and international peace and security, and must be addressed decisively while it can still be contained. 

The UN Security Council should act to ensure an immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded access to Tigray for local and international aid agencies. The imposition of an arms embargo on all warring parties, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is alleged to have provided drones, would be an important initial step.  Additionally, an urgent session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) must be convened, with a view towards mandating an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Tigray and securing justice.  The US, EU, Canada United Kingdom and nations with similar domestic legislation can assist further by imposing sanctions on the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who bear ultimate responsibility for any human rights violations that are being committed with impunity by their forces. 

The violations underway in Tigray mirror some of those outlined in the 2016 report of the UN Commission of inquiry on Eritrea (COIE), which found that crimes against humanity were committed primarily, although not exclusively, within the context of Eritrea’s indefinite national service regime. The persistent experiencing or execution of violations of such gravity appear to have fostered a military mentality that is inured to extreme brutality. The fundamentally sadistic nature of the secretive Eritrean regime is on open display in Tigray, and has underlined the ongoing need for a country mandate. It has also highlighted the need for the international community to prioritise justice by implementing all of the COIE’s recommendations, including the referral of Eritrea’s human rights situation to the International Criminal Court, without further delay.

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy, Khataza Gondwe

Featured image: A building in an IDP camp in Tigray. Credit: Josh Brown/CSW