Ethiopia ‘will be digging up mass graves for a decade’: inside Tigray’s dirty war

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The 78-year-old Orthodox priest stayed inside his house until the killers had gone. Then, leaning on his wooden cane and holding a crucifix, he rushed outside to cover the bodies of his four sons and his two grandsons. Blood seeped through their white cotton scarves.

“They gathered them together and massacred them,” Liqe Tiguhan Abraha Gebre said of the killers he identified as Eritrean soldiers by their accents, uniforms and facemarks.

Liqe Tiguhan Abraha Gebre at the church in Dengelat: ‘They gathered them together and massacred them’ © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

They had arrived on foot in late November, he said, as the priest and his family were sharing injera flatbread and lentils to celebrate a Christian Orthodox holiday in the village of Dengelat in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia.

The celebration fell in the midst of conflict — the culmination of a power struggle between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a regional party that ruled the country for 27 years until 2018.

This war has tipped Ethiopia, a gradually liberalising economic powerhouse and Africa’s second most populous country, into crisis. As tightly restricted humanitarian and foreign media access is loosened, testimonies such as that of Abraha are bubbling to the surface.

So too is evidence of the involvement of troops from Eritrea, which neighbours Tigray, to help the Ethiopian government fight the battle-hardened TPLF. After previous denials, this week Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, conceded that Eritrean troops had crossed into Ethiopia because, he said, they feared attack from the TPLF. During a meeting in Asmara on Friday, Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s strongman, “agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border”, read a statement from Abiy’s office.

For Eritrea, this conflict has been an opportunity to fight its decades-old Tigrayan foe, many claim. “This is open season for Eritrea,” said a foreign diplomat in Ethiopia. “Isaias wants to get rid of Tigray once and for all.” Their involvement and that of local militias and forces from elsewhere in Ethiopia has escalated a conflict that threatens to destabilise the region.

Ethiopia map with Tigray and Dengelat highlighted

“You speak like us in Tigrinya. You are Eritreans. We are brothers. Come in and eat with us,” Abraha recalled telling six soldiers. But instead they took six men, aged between 15 and 46, to the banks of the nearby river, tied their hands behind their backs and shot them in the head. “They killed unarmed human beings whom they have not seen killing others. They are barbarians,” Abraha said.

‘Payback for Eritrea’

In total, local church officials and members of the Inter-Religious Council of Tigray estimate that at least 164 civilians were killed in Dengelat over two days in late November.

These are just a few of the thousands that diplomats and aid workers say have died since early November when Abiy began the so-called law and order operation against the TPLF, an organisation he has labelled a “criminal clique”. Weeks later, Addis Ababa claimed to “have completed and ceased military operations in the Tigray region”, establishing its own government there and killing or capturing some senior members of the TPLF leadership.

A man holds the portrait of a victim of an alleged massacre in the village of Dengelat © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
A list with names and ages of the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in Dengelat © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

But the fighting rumbles on and Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, Tigrayan and other ethnic militias now stand accused of atrocities and even “ethnic cleansing”. 

“This could be like the former Yugoslavia. Ethiopians will be digging up mass graves for a decade,” said a senior humanitarian official in Tigray.

Top members of the interim government in Tigray, which was appointed by Abiy, admit that Eritreans are in “full control” of a strip of Ethiopian territory of about 100km along the border. In private, even some senior federal government officials admit that the Eritreans remain present.

The involvement of Eritrea, where conscription is unavoidable and often indefinite, “is payback” because “the TPLF is the biggest existential threat to both Tigray and Eritrea”, said a senior federal government official, adding that Eritrean solders “have to leave” now because this has turned into “a majorly ugly war”.

The UN, US and EU have condemned the Eritrean presence in Tigray and said the perpetrators of human rights abuses should be held accountable. On Monday, the EU imposed sanctions on Eritrea, partly for its involvement in Tigray, diplomats say.

Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, dismissed the allegations of abuses by Eritrean forces as “outrageous”, while the foreign ministry accused the EU of “doggedly working” to save the “TPLF clique” and to “drive a wedge between Eritrea and Ethiopia”.

Filmon Teame, a survivor of the alleged massacre, shows his scars in Dengelat © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
Mulu Nega, leader of the caretaker administration of Tigray, says TPLF fighters are using civilians as ‘human shields’ © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

For its part, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry has strongly denied ethnically motivated violence. The Ethiopian government recently said in a statement that “it undertook the law enforcement operations in the Tigray region with utmost precaution to avoid as much as possible collateral damage on civilians”, adding that it “takes any allegations of human rights abuses and crimes very seriously”.

Officials in Addis Ababa say the TPLF is “the source of all this mess”, blaming the party for almost three decades of dictatorship and fomenting ethnic division. Addis Ababa alleges the TPLF sought to undermine Abiy by sponsoring terrorist attacks around the country. It blames the TPLF and its militias for carrying out massacres, such as one at Mai Kadra in western Tigray in November.

Mulu Nega, the interim president of Tigray who was handpicked by Addis Ababa, said TPLF fighters were using civilians as “human shields”. “We’re trying to minimise this, but we cannot avoid completely human rights abuses,” he said in his office in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle.

“This is a dirty war,” Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, a government general in charge of a task force on the Tigray conflict, told diplomats during a March briefing in Mekelle. “On the atrocities, rape, crime . . . I don’t think we are going to be fortunate to see that such things have not happened,” he added. 

Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF, warned from his hide-out that TPLF forces would continue to fight until Tigrayans were liberated from what he called “occupation and perpetrators of genocide”. 

‘In our lifetime . . . we have not seen such wickedness’

The wreckage of war is in plain sight on the 100km drive north of Mekelle to Dengelat. The Financial Times passed shelled villages, churches and mosques, looted factories, mangled tanks and charred combat trucks.

On arrival at the mountainous village of stone houses, men immediately rushed out to show mass graves — allegedly of between three and 13 people each — covered with cactus leaves or corrugated zinc. Women crouched under eucalyptus trees, holding photographs of dead relatives, sobbing in anger and despair. 

Locals said “Eritrean soldiers” had fired on civilians, saying their orders were to get rid of potential TPLF militias. Some climbed a rock escarpment to shelter in the church but were warned by soldiers it would be shelled. Some who fled were shot dead.

Then, residents say, the Eritrean soldiers went on a murderous spree. They broke into the house of Yemane Gebremariam, 53, a seller of soft drinks. Out of the 13 people gathered there, he said, they killed seven, including his daughter and newly wed son, whose wife was shot in the hand.

Yemane Gebremariam lost his daughter and newly wed son in the alleged massacre © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
Emnti Gobezay’s son was killed in Dengelat. ‘I saw them with my own eyes,’ she says of his killers © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

“In our lifetime, or even in our history, we have not seen such wickedness,” he said. “They killed youngsters who were wearing white clothes after having taken the Holy Communion. One woman who was holding a child and shouting ‘my son, my son’ was singled out and killed, and her seven-month-old baby fell to the ground right in front of us.”

Weeping outside the church at Dengelat, 53-year-old Emnti Gobezay described the past months of conflict as “the worst war I’ve seen in my lifetime”, surpassing the TPLF’s insurgent war against the Derg regime in the early 1990s and the subsequent border war with Eritrea.

“I saw them with my own eyes,” she sobbed, describing when the “Eritreans” caught and killed her 20-year-old son. The Ethiopian government and its Eritrean “supporters” want “to wipe out the people of Tigray” by killing “peaceful people, teenagers, children, and priests”, she said.

Holding a leaf from a eucalyptus tree, she said: “The innocent blood of Tigrayans will fertilise this ground and grow fresh leaves. Our dead children will not be forgotten.”

Battle for Tigray

2 April 2018

Abiy Ahmed takes office as Ethiopia’s prime minister, ending the TPLF’s 27-year rule as part of the EPRDF coalition

11 October 2019

Abiy wins Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea

9 September 2020

Tigray, ruled by the TPLF, presses ahead with regional election against the wishes of central government

4 November 2020

Abiy sends troops to Tigray after Tigrayan troops attacked a federal army base

29 November 2020

Abiy declares that Ethiopian forces have ‘completed and ceased military operations’ in Tigray after taking control of Mekelle

30 November 2020

Eritreans soldiers allegedly massacred 164 people in the village of Dengelat in Tigray

23 March 2021

After months of government denial, Abiy admits the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray

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