Ethiopian troops and their allies have driven back Tigrayan forces that had advanced on the capital. Reuters visited areas formerly held by the rebels and documented accounts of rapes and killings.
In Ethiopia war, new abuse charges turn spotlight on Tigrayan former rulers
NIFAS MEWCHA, Ethiopia
In the dappled shadows of a glade of cypress and eucalyptus, a deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church adjusted his roughly-spun cotton shawl and knelt by a white-washed grave. “He was my best friend,” Betsiha Derresse said. “We did everything together - sleep, work.”
In August, civil war reached the thin air of this town in the Amhara region, 3,000 metres up in a mountainous landscape once home to Ethiopia’s ancient rulers. Forces from neighbouring Tigray province had arrived. The delicate-framed Betsiha, 28, said he and many others hid in the forest, but his friend and fellow deacon, Mulat Aynekulu Mekonnen, turned back to collect a book.
The Tigrayan fighters “started to shoot at us, so we had to run away en masse,” Betsiha said. Mulat went back. “He said he would not leave without his psalm book.”
When Betsiha returned to his church three days later, he found 35-year-old Mulat’s body, he said. He’d been shot.
The head of the mayor’s office, Belete Asrate, said Tigrayan fighters killed 27 civilian men in the town. He, Betsiha and two others said the victims were unarmed. Another person said some of the victims were carrying weapons. None of these people witnessed the killings.
Townspeople said more than 70 women were raped by Tigrayan fighters. Reuters met three of the women and spoke to health workers, local officials and federal prosecutors. The Tigrayan perpetrators were young, said Agere Yaynalem, a 37-year-old woman, who said she was raped multiple times and left unconscious.
“I appealed to them,” Agere said. “Do you not have sisters? Think of them!” She asked that Reuters identify her by name and use her photo in this report. “The worst has already happened to me,” she said.
Since civil war erupted over a year ago in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Reuters has reported atrocities by all sides. Accounts of abuses in Nifas Mewcha and other towns in Amhara, documented by Reuters, are pulling into focus the role of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the war.
Tigrayan forces are ultimately commanded by leaders of the TPLF, which dominates Tigray and once controlled the Ethiopian government, although many foot soldiers are not TPLF members. Arrayed against them are Ethiopia’s federal army, as well as troops from the neighbouring country of Eritrea and from Amhara region.
“The worst has already happened to me.”
The conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives. It has plunged 400,000 people into famine conditions and left 9.4 million in need of food aid across northern Ethiopia, according to the United Nations. Around 60,000 people have poured across the border into Sudan, the U.N. says.
For eight months, the fighting was in Tigray. Allegations of killings and mass rape were documented by Reuters and others. From July, the war spread southward and eastward. Tigrayan fighters invaded the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara. In November, Amnesty International reported accusations that Tigrayan fighters committed rapes, looting and assaults in Nifas Mewcha. Amnesty wasn’t able to visit the town, basing its report on phone interviews with residents. The TPLF promised to investigate the alleged rapes and “bring perpetrators to justice.”
After the recent recapture of hundreds of square miles of territory in Amhara by the Ethiopian army, Reuters journalists were able to travel to Nifas Mewcha and other towns in late November. Witnesses such as Betsiha gave accounts of killings in Nifas Mewcha, reported for the first time here, and Agere and other women provided Reuters with on-the-record allegations of rape that support London-based Amnesty’s report.
The TPLF didn’t respond to questions about the claims of killings and other detailed inquiries for this article. TPLF leaders have repeatedly denied that Tigrayan forces have committed wide-scale abuses and have called for independent international investigations.
“I can't vouch for each and every off-breed idiot who masquerades as a fighter,” spokesman Getachew Reda told Reuters in July. “There are millions of (men with) guns there.”
Taking on the TPLF
To some outsiders, Ethiopia’s strife has been viewed largely as the handiwork of Abiy Ahmed, the country’s 45-year-old prime minister.
Some international observers have accused Abiy and his forces of attempting to crush Tigray and its 5.5 million people. Pekka Haavisto, the European Union special envoy, said in June he was told earlier this year by Ethiopia's leaders in closed-door talks that “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years” - an allegation the government strongly denied. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress in March that “acts of ethnic cleansing” were taking place in western Tigray, although he did not apportion blame.
Across much of Ethiopia, however, many blame the political leadership of Tigray - the TPLF - for the bloodshed. A former Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement, the TPLF led a coalition that dominated power from 1991 until Abiy - a former cyber intelligence chief - took control in 2018. In May 2021, the Ethiopian parliament designated the TPLF as a terrorist group.
The civil war began in November 2020 after months of increasing tensions, with each side accusing the other of a military buildup. The spark was an all-out assault by Tigrayan forces against military bases and federal offices in Tigray, according to written witness testimony from Ethiopian soldiers and alleged planning documents seen by Reuters. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters that Tigrayan forces were acting in “self-defence” to preempt an imminent attack.
Abiy enlisted the support of the army of Eritrea. Many of the massacres in Tigray that followed were blamed on Eritrean troops. There were also killings by Ethiopian federal troops and militiamen from Amhara, a joint U.N.-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigation found. As Reuters has reported, the abuses included torture, killing of civilians and gang-rapes.
Eritrea has denied that its soldiers are responsible for such abuses. Abiy’s government has previously said it has assurances that Eritrea will hold any perpetrators to account. And Abiy has promised to investigate allegations against Ethiopian troops. Amhara regional officials have dismissed accusations of atrocities by Amhara forces as groundless.
Reuters reporting has also revealed abuses by Tigrayans, including the massacre of more than 200 ethnic Amharas in the town of Mai Kadra, and the killing of many Eritrean refugees in the far northwest.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda has denied that formal Tigrayan forces were involved in those killings, but said local Tigrayan militias may have committed abuses. He did not respond to queries about whether the TPLF would carry out investigations and punish those responsible.
In his dimly lit government office in Addis Ababa, cloth-capped former rebel Aregawi Berhe, who founded the TPLF in 1975 with six others, recently was playing tranquil ambient music from his computer. Aregawi is far from the battlefield. He parted decades ago with his old TPLF friends, who he lambasts as “corrupt, degenerate goons.” He now holds a high-ranking Ethiopian government position after decades in exile.
When a Reuters reporter visited Aregawi on Nov. 30, TPLF-commanded columns, known as the Tigray Defence Force, were advancing hundreds of miles south from Tigray along three parallel roads – arrayed like a trident poised to skewer Addis Ababa.
The TPLF-led army had advanced swiftly and unsupported into enemy territory, Aregawi said. But without taking Addis Ababa and reaching their objective, the Tigrayans were highly vulnerable to being cut off. TPLF-led forces had invaded provinces - Afar and Amhara - hostile to the Tigrayan forces. That made the advance doomed, he predicted.
To understand the current war, Aregawi said, you need to understand the nature of the TPLF - and longtime leaders who remain potent in the movement. In the 1980s, Aregawi broke with the TPLF, then a Marxist party that followed the Soviet model. He later founded a party that promoted a liberal democratic vision for Tigray.
The TPLF came to be dominated by its leader, Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012. While winning praise for overseeing economic growth and development, Meles’ Ethiopia was marked too by bouts of mass arrests, torture and killings, as documented at the time by Reuters and in annual U.S. State Department reports.
TPLF figures from that time are now helping to lead the Tigrayan war effort. One is a former Ethiopian army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Tsadkan Gebretensae. Tsadkan left the TPLF and his post as army commander in a disagreement over how to conduct Ethiopia’s 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea. He wanted to march on Eritrea’s capital. Tsadkan has come out of retirement as a key figure in the TPLF’s military struggle against Addis Ababa.
Tsadkan didn’t comment for this article. He previously told Reuters by phone that he spent months trying to mediate between Abiy and the TPLF, but Eritrea’s involvement left him no alternative but to take up arms. “The Ethiopian government invited foreign forces to invade our country, so the choice was either to surrender to foreign forces or Abiy’s forces, or join the resistance. I chose the latter,” he said.
Another force behind the scenes in Tigray is a former head of Ethiopia’s intelligence service, Getachew Assefa, according to two people who are in contact with the TPLF leadership. Prosecutors have charged Getachew in absentia with torture, murder and other alleged crimes during his time in intelligence. He has not publicly addressed the accusations. Getachew and the TPLF did not respond to Reuters’ questions for this article.
“My friend was shot in his head and chest by people who wore the uniform” of a Tigray regional force
The road to civil war, Aregawi said, echoing a view shared by some other analysts, began soon after Abiy emerged as a compromise candidate for prime minister in 2018. Once in power, conflict became inevitable, many analysts believe, when Abiy decided to challenge the TPLF’s political and economic power simultaneously. Abiy quickly identified the TPLF as a barrier to reform, accusing them of attempting to wield power behind the scenes.
Gedion Timothewos, Ethiopia’s attorney general and minister of justice, told Reuters any attempt to overhaul the economy meant taking on the TPLF. Companies such as METEC, a state-owned metal and engineering company, were led in the past by people allied with the TPLF and awarded huge government contracts, Gedion said.
Tigrayan Major General Kinfe Dagnew, the chief executive of METEC for eight years until Abiy took power, was arrested on corruption charges in November 2018. His lawyer, Haftom Kesete, told Reuters that Kinfe, who is in jail, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and has been acquitted of some. Others are still pending.
Gedion said millions of dollars paid by the government to METEC for constructing Ethiopia’s nearly $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a flagship hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile, had been syphoned away. “Almost half of it was paid up front, and we had nothing to show for it,” he said.
Zelalem Fikadu, deputy director general for the Corruption Department, said in one instance METEC got 16 billion Birr ($330 million) in state money for hydraulic and electrical works on the dam. Of that, 7 billion Birr was completely unaccounted for. The matter was still under investigation, he said, with no charges yet filed against any individuals. The government-run METEC doesn’t exist in its previous form.
Attorney General Gedion said it is unclear where the money went.
Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies in Oslo and a scholar of the TPLF with close contacts in the party, said the focus on the TPLF as the nexus for personal corruption was a “false narrative.” He said there is corruption among elites from other ethnic groups. Some Tigrayans say the case against Kinfe is politically motivated.
The arrest of several TPLF leaders on corruption charges led other party figures to flee to Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, with both sides feeling a showdown was inevitable.
In September 2020, Tigray defied the federal government, which had postponed national elections due to COVID-19, and held its own regional polls. It declared Abiy’s government illegitimate. Ethiopian lawmakers blocked federal funds to Tigray.
“War was pretty much inevitable at that point,” said William Davison, Ethiopia analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank. Tigrayan leaders in Mekelle “made it clear they would not sit there passively and allow the federal government to use the powers that they had at their control to weaken Tigray.”
The path of war
Fighting erupted on the night of Nov. 3, 2020.
Federal prosecutors shared with Reuters 16 sworn witness statements of Ethiopian soldiers who were stationed across Tigray at the time. They describe a sneak attack in different locations on the Ethiopian army by Tigrayan forces that night. Reuters did not speak to the soldiers and could not independently verify their accounts.
One of the statements is said to be from Shewaseb Kagnew, 20, stationed at the Agula army camp just outside Mekelle. Shewaseb was from North Shewa in Amhara region. He was part of a mechanised unit and operated an anti-aircraft gun.
Shewaseb told Ethiopian investigators he woke to the sound of gunfire at twenty to midnight, put on his uniform and stepped outside. He had gone “probably 10 feet” when Tigrayan forces attacked, his statement says. “My friend was shot in his head and chest by people who wore the uniform” of a Tigray regional force, Shewaseb testified.
Prosecutors allege that in the days that followed, the Tigrayans committed many atrocities. There were multiple accounts, they said, of captured federal troops being deliberately run over by a truck. Shewaseb said in his statement that near the town of Tembien on Dec. 3, he saw a red truck carrying 20 uniformed Tigrayan soldiers smash into a column of captured Ethiopian troops, killing 10 of them. A second soldier in a separate deposition described the same incident near Tembien, although he remembered it as a day later.
In a presentation to Reuters, Ethiopian prosecutors said they have collected 20,000 pages of documents and interviewed 510 witnesses as part of their investigation into the Nov. 3 assault. They said the investigation has found that Tigrayan forces simultaneously attacked or seized over 174 locations, including army bases, police stations, banks, petrol stations, airports and communication offices.
Citing TPLF documents recovered in Mekelle, the prosecutors said the TPLF-led regional government had built up its forces ahead of the attack, training up to 50,000 fighters and preparing for a war they expected to win within three months. Among the papers prosecutors say they seized is an alleged TPLF strategy document, dated Oct. 10, 2020.
Seen by Reuters, it describes plans by the TPLF for the “removal of the enemy” and formation of a national “transitional government.” Reuters was unable to independently corroborate the authenticity of the document.
The government points to all of this as evidence that the TPLF began the conflict and is responsible for what followed. The TPLF attacked without warning, the government alleges, and in some instances gave federal soldiers no opportunity to surrender. It accuses the TPLF of committing murder and other war crimes.
The TPLF has said its move was pre-emptive because Ethiopian federal forces were moving into position to strike.
“There was a build-up of federal forces around Tigray,” TPLF chief Debretsion told Reuters in July. The TPLF had mostly tried to disarm Ethiopian soldiers peacefully, he said, and where it had done so, there was no fighting. “It was self-defence.”
The TPLF did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the documents and the witness statements.
After the fighting began, Ethiopian federal forces took key towns and roads in Tigray and killed or captured several TPLF leaders. But within months the federal army began to suffer heavy losses; in late June and early July it withdrew from much of Tigray. Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire.
Across Tigray in July, a Reuters journalist saw hundreds of young Tigrayans, males and females, joining the army. Youths trained in the early hours of the morning, jogging along the road while carrying large wooden logs. In the small town of Nebelet, newly recruited soldiers marched under heavy rain waving flags of Tigray.
After Abiy called the ceasefire, Tigrayan forces pushed south and east, invading the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. Their aim, they said at the time, was to break a de facto aid blockade on Tigray. The government in Addis Ababa, which has denied blocking aid, called on civilians to defend their communities against the advancing TPLF.
Fighting down the A2 high road, which runs nearly 600km (370 miles) south from Tigray, the Tigrayan forces came less than 200km from Addis Ababa in November. Many foreign nations ordered their citizens to leave. Abiy’s government declared a state of emergency.
Just as the TPLF-led fighters came within sight of a 3,100-metre mountain pass and a tunnel into the Nile Valley, the last high ridgeline before the capital, the Tigrayan forces were turned back. Announcing that he would lead personally from the frontline, Abiy launched a major offensive backed by drone attacks and thousands of new recruits.
Hatred runs deep
In recent weeks, the Ethiopian Army has pushed Tigrayan forces back hundreds of miles from Addis Ababa, recaptured major towns and retaken areas of Amhara that were under the occupation of Tigrayan forces.
Reuters visited the town of Gashena, close to the frontline and the gateway for Lalibela, a World Heritage site with ancient rock churches. On the approach to Gashena, a Tigrayan flag was still painted on the road with the slogan, “Tigray will Prevail!” In one hamlet, there were signs of a fierce battle: zig-zag trenches cut into the sand by the roadside, burned out tanks and armoured trucks, and a grove of eucalyptus trees decapitated by gunfire or artillery.
In Gashena itself, there were reports of a massacre of civilians by Tigrayan fighters. The mayor of the town told Reuters that 53 people were killed. The TPLF did not respond to questions about the incident.
Reuters could not independently verify those accusations, which fit a pattern of attacks reported by human rights organisations elsewhere in Amhara. New York-based Human Rights Watch alleged in a report this month that Tigrayan forces summarily executed dozens of civilians in two towns they controlled in Amhara between Aug. 31 and Sept. 9. The TPLF also did not respond to questions from Reuters about those allegations.
In nearby Nifas Mewcha, the head of the mayor’s office, Belete Asrate, said Tigrayan fighters raped 74 women. He cited evidence collected by his staff and by local medical teams. Federal prosecutors and the Amhara regional government separately told Reuters they had independently verified the claims.
A local health official, Kindeye Zikyalew, said he treated 14 rape victims; many were suffering from psychological problems, he said, including difficulties sleeping, stress, fear, suicidal feelings and feelings of worthlessness.
Reuters interviewed three of the 74 women.
Agere, 37, said that at 2 p.m. on Aug. 6, three Tigrayan men knocked at the drinks store she ran and threatened to shoot if she did not open. They drank all her stock, she said, and then “they told me that Amhara means donkey, so they want to rape me.”
Agere said she told the men to think of their families and sisters. They shouted, “You have children and we don’t… While Tigrayans are dying, you have children.” Agere said she was beaten and raped until she was unconscious. Friends found her hours later.
Mihertu Kumlachew, director general of organised and cross-boundary crimes at the Ministry of Justice, said Ethiopian prosecutors had so far documented the killing of 540 civilians by Tigrayan forces in Amhara and Afar. “Some of these civilians were hiding in their house and some were trying to escape from the conflict,” he said.
Some Tigrayans have questioned the ministry’s accounts. Federal prosecutors, for example, told Reuters all the victims of the Mai Kadra massacre were Amhara. However, Reuters reporting and a joint United Nations and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigation found there were also Tigrayans killed by Amhara in revenge for slayings by Tigrayans.
In Nifas Mewcha, hatred runs deep. Abay Tsegaye says she too was raped by Tigrayan fighters. “I want them all to be wiped out – all the Tigrayans,” she told Reuters. “Let their race be wiped out!”
Betsiha, the Amhara deacon in the town, hopes communal wounds will heal. “It’s not about the people of Tigray,” he said. “It’s a clique at the top of the Tigrayan leadership that’s fighting these wars.”
Additional reporting by the Reuters Nairobi newsroom
Ethiopia at War
By Stephen Grey
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Art direction: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet McBride