Johannesburg – Amnesty International has released a disturbing report into recent killings in Ethiopia’s semi-autonomous region of Tigray. For over a week, there has been intense fighting in the state after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops there, accusing local officials of attacking a military base in the area. The human rights organization said it can confirm that scores and likely hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death in the town of Mai-Kadra in Tigray’s South West Zone.
The organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab has digitally verified gruesome photographs and videos of bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers.
“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive. This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell as communication in Tigray remains shut down,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement.
Most of the dead bodies were found in the town’s center near the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and along a road that exits to the neighboring town of Humera, according to the witnesses and verified images.
People who saw the dead bodies told Amnesty International that they had gaping wounds that appear to have been inflicted by sharp weapons such as knives and machetes. Those reports have been confirmed by an independent pathologist commissioned by the human rights group. Witnesses said there were no signs of gunshot wounds.
“Those wounded told me they were attacked with machetes, axes and knives. You can also tell from the wounds that those who died were attacked by sharp objects. It is horrible and I am really sad that I witnessed this in my life,” one distraught witness said.
Amnesty International has not yet been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings. Witnesses told the organization forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which rules Tigray, were responsible, apparently carrying out the massacre after suffering defeat from the government’s forces in another part of the state.
After defeating the Tigray forces, the government troops spent the night on the outskirts of Mai-Kadra town. “When we entered, we saw a lot of dead bodies, soaked in blood, on the streets and rental dormitories frequented by seasonal workers. The view was really debasing, and I am still in shock struggling to cope with the experience,” a civilian who entered the town after it was retaken by government forces told Amnesty International.
Tensions between Abiy, the prime minister, have been simmering for months now. Last Wednesday, while the world was anxiously waiting for the results of the U.S. presidential election, Abiy was sending national soldiers to Tigray in response to an alleged attack by regional troops on a government military base in the area. There has been a communications blackout, so there is no independent verification of the attack.
Abiy came to power on an ambitious reform agenda attempting to transform what was one of Africa’s most repressive countries and rooting out corruption. But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, believe they have been unfairly targeted by this anti-corruption drive with many senior national government representatives losing key posts.
The tipping point came in September when Abiy postponed parliamentary elections due to the coronavirus. Tigray leaders said this was a ploy by Abiy to mount a power grab. They defied the ban and went ahead with their own elections.
Arrest warrants have been issued for Tigray’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, who was elected in September, and other TPLF leaders “for endangering the country’s existence” and “for trying to erode the constitution.” On Friday, Ethiopia’s parliament appointed a new head of Tigray, Mulu Nega, an education official.
The situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated rapidly and is all the more alarming considering that just last year Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decades-old conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
The man who was able to make peace internationally has been unable to do so within his own borders. During his acceptance speech for the peace prize, Abiy said war was the epitome of hell, and now he seems prepared to unleash that hell on his own country.
Although Tigrayans only make up about 6% of the population of 110 million, they have been the dominant political and economic force in Ethiopia, enjoying a disproportionate level of power. Abiy comes from the majority ethnic group, the Oromo. The TPLF helped overthrow the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam and was the leading group in the power-sharing government that followed.
Abiy’s critics say that sidelining the Tigrayans was a huge mistake in a deeply polarized country and there are now fears that Ethiopia could fracture once and for all along ethnic lines into all-out civil war.