The nightmare began at the end of November for the inhabitants of the city of Aksum, in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The city, one of the centers of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In early November, the Ethiopian army launched an assault on this rebel province, accused of secessionism.
On November 19, the city of Aksum was bombed by Ethiopian forces, causing several civilian casualties, residents told the NGO Human Rights Watch, which released the information on Friday. On November 20, early in the morning, Ethiopian soldiers but also from neighboring Eritrea entered Aksum. A resident relates: “At the beginning, I looked and saw nothing. It was like a horror movie, eerily calm. I got out and heard the sound of tank tracks on the road. The soldiers started shooting and everyone fled ”.
A man told Human Rights Watch investigators that he saw his barber being shot by a group of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. “He tried to run away but they shot four times until he collapsed.” According to other accounts, Eritrean soldiers raided a hospital, where they killed wounded Tigrayan fighters but also civilians. “They then took the drugs, beds and other equipment,” said a man, who was at his sister’s bedside and managed to escape.
According to the twenty witnesses interviewed by telephone by the NGO Human Rights Watch, the looting continued over the following days. They were mostly made by Eritrean soldiers, clearly identified by their uniforms. According to most of those interviewed, the Ethiopian army stayed away and let it go.
Involvement of Eritrea
After a week of looting, the exasperation of the inhabitants is at its height. It was at this time that dozens of Tigrayan fighters reportedly returned to the city. Accompanied by young people, who obtained weapons, they attacked the Eritrean soldiers. The reprisals in the last days of November will be terrible. Locals describe soldiers passing from house to house, looking for young men to execute or take them away. According to Human Rights Watch estimates, 200 people were killed by Eritrean forces, including minors, during the days of November 28 and 29 alone.
Even if Addis Ababa continues to deny, the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray is no longer in doubt. Eritrea has long been Ethiopia’s sworn enemy, when the latter was dominated by the Tigrayans. But the northerners have lost their preeminence within the federal state since the election of Prime Minister in 2018 Abiy Ahmed who made peace with Eritrea, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
The Aksum massacre was also documented a few days ago by Amnesty International and by several media. The UN, through the voice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in Geneva, gave credit on Thursday, denouncing possible “war crimes”. She demanded access to Tigray to conduct an independent investigation. At the start of the conflict, other massacres were reported, including one attributed to Tigray militias.
After New York, Geneva
Pressure is mounting on Ethiopia, not only because of the revelations about the atrocities in Tigray but also because the new US administration is now calling Ethiopia to account. For the first time, the UN Security Council met Thursday evening to discuss the situation in Tigray. The West pushed in vain for a statement, however very moderate, worrying about the humanitarian situation, while insisting on the integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. “It’s very disappointing,” comments Leaticia Bader, the Horn of Africa director of Human Rights Watch.
Unsurprisingly, Russia and China felt that Ethiopia should not interfere in internal affairs. This is what Addis Ababa repeats, which also relies on its status as leader of the African continent. But, in New York, for the first time, African countries appeared ready to join a declaration on Tigray. Is this a sign of a growing isolation of Addis Ababa, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union, so far unable to appease the crisis?
Ethiopia is redoubling its activism anyway. Its embassies sent an argument to the press, listing the humanitarian convoys entering Tigray and the reconstruction efforts. Addis Ababa ensures that investigations have been launched, including on the events in Axum. Yet humanitarian access remains very limited, according to the UN, leaving millions of the province’s residents without aid. The next stage of the diplomatic battle could take place in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council is meeting. The NGOs are asking this body for a resolution to launch an international investigation and keep the pressure on Addis Ababa.