Official on the First Weeks of the Tigray War: Somali Soldiers Participated
Somali soldiers’ participation in the war in northern Ethiopia was reported from a number of places in Tigray, a former key member of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government party maintains to Bistandsaktuelt.
March 4, 2022
The participation of the Somali troops was kept strictly secret. That was also why they wore Eritrean military uniforms, says Gebremeskel Kassa, former chief of staff of Tigray’s interim administration .
Several thousand Somali youths were trained in Eritrean camps, and many took part in the Tigray war, a former Somali intelligence chief has claimed to Bistandsaktuelt . Now the Ethiopian official – with a background from Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed’s own party – confirms important aspects of the story.
The administration he was employed in was appointed by Abiy Ahmed’s government apparatus at the end of November 2020, after the former regional leadership was forced to flee by the Ethiopian government forces and their allies. The purpose was that the temporary board should provide administrative and public services to the population.
The nominees were all Tigrays, but were considered loyal members of Abiy’s Prosperity Party and in opposition to Tigray’s own regional leadership.
The doubt came quickly
The official we are talking to was also an active member of the party, and was fascinated by the new Prime Minister’s speeches on national unity and peace and reconciliation. But today, the former official has changed his mind about the Peace Prize winner and his promises of peace and reconciliation.
The doubt came already in his first days as the government’s seconded official – confronted with the lies and secrets of the war.
Officially, neither Eritreans nor Somalis were involved in the war. Therefore, it came as a shock to the official when he discovered that foreign forces – mainly Eritrean – were deep in Ethiopian territory, invited by the Abiy government itself.
Among the soldiers in Eritrean uniforms were also young men of another nationality.
– I heard about the Somalis already when I came to the city of Shire in northwestern Tigray on November 28, 2020. It happened in conversations with senior representatives from the local community. The first statements were that “Al Shabaab had participated in the war”. It was a bluff the elderly had been served by Eritrean military leaders, says Gebremeskel.
Complained of aggravated assault
Together with local religious leaders, the senior representatives had confronted the Eritrean military. They complained of gross abuse. The list of complaints included mass murder, murder of priests, a number of rapes, including gang rapes, looting and extensive destruction of civil and public infrastructure.
The locals had experienced a war nightmare.
– The Eritreans blamed the young recruits from Somalia, referred to as “Al-Shabaab”, for collective war crimes they themselves had staged in the area. In reality, the Somalis were under the command of the Eritrean military, he says.
As a member of the interim board, Gebremeskel received both military and civilian information from official channels. According to the information he received, between 8,000 and 10,000 Somalis were involved in the war operation.
Easy to separate
The former official explains that the recruits from Somalia were easy to distinguish from the Eritreans. They stood out in appearance and because they – unlike the Eritreans – did not speak the local language Tigrinya.
– I really feel sorry for these young Somali boys. They probably only did what they were ordered to do, he says.P.
He gives Bistandsaktuelt a long list of municipalities (woredas), cities and places where he knows that the Somali soldiers were involved.
Among the cities in the northwest were the controversial border town of Badme, as well as Sheraro, Adi Hageray, Adi Nebredeid and Adi Daero. In central Tigray, the Somalis were present, under Eritrean command, in, among other places, the holy city of Axum, where the most famous massacres of the Tigray War were committed.
– Was withdrawn
The former chief of staff emphasizes that the reports he received cover the first months of the war.
– My impression was that the Somalis were withdrawn when the messages began to appear in the media about their presence inside Tigray, but I do not know if they were withdrawn completely, he says.
Gebremeskel himself witnessed the much-publicized and well-documented massacre in Axum , in which the Eritrean military played a major role. It happened when he went there with a team from the interim administration – with Ethiopian government soldiers as military escort. The trip was made after disturbing information about the ongoing massacre had reached them in the city of Shire.
After being stopped by Eritrean soldiers in a roadblock outside the holy city, the team and the Ethiopian soldiers had to spend the first night on the country road. It was the night between 29 and 30 November 2020.
Was refused to bury his dead
He describes the sight that met them when they finally slipped into the city on November 30 as unbelievably cruel. Bodies were strewn in the streets, while terrified residents were refused to bury their dead . Hyenas had already begun to gnaw on the corpses.
– The horrible scenes we saw, I will carry with me forever. It was terrible, he says.
For Gebremeskel, one of the tasks was to negotiate an agreement with the local Eritrean commander that the civilian population in Axum should be able to bury their loved ones. He succeeded. They were buried in five different mass graves.
The Ethiopian soldiers, who themselves were shocked by what they saw, were involved and helped the civilian population. In the absence of cars, which had already been stolen by the Eritrean soldiers, we had to use stretchers and ox carts, he says.
The foreign soldiers did not participate in this work. Gebremeskel emphasizes that he saw many of the private foreign soldiers in Axum, but that he could not see if there were also Somalis among the Eritrean soldiers – as the reports suggest.
Spent two days burying the bodies
– The work was heavy and time consuming. I estimate that in the course of two days we found and buried between 800 and 1000 dead bodies , says Gebremeskel.
The interim administration was careful to report the foreign troops’ significant responsibility for the abuses to the central government in Addis, he says – but without it leading to the withdrawal of these forces. He also attended meetings with the Prime Minister where the Eritrean troops were the topic.
– At one point, Abiy promised us that the Eritrean soldiers would be withdrawn to the border, but the only thing that happened was that they changed from Eritrean to Ethiopian uniforms. We still recognized them and heard that they spoke Tigrinya, he says.
He himself came into conflict with Abiy’s central government when he later went public with information about the war abuses, including through the BBC. He is today in a place outside Ethiopia’s borders.
Somali recruits in Eritrean uniforms inside the Bahri Bara camp east of Asmara in 2020. The photo was taken by a soldier who managed to escape from the secret Eritrean camp.