As fighting raged across the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in November, a group of soldiers arrived one day at Hitsats, a small hamlet ringed by scrubby hills that was home to a sprawling refugee camp of about 25,000 people.
But the soldiers who burst into the camp on 19 November were also Eritrean, witnesses say. Mayhem quickly followed – days of plunder, punishment and bloodshed that ended with dozens of refugees being singled out and forced back across the border into Eritrea.
For weeks, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has denied that soldiers from Eritrea – a country that Ethiopia once fought in an exceptionally brutal war – had entered Tigray, where Abiy has been fighting since early November to oust rebellious local leaders.
The refugees had come from Eritrea, whose border lies 30 miles away, part of a vast exodus in recent years led by desperate youth fleeing the tyrannical rule of their leader, one of Africa’s harshest autocrats. In Ethiopia, Eritrea’s longtime adversary, they believed they were safe.
In fact, according to interviews with two dozen aid workers, refugees, United Nations officials and diplomats – including a senior US official – Eritrean soldiers have been fighting in Tigray, apparently in coordination with Abiy’s forces, and face credible accusations of atrocities against civilians. Among their targets were refugees who had fled Eritrea and its president, Isaias Afwerki.
The deployment of Eritreans to Tigray is the newest element in a melee that has greatly tarnished Abiy’s once-glowing reputation. Only last year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Isaias. Now it looks like the much-lauded peace deal between the former enemies in fact laid the groundwork for them to make war against Tigray, their mutual adversary.
“Abiy has invited a foreign country to fight against his own people,” says Awol Allo, a former Abiy supporter turned outspoken critic who lectures in law at Keele University in Britain. “The implications are huge.”
Abiy insists he was forced to move his army quickly into Tigray after the region’s leaders, who had dominated Ethiopia for 27 years until Abiy took over in 2018, mutinied against his government. But in the early weeks of the fight, Ethiopian forces were aided by artillery fired by Eritrean forces from their side of the border, a US official said.
Since then, Abiy’s campaign has been led by a hodgepodge of forces, including federal troops, ethnic militias and, evidently, soldiers from Eritrea.
At Hitsats, Eritrean soldiers initially clashed with local Tigrayan militiamen in battles that rolled across the camp. Scores of people were killed, including four Ethiopians employed by the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council, aid workers said.
The chaos deepened in the days that followed, when Eritrean soldiers looted aid supplies, stole vehicles and set fire to fields filled with crops and a nearby forested area used by refugees to collect wood, aid workers said. The camp’s main water tank was riddled with gunfire and emptied.
Their accounts are supported by satellite images, obtained and analysed by The New York Times, that show large patches of newly scorched earth in and around the Hitsats camp after the Eritrean forces swept through.
Later, soldiers singled out several refugees – camp leaders, by some accounts – bundled them into vehicles and sent them back across the border to Eritrea.
“She’s crying, crying,” said Berhan Okbasenbet, an Eritrean now in Sweden whose sister was driven from Hitsats to Keren, the second-largest city in Eritrea, alongside a son who was shot in the fighting. “It’s not safe for them in Eritrea. It’s not a free country.”
Berhan asked not to publish their names, fearing reprisals, but provided identifying details that The New York Times verified with an Ethiopian government database of refugees.
Abiy’s spokesperson did not respond to questions for this article. However, a few weeks ago the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, bluntly asked Abiy if Eritrean troops were fighting in his war. “He guaranteed to me that they have not entered Tigrayan territory,” Guterres told reporters on 9 December.
Those denials have been met with incredulity from western and UN officials.
The Trump administration has demanded that all Eritrean troops immediately leave Tigray, a US official said, citing reports of widespread looting, killings and other potential war crimes.
It remains unclear how many Eritreans are in Tigray or precisely where, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate diplomacy. A communications blackout over Tigray since 4 November has effectively shielded the war from outside view.
But that veil has slowly lifted in recent weeks, as witnesses fleeing Tigray or reaching telephones have begun to give accounts of the fighting, the toll on civilians, and the pervasive presence of Eritrean soldiers.
In interviews, some described fighters with Eritrean accents wearing Ethiopian uniforms. Others said they witnessed televisions and refrigerators being looted from homes and businesses. A European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential findings, said some of those stolen goods were being openly sold in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Three sources, including a different western official, said they had received reports of an Eritrean attack on a church in Dinglet, in eastern Tigray, on 30 November. By one account, 35 people whose names were provided were killed.
The reports of Eritrean soldiers sweeping through Tigray are especially jarring to many Ethiopians.
Ethiopia and Eritrea were once the best of enemies, fighting a devastating border war in the late 1990s that cost 100,000 lives. Although the two countries are now officially at peace, many Ethiopians are shocked that the old enemy is roaming freely inside their borders.
“How did we let a state that is hostile to our country come in, cross the border and brutalise our own people?” says Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the Addis Standardnewspaper. “This is an epic humiliation for Ethiopia’s pride as a sovereign state.”
Abiy has already declared victory in Tigray and claimed, implausibly, that no civilians have died. But last week his government offered a $260,000 (£190,000) reward for help in capturing fugitive leaders from the regional governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – a tacit admission that Abiy has failed to achieve a major stated goal of his campaign.
In fact, the biggest winner so far may be his Eritrean ally, Isaias.
Since coming to power in 1993, Isaias has won a reputation as a ruthless and dictatorial figure who rules with steely determination at home and who meddles abroad to exert his influence.
For a time he supported the Islamist extremists of al-Shabaab in Somalia, drawing UN sanctions on Eritrea, before switching his loyalties to the oil-rich – and Islamist-hating – United Arab Emirates.
Inside Eritrea, Isaias enforced a harsh system of endless military service that fuelled a tidal wave of migration that has driven more than 500,000 Eritreans — perhaps one-tenth of the population — into exile.
Isaias seeks to project power in ways that are completely unimaginable for the leader of such a small country
The peace pact signed by the two leaders initially raised hopes for a new era of stability in the region. Ultimately, it amounted to little. By this summer, borders that opened briefly had closed again.
But Abiy and Isaias remained close, bonded by their shared hostility toward the rulers of Tigray.
They had different reasons to distrust the Tigrayans. For Abiy, the TPLF was a dangerous political rival — a party that had once led Ethiopia and, once he became prime minister, began to flout his authority openly.
For Isaias, though, it was a deeply personal feud — a story of grievances, bad blood and ideological disputes that stretched back to the 1970s, when Eritrea was fighting for independence from Ethiopia, and Isaias joined with the TPLF to fight an Ethiopian Marxist dictator.
Those differences widened after 1991, when Eritrea became independent and the Tigrayans had come to power in Ethiopia, culminating in a devastating border war.
As tensions rose between Abiy and the TPLF, Isaias saw an opportunity to settle old scores and to reassert himself in the region, says Martin Plaut, author of Understanding Eritreaand a senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
“It’s typical Isaias,” says Plaut. “He seeks to project power in ways that are completely unimaginable for the leader of such a small country.”
Aid groups warn that, without immediate access, Tigray will soon face a humanitarian disaster. The war erupted just as villagers were preparing to harvest their crops, in a region already grappling with swarms of locusts and recurring drought.
Refugees are especially vulnerable. According to the UN, 96,000 Eritrean refugees were in Tigray at the start of the fight, although some camps have since emptied. An internal UN report from 12 December, seen by the New York Times, described the situation at Hitsats as “extremely dire”, with no food or water.
Farther north, at Shimelba camp, Eritrean soldiers beat refugees, tied their hands and left them under the sun all day, says Efrem, a resident who later fled to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
“They poured milk on their bodies so they would be swarmed with flies,” he says.
Later, Efrem says, the soldiers rounded up 40 refugees and forced them to travel back across the border to Eritrea.