Eritrea’s role in the origins of the Tigray war

6 December 2021

Ethiopia is at a Crossroads. Eritrea is a key player in this. A confident President Isayas of Eritrea declared on the national Martyrs Day 2018, two weeks before the Joint declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia: “Game Over”. “It was Game Over”, he said, whilst the TPLF, which he coined ‘the junta’, was declared “dead”. What we can now reconstruct is that the alliance between Abiy and Isayas was a declaration of war against TPLF, the government of the regional state of Tigray, which shares a common border of a thousand kilometers with Eritrea.

While Abiy and Isayas denied for months that Eritrea was involved in the war, not only was Eritrea involved inside Tigray, it had also prepared to move into Tigray prior to November 4. An Eritrean told me:

The government was telling us, we have a problem with Tigray. We knew before 4 November a war would happen, we just didn’t know when.

The preparations were accompanied with propaganda against Tigray and Tigrayan people, he said:

We were told, Tigray is our enemy.

Not only were Eritrean troops mobilized, it appears that also Ethiopian troops were mobilized within Eritrea. An interviewee from Forto stated:

Before November 4, the ENDF was in our school and hospital.

The exact number of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia is unknown but is estimated at anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 soldiers, generally traumatized and maltreated Eritrean citizens, who are forced to serve indefinitely, to fight on the side of the Ethiopian military forces in a coordinated military action.

In an interview of February 7 2020, President Isayas (ruling over a country whose Constitution he has set aside, and where there have never been elections) dismissed the Ethiopian Constitution. At the same time, the Tigray government followed the Constitution art 39(3) in arranging regional elections. That the elections were a trigger of the war, is confirmed by an observation of an Eritrean respondent:

Especially after the elections in Tigray, there was movement of heavy and mechanized forces around the Senafe border.

These preparations do not match the narrative that the Law and Order Operation was a response to the Tigray Government attacking the Northern Command. Instead, it appears the war started when the Ethiopian federal government sent special forces to arrest the regional government of Tigray on November 3, 2020. The timeline suggests that Eritrean forces were standing ready to invade Tigray. Eritrea attacked Humera on Nov 6, after which Tigray fired missiles on Nov 12.

The involvement of Eritrea was further confirmed by observations from within Eritrea:

Within a week after 4 Nov, the town of Senafe was flooded with ENDF forces and military equipment. Some of them came from the Zalambesa border side, and others from inside Eritrea, after being transported from Addis Ababa to Eritrea.

This is consistent with a video from 5 November 2020, showing that Ethiopian federal forces handed a range of Ethiopian mechanized heavy equipment to Eritrean military. Mobilization was supported by irregular flights between the two countries.

Eritrean soldiers have been widely implicated in severe human rights violations in Tigray. Eritrean soldiers perpetrated massacres. Eritrean soldiers have been accused of widespread sexual violence against women, summary and extrajudicial killings of civilians, and the forced deportation of refugees. Towns, which most likely did not hold many combatants at that point, were bombarded by Eritrean forces. Eritrean soldiers have been accused of shelling religious sites. The mosque of Al Negash, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, was shelled by Eritrean troops as well as Debre Damo, a 6th century monastery.

The reports available show despicable and horrific acts on sexual violence committed with impunity. What is reported is the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, it appears that these crimes are widespread and characterised by their extreme and sadistic nature. The reports include: abduction, gang rape of women, rape in front of relatives including husbands and children, the forced rape of women by their relatives, burning of genitals and forcing of objects into the vagina. This may be qualified as a weapon of war used against the civilian population, and committed, in part, with genocidal intent. The following testimonies are examples that speak to the genocidal intention, in which the TPLF (called ‘the junta’) is equated with the entire civil population of Tigray and the systematic sexual violence is committed to eliminate the Tigray people:

The soldiers said “that’s good, let’s remove the ‘junta’ inside her, and replace it with our own race.” Two of them opened her legs forcefully and the other brought a rough stick and inserted it into her vagina and stirred it with the intention of aborting her pregnancy.

Another witness reported:

The Eritrean soldiers took turns raping the three women for hours, after that one of the soldiers pulled out a metal from his Kalashnikov and put it on fire and then inserted it into her uterus, he then said: now you will never give birth to a baby of the ‘junta’.

The following grave violations of human rights have either been confirmed, or at least credibly reported. Many of these violations were allegedly perpetrated by or with assistance of the Eritrean military forces:

(i) Perpetration of massacres, including massacres of civilians in the areas of Mai Kadra, Aksum, Mariam Dengelat, Debre-Abay, Bora-Selewa and Cheli;

(ii) The looting and destruction of factories, universities, educational facilities and shops and the removal of the loot in an organized way to be transported to Eritrea;

(iii) The deliberate destruction and looting of cultural and religious heritage, resulting in irreversible damage to objects and sites of great importance in Tigray culture;

(iv) The widespread and pervasive use of rape as a weapon of war, where credible reports have emerged that the most brutal and violent cases of rape have involved Eritrean soldiers with the aim to break the morale of the Tigray people and to dishonor them;

(v) The destruction of health facilities in Tigray resulting in few of existing health facilities functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic;

(vi) The use of starvation as a weapon of war;

(vii) The deliberate destruction of refugee camps. Refugees under international protection, were forcibly returned to Eritrea, those who were regarded as ‘opposition’ put in prison and others forcibly deployed in conscription including in Tigray.

In addition to this, given what is known about forced military service in Eritrea, it can reasonably be said that the military presence of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia by itself already qualifies as a grave violation of human rights. This is even more so as it has become clear that the Eritrean military forces in Tigray and Ethiopia are partly made up of minors (child soldiers) that just finished training in the infamous “Sawa” training camp.

Eritreans have no internet access and communications are heavily monitored. Academia, media, and humanitarian organisations are closed. Hate speech, propaganda and misinformation replace free media. Ominously, this Eritrean playbook now seems to be unfolding in Ethiopia.

While the exact extent of these human rights violations may take years to uncover, it is beyond debate that some of the gravest violations of human rights known to man have taken place, and continue to take place, in Tigray, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and currently, only very little coordinated international action has taken place to remedy the situation and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The actions of Eritrea qualify as crimes against humanity and/or war crimes as defined in inter alia Articles 6 and 7 of the Rome Statute. There is no possible justification for any of these actions and the offenders should be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. When looking at all actions taken together and noting reports that Tigray civilians and the Tigray culture have been specifically targeted, the actions may constitute the crime of genocide as defined in Article 6 Rome Statute.

Additionally, Eritrea’s actions in Tigray may very well constitute the crime of aggression as it has used its armed forces within the territory of another State. While Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to this use of Eritrean forces, it is unthinkable that the commission of crimes against humanity was within the conditions of this agreement (and as such Article 8bis under 2(e) Rome Statute is violated). Conversely, if Ethiopia did not agree to Eritrean military presence within its borders, Eritrea has invaded Ethiopian territory and taken actions which likely qualify as war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, which is a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations.

It can be concluded that the situations in Ethiopia, Tigray and Eritrea are inextricably interlinked. It appears highly likely Eritrea has made an export product of its widespread human rights violations and is both subjecting its own citizens and the citizens of Tigray and Ethiopia to these violations on a continuing basis. This is a clear and present threat to international peace and security. Ethiopia is indeed at a Crossroads.


  1. “These preparations do not match the [everywhere repeated] narrative that the Law and Order Operation was a response to the Tigray Government attacking the Northern Command. Instead, it appears the war started when the Ethiopian federal government sent special forces to arrest the regional government of Tigray on November 3, 2020.”

    Thank you for your reporting. It’s past time the truth came out. When it comes to the atrocities committed in Tigray on innocent civilians, “what is reported is the tip of the iceberg.” I get my news about the conflict from Al Jazeera English and they haven’t stinted on the gory details but I cannot imagine what the people of Tigray have been going through.

  2. Issais afewerki of Eritrea kills & disappeared imprisoned as many as thousands of Eritrean fighters during the struggle for freedom.for some of these disappeared, their families still waiting for long or died without knowing their relatives or family members where about or what happened to their loved ones. And for those crimes no one is responsible neither issais nor his comrades. Because of no one responsible for the past in what happened in Eritrea , they think no one will ask them in the future they still repeating it again by crossing border in Neighbouring Ethiopia specifically in Tigray.

  3. Thank you for digging out these facts.
    Abiy Ahmed and Isaias never released any information regarding their meetings during two years of talks and the public in the two nations didn’t hear or see any press release. Tigrayans tried to find out and complained about Etsy is going on but Abiy’s reply had been he doesn’t have to avail anything discussed between two leaders. But the differences b/n him and the TPLF leaders became clearer and Abiy’s emotions and language changed to the worst and began name calling to belittle Tigrayans as people and ethnicity. The language he was using long before the two leaders began the war clearly meant to instigate hate against Tigratans with the aim to starting genocide.

    We ask the conscious of the world community to conduct independent investigations into these crimes and crimes against humanity and bring the responsible to justice.

    The dead and living victims deserve justice!!!

  4. The war between the central federal government of Ethiopia was started long before November 04, 2020. The Amhara Fano blocked the road from Gonder to Tigray & the road from Wolo to Tigray starting since 2018. Abiy was campaigning against TPLF & was making fake documentary to spread ethnic hate. No one knows the details agreement between Essayas/Eritrea & Abiy’s Ethiopia. The ironic is that the international community decided to give a peace noble prices to Abiy. Abiy & Essayas were preparing for war for two & half years agains TPLF Tigray Regional Government. Anyway thank you for your factual research forwarding to the world.

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