Fleeing Ethiopians Tell of Ethnic Massacres in Tigray War – New York Times

Source: New York Times

Fleeing Ethiopians Tell of Ethnic Massacres in Tigray War

Tens of thousands have sought safety in Sudan, where they gave accounts to Times journalists of a devastating and complex conflict that threatens Ethiopia’s stability.

HAMDAYET, Sudan — The armed men who stopped Ashenafi Hailu along the dirt road dragged him by a noose so they could save bullets.

Mr. Ashenafi, 24, was racing on his motorcycle to the aid of a childhood friend trapped by the Ethiopian government’s military offensive in the northern region of Tigray when a group of men on foot confronted him. They identified themselves as militia members of a rival ethnic group, he said, and they took his cash and began beating him, laughing ominously.

“Finish him!” Mr. Ashenafi remembered one of the men saying.

As they tightened the noose around his neck and began pulling him along the road, Mr. Ashenafi was sure he was going to die, and he eventually passed out. But he said he awoke alone near a pile of bodies, children among them. His motorcycle was gone.

Ashenafi Hailu was attacked by a group of Fano militia members. After they learned that he was ethnic Tigray, they robbed him, tied a noose around his neck and dragged him until he passed out.

Mr. Ashenafi and dozens of other Tigrayan refugees fled the violence and settled outside the remote and dusty town of Hamdayet, a community of just a few thousand people near the border, where I spoke to them. Their firsthand accounts, shared a month after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared war on the Tigray region, detail a devastating conflict that has become a grisly wellspring of looting, ethnic antagonism and killings.

Many of the refugees have lingered here rather than moving on to the more established refugee camps farther into Sudan, staying closer to home so they can get any news about their towns or missing loved ones. But little information is getting out, with mobile networks and the internet blocked for weeks by the Ethiopian government.

Nearly 50,000 have fled to Sudan so far, in what the United Nations has called the worst exodus of refugees Ethiopia has seen in more than two decades. And their accounts contradict the repeated claims from Mr. Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea, that no civilians are being hurt.

The Tigrayans describe being caught between indiscriminate military shelling and a campaign of killing, rape and looting by government-allied ethnic militias. Several told me that they saw dozens of bodies along the route as they fled their shops, homes and farms and took to the long road to the border with Sudan, in stifling heat.

Tigrayan refugees routinely visit the river that runs between Sudan and Ethiopia to bathe, gather water and wash clothes.

As the fighting in Tigray continues, it is degenerating into a guerrilla war that could unravel both Ethiopia’s national fabric and the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region. That includes Eritrea, which is allied with Ethiopia against the Tigray and has been shelled by the rebel forces; and Sudan, which has heavily deployed its army along its restive border with Ethiopia even as it has allowed refugees to cross.

The Tigray make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, and they were the arbiters of power and money in the country from 1991, when they helped dismantle a military dictatorship, until 2018, when anti-government protests catapulted Mr. Abiy to power.

Mr. Abiy had sought to emphasize national unity and diversity in a multiethnic Ethiopia, even as he began methodically excluding Tigrayan figures from public life and condemning their abuses while they were in power. Now, the conflict stands at stark odds with the legacy he was seeking, and with the stability of the entire country.

Ethiopian refugees often wait for many hours hoping to receive supplies from a United Nations compound. Many are turned away, empty-handed.

If Mr. Abiy’s aim was to unite an increasingly divided country, then “this conflict has made that harder to achieve, and so increased the likelihood of serious ongoing political instability,” said William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group who was recently expelled from the country.

Adding to the deadly mix are the involvement of rival ethnic militia groups. One of them is the Fano, a militia from the Amhara ethnic group. Along with Amhara regional government security forces, Fano took part in the intervention in Tigray, Mr. Davison said.

While Fano is a term loosely used to refer to young Amhara militias or protesters, Mr. Davison added that it is also “the name given to youthful Amhara vigilante groups that become more active during times when there is perceived to be insecurity that is not being managed by the authorities.”

Tigrayan refugees in Sudan said that Fano fighters attacked and maimed them, ransacked their properties and extorted them as they sought to flee. Many of the Tigrayans, including Mr. Ashenafi, said that they were afraid of going back and that the experience had left them sleepless and scarred.

After Mr. Ashenafi awoke and saw the bodies around him, he trudged through a nearby forest to reach the home of his friend, Haftamu Berhanu, who took him in. Photos taken by Mr. Haftamu and seen by The New York Times showed Mr. Ashenafi lying on his back, white skin peeled away around his neck from the noose.

For days afterward, Mr. Ashenafi could not talk or swallow anything and communicated with his friend through pointing or writing things down.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Haftamu said of the days caring for his friend.

“I didn’t expect in our life that our government would kill us,” Mr. Ashenafi said. “I am frightened so much. I am not sleeping at night.”

Many of the refugees who made it to Sudan have been resettled to the Um Rakuba camp about 43 miles away from the border. But many are also staying around a refugee transit point in Hamdayet, hoping to return home or reunite with their families once it is safe.

Refugees are registered at Um Rakuba, one of several camps set up for a wave of Ethiopian refugees who fled into Sudan from the Tigray region in Ethiopia.
In this dusty outpost, the refugees convene every morning at the Tekeze River, a natural border between Ethiopia and Sudan, to shower, collect water and clean whatever clothes they brought with them. On a recent afternoon, as children dived into the flowing river and Ethiopian music played from a nearby phone, the refugees recounted scenes of horror that they witnessed.

Many told me that they came from Humera, an agricultural town of about 30,000 people near both the Sudanese and Eritrean borders. Thousands suddenly fled the town with whatever they could carry when shelling began around midnight from what the refugees said was the direction of Eritrea.

Some gathered first at nearby churches, but after hearing that other churches had been shelled, they started the hourslong journey on foot to Sudan. They said that militia fighters began streaming in.

The Tigray make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, and they were the arbiters of power and money until 2018.

“The Amhara militia cut people’s heads,” said a Humera resident named Meles, who wanted to be identified by only his first name out of fear of retribution.

Meles, who owned a small cafe, said that the Fano’s reputation preceded them and that just as he feared, he encountered many dead bodies along the way to Sudan. As he spoke to me, a crowd gathered near him on the banks of the river, many nodding and verbally affirming his account as he told it.

At least 139 children are among those who arrived in Sudan unaccompanied, many of whom are now at risk of abuse and discrimination, according to the organization Save the Children.

With the Tigray region sandwiched between the Amhara region and Eritrea, which is aligned with the Ethiopian national government, Meles said he was glad that refugees like him had another outlet for escape.

“Thank God there’s Sudan for us to turn to,” he said.

“I had to speak my fluent Amharic to survive,” said Filimon Shishay, a 21-year-old Tigrayan who said he encountered the Fano and had to part with the $5 he had with him. “They hate us,” he said.

Tigrayan refugees in Sudan said that Fano fighters attacked and maimed them, ransacked their properties and extorted them as they sought to flee.

There has long been enmity between the Tigray and Amhara. When Tigrayan rebels seized power in 1991, Amharas claimed that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governed the region, occupied land that historically belonged to them.

“The widespread assumption is T.P.L.F. wanted to annex these areas in order to have a border with Sudan and to tap into the fertile land for economic development,” Hone Mandefro, an Ethiopian analyst and a doctoral candidate in sociology and anthropology at Concordia University in Canada, said in an email.

Mr. Davison of the International Crisis Group said that with Amhara security and militia forces active in Tigray in recent weeks, and with some Amhara administrators put in place there, “it appears to be a de facto Amhara occupation of territory they claim the T.P.L.F. annexed.”

The move is likely to lead to violent Tigrayan reprisals, he said, as may have already occurred in the town of Mai Kadra, where human rights groups have said forces loyal to the liberation front massacred as many as 600 people, most of them Amhara.

Refugees can purchase basic supplies in a makeshift open market in Hamdayet.

Many refugees in Hamdayet blamed politicians, and particularly Mr. Abiy, for pitting civilians against one another. “The Amhara and the Tigray are one,” Negese Berhe Hailu, a 25-year-old engineer, said.

Hadas Hagos, 67, fled her home in Humera — which is part of the larger West Tigray area the Amharas claim — and worried she wouldn’t be able to go back or see the family members she left behind. Other refugees who arrived later informed her that her home had been looted.

“We fought for freedom and democracy,” said Ms. Hadas, breaking into tears as she recounted how she and her family fought against the Marxist regime in the 1980s, and how she lost her brother to the war. “We don’t deserve this kind of life.”


  1. There is no such revenge from Amhara or Fano, for they are God fearing people. The are nursing, feeding and protecting even their monstrous enemy, TPLF soldiers let alone the Tigrians. This is a deliberately orchestrated lie and fucken propaganda aired by TPLF and its morron supporters.
    In the history of Ethiopia Amharas had and have never been refered as killers and canibals. On the other hand, history boldly wittnessed the betrayal and inferiority-complex based animosity of TPLF against Amhara which even is boldly written in TPLF’s manifesto. Read it if you really want to know who is a deadly beast.
    So people please use your conscience before blaming innocent Amharas or the good Ethiopian leadrr Dr. Abiy. TPLF supporters need to understand that being racist will never do good for anyone. Mutual respect, unity and solidarity is the only way out of missery.
    If there is one thing that will disintegrate Ethiopia, it is ethnic based regionalism not unity. The past 30 years is a real proof for this. So writers, please don’t preach Ethiopias disintegration that will never ever happened. Our Ethiopia will stand great as wittnessed in our history.
    By the way the picture you posted with a bad neck is not a Tigre, he is Amhara victim left as dead by TPLF Samri gangs. Don’t post such fucken lies, idiots.

    1. G. Girma,
      This is not how you respond if you want to be neutral. From the get go you sound more Abiye’s supporter without understanding the other side of the field. It is your prerogative to support any political party but to ignore facts is not acceptable. Like there is a bad apple everywhere, there are bad Amaras in the Amara region. Who committed the atrocity? should be independently investigated. Don’t believe the local media whether it belongs to the government or TPLF. Use your own judgment and at least 80% of the established media outlets. If you know politics you should know the game. Politics is dangerous and it needs a bit gas on the fire to destroy human kind. Whoever has done this should be prosecuted or face justice in the ICC.

  2. https://borkena.com/2020/12/07/tplf-from-despotic-decentralism-to-a-war-machine/?fbclid=IwAR3KRiKhegv8up4eFGl7znhOoLni6HynwMw9gZuxGO5NIJU96id4cIlxAPA

    By Yidneckachew Ayele
    December 7, 2020

    Sekoture Getachew, a TPLF tied politician, publicly justified the November 4th military attack against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) as ‘‘an anticipatory self-defense’’. He said, “we had to pre-emptively conduct the operation as a lightning strike against Northern Command.” He officially admitted the Tigray Special Forces attacked the ENDF with the intent to ‘destabilize and demobilize’ the northern command. And yet, Ethiopians encounter this attack as an outrageous crime not only to the ENDF but also to all peoples, nations, and nationalities. On a blue moon and unexpectedly, the ENDF was betrayed by TPLF and its Special Forces, who massacre and abuse the army and loot the arm. In a media, an elderly man from southern Ethiopia questioned the morale fabric of TPLF actors. ‘‘How come? Did this army, who paid its life to protect Tigray from external aggression for more than 20 years, deserve such a reaction? They killed all of us, the military is not an Amhara, Oromo, or Somali… The military belongs to all of us … they waged a war against all of us.’’

    Despite the existing political polarization, this heinous crime provoked Ethiopians to stand together behind the ENDF, and the ‘‘the law enforcement action’’ of the Federal Government. Perhaps, for someone, who follows the hostile relation between Addis and Mekele over the last two years, this attack might sound like pre-emptive self-defense or political gambling to have a military advantage. Nevertheless, Mai-Kadra displayed the very nature of TPLF and the way it responds to civilians, infrastructures, and religious institutions. And therefore, this opinion is a self-reflection that aims to reflect on the precarious road of TPLF from a ‘despotic decentralism’ to a ‘war machine’.

    Mai-Kadra testified not only the TPLF crimes perpetrated against humanity but also its deep nature of using terror and fuelling ethnic-based violence. Witnesses for Amnesty International said: “We went to the town immediately after the army and the Amhara Special Force took control of Mai-Kadra town on 10th November around 10 am. The army entered … after encircling the town overnight. There was no exchange of fire for the army to take over the town. But when we entered the town, what we saw was devastating. The roads were strewn with dead bodies especially in the center of the town, and on the road that connects the town to Humera.” After deploying a team of human rights experts to Maikadra, on 24th November 2020, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission made a rapid investigation report that purported mass killings of civilians and related human rights violations. As per the report, ‘‘an informal Tigrayan youth group’’ called “Samri”, ‘‘with the help of the local police and militia, moving from house to house and from street to street, began a cruel and atrocious rampage on people they pre-identified/profiled as Amharas and Wolkaits. They killed hundreds of people, beating them with batons/sticks, stabbing them with knives, machetes, and hatchets, and strangling them with ropes…’’

    TPLF’s 27 years of authoritarian regime functioned ‘necro power’. As Achile Mbebe articulated, it established an ethnically defined sovereignty that is embedded in the power and the capacity to dictate in a domain of life including ‘who live and who die’. By invoking the discourse of multi-culturalism, it overstretched ethnic sovereignty, and practically, its necro power structured citizens and subjects, who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not… It institutionalized ethnically defined solid boundaries despite the complex socio-economic-political relations of nations and nationalities in the country and horn for more than 3 thousand years. Particularly, it targeted Amhara, who have been politically defined as ‘‘Neftegn’’ that refer to the old guards of the empire builders and over narrated the historical injustices perpetrated by the past regimes. Its elites bring in exogenous concepts of marginalization, and politicized historical incidences to fuel ethnically redefine the relation and competition between groups. They have been intentionally selective that failed to consider the complex dynamics of the country. The endless bloodshed and persecution of thousands of people in Oromia, Benishangual, Gambela, Somalia, SNNP, and now Tigray is the result of this necropolitics- racially defined sovereignty, classification of citizen and subjects, ethnic profiling and characterizations of who is disposable and who is not.

    Its dogmatic revolutionary nature blindly categorizes not only groups but also opposition political actors who are defined as ‘enemy’ and faced political persecution. This permits TPLF to establish discursive authority by using human atrocities to condense its ‘‘enemy’’ block. For instance, while TPLF came to power, several human atrocities and causalities had happened including the 1992 incidences at Arsi, Bale, and Hararghe. Its documentary and persecution allege OLF as alone as the sole perpetrator of the crime, which served [1] as an instrument to buy out the Amhara’s support and [2] to purge out and prosecute the then contending OLF and its actors. In 2003, a similar massacre was made against Aynua people, and narration was used to divide and rule Aynua and Nuer people in Gambela. History has recorded the use of death as a way of terrorizing the public in June 2005 following an election dispute, and the same as the post-2015 political crises and youth massacres in Addis Ababa, Ambo, Bahirdar, Gonder, and Bishoftu. After displaying unprecedented but calculated death and atrocities, it terrorized the public; and with fear, it has been making political subjugation. In the Tigray region, the same is being made against its subjects – who have been baptized with its propaganda and subjugated to fear or lose trust against their sisters and brothers, mainly the people of Amhara.

    TPLF claim to represent and embrace the multicultural cause of Ethiopian Nations and Nationalists, practically, its heinous structure of divide and rule resulted in “decentralized despotism’’. Mamdani used the concept of ‘decentralized despotism’ to explain “the regime of differentiation” or ‘‘institutional segregation’’ employed by British indirect rule that exploited African indigenous cultures and resulted in hegemonic domination. Despite its contextual inappropriateness, this conceptual explanation of ‘decentralized despotism’ expounds the TPLF impetus behind the moral, legal, and historical questions of ethnic group’s rights in Ethiopia, which is hegemonic political power and exploitation project. Despite the claim for ethnic federalism and decentralized power structure, the political party’s rule of ‘democratic centralism’ centralized the political practices. The 3 major coalition forces of EPRDF that represent Amhara, Oromo, and SNNP are very weak and the actor’s political dependant on TPLF. Many of their key political figures and members’ of the central committee are either recruited or assigned by TPLF or some of them are still fighting for TPLF including Sekoture Getachew. Chiefly, until 2018, TPLF and its actors controlled key economic, security, and military sectors and services. The prevalence of poor functional institutions consolidated the power of the central government structure- TPLF. With this hegemony, the party categorized and persecuted political actors who seek true federalism, autonomy, or balanced power share [mainly the Oromo people] as ‘narrow groups’. Whereas the Amhara opposition groups are defined and prosecuted as ‘chauvinists’, and others who are critical towards the ‘ethnic federalism’ are labeled as ‘former regime seekers’. These ethnically institutionalized segregations enabled TPLF to organize power and fragment resistance. Accordingly, its business enterprises and key actors scrambled the available economic resources, dominate local business, investments, acquisition of land, access to bank loans, foreign currencies, control of key civil services, diplomatic missions, national, regional, and international positions. Therefore, the necropolitics of ethnic sovereignty is employed by TPLF to wage its decentralized despotism- structuring hegemonic power and extraction of the national economy and resources.

    However, the post-2018 political reform, striped off TPLF and its actors from these limitless pleasures. Still, the reform is an unfinished project, but its claim for ‘game over’ for TPLF’s necropolitics, decentralized despotism, and extracting national economy. It initiated legal accountability against its corrupted officials, and human rights persecution perpetrated by its key actors. Investigation and diplomatic negotiation commenced retrieving foreign currencies looted from the country. Well, the reform process is not free from biases, and personal and institutional problems of the country, its leaders, and the newly reconfigured leading party – Prosperity Party. The complexity of socio-economic-political problems of the country, political culture, personal cults of the leaders, the presence of often competing and unaddressed political questions, and the like are some of the critical issues that negatively affect the political transition of post-2018 Ethiopia. However, the reform process is highly affected by the un-pragmatic political desire and chauvinism of TPLF. Its old guards, won’t accept reforms that bring in the change in its power discourse and full legal accountability. Even if some of its critics on selective prosecution hold water, the way it understands the scenario and responds to the reform and the leader has been outrageous.

    With this, in the post-2018 scenario of Ethiopia, TPLF has been seen as a powermonger. They were sure about their discursive power structure in the country and region [1] that could lead them to power, [2] if not topple down the Prime Minister and replace with the radical ethnocentric groups, [3] or else destabilize the country and region. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, on his explanation to the House of People’s Representatives on 30th November 2020, out these motives, TPLF ‘ organized and cooperated’ in 113 conflicts that happened in post-2018 Ethiopia. Among these 37 of them are in Oromia, 23 of them are in Amhara, 15 in Benishangual, 14 in Addis Ababa, 7 them in Gambela, 3 in Somali, 3 in Afar, 2 in Sidama, 2 in Harar and the remaining others are in SNNP. The report claims for and explains the networking and collaboration of TPLF with radical ethno-nationalists and destabilizing forces of the horn and country to instigate ethnic violence with arms smuggling and financing. Beyond any reasonable doubt, the report defines TPLF as a ‘war machine’ in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Officially, on 29th November 20202, after the successful three weeks of ‘‘law enforcement action’’ by the Federal Government, this ‘war machine’ lost its base and end up what it had been – guerrilla fighters. With the end of this ‘war machine’ and emerging allies, I hope, the Ethiopian politics will evade itself from necropolitics and despotic decentralism.

    Yidneckachew Ayele is Assistant Professor at Hawassa University, and currently a PhD student in international environments and development studies at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Noragric

    Notes :

    1. South TV, special programme, 10th November 20202.
    2. Amenesty international, ‘’Ethiopia: Investigation reveals evidence that scores of civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray state’’, 12 November 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/ethiopia-investigation-reveals-evidence-that-scores-of-civilians-were-killed-in-massacre-in-tigray-state/, accessed on 27th November 2020
    3. Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, on 24th November 2020, Rapid Investigation into Grave Human Rights Violation in Maikadra Preliminary Findings, Addis Ababa, page 2 and 3
    4. Achille Mbembe (2019). Necrnecropolitics (Translated from French to English by Steven Corcoran). Durham and London: Duke University Press)
    5.Mahmood Mamdani (1996). Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton University Press
    6. Besides different sources and clear interests, the Media Briefing by Michael Pompeo, Secretary of the State of USA, expounds on these motives that led TPLF to conduct military operations.

  3. It’s so sad 😭😭😭 I have for all tigraye people I didn’t where is my family I have not spoken my family after nevmber 3/11/2020 I don’t what to do I am the one helping my family’s. Please the world have to do something .we need peace 🕊️🕊️🕊️ the Ethiopian gebrment he doesn’t care about thigray people .so we need help from the world 🌍🌍🌍

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