Interview with a senior Tigrayan leader

27 January 2021 Call between Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal – a transcript

The interview can be listened to here.

[The first minute of the call was not recorded. Mulugeta started by describing the onset of the war.]


… and the damage it inflicted on the enemies, it’s difficult to express, it was a sort of miracle. Tigray only had 23 battalions, and 42 divisions of Eritrea and twelve divisions of Ethiopia, were all here. This is without including the special forces of the Amhara region, which is beyond, over 10,000, and also special forces of Oromia, Somalia, and other forces as well. The first month’s resistance was with this level of asymmetry.

And then the Emirates came. The Emirates effectively disarmed Tigray. They started killing tanks, then howitzers, then fuel, then ammunition. Then they started hunting small vehicles, targeting leaders, [indistinct] all over. This created [unclear: risk?] and sort of dislocation, and this is part of the weakness of the preparation. So many people moved out of the cities of Tigray towards the rural other areas following the army, some including their families.


So, we were caught in between, you know. Are we going to defend these people who flocked out of the cities with their families or are we going to fight, I mean the army was caught in between. So, the organization has to make a decision. You know, it prioritized continuing the resistance, and then it advised many of us who were not in active duty in the resistance to remain in some remote areas which finally resulted in the type of sad news you heard.


You know, the result became—they have destroyed Tigray, literally, all of them, EPLF, the Eritrean forces and the Ethiopian forces. They literally destroyed all the wealth that it had accumulated for thirty years, and burned schools, clinics, they have ransacked each house. They moved in. They have started looting the produce of the peasants, from all the villages beyond the black road that crosses Tigray towards Eritrea. And they kill whomever they find in whichever village they get in. In the village I was in yesterday—it’s a small village—they killed 21 people, out of which seven of them were priests of that small village.


And that’s what they do, wherever they go. So they literally destroyed the wealth we accumulated for thirty years in Tigray. And, no peasant is staying at home when these forces move around, and therefore we can consider the whole Tigrayan peasantry as dislocated.


It’s an effective destruction of Tigray but that’s not the only thing. It’s also an effective destruction of Ethiopian defense forces. Ethiopia has remained without an army now. Our evaluation initially reduced the Ethiopian army by [to?] about 85 percent. Seventeen percent of the army was immediately reduced by Abiy because 17 percent of them were Tigrayans.


They were torn out of their ranks, put in camps like Dedessa [etc.] under custody 17,000 Tigrayans. So, that was literally approximately 20 percent. And this is not only numbers, but its also critically—a critical part of the army, mid-level commanders, most of the technicians, and also, you know, skilled people who used to work in artillery, engineering, and all sorts of departments. And they literally lost something like 60 percent of [indistinct, call breaks] …they sent the commanders of the Eritrean forces, which they were just using as cannon fodders, you know, they send them first, and then once they’re finished, they start sending their army. So, Ethiopia is effectively without an army now. If the Eritrean forces left Tigray…




[The call resumed with Mulugeta saying that if the Eritrean forces left Tigray, the Ethiopian army would not be able to stay there, even for a few days. The recording resumes:]


Alex:                Tell me, what is the condition of the people? Are you able to eat? Do you have any medical facilities? What are the essentials of life?


Mulugeta:       Not much. You know, there has been this locust infestation, and the harvest also much interrupted because of the war. The crisis started at the beginning of the harvest period, and particularly, the Eritrean forces have deliberately burned crops while they are on the ground or before the harvesting is completed. So there is a reduction of produce as well. The [aid] logistics that was prepared initially by the government was disrupted, so there are drops, these problems of supplies, food, medicine, and so forth. Hunger, among peasantry, is crippling [indistinct] in those remote areas, bordering areas Eritrea. They are massively, massively ransacked by the Eritrean army. Whatever produce they have is taken by them. So, it’s tight. Soon, we might see a serious humanitarian crisis.


A:                    The government is saying it controls 85 percent of the access, and that it can provide humanitarian access to the great majority of people. Is that correct, do you think?


M:                   The great majority of people. Even the government, even the humanitarian organizations, are estimating the people who need food to around 4.5 million. That’s even conservative.


A:                    And how many of those people can be accessed from the government’s side, and how many of them are in areas that are controlled by Tigray forces?


M:                   Literally people on the towns of the main road. Because there is conflict all over. You know, a certain part of people, or the southern part of Tigray, around Maychew or Alamata… the rest of it is not accessible for humanitarian aid, unless some arrangement can be made. [Until] some sort of preliminary agreement to allow humanitarian assistance to [indistinct] has been reached, I don’t think a majority of Tigray is accessible to any humanitarian aid that comes through the government.


A:                    But we are not hearing anything—we have heard nothing from the TPLF leadership about what—


M:                   I know, that’s a major problem we have. They’re just dislocated, and [sighs], that’s a critical impediment, we know that.


A:                    Because—as you might have heard today, well yesterday—the [U.S.] State Department demanded, first of all the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, but then also said there needed to be talks towards a political resolution. But how can any talks be conducted under the current circumstances?


M:                   I think they’re in contact through telephone with some people there, but I don’t really understand why they shy away from coming public and talking publicly. I know there is a limitation of communication. They have lost their V-SATs, they only have these Thurayas, and they’ve really been without any radio transmitter. They brought a television station, which was not possible to run it without having a permanent base. I know that there is this limitation of communication, but the problem they have is more than that. I am telling them, people are telling them, we hope that they will soon come out and start being public. It’s even a problem here in Tigray.


A:                    Because also we are not hearing anything about any political demands. I mean, what is the agenda, what is the political program? I mean if there were to be negotiations, where would be the starting point? We don’t know any of this at the moment.


M:                   Yeah. I know.


A:                    Anyway, just the news we get every day is so desperately sad. I think many people were shocked, especially by the news of the deaths of Seyoum and Abay and Asmalesh. I think that touched a lot of people around the world. As you may know, I wrote a tribute to Seyoum, which was widely circulated, but we still don’t know anything about the circumstances. Did you learn anything about that incident— ?


M:                   They just found them in a village. They were staying in a village, and they didn’t have an army. They were just in a secluded area. They caught and killed them. It was the EPLF that killed them.


A:                    So, this story about a shootout, et cetera, is not—


M:                   No, no, no. It’s completely rubbish. You know, they, the TPLF could have done so many things had they forecasted that level of violence which was not difficult to forecast. You know, it was very obvious that this war would be a war against Tigray, which Abiy is going to run alongside Isaias. And once you expect Isaias, you shouldn’t expect it to come less than any devastating force it could mobilize. Therefore, for those who will not have participated in active resistance in the field on the military side, there were lots of options. You know, moving them to Sudan or someehere else. So many things could have been done, but there were no preparations at all.


A:                    It seems there was just a terrible miscalculation about this, and no political strategy, no communications strategy, no protection strategy.


M:                   Not at all, yeah, not at all. Extremely poor. People were begging them. They didn’t have any [indistinct]. People were literally coming up with plans and asking them do this, do that. But they brought Tigray to their size anyway, what can we say.


A:                    The mood of the people now must be desperate, angry.


M:                   Angry, angry, extremely angry, extremely angry. They are left with one option: just fighting. And the war is only beginning. It’s the same in the urban centers, and much worse in the rural areas. Wherever you go, you get dozens of youngsters asking you to be mobilized, to be trained and armed. The TPLF doesn’t have any shortage of manpower when it wants to mobilize. So it’s anger, and they’re left without option, with that option only, they don’t have an option.


They [i.e. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces] are not even [indistinct] they’re not trying to appease them, they’re not trying to get the buy-in of the people. They’re not attempting anything. They’re just out here, and it’s literally genocide by decree. Wherever they’re moving, whomever they find, they kill him or her. [It’s] an old man, a child, a nursing woman, or anything.


A:                    The stories we’ve been hearing most recently are especially that it’s the Eritreans. Is it everybody, or is particularly the Eritrean forces?


M:                   It’s everybody, but the worst ones are the Eritrean forces.


A:                    So tell us, are you able to remain abreast of how this has been covered by the rest of the world? Are you able to pick up anything from the news, from the radio, from internet sites or anything?


M:                   Yeah, I have an old radio transistor which I bought it from a militia [laughs]. That’s what connects me to the rest of the world.


A:                    It’s back to those old days.


M:                   It’s extremely difficult. Sometimes the battery gets, you run out of battery and therefore run out of communication for two, three days. It’s difficult.


A:                    So, we have been doing our best to just draw attention to what’s been going on, because as you know, there was an attempt to have this war conducted in conditions of total secrecy, and even to pretend that it was not a war. There was the U.S. administration, the last one, was very much complicit in that. The African Union completely failed. But the news is now coming out.


M:                   Everything is fine. But one thing is you could push more on this humanitarian intervention. There has to be either some sort of monitoring.


And the Eritrean forces will remain here. They had a meeting last week, it’s some information we got from them, among the senior commanders of the army. There was a request from some of the army commanders on how long they are going to stay in Tigray. The response they gave them was, “Once we leave Tigray, PP [Prosperity Party] will not stay for one week in Tigray, and therefore we will leave Tigray to Woyene [TPLF] again and it will revive. And therefore, we have to remain there up until PP can pick it up which might take several months to come back.” That’s the answer that they gave them.


And therefore, this declaration from State Department—it might even come later from the UN Security Council—might not force the Eritreans to leave Tigray, unless it is supported, either with some humanitarian intervention, as much as they did in Kosovo, some armed intervention that reinforces things, or at least some sort of monitoring on the ground.


A:                    What about the Emirates? You mentioned the Emirates. Presumably, you meant the drones?


M:                   Yeah. Now we don’t have any targets. We don’t have tanks. We don’t have [indistinct]. We are not big targets. We are just human beings moving around. I think that’s the only thing that brought it [i.e. the recent decline in drone attacks]. Otherwise, they have been here in full force, in just full force. They deployed their drones with their operators, and they’re the ones who effectively disarmed us.


A:                    There was one thing that I didn’t quite catch earlier on. You said the Eritreans would stay until something had been achieved. What is the Eritrean war aim, as you see it?


M:                   They don’t know when PP will stand on its foot to fight against Tigray. That’s what they’re saying. They’re saying we have to stay there until PP comes up in a position to fight against the Woyenes. That’s what they’re saying. They don’t know when it will happen. It will never happen, actually. They way I see it, it will not happen here. It might not even happen in the rest of Eritrea. We’re seeing them in the field. Wherever confronted…


You might have heard of a small operation that happened two weeks ago around Edaga Harbi. There was a full brigade, support brigade of the 33rd division, which was fully mechanized, a support brigade is a mechanized support to the rest of the division. It only took 15 minutes to destroy it. In 15 minutes, six 107mm rocket launchers were taken, six 120mm mortars were taken, four 122 howitzers were taken, several vehicles were taken, and 167 of them were taken prisoners, in just 15 minutes.


A:                    What is happening to these prisoners of war? Where are they being kept? How are they being kept?


M:                   We sent them back. We can not carry them around. What we did was, we gave them a sort of political education for two, three days, and then we sent them back to Mekelle and Adigrat. It’s only the commanders—one colonel, one lieutenant colonel—who declined to return back. They said, “they will kill us, so we will remain with you.” We told them, “you cannot be our soldiers, and that’s not what you are asking us, and we shall not provide you shelter, but you can remain in the liberated areas.” So, they are just moving around.


So that’s where we are Alex.






  1. The tragedy on going in Tigray of Ethiopia should be clear that first the responsibility of the Ruling dictator unelected Abiy Ahmed . Second the responsibility of UNSC and world leaders who were very eager to give Peace Nobel prize in Norway but they are very late to avoid war crimes , genocide that has been conducting on millions of people . So the world itself is not in the right place seeing International humanitarian laws and Human Rights are being violating officially. And it is not because of there is no proof as facts are in the ground by saying unelected Abiy Ahmed is not allowing to enter UN organs and humanitarian aid organisations is clearly a fake reason . Because there is clear and could not be answered question that unelected PM Abiy Ahmed who give him to allow foreign soldiers to kill ,looting , robbing rape girls and women and to murdering innocent civilians in their home land ? And what kind of Laws ? And as we see war crimes , on going genocide on millions of Tigrean inviting by Eritreans , Somalia solders and UAE drones including others that tells us there is no International Laws either at all. If you believe that there is So called UN and its UNSC the two unelected leaders should be taken in to international jail on reasons of war crimes , crimes against humanity and on going genocide on the people of Tigray unless other it is being invited other revenging genocide to be acted sooner or later

  2. Now we hear the real situation from the center. It is obvious there is no effective ethiopian military force but a gigantic eriterean army. Wow ! This is a full foreign country invasion and the world should understand as such. The #UN Security Council must act quickly!

    1. Tags for above

      #tigray #ethiopia #tplf #abiyahmed #tesfagiorgis #biden #eu #england #martinplaut #africa #usa #middleeast #addisstandard #eritereahub #ethiopiainsight #tigrepeople #amhara #somali-ethiopians

      1. It is sad that in the name of global …. Alex de Wall is fabricating stories to distabilize Tigray and its people, intensifying the politics of hatred among people of the two countries, and creating global havoc through disinformation and confusion. Alex should stop distorting the African narrative, let Africans tell their own narrative. Stop being the saviour of the black Africans: enough is enough.

      2. Brave TDF forces, In 15 minutes, six 107mm rocket launchers were taken, six 120mm mortars were taken, four 122 howitzers were taken, several vehicles were taken, and 167 of them were taken prisoners, in just 15 minutes they won little battles in a an immense war waged by EDF and ENDF with their foreign fans from UAE & Somalia . Story of bravery for our children made by their great grande fathers , Jeganu Woyane!

  3. I hear too that there are somali personals from #somalia envolved in this war. I assure the world these youngesters are there with out their consent. There is no enemity between #somalis ( where ever they are ) and the #tigrepeople. This is the doing of a single man – #farmajo, the new budding autocrate in East Africa. He will not get away with this hijack of innocents and he will pay dearly for every single death. We, #somalis in general, have a strong cultural repayment for every unjust death – eye for an eye. With out doubt the kins of those youngesters are already cleaning their arms to avenge for the blood of their fallen youngesters. As to the rest , he is being held accountable for this by high ranking members of his own so called gov’t. Read below

    To the hijacked Somali youngesters in #tigre, I say throw the guns and seek refuge where ever possible. This is not your war. You are brothers/sisters to #tigrepeople!!!
    To #tigrepeople I say please save these lost youngesters!

    As I have stated so many times in the comment section of this site, #somalipeople and #tigrepeople are historical allies. Especially #tigrepeople and #somali-ethiopians share same interests – both are pure #federalists in the current ethio-politics.

    Any one trying to create enemity between these people, I warn, you will fail flat-face as #farmajo is doing right now!

    VIVA #somalipeople VIVA #tigrepeople

    abiyahmed #tesfagiorgis #biden #eu #england #martinplaut #africa #usa #middleeast #addisstandard #eritereahub #ethiopiainsight #tigrepeople #amhara #somali-ethiopians

  4. breaking news

    one of my friends told yetsterday, he talked his aunt on the phone and told him she is okay with utensils brought from tigray. She is now able to cook well using those stainless kitchen house wares which are rare to find in eritrea . She find them very durable and easy to wash as they donot take her time to clean them. Her child also brought her cooking oil and wheat flour.

  5. What is happening in Tigray is appalling. people killed, tortured, hamulated, raped, Their economic structures, textile industries, farms, clinics, health centers, hospitals including churches are burned or destroyed. Their properties, manuscripts, books are looted. Their general psychology is affected by what they experience-see, hear, feel. Their cognitive thinking is affected. All those acts are committed on one particular ethnic group. The Tegaru. This is called Genocide. Those killings, causing serious mental harm, etic is reflected on the the UN Convention on the Prevention and and punishment of the Crimes of Genocide. The Ethiopian Prime Minister and Eriterian Leader should not escape this punishment. At this moment, pressure to remove Eriterian soldiers and and the Ethiopian force is an immediate need.

  6. A sad reading! Legally, ethically and morally unacceptable.

    Abiy Ahmed should be confronted with international law enforcement for his GENOCIDAL and WAR CRIME activities.

    Ethiopians should try him for TREASON. He used foreign forces from land and sky to kill his own people in the darkness of COMMNICATION BLACKOUT. The Ethiopian army is a bystander while all the atrocities take place.
    The Ethiopian people should rise up and stop Abiy Ahmed’s genocidal project in Tigray and in other parts of Ethiopia.

    Eritreans should loudly say ‘NOT IN MY NAME’ do everything they can to get the Eritrean army out of Tigray.

  7. A sad reading! Legally, ethically and morally unacceptable.

    Abiy Ahmed should be confronted with international law enforcement for his GENOCIDAL and WAR CRIME activities.

    Ethiopians should try him for TREASON. He used foreign forces from land and sky to kill his own people in the darkness of COMMNICATION BLACKOUT. The Ethiopian army is a bystander while all the atrocities take place.

    The Ethiopian people should rise up and stop Abiy Ahmed’s genocidal project in Tigray and in other parts of Ethiopia.

    Eritreans should loudly say ‘NOT IN MY NAME’ do everything they can to get the Eritrean army out of Tigray.

  8. What a harrowing story! “And then the Emirates came. The Emirates effectively disarmed Tigray”, stated a senior Tigrean leader. This left Tigray without a Dejen, a guerrilla base, or liberated areas, which is lethal to any guerrilla organization worth its name. Why did the TPLF miss this? Does the elite’s hasty retreat from Mekelle, without adequate political, military, and intelligence preparation led to the huge disarray, which subsequently resulted in the eventual capture and deaths of scores of its leaders? God forbid! no famine results in the death of millions of Tigrean masses. Do hubris and the false sense of being impregnable, as Rene Lefort, stated recently explain it? Maybe. What is undeniable is that a combination of barbaric and low tech-warfare, such as burning crops, pillage, massacres, and high-tech drones made a difference in the theater of war. While Eritrea survived the no-war-no-peace policy for 20 years; its methods of fighting and drones signaled the military debacle in Tigray. “Know they enemy” was a lesson unlearnt, by the Tigray elite.

  9. Great observation Zekre Lebona! Nice to read your lines after a long time. The Tigray situation is really a sad one. May it last short.

    1. I thank you, Habtom. I wish the war lasts short, too. I wish it spares them from famine, humiliation, and indignity from this ugly war; perpetrated by political actors, who claim to hail from a community with “social capital” and their “Prosperity Gospel” allies.

      1. Peace and goodness to you my dear compatriot, Zekre Lebona. It seems we have been dispossessed of our identity. Listening to what the Eritrean forces are doing in Tigray, you question whether these people are aliens. In my childhood I heard one incident of rape by a young man about 7 years older than I. It was a huge shame, his family were required to pay compensation to the victim’s family. They could not afford to pay that the extended family and the neighbouring villages had to contribute… The Eritrean man would die to protect a woman, especially a girl. Close the Eritrean liberation days, a soldier attempted to harass two young women. A man of integrity stood up to him and told him ‘on my dead body = riesay tesaghirka ikha etdefren.’ Aboy Tewolde was shot dead there and then. RIP.

        Yes, the Eritrean woman that you once wrote about, whether she is a mother, a sister or wife was respected, protected and cherished in the Eritrean society. DIA’s boys are now raping and killing women.

        This morning I listened to an agonizing story told by an Orthodox priest in Tigray. Among other things, he said that Eritrean soldiers have been gang raping women. This is an alien concept in our society. I cannot imagine how the sadist DIA and his cohorts transformed our society.

        There was huge respect and reverence to the sacred: church, mosque, the clergy, the elderly; and huge respect to the dead. You would stand up and bow in respect of the dead on their way to the cemetery. Killing human being was not a norm. On the rare occasions it happened: women and children were always spared. No man would his a woman let alone kill her.
        Compare this with what is being reported from Tigray: churches and mosques are targeted and desecrated and looted. Priests are being killed. The faithful are killed in their dozens in churches indiscriminately; human bodies are left to decompose because people are not allowed to bury them.

        I am shocked to hear these accounts. This is ALIEN to the Eritrean society. DIA has robbed us our identity. Sad!

        With regards to Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Gospel and his party, it is clear that he does not have a grain of humanity or genuineness in his core. He is callous and power hungry sadist. He enjoys it when the Amharas are killed in their hundreds and buries in the most undignified way, using bulldozers. Then shamelessly blames it on the Woyane and off he goes to enjoy his walks in his newly build parks. He knew that many Tigrayans are dying every day but he told Ethiopians that ‘no civilian was killed.’ I think Ethiopians are discovering how pretentious and cruel he is.

        The Security Council should make a decision to stop this war immediately. Those responsible should be brought to the international court of law. Y The first among them should be Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki.

        Genocide, War Crimes, Treason are the three grounds in my humble opinion.

        Let’s hope humanity and common sense will prevail.

        1. Hello Habtom,
          I agree with most of the things you wrote. However, I want to add that if the TPLF, or Tigray resistance survives this total war; nothing should restrain them from crossing the border with Eritrea, because the State of Eritrea has not only occupied uncontested lands in Tigray; but is also issuing identity cards and taxing people. The border delimitation made by the court in Hague and later accepted by the Abiy administration should, therefore, be null and void. From now onward, the Tigrayan resistance must consider all areas within the Mereb River, as a theater of war.

          1. Astute observation from an astute compatriot! You are absolutely right Zekre Lebona.
            The name of the game has changed and, in the long run, Eritrea’s future may be jeopardised by the conduct of the most irrational nihilist dictator, Isaias Afwerki.

            It is likely that TPLF will target mainland Eritrea in the short term, if they have capacity. However, in the long run, revenge may not come just from TPLF but from the central government of Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians are not happy about the conduct of the Eritrean army. When they learn the full scale of the destruction and human crisis caused by Eritrea’s involvement, they are likely to be angry. This anger may brew and gradually activate a political will to take revenge. In this scenario, Tigrayan forces would oblige, wouldn’t they?

            Bleak future, sadly.

            May God forgive us all

  10. Mr.Mulugeta sems to loose everything. He calls himself a senior tigryan leade. What a lie.
    He may be a TPLF.
    They live om´nly for their own.
    more than 1million ppl in tigray lived fromsafety net programm in the last years, whereas TPLF leaders, cadres adn their families build huge buildngs in north amreica and canada.

    even mekelle does not have water supply, they are ruling this area more than 30 yrs.
    TPLF spread hatred and hate against ethiopia ppl adn eritrean ppl.
    A lot can be said about this group.

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