Mesfin Hagos: Eritrea’s Role in Ethiopia’s Conflict and the Fate of Eritrean Refugees

Eritrea’s Role in Ethiopia’s Conflict and the Fate of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

BY: Mesfin Hagos, former Minister of Defense of Eritrea

In an address to his country’s parliament on November 30, 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister confirmed Eritrean support to his ongoing war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional government of the northernly regional state of Tigray. Dr. Abiy told parliamentarians that Ethiopian soldiers who survived TPLF attack on the night of November 3 were ordered to withdraw into Eritrea where they were provided shelter and the space and provisions to recuperate. He flew there with three of his generals to reorganize the troops for a counterattack on Tigray – from Eritrea.

What Prime Minister Abiy did not tell his audience was the fact that, according to sources in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in the run up to the current conflict, a large number of Ethiopian elite units had slowly trickled into Eritrea as part of a security pact between Abiy and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki. Hidden from public view at an ad-hoc base in Gherghera, in the outskirts of Asmara, these units were expected to be the hammer and the Northern Command the anvil to strike out of existence the TPLF. TPLF preempted this scheme in what it called “anticipatory defense”, which forced both Abiy and Isaias to improvise leading to the eruption of conflict over longer time period and vast space.

Dr. Abiy did not disclose to the Ethiopian public and international community that even more federal troops were airlifted into Eritrea following the outbreak of conflict on November 4. In the 48 hours before TPLF’s bombing of Asmara on November 14, local sources counted close to 30 military airplanes flying in thousands of soldiers from Ethiopia. Subsequent flights transported more soldiers into the Eritrean seaports of Massawa and Asseb.

The prime minister also hid from the world the Eritrean military’s direct involvement in combat along the entire border that Eritrea shares with Tigray regional state as well as inside Tigray. The following information is pieced together from three different sources: first, reliable sources inside the Eritrean ministry of defense; second, Eritrean opposition intelligence sources in Sudan and Ethiopia; and finally, anecdotal pieces communicated from friends and relatives, including some academic researchers.

When the reorganized and reinforced Ethiopian troops launched a series of offensives into Tigray from Eritrea along four frontlines, Eritrean support units provided intelligence and logistics, their heavy weapons gave cover to advancing federal troops, and eventually took active part in combat. Reliable sources have confirmed injury and death of a large number of Eritrean soldiers, including senior officers, in fighting deep inside Ethiopia.

Through Zalambessa alone, the Eritrean president sent in the 42nd and 49th mechanized divisions and the 11th, 17th, 19th and 27th infantry divisions. On reaching Edaga-Hamus, south of Adigrat and north of Mekelle, these divisions were reinforced with addition five Eritrean divisions, including the 2nd brigade of the 525th commando division. He also unleashed the 26th, 28th, and 53rd infantry and 46th and 48th mechanized divisions on the Adwa front along with only one division of the Ethiopian federal army. In addition, the TPLF claims that Eritrean technical and combat units also took active part in the Alamata front, southeast of Mekelle. The same TPLF sources also claim that they have Eritrean prisoners of war although they are yet to present them to the public – live or in recordings.

Although Eritrean army divisions have been shrinking in size in the past twenty years and their individual capacities shriveled, put together they are a formidable force. Their combined technical knowhow (intelligence and weaponry) as well as tactics and strategy expertise and experience can deliver blistering firepower against any adversary.

Either approving of or oblivious to President Isaias’ role in the planning, initiation and execution of the ongoing Ethiopian civil war, the international community commended his uncharacteristic silence in the fact of repeated TPLF rocket attacks on Eritrean towns. Abiy Ahmed’s complete media and communication blackout ensured that Eritrea’ intervention remained above scrutiny and censure.

Exacting Vengeance and Becoming Regional Strongman

Beside the Eritrean president’s delusions of grandeur and parallel desire to appear as regional strongman in the Horn of Africa and beyond, one has to look at the past two decades to understand his vindictiveness. During the 1998-2000 conflict against TPLF-led Ethiopia, Isaias Afwerki refused to listen to our colleagues’ warnings against going to war; and, when he did, he refused to listen to common sense and practical advice from former army and intelligence chiefs, each of whom had had far more combat leadership experience than himself – although he had overall command as the leader of the movement and government. As a result, he badly mismanaged the war and lost terribly, with grave consequences to Eritrea and Eritreans. The stubborn that he is, he dug in and stayed the course of regional confrontation for the subsequent twenty years that cost him dearly.

President Isaias ruthlessly held on to power and kept Eritrea on war footing, frustrating any prospect of recovery or normalcy. With every year that went by, his significance diminished and his legacy tarnished. He blamed the TPLF for all this and did everything in his power to make them pay for it. He saw his own vindication in TPLF’s demise and every case of TPLF domestic repression and external belligerence was an opportunity for him until Dr. Abiy came to power and outdid Isaias in that task. The unlikely bond between the dashing new prime minister and the aging president is a marriage of convenience that centered around the singular goal of liquidating the TPLF. I will spare the details of what followed and led to November 4, but the writing was on the wall: a conflict war inevitable.

Caught in a Jam – Desperation of Eritrean refugees in Tigray

In the past two decades of President Isaias’s unbridled repression, some half million Eritrean youth, elderly and unaccompanied minors fled their country. In the context of the conflict between the two countries, Ethiopia readily accepted those fleeing Eritrea and, with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), housed them in some six refugee camps in Tigray and Afar regional states. As a sign of what was to come, in April 2020 Abiy Ahmed’s government changed its policy toward Eritrean refugees on the behest of the Eritrean president: newly arrived Eritreans were no longer granted automatic protection as refugees, although the Tigray regional government continued to accept them and let them stay unmolested.

When the current conflict broke out, there were close to 100,000 officially registered refugees in the four camps in Tigray alone and many thousands more in Tigrayan towns. While the refugees in the Afar region of Ethiopia have all along been in precarious conditions, those in Tigray were suddenly caught in the crossfire when the conflict broke out. It was first rumored that several refugees were either killed or wounded in the fighting close to their camps around the town of Shire. The fact that UNHCR personnel were ordered to leave Tigray and employees of Ethiopian federal government’s Agency for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA) simply did not show up left the camps unattended to. The total communications blackout made it impossible to find out what exactly was going on in the camps. But as the war dragged on, we are able to piece together the grave danger that the refugees are facing.

To begin with, all the camps have now run out of the measly supplies of basic necessities that they were left with. Source have also reported that the Eritrean military entered some of those camps and marched an unknown number of refugees out of camp at gun point. The Shimelba refugee camp is even reported to be under the control of the Eritrean military that is preparing to send a large number of them back to Eritrea. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on November 29 that he was very concerned about the fate of the Eritrean refugees in the war zone amid reports that some have been abducted by the Asmara government, a regime that has absolutely no regard for international norms or opinion.

A way forward

The Ethiopian government is duty bound under international law to protect refugees. It is the duty of the international community to ensure that the Ethiopian government, as the host state, abides by its international obligations in this regard. A clear, timely and unambiguous message must be conveyed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about the dire consequences of not living up to its legal responsibility towards the refugees and asylum seekers. This cannot be achieved in isolation of the quest for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And peaceful resolution of the Ethiopian conflict is unlikely to happen so long as President Isaias Afwerki is determined to wreck vengeance on the TPLF, and as long as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entreats him to do so and actively entertains his regional ambitions. The international community has to tell President Isaias in no uncertain terms that continued intervention in internal Ethiopian affairs bears grave, direct consequences.


  1. Mr. Mesfun Hagos. Thank you for your effort on writing this long message. I am pretty sure that you know not many will be able or have the chance to read this text. Knowing that you are one of those bring Isias to power, you have much more to do than just to wright a text from nice sofa in Germany. It is time to come up with real solutions including exposing Isias Afewerk’s secrets. You never said a word of his secrets since you come to exile.

  2. Thank you Mesfin Hagos. Having read your full message, I can vouch its authenticity. It is an insightful and excellent piece.

    I hope soon you will serve as the Interim President of a New Eritrea, when the beast is removed from our country.

    The people of Eritrea are finally rising up against the rogue and mafia regime in Asmara.

    1. I strongly believe that Mesfun Hagos is the side of the coin. We need to inject fresh blood to Eritrean political spectrum. Mesfun is Rotton

  3. Dear Negash

    Are you not aware of the dangers facing the `100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray and those Eritrean soldiers losing their life in a war which does not concern them. We need someone like Mesfun to speak up for all of them. You speak about who is going to be the president of Eritrea. We don’t even know the agreement Isaias reached with Abiy. The big powers are not interested in the people of Eritrea but Ethiopia. So get active in the campaign to save the life of refugees and the Eritrean army perishing in the service of Abiy and Isias’s war.

    1. My dear. You seem to miss the point. I do have a great concern about my country, the Eritrean army and refugees, but Mesfun Hagos is not the man to safe us. He is no different than his old comrade Isaias other than he is out of power. We need fresh energetic knowledgeable new leaders with new vision to safe Eritrea and Eritrean.

  4. Better to focus on the Eritrean people (the dying soldiers and the endangered refugees) rather than who gonna lead the country. Let’s do our part to save the nation.

  5. I agree with Negash Mebrahtu’s opinion, we should not recommend who will lead us before we put a clear charter & roadmap. You can not bless him to be our leader Mesfun Hagos an old guard who help Esseyas to be in power & who is already tested in creating the Eritrean enemy PFDJ party. Therefore, if Eritreans blessed Mesfun Hagos to lead us, we are done and it is hopeless. We can not go back to the “Sewra” tell. We have a lot of visionary young people & bright like “Zekarias Kebreab” & others so on, otherwise, any body can lead us if we put a right guidelines. But honestly, the article written above by Mesfun Hagos is excellent.

  6. This unfortunate and unnecessary war is being planned and engineered by the blood thirsty,
    Isatas Afewerki of Eritrea, who had previously professed his strategies for the disintegration of Ethiopia, and his follower, Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. The sinister and satanic move by Isayas will have far reaching implications, beyond one’s imagination. The main purpose of this Isayas’s war is first, for ethnic cleansing of the Tigrinya speaking peoples of Eritrea and those of the Tigray province of Ethiopia and eventually, for Ethiopia’s disintegration for no apparent reason, because , Isayas is born to kill, maim, destroy, disintegrate and dismantle. What is not yet mentioned about the eventual result of this war is that an all out disintegration of Ethiopia is fortunately or unfortunately looming, and the ultimate losers on this adventure are, both, all Ethiopians and Eritreans, and more so, the Amhara ethnic group of Ethiopia, who are blindly obsessed with the idea of “Ethiopia must have an access to the Red Sea, at any cost.” is not legally possible.

    1. There is shows the ugly truth. No matter how hard you try to hide your xenophobia against Amhara, it came out as supporting tigrigna speakers on both countries. Worried about Ethiopia disintegration but not the the death of Amhara in the least concerned you. Amhara is not the entire Ethiopia but they are just one ethnic. For any ill deeds you come across there is always the anecdote Amhara this and that. If you were truly concerned about the innocent civilians then where was it on the massacre of maicadra! As an Ethiopian i have no illusion about Eritrea or its port that chapter has been closed. Yes we say ethiopia because just as you we want a country with freedom for all despite their difference incidentally eritrea has more than 6 ethnics but not ruled along those lines. Yet you chose to show the ugly medieval thinking and hate siding with for the only reason they spoke tigrigna as justification to take side. Amhara has been killed and demonised for the past 30 years out of all ethnics for only speaking amharic and killed daily as its life didnt matter. That will not happen again. You believe whatever you want after all you cant change a life time of hate doctrinarian in few years. But the majority of Ethiopians saw through that hate and stood as one to say “enough!” And we will build a country where everyone is equal and not afraid to be ethiopian.

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