A picture has gradually emerged of the terrible events that took place in Axum in late November last year. Hundreds were killed – perhaps as many as 800 were shot by Eritrean troops in the city.
The Associated Press published a heart-rending account, quoting from a priest who buried many of the dead.
This is what AP wrote on 18th February:
The deacon [at the Church of St. Mary of Zion,] who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Axum, said he helped count the bodies — or what was left after hyenas fed. He gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials in mass graves.
He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city, and that thousands in Axum have died in all. The killing continues: On the day he spoke to the AP last week he said he had buried three people.
AP provides some context about what took place.
Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers had arrived in Axum more than a week earlier, with heavy bombardment. But on Nov. 28 the Eritrean soldiers returned in force to hunt down members of the local militia who had mobilized against them in Axum and nearby communities.
Explaining the massacre
The AP report – and others like it – confirm the killings, but without really explaining why they took place. Civilians are frequently killed during wars, but a massacre of this scale is relatively rare.
Now another witness has come forward, who was in Axum at the time. His testimony gives an insight into the atrocities, while in no way excusing them.
My family was in Axum from mid September. We were about to leave on 9 November, but we could not get out because the war had arrived. Suddenly the shelling and the bombardment began. Transport and communications were cut off and we were trapped. All we knew was a heavy bombardment. There were flashes of lights and huge explosions as the shells and bombs came down.
It was terrible.
First by airplanes – MIG airstrikes. Then tanks and artillery hit the city, the mountains and our houses. No soldiers of Tigray were in the city by this time. The city administration has fled in landcruisers and the Tigrayan special forces had withdrawn.
An old fighter – veteran TPLF member – told me that the Eritreans always first bombard cities before they enter them. They don’t care what they hit.
We lost some people at that time. A woman and her daughter and house maid were killed.
Then the Eritreans entered the city. No-one was going outside their house. Anyone who did was shot on sight. After a while, when people ventured outdoors, the Eritreans began stealing from them. They took everything – even old bicycles. They had a truck and told us to take the loot to the vehicle.
Any gold or silver silver jewellery was snatched from the necks of local people. They simply sole it and said “now go away”.
The Eritrean military continued their killings, but a few at a time: seven to ten people a day.
All the young men were rounded up and taken to the edge of the city. They were forced to take their shoes off and walk over the fields of stubble. These were razor sharp, and then the Eritreans demanded to know: “where are the Tigrayan military”. Of course, people didn’t know and many were killed.
Forces came and went; some Ethiopians, some Eritreans.
Thursday 26 November. The Eritrean military returned. They came in many trucks, with Eritrean markings and we had a feeling that something was about to happen. After a while some of them went up the mountain by the city to the TV station with a big antenna. Others went to the Shire side, where there’s a checkpoint.
Friday 27. The Eritreans began ransacking shops throughout the city. They Broke into entire hotels, jewellery shops, boutiques. Many had glass windows and doors and were easy to smash. Two flour factories: gone. The historica Axum Hotel had been remodelled. It was looted. This was the worst day of looting.
Tigrayan militia launch a counter-attack
In the evening I saw some Tigray militia moving around in the city. We were surprised. The militia came up the cobbled road. The Yeha Hotel, which was built by the Derg, was near where I was staying. They went up there and stayed the whole night.
Saturday 28. Shooting started at 6.30 am and continues all day long. It was crazy, crazy. The whole day we were frightened.
The Tigray militia attacked the Eritreans at the TV station above the city. Towards evening I met two of the militia, who had been injured. They said they had killed 40 – 45 of the Eritreans. They were about to finish them off when another Eritrean division arrived. They came from the Adwa direction to reinforce the Eritreans in Axum. When the reinforcements arrived the Tigrayan milia was forced to flee.
That evening from the airport to the bus station – the Eritreans shot everyone they could find. They rounded up farmers who were collecting the harvest and instructed them to put it into Eritrean trucks. Then they shot them. Shot them all. We visited their houses. I saw the dead bodies.
Young people were also shot. “Why did you fight us?”, the Eritreans asked. “OK, now you have it!” And then they shot them. No-one was allowed to fetch the bodies. All night we heard shooting. They were going house to house. Whoever opened the door, was killed.
Sunday 29th. In the Michael church area and in the high school area there was indiscriminate killing. They shot a youth, and as his sister fled she was shot too.
No-one could come out and help. This was the worst. It was crazy. So many people were lying in front of the the houses or in the street. At the St Mary of Zion church people were praying, in the compound. As they were bending and praying they were shot.
There were so many unburied bodies and they started to smell. Wild animals – hyenas – were roaring in the evening inside Axum. I have never heard this before.
November 30th – St Mary’s feast day – was quiet. I was in the church compound and the church. It was quiet. At 9.00 am three government representatives arrived by helicopter with federal police. We thought that at last there will be a chance to catch our breath. We had had a terrifying two days.
We went and asked the federal police and administrators: “please tell the Eritreans to allow us to collect the bodies.” They said: “OK pick up the bodies.”
We collected the dead using a garrie cart and picking up six, seven, eight corpses at a time, taking them to various churches. We collected their IDs. Some people were given a brief service.
At the Arbaète Ensesa church they were just buried in a mass grave.
I think 300-400 young people were buried in Axum during the day. At night they buried more. The main atrocities were on 28 – 29 November, but after that some people were killed in the following days, but in smaller numbers.
Escaping from Axum
I had my three children and my wife. Things got so expensive and I knew we had to leave.
After the federal police arrived they stayed for 3 – 4 weeks. They tried to elect an alternative administration and to get the city working again.
I spoke to them all the time. Many people asked them to help them to get out of Tigray.
Minibuses were going to Shire. I took one and went to see my relatives. The situation there was much better. The whole city had come onto the streets when the Eritreans arrived. They could not kill them all.
I stayed at the airport of Shire for weeks, trying to get a flight out. We waited and waited and then they took the Amhara/Oromo – any non-Tigrayans. Finally they told us: “we will take no Tigayans.”
We had no option but to borrow money from anyone we could and hire a vehicle to take us to Mekelle. There were many checkpoints along the way and lots of shooting. We had to pay a lot of money. We finally arrived at 6.00 pm. and were escorted in by the military. That was on December 28th. The next morning a truck took us to the border city – Alamata. We paid 5,000 birr. Then another vehicle. We were told: speak only Amharic.
Finally, after travelling for another two days, we arrived in Addis, where I have family. Eventually I got a flight to the USA, where I work.