Hyenas scouring bodies in villages, towns and villages hit by air strikes. Most old men and young women conscripted into armies. These are the horrific accounts emerging from a war that left tens, if not hundreds, of thousands dead in Ethiopia’s historic Tigray region.
The region was once touristy, with visitors drawn to its rock-hewn churches, Muslim shrines and ancient writings in the Ge’ez language.
Now, Tigray is the scene of a vicious war, with the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies on one side and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) army on the other, fighting for control in a region that has long been seen as key to power in Ethiopia—or what was historically part of Abyssinia.
It’s been under lockdown for 17 months — with no banking, phone or internet services — and no access to the press.
Over the past two years, the fortunes of both sides have constantly shifted on the battlefield, with:
-Ethiopian and Eritrean forces taking Tigre’s capital Mekelle in November 2020 after the TPLF was accused of launching a rebellion;
-The residents of Tigre launch a counter-offensive in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, bringing them closer to the federal capital, Addis Ababa, about a year later;
-Ethiopian and Eritrean forces regain territory in Tigray — including the key city of Shire — in the final round of fighting, raising the prospect of trying to capture Mekelle once more.
“There are at least 500,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian federal troops in active combat, plus 200,000 on the Tigris side,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the US-based Foundation for World Peace.
He added that after more than 50 days of non-stop fighting, this week Tigres’ lines of defense around Shire could no longer hold out for lack of ammunition.
“It’s a big setback for the Tigers. It leaves civilians exposed to massacres, rapes and starvation,” De Waal said, although the Ethiopian government has promised aid and restoration of services in Shire and other areas under its control.
Shire mirrors the humanitarian crisis in Tigre, with one aid worker saying around 600,000 civilians were taking refuge in and around the city after fleeing war-torn areas.
“More than 120,000 were outdoors, sleeping under trees and bushes,” he told the BBC, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Almost all aid workers withdrew from Shire last week after suffering heavy shelling from Ethiopian forces.
Thousands of residents are also fleeing the Shire amid fears they could be subjected to atrocities — similar to those in other areas that have fallen under the control of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
“Four witnesses reported that in the village of Shimblina in September 46 people were arrested and summarily executed. Other villagers found the bodies mixed with those of domestic animals, which were also killed,” said the aid worker.
“The hyenas ate some of the bodies and they could only be identified by the remnants of clothing that remained. Witnesses said they didn’t have time to bury them, and the hyenas must have finished them off by now,” he added.
What highlighted the atrocity, he said, was the fact that most of the victims came from the small Kunama ethnic group, which was not involved in the conflict.
“Both sides are losing soldiers, and when they come to a village, they vent their anger on the locals,” added the aid worker.
Tigre’s forces faced similar charges — including rape, extrajudicial killings and looting — during their advances into Amhara and Afar, before being pushed back to Tigre. The region has a population of around 7 million people, a small number in a country with a population of over 100 million.
In addition to the atrocities, all armies were accused of forcibly recruiting civilians to fight and of using the “human wave” tactic to gain ground.
“People are drafted into the armies and after just a few weeks of training they are sent in large numbers through mined areas towards the enemy’s trenches,” said Abdurahman Sayed, an analyst at the UK’s Horn of Africa.
“The enemy opens fire and kills many of them, but they keep coming in waves until the enemy runs out of ammo and they occupy your trenches.”
“It’s an old form of warfare. It was first used by the King of Abyssinia to defeat the invading Italians in the 1890s. Despite their superior firepower, the Italians were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who faced them.”
Abdurahman said this tactic leads to mass casualties, with his estimate that between 700,000 and 800,000 people have already lost their lives in nearly two years of fighting.
“This is the most brutal war in Ethiopia’s history,” he added.
While US Horn of Africa analyst Faisal Roble disputed that the tigers used human wave attacks, his estimate of the death toll was not much different.
“In the first two phases of the war, about 500,000 died in combat and 100,000 probably died in this third phase,” he said.
Roble added that Tigray’s army was well trained, with a “heart” to fight, but the Ethiopian army had two advantages: numbers and air power.
“A general who is now ambassador said he could recruit 1 million young men every year, and they have Turkish fighter jets and drones that have proven to be very effective. Tigre’s army has no air force.”
Ethiopian air force command moved to Eritrea’s capital Asmara, he explained, from where the fighter jets were taking off, as the city was much closer to Tigray than their usual base at Bishoftu in central Ethiopia.
“Drones are still coming out of Bishoftu,” Roble said.
Eritrea intervened in the conflict because the TPLF is its sworn enemy. The TPLF dominated a coalition government in Ethiopia until current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
Under the TPLF, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war that claimed the lives of around 80,000 people. Later, an international court ruled that Ethiopia should hand over the territory to Eritrea, but the TPLF-controlled government did not.
Mekelle, which has a population of around 500,000, was hit by several drone attacks — Photo: AC
Eritrea regained territory shortly after the start of the last war in November 2020, and its critics say President Isaias Afwerki is determined to help Abiy end the TPLF so it doesn’t threaten his nation again.
“Eritrea’s concern is that the TPLF wants to regain power in Ethiopia or a satellite government in Asmara that gives it access to the Red Sea because Tigre is an impoverished and landlocked region,” Abdurahman said.
As the war in Tigray has escalated in recent weeks, the Eritrean government has stepped up its military deployment and hunted fugitives from military service across the country, multiple sources in Eritrea told the BBC.
In one case in September, Eritrean troops stormed a church in the southern city of Akrur, detaining a priest, young worshipers and choir members who failed to heed the military’s call, the sources said.
Professor De Waal said the summons showed that Isaias was “not taking any chances”, but he did not send recruits to Tigre in large numbers.
“Eritrea has units in Tigre, but most of the fighting is being done by Ethiopian forces. What Isaias is doing is leading the war because he believes he can show Abiy how to win, but Tigres will fight, even if it’s with knives and stones because it’s a matter of life and death for them,” he said.
According to Abdurahman, the war is being fought on four to six fronts, with tens of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops stationed near the Tigray town of Adigrat.
“They are ready to launch an attack on Adigrat and Mekelle,” he said.
Sources on the front lines of the battle told the BBC that the two armies were already advancing from the Shire towards the historic town of Aksum, as well as Adwa and Adigrat, in an operation that saw them move from west to east.
While foreign powers have urged both sides to resolve the conflict peacefully, Abdurahman said that was unlikely to happen.
“Historically, the ruling classes of Abyssinia, and now Ethiopia, have always fought for power. The mighty one becomes the king of kings until another arises. There is no tradition of settling matters peacefully. It’s a zero-sum game.” , said.
Professor De Waal said the international community needed to act urgently to enforce a ceasefire.
“Otherwise, there is a risk of genocide and mass starvation,” he said, pointing to a survey done in August by a Belgian-led academic team that calculated the total number of civilian deaths during the war in Tigray — caused by the fighting. , hunger and lack of health care. The estimate was somewhere between 385,000 and 600,000.
“The harvest must begin now, but the armies led by Eritrea are turning Tigra into a wasteland.”