By Professor Mirjam van Reisen, Klara Smits, Kibrom Berhe

Tilburg, 3 November 2021

Joint Investigation Team Report

Negotiations and peace-building will almost certainly mark the next stages of the war in Ethiopia, as the world assesses the balance of responsibility for the conflict which has raged in the country for the last year. It is – by any measure – the worst war currently under in the world.

There is only one way to start this process. It is to arrive at agreement on the facts and to debate their implications.

One attempt to do this is the Joint Investigation Team report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Human Rights Office (UNOHCHR), published today.

The office of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy stated immediately following the release of the report: “The TPLF triggered the tragic conflict.” By contrast, the government of Tigray stated that whatever its ‘findings’, the report is fraught with problems.

What were the events on 3 November 2020?

There is a critical question to consider in order to start putting together the facts about what transpired. How did the Tigray war start and which side started it?

On the evening of November 3rd 2020, we received a call from our colleague at Mekelle University – in the regional capital of Tigray.

We were working on an educational project and we were regularly in touch with them to set up our joint work.

We have checked the phone log and the notes made that evening.

The Mekelle University professor phoned late in the evening of November the 3rd. Shooting had erupted at Mekelle Airport and later in the surrounding area of the city.

Students also contacted us to share their concern about the fighting that broke out on the evening of November 3rd.

In subsequent briefings the university Professor said that two planes belonging to Ethiopian Airlines had landed at Mekelle airport. They had sought permission to land to bring new bank notes to the banks in a currency exchange. Instead, the planes brought in special forces.

The planes have subsequently been identified as ET3102, which flew the ADD-MQX-ADD route, AC B789 and tail ETAUR. This was a cargo plane. This flight departed from Addis Ababa on the 3rd of November 2020 at 17:31 and arrived in Mekelle at 18:34 and waited there until 04:20 before departing for Addis Ababa at 04:21 on 4th of November.

The second flight was ET3100 on ADD-MQX-ADD route, AC A350 (Airbus) and tail ETATY. It was also a cargo plane. This flight departed from Addis Ababa on the 3rd of November, 2020 at 21:05 and arrived at Mekelle at 22:25. It waited until 04:06 and departed for Addis Ababa at 04:07 on 4th November.

The true purpose of sending these planes to Mekelle and what transpired while they were in the city, has never been explained.

The gunfire that was heard by many citizens of Mekelle on the night of the 3rd of November has also never been explained.

Tigray government insiders have told us that special forces from the Ethiopia National Defense Forces were sent on these planes to capture and arrest (and kill) leadership of the regional government of Tigray.

The Tigray regional government of Tigray had been warned in advance by its intelligence network about this plan. 

As a result, when the planes landed the forces of the regional government were ready. They met the special forces arriving from Addis Ababa and shooting between the two sides erupted.

Failure to arrest leadership of the regional government of Tigray

The commandos from Addis Ababa failed in their aim to arrest the regional Tigray government. In the days that followed the Tigrayan authorities withdrew to the mountains and regrouped.

The implications of the failure to apprehend the Tigrayan leaders has been colossal for Prime Minister Abiy.

Had the Ethiopian National Defence Forces been able to seize the leadership of the regional government on the 3rd of November, the outcome of the “law and order operation” the Ethiopian authorities launched might have been very different.

The question is often asked why Prime Minister Abiy miscalculated so badly. The miscalculations may be numerous. The Prime Minister’s key mistake may have been his underestimation of the intelligence that the Tigray government had.

Northern Command and the involvement of Eritrea in the war in Tigray

In a response to what the Tigray government considered a hostile attack, the regional government’s Tigray Defense Forces sought to gain control over the Northern Command, which was stationed across Tigray, and headquartered in Mekelle.

Due to the long-standing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a large part of the Ethiopian Federal troops were stationed along the one-thousand kilometer border between Tigray and Eritrea. It was responsible for protecting the Northern border from an Eritrean invasion.

However, the role of the Northern Command had changed following the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, for which Prime Minister Abey was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is an indisputable fact, long denied by the Eritrean and Ethiopian government, that Eritrea became an ally of Prime Minister Abiy in the war against the regional state of Tigray.

Video footage obtained by our team shows that on the 5th of November, members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in the Northern Command handed over large amounts of military mechanized equipment, including tanks, to Eritrean troops stationed on Eritrean territory.

On 6, 7, 8, 9 November 2020 records we obtained also show irregular flights of Ethiopian Airlines to Asmara and Massawa.

While these flights would normally be routed as international flights between capitals, the planes flew directly from Asmara and Massawa to Gondar and Bahirdar, cities in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, close to the Tigray border.

CNN has shown evidence that the flights of Ethiopian Airlines, routed on these dates, were transporting arms.

Eritrean combatants in Tigray

Interviews we carried out with Eritrean former fighters who fled to Sudanese refugee camps in June 2021 revealed that these fighters were mobilised for the war in Tigray even before November 3rd.

One former Eritrean fighter stated with great precision in an interview we did with him that he was released from detention on October 30th, and that he was subsequently mobilised to fight on the border with Tigray by the Eritrean army. He entered Tigray as a fighter on November 2nd, in Sheraro.

The fighter explained how the war began:

All these things happen just in the first week, the first days. In the beginning, we fight. But after four, five days, everything is finished. The Tigray army is successful to protect the area from the Amhara army, the Ethiopian army, until the Ethiopian army escaped to Eritrea. But the Eritrean army was successful in fighting against Tigray. The Ethiopian army has not got the ability to fight against Tigray. But when the Eritreans came, they succeeded in fighting against them.

Further evidence we obtained show that on the morning of 4th November Eritrean troops were already seen in Gerhusernay, a town near the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where they started killing civilians.

Half of the story

On the 4th of November 2020 Prime Minister Abiy of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia declared a short “law and order operation.”

The official line of Abiy’s government is that the operation was in response to the Tigray government’s attack on the Northern Command units of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, stationed in the Tigray region.

But that is – at the very least – only half of the story.

Tigray has been under siege since this war broke out. It has been almost impossible for journalists and human rights organisations, as well as academics, to investigate what has transpired.

Considering the claims and counterclaims

In any war, narratives, propaganda and facts become instruments of warfare, and to disentangle them is a difficult and painful process, but establishing the truth is a precondition to moving forwards.

Inevitably, during a war, claims and counterclaims are associated with the benefit these have to the warring parties.

For academics, wars are therefore uncomfortable. Professionally, we like to remain objective and rely on the facts, rather than becoming tools for claims by one side or another.  

Yet, as academics we have a duty, and a responsibility to society, to contribute perspectives that are grounded in scientific and methodological approaches that provide transparency on the provenance of the arguments we make.

Academia then allows for further verification of those facts and for a debate on their implications.

The pain of this war has been felt from all sides. Mothers on every side have lost sons and daughters in battle.

To develop an understanding of the facts requires that everyone gets around the table. The empty chairs of those not wanting to talk, or those excluded from talks, need to be filled.

It is today one year since the start of this horrific war, the cost of which has already been far too high. It is time to get the facts on the table. It is time for negotiations. It is time for peace.

Logbook of irregular flights from Ethiopian Airlines to Asmara and Massawa (Eritrea)