Source: Der Spiegel

The civil war in Tigray is over – for now. Up to 380,000 civilians are thought to have died, and tens of thousands of women raped. Can peace hold in the face of such atrocities?

By Fritz Schaap and Sergio Ramazzotti (Photos) in Tigray, Ethiopia

He still remembers the stench of death. The sweetish smell that seeps into clothes and sticks in your nose. Priest Abreha Weldensea cannot forget how people here in his valley in southern Tigray would wear rags in front of their faces to block the smell, but still couldn’t escape the stench as they hacked graves into the hard ground with pickaxes.DER SPIEGEL 14/2023

Abreha has just finished his morning prayers in the church on the hill and is now wandering back down the path to his village, Adi Isher. A valley spreads out to his right, a shimmer of downy light green covering the earth. “This is where they always come back to me, the images of the dead,” he says. The memories of the two battles that took place in this valley in 2021 between the armies of the Tigray and the Ethiopians. Of the thousands of people who had to be buried.

Abreha, who is also the village leader, can find the mass graves from memory. Wordlessly, he stands on the hillside and looks down on the village with its houses made of stone. He is a gaunt man in torn pants and a jacket with seams just barely holding together. Around his shoulders is a shamma, the traditional, white-cotton wrap.

“The battles,” he then says, “weren’t the worst part.”

Priest Abreha Weldensea. Villagers spent days digging the graves of all the dead. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

A so-called “permanent cessation of hostilities” has been holding in northern Ethiopia since November. The deal was hammered out in the South African capital of Pretoria in tough negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which heads the state government. It marked the end to what is likely the most brutal war the world has seen in recent years.

Abiy and His Allies

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent his army into Tigray in November 2020 after a conflict over the distribution of power had erupted in the country. Abiy saw the TPLF as the most significant threat to his policy of centralization. He likely thought the military offensive would be over quickly.

He received support from neighboring Eritrea. The country’s dictator, Isaias Afwerki, views the Tigrayans as his archenemy. His country fought a deadly war against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, during which tens of thousands of people lost their lives. That war was fought in a period when the Tigrayans held power in Ethiopia, as they had for decades, and for Isaias, Abiy’s march into Tigray offered the prospect of vengeance. The Ethiopian state of Amhara also sent troops to fight the Tigray. For many years, the Amharans have been convinced that western Tigray belongs to them.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in the ensuing war, including up to 380,000 civilians, according to a group of researchers at the University of Gent in Belgium. The number cannot yet be substantiated. The chief of staff of the Ethiopian army (ENDF) recently said that his forces lost 254,000 troops in the fighting. The Tigray military (TDF) has remained silent about the overall number of casualties it sustained.

Tens of thousands of Tigray women were allegedly raped, while millions faced significant food shortages as a result of a de-facto blockade starting in June 2021 and were cut off from medical care. More than 5 million people suffered from severe hunger. Because there was no internet or phone connections, hardly any news made it out of the state.

Later, the Tigrayans marched into the neighboring states of Amhara and Afar to take revenge, and hundreds of thousands had to flee. The Amharan and Eritrean soldiers have been accused of perpetrating the most brutal mass rapes and massacres, but the Tigrayan troops also committed war crimes, though they are thought to have been less numerous.


Now, the weapons have fallen silent, the peace process continues apace at the political level, and the government of Ethiopia no longer lists the TPLF as a terrorist organization. Tigray, though, nevertheless finds itself facing a vital question: Can there be a lasting peace, or even reconciliation, against the backdrop of the systematic horrors visited upon the population?

Around eighty kilometers from the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, in the village of Adi Isher, behind valleys full of candelabra trees, their branches jutting straight upwards, and full of burned-out military equipment, Father Abreha is telling the story of what happened after the first battle in his valley had come to an end – a fate apparently experienced by countless other places in Tigray.

A house stands on the side of a dusty track next to a row of pencil cacti and a rock wall. “This is where Yermane Walderegay was lying in his own blood,” Abreha says quietly. He was a young man, mentally handicapped. “He was only 25 years old.”

On Feb. 14, 2021, one day after the battle in the valley, soldiers from the Ethiopian army arrived in the village, home to around 3,500 people spread out over a large area. Abreha fled with his family into the mountains. The survivors later described to him how the Ethiopian troops broke people’s arms and legs before stabbing them with knives and, if they were still alive, shooting them to death.

Waves of Violence

The slaughter came to an end after three days, with the Ethiopians looting homes and pulling out of the village. The residents slowly returned, as did Abreha. Hyenas, he says, had begun chewing the meat off the bones of the bodies. The people of the village spent four days burying their dead near the churches and the bodies of their enemies in the fields.

Just days after the last grave was filled, militia fighters raided the village, this time from the neighboring state of Amhara. They, too, murdered and plundered their way through the valley. A total of 182 women, children and men died in the massacre in Adi Isher and the surrounding villages, according to a count by the survivors. “I began doubting God,” says Abreha.

When the Amhara left, they were replaced by soldiers from the Eritrean army, who showed up in cars and trucks, taking what was left. “Cattle, furniture, even cups and saucers. They just killed the animals that they couldn’t take with them,” says Abreha. Sheep, donkeys, goats and cows were left to bleed to death. The priest says that the invaders then lit the remaining granaries on fire and took off with their loot.

A few days later, they returned to rape the women who hadn’t managed to flee. Abreha knows of 40 victims, though there were likely more.

After the Horror Came the Hunger

Abreha, who has walked down into the village on this February day, tightens his grip around the cross in his hand. “But not even that,” he continues, “was the worst. After all those horrors came starvation. They had taken everything from us.”

The village of Adi Esher was attacked with waves of violence, not unlike other villages in Tigray. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

They were forced to eat leaves and berries. “It was a luxury if you could eat once a day.” He says he was afraid that his children would starve to death. Over and over, he would drag himself through the hills on the search for anything that could be eaten.

In June 2021, Tigrayan troops recaptured the village and much of the rest of Tigray. The elation was massive, but the hunger remained. The government in Addis Ababa established a de facto blockade of the state, with the goal of starving them out. The health-care system collapsed and there was a lack of medicines and supplies. Many of the clinics had been looted. “The hunger grew even worse,” says Abreha as he reaches the main road.

To this day, he says, everyone in the village is malnourished.

Observers Speak of a Genocide

Last year, 37,000 volunteers collected data for the Tigrayan Commission of Inquiry on Tigrai Genocide, initiated by the regional government, interviewing eyewitnesses and documenting massacres. Since March 2022, they have been collecting evidence of war crimes. Men have recounted to the investigators how they lost their daughters; women have told them of losing their sons, their husbands; children told of losing their fathers. Girls have described being raped. Joining the investigators is like being on a factory floor of horrors.

The commission argues that genocide is the proper word for what happened. A lot of the data gathered hasn’t yet been analyzed and the report is far from finished – and it’s unclear when it will be. But, the commission says, just the number of cases of sexualized violence is over 120,000.

Observers from the outside also speak of genocide. “It is, of course, up to an international court to take verdict on this. But I would call it genocidal warfare,” says Ethiopian expert Kjetil Tronvoll from Oslo New University College. At some point, the analyst is convinced, a new war will break out again also for that reason.

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

Tigray’s former tourism director is pursuing a different approach to recovery. He has founded an organization that is working toward reconciliation called Tigray Youth Empowerment Services, or TYES. They distribute food and organize discussion groups in the hopes of breaking Tigray’s culture of silence, a tradition that repeatedly produces violence.

“If you don’t address lasting problems, they remain, and they will produce catastrophe over and over again,” says Wolbert Smidt, an ethnohistorian from Germany. “In the Ethiopian highlands, knowledge is in part rejected so as not to stir up old wounds – so they can heal. The consequence is that the same mistakes are repeated over and over again out of this willful ignorance.”

In a February week in Agula, a small city to the north of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, around 60 women are sitting in four groups behind an empty lot next to a clinic that has been looted and an abandoned school. They are brewing coffee over hot coals and burning incense. It is a discussion circle, focusing on sexual violence – since it destroys families, and can also destroy entire communities because of the stigma attached to the victims.

Women in Agula. Some victims were even raped on the street. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

The women say that the Eritreans were the first to arrive in the city, and they raped women even out on the street. The Ethiopian army then set up a base near the city, and the soldiers showed up over and over again.

Only very few of the women here think they well ever be able to forgive. One of them wears a 7.62-millimeter projectile around her neck, as do many in the cities of Tigray – so that we never forget, she says with a steely look when asked why.

Before the Eyes of Her Daughter

One 25-year-old, who asks that we call her Lemlem, tells the story of what happened to her while sitting in an empty classroom. She is wearing a yellow dress, and as she talks, she rubs her thumbnail along the tips of her fingers. Then, she presses her hands together.

On March 7, 2021 – she was seven months pregnant – she was sitting with her mother in their small home. Her four-year-old daughter was playing on the floor, she recalls, when a soldier from the Ethiopian army walked in and began hitting them with a stick – until the stick finally broke. Then, she says, six more soldiers joined them. They threw her on the bed. One soldier brought a soft drink for her mother and told her to shut her mouth and drink her soda.

Lemlem says the soldiers then began raping her one after the other, right in front of her mother and daughter. Her mother begged them for mercy, but the soldiers just pointed their rifles at her and told her to keep quiet. Lemlem says she thinks it continued for three hours, but she cannot say for sure.

In her desperation, her young daughter picked apart an onion into tiny pieces as her mother was being raped. Before the soldiers left the house, she says, they pushed the remains of the onion into Lemlem. She was bleeding and feared that she would lose her unborn child. The soldiers then asked her who was the father of her unborn child. She lied, telling them that he was a soldier in the Ethiopian army. The men, she says, believed her and didn’t cut open her belly as she had feared they would do. The unborn baby survived.

Lemlem begins crying, staring at the floor. “My older daughter now lives with my mother. She is afraid whenever she is with me. I hardly ever see her anymore,” she says, her voice choked with tears.

The World Looks Away

Observers, like the Ethiopian expert Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University near Boston, are skeptical that peace can last given the crimes that have been committed. “The atrocities were very deliberate, very intimate and very targeted. On top of that, they weren’t really recognized internationally.”

A boy who has lost his arm: Eritrean soldiers threw a hand grenade at four children. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

The role of the international community in Ethiopia has been anything but laudable. The U.S. government did threaten to impose sanctions on some members of Abiy’s apparatus but didn’t follow through. Ethiopia was only excluded from a single trade program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), while economic and military aid was reduced.

The EU was also unable to agree on targeted sanctions and a UN Security Council resolution was never passed. The Ethiopian government could rely on support from China and Russia.

Perhaps the West wasn’t ready to abandon their image of Abiy as a radiant reformer. After he was elected in 2018, the prime minister was seen as a star among heads of state in Africa, celebrated as a reformer who would modernize the Ethiopian economy and bring democracy. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for a peace treaty with Eritrea. But some observers now see that agreement as preparation for his vicious war against Tigray.

The Transformation of the Reformer

More than 80 ethnicities live in Ethiopia, home to over 120 million people. The Tigrayans represent only around 6 percent of the population, but their elite dominated both political and economic life in the country for decades. They established a kind of ethnic federalism and created nine states for the largest ethnicities. And they ruled with an iron fist – until 2018, when reformer Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as prime minister following extensive protests.

Abiy wanted to reconsolidate the power of the states in the capital. He loosened the oppression that had been in place for many years, hoping that a pan-Ethiopian nationalism would bind the country’s regions more closely together and bring to an end the cycle of recurring tensions between the ethnicities.

Bullet holes in Ayder Hospital in Mekelle.

Bullet holes in Ayder Hospital in Mekelle. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

But envy and resentment took hold in many regions instead. Strong opposition against the prime minister developed in Oromia, which had had high hopes for Abiy since he is originally from the region. In Tigray, thoughts of independence from Ethiopia grew, as did demands for autonomy from the Sidama ethnic group in the southwest.

For quite some time, it looked as though Abiy didn’t know what to do. Ultimately, though, he apparently elected to adopt the methods of the old regime, of which he was once a part. Abiy tried to regain control with violence. And the greatest danger to his government, he thought, was the TPLF.

War Crimes Go Unpunished

Soon, he cut funding to Tigray. Tensions escalated in 2020, when the Tigrayans held regional elections against the wishes of Abiy’s government. The war began in November – but for the West, Abiy’s radiant image long blinded them to much of what was going on in Ethiopia, including the war crimes committed by his army.

Last summer, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) whose roots are Tigrayan, said: “I haven’t heard in the last few months any head of state talking about the Tigray situation anywhere in the developed world. Anywhere. Why?” He then offered an answer to his own question: “Maybe the reason is the color of the skin of the people in Tigray.”

Market in Tigray: More than 5 million people suffered from acute hunger. Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

When speaking to European diplomats, the impression grows even stronger that they would prefer to just move on. Abiy should be supported, they say, otherwise the country will be pushed further into the economic embrace of China. When German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Ethiopia in January, she didn’t go to Tigray, instead presenting Abiy Ahmed with the prospect of a “close partnership.”

In the end, the fact that Abiy Ahmed’s troops committed massive war crimes will likely just be ignored, says Alex de Waal. “The international consensus is: We don’t want to face the reality of what happened in Tigray.” And the resulting impunity, he believes, could develop into one of the highest hurdles in the way of lasting peace.

In the office of the Tigray Independence Party (TIB) in the center of Mekelle, Dejen Mezgebe is sitting at an empty conference table and complaining about the TPLF leadership that negotiated the cease-fire agreement. The TIB is an opposition party, and it has been fighting for Tigray’s independence from Ethiopia since 2020. Dejen is a party leader.

Light curtains dim the bright, midday sun. Beneath the windows are shops that again have food to sell, along with mobile phones and computers. People have returned to the cafés and restaurants, the city having recovered somewhat since the cease-fire deal was signed. But the hospitals still don’t have sufficient supplies, and children missing arms or legs are still being delivered.

Dejen Mezgebe: “You can’t continue living with a hyena that has begun eating you.” Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti / Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL

“The crimes are inconceivable,” says Dejen, whose son remains missing. He’s wearing a plaid newsboy cap and a closely cropped beard – and he looks tired. He is demanding that independent investigations be conducted into the crimes. But in the Pretoria agreement, short shrift is given to accountability, reparations, an independence referendum or self-determination. “The agreement is a capitulation,” Dejen says.

Large Areas Still Under Occupation

Many experts believe that the perpetrators will never be brought to justice. Dejen says that there must be some form of political reconciliation and a referendum with the ultimate goal of an independent Tigray. Every state in Ethiopia has the constitutional right to secede from Ethiopia. “We aren’t demanding anything beyond what we are legally entitled to,” he says.

Many in Tigray agree with him. The Tigrayan governing party TPLF, though, continues to see the state as part of Ethiopia. “The TPLF,” Dejen believes, “has betrayed us. The party cadres are only concerned with holding onto their own power.” You can’t force a people to live in a country whose leadership has launched a murderous war against them, he believes. “You can’t continue living with a hyena that has begun eating you.”