Ethiopia’s most famous monastery has been bombed and looted of its ancient treasures according to reports emerging from the north of the country where fighting has left tens of thousands of people at risk of starvation.
Aid organisations warned they are “preparing for the worst” after four months of conflict between state forces and regional fighters in Tigray that has killed thousands amid reports of multiple massacres. Authorities in the capital have confirmed the rapes of scores of women and girls.
International experts have also raised the alarm over reports of “cultural cleansing” in the heritage-rich region with thefts and destruction of centuries-old artefacts at historically significant sites. In one recent alleged incident, troops from neighbouring Eritrea, which is backing government forces, ransacked manuscripts from the remains of the remote sixth-century Debre Damo monastery after clambering 80ft up a cliff to reach it.
Other buildings on the flat-topped mountain that were also “completely destroyed” included the monks’ ancient dwellings and the earliest existing church in Ethiopia that is still in its original style, according to the European External Programme with Africa.
Attacks have also been reported in recent months at the seventh century mosque of Negash, one of Africa’s oldest, and the Church of St Mary of Zion, which many Ethiopian Christians believe houses the Ark of the Covenant.
Specialists have warned that Tigray’s stolen gems could be spirited out of the country and sold to collectors. Video taken by Belgian journalists reporting on the conflict apparently showed an Eritrean tank loaded with plunder.
Alessandro Bausi, an expert in Ethiopic texts and manuscripts at Hamburg University, said he had heard from multiple sources that key sites were being targeted and “irreplaceable” artefacts destroyed or pillaged.
Mary’s Meals, a Scottish-based charity working in Tigray, said that millions of people were at imminent risk of starvation and lacked access to proper sanitation or medical care.
It said: “The region’s capital, Mekelle, is being overwhelmed by displaced and traumatised people arriving every day. Many are unaccompanied children who have lost their parents.”
The charity has launched an Ethiopia appeal.