(Source: The Guardian) –
Four months of fighting have seen massacres, sexual violence and attacks on medical facilities and refugee camps. The culture of impunity must end.
After months of denials, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has finally admitted what everyone knew about the conflict in the Tigray region: Eritrean troops are present alongside the federal military, and atrocities have been reported.
War is “a nasty thing”, he added – a remark that barely scratched the surface of the terrible human toll. Thousands have died since fighting began in November, many of them civilians. This week, the heads of nine UN agencies and other officials demanded a halt to attacks against non-combatants, including rape and other sexual violence. Médecins Sans Frontières reported that its staff had witnessed at least four men being dragged from buses and shot dead this week. Almost 70% of medical facilities in the region have been deliberately looted, vandalised or destroyed, with only 13% functioning normally, while schools have been occupied by fighters. Even refugee camps have been targeted.
There is now extensive evidence that Eritrean forces killed hundreds of civilians, including children as young as 13, in Axum in November and reports that they killed more than 160 in the village of Dengolat. Witnesses have accused members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of massacring scores and probably hundreds of civilians at Mai-Kadra in western Tigray in the same month. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, warned earlier this month of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray, where armed forces from the neighbouring Amhara region have joined the federal army against the TPLF, saying they are reclaiming stolen land.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades, and its leaders were angered by their loss of power when Mr Abiy took office. When he delayed elections, citing the pandemic, the Tigray government defied him by holding polls, with both sides subsequently refusing to recognise the other’s legitimacy. Tigrayan forces then captured the federal military command in the region, triggering a federal offensive which they were already expecting. Federal troops subsequently took the regional capital and established an interim administration. But fighting continues and there are signs that abuses by troops are encouraging young Tigrayans to take up arms.
Three-quarters of Tigray’s population are now said to be dependent on aid, with hundreds of thousands on the brink of starvation. An estimated 2 million have been internally displaced, and 60,000 more have fled to Sudan. The growing international attention to Tigray, including President Joe Biden’s decision to dispatch his close ally Senator Chris Coons to Addis Ababa this week, probably prompted Mr Abiy’s decision to come clean about the Eritrean troops, and to say that soldiers will be held accountable if they commit crimes. But it has not ended Eritrea’s role, or the culture of impunity for combatants.
Mr Abiy’s admissions this week, increased media and humanitarian access to the region, and the announcement of a joint investigationby the UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, show that international pressure can have an effect. But while the increased attention from the EU, the US and others is welcome, the parties appear to have little interest in finding a political solution. For now the focus must be on protecting civilians, ending the culture of impunity which fuels war crimes, and working towards a cessation of hostilities that would allow aid to reach all those who need it, and farmers to prepare their land as planting season approaches. The swiftness of Ethiopia’s descent into this war is unlikely to be matched by the speed of its exit.