A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia. ‘I never saw hell before, but now I have.’

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray

(Source: National GeographicMAY 28, 2021) – 

Millions have been displaced, thousands killed, and reports of human rights violations are rampant as a civil war escalates in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Orthodox Christians gather to pray at Saint Selassie Church in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, a semi-autonomous federal state in northern Ethiopia. “We are mourning what is happening all around us,” says Tigist Yohannes, “and we are here to pray and reflect on the deep sadness that has taken over our lives.” PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNSEY ADDARIO

Kesanet Gebremichael wails as nurses try to change the bandages and clean the wounds on her charred flesh at Ayder Hospital in the regional capital Mekele. The 13-year-old was inside her home in the village of Ahferom, near Aksum, when it was hit by long-range artillery. “My house was destroyed in the fire,” says her mother, Genet Asmelash. “My child was inside.” The girl suffered burns on more than 40 percent of her body.

Senayit was raped by soldiers on two separate occasions—in her home in Edagahamus, and as she tried to flee to Mekele with her 12-year-old son. (The names of the rape victims mentioned in this story are pseudonyms.) The second time, she was pulled from a minibus, drugged, and brought to a military base, where she was tied to a tree and sexually assaulted repeatedly over the course of 10 days. She fell in and out of consciousness from the pain, exhaustion, and trauma. At one point, she awoke to a horrifying sight: Her son, along with a woman and her new baby, were all dead at her feet. “I saw my son with blood from his neck,” she says. “I saw only his neck was bleeding. He was dead.” Senayit crumpled into her tears, her fists clenched against her face, and howled a visceral cry of pain and sadness, unable to stop weeping. “I never buried him,” she screamed, between sobs. “I never buried him.”

Why war erupted

A political conflict between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has exploded into war and a grave humanitarian crisis. As many as two million people in the region have been displaced and thousands have been killed. Yet the full extent of the catastrophe is unknown because the Ethiopian government has shut down communications and limited access to Tigray.  

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario managed to travel to the region in mid-May to chronicle how the violence was affecting the people who live there. She found a devastating situation, where men, women, and children—civilians—were terrified and traumatized, and praying for those who hadn’t yet made it to the capital of Mekele, or another relatively safe place. People she met referred repeatedly to countless others who were still in hiding.

The roots of the clash go back to the 1970s, when the TPLF formed as a militia in rebellion against Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian president who ruled as a dictator from 1977 to 1991. Eventually the TPLF established itself as the most powerful insurgent group in the country, leading the alliance that toppled Mengistu in 1991.

The rebel alliance became the country’s ruling coalition, which consisted of political parties tied to ethnic groups. Although Tigrayans account for just 6 to 7 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 118 million, they became the dominant political force in the country.

But the TPLF-led government was repressive—targeting political opponents, limiting free speech, and employing torture. Protests against the government erupted in 2015, eventually leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Abiy replaced him in 2018.

Abiy quickly made peace with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s longtime opponent in a brutal border war, and won himself the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He also set about purging Tigrayans from the federal government and reorganized the ruling coalition into a single political party, which the TPLF refused to join.

The TPLF was sidelined nationally but still potent in Tigray. The party controls the regional government and as many as 250,000 militia fighters. When Abiy canceled last September’s elections due to the pandemic, the TPLF held regional parliamentary elections anyway. The federal government retaliated in October by cutting funding to Tigray.

On November 3, the TPLF attacked a military base in what they called a preemptive strike. The Ethiopian government launched an extensive military offensive the next day. With Abiy’s encouragement, Eritrean forces invaded Tigray from the north and militias from the Amhara ethnic group poured in from the south. Both held longstanding grudges against the TPLF: The Eritreans blame the party for their suffering during the war with Ethiopia, while Amharans claim it annexed some of their most valuable land.

Since then, the fighting between Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amharan forces on one side and Tigrayan forces on the other has been unrelenting with no one gaining the upper hand.

Reports of atrocities are rampant—including mass rapes, executions, the intentional bombardment of civilians, and the flagrant looting of hospitals and health clinics. All sides, including the TPLF, have been accused of war crimes but Eritreans have been blamed for the worst abuses. In March, Abiy said that the Eritreans would soon leave; the United Nations reports they are still there.

Senayit, the woman who was tied to a tree, says that the soldiers who raped her and murdered her son were Eritreans wearing Ethiopian uniforms: “I could identify them by the cuts in their faces, they spoke Tigrinya [Ethiopian troops speak Amharic], and they wore plastic shoes.”

Loss of aid   

Meanwhile, people are starving. “A total of 5.2 million people, a staggering 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance,” says Peter Smerdon, the spokesperson the United Nations World Food Programme in Eastern Africa. Nearly a quarter of the children that agencies have been able to screen are malnourished, but Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers are blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid.

The war began during harvest season. Now it is time to plant. In the village of Adi Kolakul on the road between Mekele and Abiy Addi, Kiros Tadros, a father of seven, was back in his fields. “Our land as well the mountains overlooking our houses were invaded by Eritrean soldiers,” he says. “They came to each household and demanded we provide them food, give them our livestock. They also demanded that we do not plough and give them information on the whereabouts of the militia.” He mulled over the past few years, already made difficult by the effects of climate change: “It’s like doomsday: first came the frozen rains, then the locusts, then the war.”

The United Nations has called for an investigation of war crimes, and the United States has cut economic and security aid to Ethiopia and banned travel to the U.S. by officials involved in the violence or in blocking humanitarian aid. In a May 26 statement, President Joe Biden said, “The large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end.”

Shewit knows what’s at stake. She was raped in front of her children by soldiers who told her: “The Tigrayan race must be eliminated.” 

At Ayder Hospital, 430 women have been treated for rape. “But the numbers are not telling the reality in the ground,” says Mussie Tesfay Atsbaha, the hospital’s chief administrator. “If one person has come, another 20 are dead somewhere.”

“I never saw hell before,” he adds, “but now I have.”

Editor’s Note: This article previously misstated former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s ethnicity. He is from the Wolayta ethnic group.

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