In November last year, fighting erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region between the rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the army. Within days, reports emerged of communal killings in a farming town called Mai Kadra, in western Tigray.
In the months that followed, ethnic violence rolled across western Tigray, land that is claimed by Tigrayans and by the neighbouring Amhara region. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. Reuters has mapped the course of the slaughter across western Tigray by drawing on more than 120 interviews in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Nov. 9, 2020
A first wave of killings in Mai Kadra, Ethiopia
Violence erupted in Mai Kadra, an ethnically mixed town of Tigrayans and Amharas. Tigrayan youths and a TPLF-dominated town militia shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death hundreds of Amhara civilians, according to dozens of Amhara witnesses. Some recognised neighbours among their attackers. The TPLF denied attacking Amhara civilians.
Agerie Getnet, Amhara housewife
Mai Kadra, Nov. 9
The Tigrayan killers came to her house, where she used to rent out rooms, she said. “At 4pm they came and said, ‘This is an Amhara house.’ There were people who ran. When we locked the house, they broke the door and came through the window,” she said. “At first my husband was hiding in the roof, and they came in and threatened my son, my 11-year-old. When he saw his baby might die, he came down. They took us outside and started killing – my husband Tabaka Zewda, friends and lodgers Shagri and Yohannes and Ale Abera.” Four men were killed, she said, as she clutched her newborn baby and two other children.
Desa Adoma, 38, an Amhara living in Mai Kadra
Mai Kadra, Nov. 9
He said he and 18 others were in his house when Tigrayans armed with machetes arrived and blocked the door. Behind them were the town’s police with guns. “After I was hit, I was bleeding and fainted,” he said, showing a scar on the back of his neck. When he woke up his brother was dead beside him. He said the police were shooting at Amhara people who tried to escape. The town’s police force has since been disbanded.
Nov. 10, 2020, and the following days
Reprisals begin in Mai Kadra
Ethiopia’s military and forces from the neighbouring Amhara region, including a militia called Fano, arrived and took control of the town. By now, Tigrayan fighters had left Mai Kadra. Revenge attacks by Amharas began, Tigrayan witnesses say.
Weretaw Azanaw, a Fano volunteer, said the group didn’t attack civilians. The Amhara-appointed administrator in western Tigray, Yabsira Eshetie, said, “The accusation that Tigrayans were killed by Amhara armed forces is groundless.”
Hailay Weldegebriel, 18, Tigrayan farmer
Mai Kadra, November 2020
He lay on a mat in Village 8 refugee camp in Sudan with flies swarming around him, one of his hands bandaged. “People were fleeing from Mai Kadra, but I decided to stay behind to tend to my sesame farm. When the Fano saw me, they shot at me. They hit my hand, and I lost two fingers. I can’t think clearly. I keep having nightmares that I was killed.”
Alifa Sagada, 40, Tigrayan farmer
Mai Kadra, November 2020
“When they entered, the Amhara and the Fano said Tigrayans shall not remain here. The Fano said they’ll keep no boy or man alive; they’ll cut off their heads,” she said. “I have two sons, and one is 25 – I have no idea where he is … We were walking around, and you’d find a dead body on the ground. Who killed them? Walk here, you find another one dead … We would turn over the bodies to check, is this my son? Is that my son? …They killed the young people. Any boy. Not necessarily members of the TPLF. If they find a Tigrayan boy; if they find that you don’t speak Amharic, they ask for your ID, and if you’re Amhara they let you go, but if you’re Tigrayan they kill you right away.”
The violence spreads across western Tigray
Ethnic violence spiralled across western Tigray, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing into Sudan and some south into the Amhara region. Dozens of Tigrayans told Reuters they were driven from their homes by Amhara forces and their property was seized. Some accused Ethiopian soldiers of brutality.
Ethiopia’s government denies there has been “a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region.” It has said one soldier has been convicted and 28 are on trial for killing civilians in the whole of Tigray, but has given no further information. Neither the government nor Ethiopia’s military responded to detailed questions for this article. Amhara regional officials and Fano denied their forces attacked civilians.
Desta Kebed, 65, Amhara and Tigrayan farmer
Baeker, November 2020
The farmer of mixed Amhara-Tigrayan parentage told Reuters in a refugee camp in Sudan that eight troops pushed around his daughter and slapped her across the face in their home in Baeker.
“I went to try and talk to one of the men; he pointed the gun at me and said, ‘If you want to live, shut up.’ He kicked me in the chest. I fell down. My wife was begging them not to do anything – ‘You don’t have to do this’.”
Two of the troops told them to get out.
“One pointed an AK-47 at us. They told us, ‘From now on this is the property of the Amhara. You don’t belong here. This is our property. This is our land.’ There was shooting outside the house, and one person was killed. I told them that I am from Amhara also. ‘Why are you doing this to us?’”
Saha Gebieselasie, 44, Tigrayan driver
Adebay, November 2020
He said he and his wife, two sons and seven others were fleeing from the town of Adebay. They were stopped by soldiers wearing Ethiopian army uniforms.
“They took my son, he was 11 years old. One of the soldiers shot him in the thigh and the shin… I watched my son bleed to death.”
Asqual Helwa, 28, Tigrayan mother, wife of a TPLF fighter
Humera, November 2020
The Tigrayan woman was fleeing the border town of Humera after shelling destroyed her house. “On the road where I was walking, many people were dead. I saw their bodies. Some were inside the church, and others were outside,” she said. “I was afraid, caring for my child. On one side of the road I saw around 70 or 80 dead bodies.”
Giday Mahamod, 54, Tigrayan nurse
Division, November 2020
According to seven residents, Amhara forces arrived in the predominantly Tigrayan town of Division in early November and began setting fire to homes. Sensors aboard U.S. government satellites detected a series of potential fires in and around Division on Nov. 7, a Reuters analysis found. One resident said around 400 houses were burned. Giday Mahamod said hers was among them. “I saw my house being burned. A Fano member said, ‘You are a Tigrayan, get out’.I said we are all Ethiopian, and he said, ‘If you want to live, get out,’” she said.
Anonymous woman (identity withheld), 25, Tigrayan coffee seller
Tekeze River, Early December 2020
The Tigrayan woman, who spoke to Reuters in mid-December in the Sudanese refugee camp of Hamdayet, said an Ethiopian soldier raped her at the Tekeze River as she tried to flee. “After he showed me the path, he said, ‘Choose, either I kill you or rape you.’ I had shown him my identification papers. When he raped me, he was swearing at me and saying, ‘You are the daughters of the Tigray.’”
January 2021 to present
A final push in western Tigray
A second, larger wave of displacement started: Tens of thousands of Tigrayans fled western Tigray into central and eastern Tigray, saying they were being driven out by Amhara forces. Many spoke of looting and killing. Schools were turned into emergency camps; classrooms hosted 60 or 80 people, and more families spilled out onto the ground outside. Many sought refuge with family members already struggling to feed their own children.
Biedela Tekle, 35, A Tigrayan vegetable vendor
Tekeze River, January 2021
She said she was among hundreds of Tigrayans who were bussed by Fano militia in January to the Tekeze River, a natural boundary between east and west Tigray, and told not to come back. For the previous two months, she and her two young children were held in a makeshift detention centre. There were thousands of prisoners, including pregnant women and people with families, she told Reuters from a camp for displaced people in Mekelle in March. Conditions were very bad, with almost no food or water before an aid agency intervened. Degalem Sisay, the interim mayor of Mai Kadra, said the facility functioned more as a “safe house” than a prison.
Berhe (last name withheld), 35, Tigrayan farmer
Adebay, Early March 2021
He said Amhara militiamen drove him, his wife and three sons out of the town of Adebay, in western Tigray. “They said leave,” he said. It was the second time Berhe had been told to leave – he’d moved to Adebay with his family after Amhara fighters ejected them from their home village, Mylomin, two months earlier.
His 5-year-old son, Kibrom, was shot by a member of the arriving force when the Ethiopian army and its Amhara allies reached Mylomin on Nov. 9, he said. Neighbours later told him that Amhara gunmen had stolen his cattle and other belongings while he took his boy to hospital. From Adebay, Berhe walked for four or five days, carrying Kibrom, and crossed the Tekeze River on foot until a Tigrayan lorry driver gave them a ride.
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Seham Eloraby, Mohamed Nureldin, Khalid Aziz, Ayenat Mersie, Dawit Endeshaw and Maggie Fick)
Visual editing by Maryanne Murray and Simon Newman, Edited by Janet McBride and Alexandra Zavis