Ethiopia: video of Tigray massacre lifts lid on 'war without photos'

·8-min read

Men in uniform slaughtered dozens of people in a small village in the Tigray region of Ethiopia on January 5, 2021, right in the midst of the usually festive Orthodox Christmas season. Thirty bodies are seen on the ground in a video that has been circulating online despite the current internet blackout in the Tigray region, which has been engulfed in a bloody conflict between the army and rebels. The soldier filming the video points the camera at an injured person, saying to a comrade, "You should have finished off the survivors!" Our team was able to verify this video.

WARNING: Readers may find the contents of this article disturbing

The Tigray region, located in the far north of Ethiopia, has been engulfed in a bloody struggle between the central government and the regional government, who want more representation and political power for the Tigray minority within government.

Last November, this conflict escalated into an outright war after highly anticipated elections were delayed. This led to a humanitarian catastrophe. Shelling in residential areas saw large numbers of people being displaced. The chaos also led to famine.

There was also a ratcheting up of tensions when thousands of Eritrean soldiers joined the side of the Ethiopian central government against the Tigray regional government. This is the result of a complex history. Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war for 30 years. During this time of war, Ethiopia was led by a government where the Tigrayan minority and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had an enormous amount of political power. However, they lost power in 2018 as Abiy Ahmed was appointed prime minister.

In early February, a video of 4’04” was broadcast on social media— initially posted as a series of one minute excerpts. Those who shared the shocking footage said it was proof that Ethiopian soldiers had massacred civilians in Debre Abay, a district in central Tigray.

News site Tghat, which is run by a group of Tigrayan activists living abroad, reported on January 12 that a massacre had taken place in this location. In early February, the site shared excerpts from the video. Following in the footsteps of Twitter users who had started to investigate the origins of the video, British daily The Telegraph published an article about it on February 19.

Our team decided to only publish blurred screengrabs of the video, due to the extremely violent content.

Where?

The footage shows about 30 bodies on the ground on the outskirts of a village.

We examined the location of the buildings, trails and trees in the video, as well as the mountains on the horizon, and compared this with satellite images and topographical information available on Google Earth Pro. In this way, we were able to determine the exact location where the video was filmed.

It was filmed in a village called Mai Harmaz in the Debre Abay region, which is known for a famous monastery, located about two kilometres from the village.

Then, we mapped the location of each of the bodies onto a satellite image. We counted 30 lifeless bodies, all dressed in civilian clothes. There is a large amount of blood on some of the victims, suggesting that they were wounded. In some places, the victims have lost so much blood that the ground beneath them has changed from ocre to black. At least two people, lying down and probably wounded, are alive and react to the cameraman as he films.

'You should have finished off the survivors!'

At the start of the video, you can see two lifeless bodies on a dirt road. The man filming starts speaking in Amharic, probably to someone who isn’t visible.

"Hey, you should have finished off the survivors!" he says.

According to several Amharic speakers, the man has a strong accent from southern Ethiopia. The Telegraph also reported this information. A boy lying on the ground responds in Tigrinya, the language spoken in the northern region.

Then the cameraman walks towards two men lying on the ground. One, who seems to be young, reacts to the cameraman and they begin to speak:

Soldier (in Amharic): "Why were you here in the first place?"

Kid on ground (in Tigrinya): "I live here."

Soldier: "Who brought you here? Did he (dead man lying beside him) do it?"

(Soldier doesn't speak Tigrinya and is unable to understand the kid).

Soldier: “You don't understand Amharic?"

Kid on ground (in Tigrinya): "I live by those homes over there (gesturing)."

Soldier, frustrated by kid's inability to speak Amharic: "Keep talking, I'll f*ck your mother. Keep talking, you son of a b*tch."

A minute after this exchange with the young man on the ground, the cameraman films another man who is limping away from the area.

"Why don't we kill (him)?" the soldier asks.

In the background, women and men can be heard pleading in a mixture of Tigrinya and Amharic: "Please, in your mother's name!"

"Leave it,” the soldier filming finally says. “Let him go. We've hit him already. He should have been killed at the beginning. Enough, let him go, he survived.”

Who?

Several men wearing military fatigues appear throughout the video. They are all wearing camouflage uniforms and sand-coloured boots. Some also wear a hat of the same colour. It’s not clear if the man filming the video is wearing a uniform, but his conversations with the other soldiers make it appear as if he is part of the same group.

One of the men is carrying a walkie-talkie with a long antenna. Ethiopian soldiers participating in active combat have been photographed using this kind of equipment in the past, as seen in this photo taken by Agence France Presse in November. Another person carries a walkie-talkie with a short antenna.

In the final seconds of the video, you can see a man armed with an assault rifle. The quality of the image, however, isn’t strong enough to identify the model.

After pointing his lens at the bodies of 30 people, the man filming concludes his video by saying, "Look how many were hit. It's all on video."

The soldiers are clearly well-equipped and wear standardised uniforms. This, as well as the fact that the group is speaking Amharic, makes it much more likely that they are affiliated with the Ethiopian Army and not the Tigrayan rebels. The fact that they are speaking Amharic also rules out the possibility that they are some of the Eritrean soldiers who have recently joined forces with the Ethiopians.

However, there are no flags or badges that would enable us to identify their battalion. It isn’t clear if these men are part of the regular army or an affiliated group like the paramilitary police or a militia.

When?

Several local sources said that Ethiopian soldiers had fired at villagers on January 5, 2021, several days before the Ethiopian Christmas celebrations held on January 7. Because there are at least two survivors shown in the video, it is likely that it was filmed the day of the massacre.

We can confirm that this footage was shot some time after 2018. That’s because a building under construction that appears in the video doesn’t appear in satellite images before that year. The length and orientation of the shadows projected by the men and buildings in the video correspond with a late afternoon in winter, according to the website SunCalc.

We found no instance of this video online before February 2021.

In response to The Telegraph, the Ethiopian ambassador in London Teferi Melesse Desta said that the video had “been taken out of context” and that the Ethiopian Army “does the maximum [...] to avoid civilian casualties and to protect citizens”.

Our team requested an interview with both the ministry of defence and the office of the prime minister of Ethiopia to get more information. We will update this page if they respond to our requests.

'A war without photos'

The footage of the Debre Abay massacre has lifted the veil of what the media call “a war without photos”. The government of Abiy Ahmed prevented journalists and NGOs from entering Tigray for several months to avoid any “interference”, while authorities claimed that international media outlets hadn’t been able to cover the situation due to “land and sea transport disruption”. This ban was partially lifted in late February for several media outlets, including FRANCE 24. Starting in early 2021, some images of the war in Tigray have gotten out, as well as the accounts of people on the ground. Many NGOs have been worried by what they are hearing.

The Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide announced in early February that she had seen reports of serious human rights violations and abuses by the parties involved in the war in the Tigray region and their allies, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting of property, mass executions and impeded humanitarian access.

Videos documenting suspected war crimes are being shared online with increasing frequency and are now an important source for international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court.

"Considering their growing use, institutions are working to standardise how they are collected and investigated,” says Aurélie Aumaître, a lawyer who specialises in crimes against humanity and war crimes at the Paris Judicial Tribunal. In December 2020, the University of Berkeley published a guide for lawyers who want to use these videos as proof during a trial, in partnership with the United Nations.