Special Report: How ethnic killings exploded from an Ethiopian town

·24-min read

By Katharine Houreld, Michael Georgy, Silvia Aloisi and Baz Ratner

(Reuters) - The screams of the dying gradually fell silent as the sky darkened. Around midnight, Berhane Gebrezigher, an ethnic Tigrayan, remembers lying in a ditch full of men who, like himself, had been shot and left for dead. He called out: "Is there anyone breathing?"

When the sun rose, the old man faced a choice: die in the ditch or haul himself to the road. Painfully, he began shuffling upwards.

It was mid-January, more than two months into an ethnic conflict that has convulsed western Tigray, an area of rich farmland in Ethiopia's north where two of the country's ethnic groups – Tigrayans and Amharas – used to live and work the soil together.

Berhane, 74, says he was among more than 50 Tigrayan civilians rounded up and trucked by Amhara forces to the Tekeze River that bisects Tigray. The forces ordered the men to climb down into what appeared to be a freshly dug ditch, Berhane said. Then the gunmen fired. Berhane was hit in both legs and in the back; he said he lay among the bodies, listening to the men reload and shoot at anyone who moved.

Five Tigrayan witnesses told Reuters they saw dozens of dead.

The ethnic bloodletting by the river broke out amid a violent power struggle in Tigray – between the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the region's former rulers, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Tigrayans are in the majority in their home region but make up less than 6% of the wider population. Amharas, the second biggest community in Ethiopia's mosaic of more than 90 ethnicities and nationalities, lay claim to western Tigray as ancient Amhara land. Amhara leaders consider the Tekeze River a borderline between their territory and Tigray's.

The first reports of ethnic atrocities in western Tigray surfaced two months earlier in mid-November, some 100 km to the west of the Tekeze River, in a farming town called Mai Kadra. Amharas said they'd been attacked by their Tigrayan neighbours. Tigrayans pouring into neighbouring Sudan said they'd been brutalized and driven out by Amharas.

The only thing the two sides agreed on was that hundreds died. Initial reports by human rights groups gave partial accounts of the violence. Yet with access to Tigray tightly controlled by Ethiopia's government and phone lines down, it was almost impossible to make sense of the conflicting accounts put forward by the two communities.

But in March the government granted Reuters rare access to the region, where reporters saw burned out homes and hastily marked graves. Drawing on more than 120 interviews with Tigrayans and Amharas in Mai Kadra and other towns and villages inside Tigray, as well as in refugee camps in Sudan, they were able to build the first comprehensive chronicle of western Tigray's descent into communal violence.

Reuters cross-checked the accounts it collected over the past six months with 44 unpublished testimonies gathered by two international aid organisations, medical records and satellite data. The timeline that emerges tells of two rounds of bloodletting in Mai Kadra and ethnic violence that spilled across western Tigray.

The first killings in Mai Kadra were committed by ethnic Tigrayans against Amharas, the reporting showed. Some were carried out by youths directed by a Tigrayan militiaman called Capt. Kassaye Mehar, said four Amhara witnesses. Reuters sent questions to Capt. Kassaye via the TPLF. TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said of Kassaye, "I don't know him." He denied that the TPLF targeted Amhara civilians in Mai Kadra.

Then came revenge killings by forces from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south and whose leaders back Abiy's government. Tigrayan residents said the Amhara forces drove out Tigrayans, expunged Tigrayan names from street signs and seized Tigrayan homes, daubing some doors with letters in red paint: "This is an Amhara house."

Amhara people took possession of Tigrayan farms – fertile lands they say were taken from Amharas during the decades of TPLF dominance. Reuters reporters saw fleets of minibuses packed with household goods and mattresses strapped to the roofs traveling from Amhara into western Tigray. New Amhara settlers were among the passengers.

In one majority Tigrayan town, called Division, Amhara forces burned many houses, Tigrayan witnesses said, leaving nothing for the Tigrayans who lived there to return to. Sensors aboard U.S. government satellites detected a series of potential fires in and around Division on Nov. 7, a Reuters analysis found.

The ultimate toll of this communal violence remains unclear. In Mai Kadra, at least 767 people were killed, according to two lists of victims - one Amhara, one Tigrayan - reviewed by Reuters.

Across the region, thousands are believed to have died in the wider war.

Professor Jan Nyssen from Belgium's Ghent University is overseeing a project that tracks civilian deaths in Tigray by drawing on social media and witness reports, then cross checking the information with people who know the victims. He said his team has reports of more than 8,000 civilians killed and has identified 2,562 of these.

The ethnic violence is reverberating far beyond Tigray. Independent analysts say the fighting is threatening the unity of Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous nation. Amhara is seeking to formally annex the disputed land, equal to about a quarter of Tigray. Other regions in Ethiopia's fractious federation are watching the government's response carefully, mindful of simmering violence on their own disputed borders.

The Amhara regional government says it has taken control of western Tigray. Its representatives plan to resettle up to half a million Amharas there.

"There is no space called western Tigray, because this area is part of Amhara region," the regional government's spokesman, Gizachew Muluneh, told Reuters.

Western Tigray's Amhara-appointed administrator, Yabsira Eshetie, said any accusation that Amhara forces killed Tigrayans "is groundless and far from reality."

The United Nations has spoken of possible war crimes by all sides in Tigray's war. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March there have been acts of ethnic cleansing and called on Amhara forces to withdraw. In April, Reuters detailed accounts of women tortured and raped in central Tigray in conditions that a regional official described for the first time as "sexual slavery."

Ethiopia's government didn't respond to detailed questions for this article. It has denied there has been "targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing." In a speech to parliament on March 23, Prime Minister Abiy defended Amhara forces.

"Portraying this force as a looter and conqueror is very wrong," he said. The government says reports of abuses are exaggerated, and where crimes have been committed they will be dealt with under the law.

Witnesses to the Mai Kadra killings and expulsions spoke of heroism and betrayal on both sides. While some townspeople gave refuge to neighbours belonging to the other ethnic group, others joined the killing, they said.

A DISPUTED LAND

In normal times, tractors rattled up Mai Kadra's main street, and farmworkers' children played outside sun-baked homes. The town's population of about 46,000 used to swell to around twice that with seasonal labourers at planting and harvest time. Tigrayans and Amharas dispute which was the larger community.

They gravitated toward separate neighborhoods, but many worked, ate and worshipped together and were friends. In the Ethiopian Orthodox churchyard, Amhara and Tigrayan graves lie side by side, and many residents spoke the language of the other group well enough to pass as one of them. Tigrayan neighbourhoods appeared more affluent, and Tigrayans owned many of the area's sesame and millet farms. Amharas often worked as seasonal labourers.

Beneath the surface calm, old enmities smouldered. The region was administered by the TPLF, a former guerrilla movement turned political party that presided over one of Africa's most repressive governments for nearly three decades until 2018, when protests ended the TPLF's dominance. It jailed tens of thousands of people; others were forced into exile or disappeared.

Some Amharas complained that Tigrayans monopolized local government positions in western Tigray, or that officials sometimes tried to suppress the use of the Amhara language or unfairly intervened in land disputes. Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, said that was untrue.

Violence erupted on Nov. 4, when the Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases across Tigray, a charge the TPLF has denied. Tigray, like all of Ethiopia's regions, has its own troops and militias.

The fighting followed months of deteriorating relations between the TPLF and the federal government. The TPLF says the government is discriminating against Tigrayans. The government counters it is cracking down on a TPLF "criminal clique."

Eritrea to the north and the Amhara region to the south sent troops into Tigray to support the army. They included volunteers from a part-time militia known as Fano, whose purpose is to defend ethnic Amharas. A prominent Amhara activist who volunteered with Fano, Weretaw Azanaw, told Reuters the 2,000-strong contingent coordinated with the Ethiopian military and Amhara regional forces. He said military and Amhara liaison officers provided Fano with bullets, vehicles and food and told the militia where to deploy alongside formal forces.

By Nov. 7, pro-government forces reached the town of Division, about 65 km southeast of Mai Kadra. Fano militiamen set fire to homes and told Tigrayan residents to get out if they wanted to live, seven Tigrayan witnesses told Reuters. Weretaw, the volunteer, said Fano didn't attack civilians. Yabsira, the Amhara-​appointed administrator, told Reuters a few houses in the Division area were burnt in clashes with Tigrayan militiamen.

The following day, fighting was reported in the town of Abdurafi, less than 45 km south of Mai Kadra. Residents of the border town of Humera, about 25 km to the north, said they were being shelled from Eritrea. The next morning, Nov. 9, at least 46 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in the shelling, doctors at Humera's main Kahsay Abera hospital told New York-based Human Rights Watch. Asqual Helwa, the wife of a TPLF fighter, was living in Humera. She told Reuters she saw up to 80 bodies. The Eritrean government didn't respond to a request for comment.

As the fighting drew nearer to Mai Kadra, local Tigrayan youths and members of a TPLF-dominated town militia, a volunteer protection force, started arming themselves, Amhara residents still living in Mai Kadra told Reuters. Many of those who took up arms came from a mainly Tigrayan neighbourhood called Samre.

FOREBODING

The morning air was still cool on Nov. 9 when street vendor Geberie Wase, an Amhara, started laying out socks and shoes for sale in Hawelty Square, Mai Kadra's main intersection. Geberie was uneasy.

That morning, he said, he noticed a lot of Tigrayan youths were carrying knives and machetes. Some were checking people's identification documents.

A couple of Tigrayan friends whispered to him: Something big was about to happen. Spooked, Geberie packed up his wares at around noon and headed to the house of his older brother, carpenter Dejen Wase, in Samre, a 25-minute walk away, to warn him.

Dejen, 43, was home with his neighbour Tadie Mengesha and several other men from the neighbourhood. They were drinking the home-brewed talla beer Dejen's then-heavily pregnant wife, Bayesh Achamu, sold from their front room.

Geberie urged his brother to go with him to hide. But Dejen's 18-year-old son, the oldest of three children, had not yet returned from school, so Dejen stayed put.

The killers arrived soon after, Bayesh said. The couple's wooden door, set in a wall of brushwood, could not keep them out. "They stormed into our house," she said. "They had machetes, knives and axes."

Dejen and his friends bolted out the back through a yard strewn with charcoal, dirty dishes and washing. But they were caught by a second group of attackers.

The attackers stabbed Dejen in the street behind the house, Bayesh said. Tadie, the couple's neighbour, said he saw Dejen fall to the ground but didn't know what happened after that. Tadie recognised one of the assailants and begged: "Please don't kill me. Don't let me die."

"He pushed me away," Tadie said, showing Reuters what he said were knife scars inflicted by his pursuers on his scalp, shoulder and back.

Elsewhere in the town, Tigrayan mobs armed with knives and machetes were going door to door in Amhara neighbourhoods, pulling out the men to kill them, dozens of Amhara witnesses said. The mobs mostly left the women alone. Amhara residents described hiding on roofs, in outhouses and in fields as the slaughter continued.

Members of the town militia were with the mobs and appeared to be directing some of the killings, at least seven Amhara residents said. Among the leaders was a Tigrayan militiaman identified as Capt. Kassaye Mehar, according to four of the Amhara residents, who had previous dealings with him.

Militiamen and the town's police blocked streets around Amhara neighborhoods and shot at anyone who tried to escape, the Amhara witnesses said. The town's police has since been disbanded.

According to court filings reviewed by Reuters, Ethiopian prosecutors believe that the TPLF began organizing Tigrayan youths in Mai Kadra from late October, telling them to wear yellow so that they could identify themselves as a security force and arming them with machetes, axes and knives. Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, dismissed this accusation.

"TPLF was never involved and could never be involved in targeting Amhara in Mai Kadra," Getachew told Reuters. "If we really had the intention to target the Amharas it would not be necessary for us to arm our youths with machetes, because we had sophisticated machine guns to do the job. And it was never our intention."

The filings, based on witness statements, were drafted by prosecutors in April as part of a preliminary investigation into the killings. Prosecutors have identified 202 suspects, according to the attorney general's office, which has not released their names. No formal charges have been brought.

At around 4 pm, Capt. Kassaye arrived with some 30 men at the home of Abiyu Tsegaye, an Amhara, a couple of streets from Hawelty Square, said Abiyu's widow, Agerie Mogessie. The two men knew one another, Agerie said. Kassaye lived in Mai Kadra and issued agricultural permits for the local administration. Abiyu, a former soldier, had helped train the town militia Kassaye belonged to. But Abiyu quit the year before over what she described as a growing anti-Amhara sentiment in the force.

The mob shouted for Abiyu to come out of his house, Agerie said. He went out holding a stick. Six neighbours described what happened next: Someone hit Abiyu with a machete, they said, then Kassaye shot him in the chest. The men set fire to the couple's home and shoved Abiyu's body into the flames. Then the mob began working its way through the street, six residents said, killing all the Amhara men they could find.

Amid the carnage, there were also acts of courage. A Tigrayan woman – Abiyu's neighbour – tried to pull his body from the flames but was beaten back by the attackers, Agerie said.

Another woman, a 70-year-old Amhara nun called Alem Behonegn, recounted that three Tigrayan neighbours came to her home that same evening and insisted on taking her two adult sons into their protection. She spent the night terrified she would never see her boys again. But the neighbours hid them overnight and returned them safely the next morning.

MASS GRAVES

Ethiopia's national military – the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) – and Amhara regional forces entered Mai Kadra on the morning of Nov. 10, encountering no resistance. By now the Tigrayan fighters had fled. A civilian who arrived as government forces took control of the town told rights group Amnesty International the scene they encountered was devastating: "The roads were strewn with dead bodies."

Amhara residents told Reuters they began searching the streets for their lost loved ones, turning over the corpses. Bodies were taken by tractor to the Abune Aregawi Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where the two communities worshipped together, a few blocks from the main Hawelty Square.

"On Monday they killed," said Maru Gebremariam, a 56-year-old Amhara who serves as the church watchman. "On Tuesday the ENDF came, and we started to collect the dead and wounded. On Wednesday we buried them."

Many of the dead were buried in mass graves, the watchman said, their identities unknown. In the graveyard, Reuters saw numbers scrawled in black marker across rough wooden signboards to indicate where bodies lie.

"Families bring photos and ask, can you identify him?" said Maru. "We can't. Some bodies were eaten by dogs. Some were brought after three days."

Temesgen Lapiso Doile, director-general for organized and transnational crimes at the Ethiopian attorney general's office, said government investigators exhumed 229 bodies. He didn't say how many were Amhara and how many were Tigrayan. Residents told Reuters bodies were still being found months later.

The Amhara Association of America, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based organization that advocates for Amharas in the diaspora, gave Reuters a list of 707 Amhara victims it gathered from witness testimony. At least five of the names on the list of those killed were verified by Reuters' own reporting. The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has estimated the toll at 600, but has acknowledged it couldn't immediately document reprisal attacks on Tigrayans because so many fled.

REVENGE

Attacks against Tigrayans began later the same day, Nov. 10.

Most were carried out by Amhara troops and Fano militiamen, 28 former Tigrayan residents told Reuters. Many of these interviews were conducted in Sudan, now home to more than 60,000 Ethiopians who fled the violence in Tigray.

Biniam Amdemariam, a Tigrayan baker paralysed from the waist down by polio, said he took his family to the nearby village of Bereket when fighting broke out in Mai Kadra on Nov. 9. He returned the next day on his adapted three-wheeled motorbike to collect clothes and jewelry. He said Fano members attacked him with stones and knocked him off his bike.

"When I fell off the motor, I was hit with an axe. You can still see the stitches," he said, pointing to a scar on his head. "Another person held up a cleaver to slit my throat."

A group of Amhara bystanders intervened, Biniam said, telling his assailants that his disability was not from a military injury and that he had no connection with the TPLF. The militia let Biniam go, telling him to leave the country. He fled with his family the same day, staying at a farm overnight before driving to the Sudan border in the morning.

Dr. Daryalew Guesh, a Tigrayan who worked at the Mai Kadra clinic, confirmed to Reuters that he sutured Biniam's head wound.

Some Tigrayans said leaflets were distributed in their towns telling them to leave. They didn't know by whom. Other Tigrayans said Fano militiamen showed up at their doors and ordered them to go.

"They did not allow us to take any of our belongings, not even a pot," Aberu Kires, a Tigrayan farmer from Mai Kadra, told Reuters at a refugee camp in Sudan in December. "On the metal gate of the house they wrote, 'This is an Amhara house.' They wrote this on many of the houses."

Reuters reporters saw a number of houses marked "Amhara house" or "Fano" in Mai Kadra.

Amhara troops and Fano rounded up other Tigrayans and detained them in a makeshift prison, located in a commercial building with a central courtyard on the south side of Mai Kadra, according to four Tigrayan residents, including three who said they were held there. There was little food, water or medical help, they said. Guards refused to call a doctor for a woman who gave birth there, said 70-year-old Wolde Meresa. Three people died at the building during the two months he was there, he said.

Degalem Sisay, appointed by the Amhara regional administration as interim mayor of Mai Kadra, said the facility functioned more as a "safe house" than a prison. Around 70 Tigrayans were held there on suspicion of taking part in the killings, while 700 others sought sanctuary there for fear of reprisal attacks, he said.

Police transferred 35 of the detainees to Addis Ababa to face charges in connection with the killings of Amharas, the attorney general's office said. Twenty-two await charges in jail, a prosecutor said. Others were freed.

In January, all the Tigrayans who remained at the facility in Mai Kadra were loaded onto buses and dropped off at the Tekeze River, which Amhara officials consider to be the demarcation line between their land and Tigray. Degalem, the interim mayor, said they left voluntarily. The three former detainees said they were given no choice.

The number of Tigrayans killed in the reprisals remains unknown. A partial list of Tigrayan victims, compiled by Tigrayan defence lawyers drawing on interviews with their 22 clients and reviewed by Reuters, identified at least 60 Tigrayan dead. Ethiopian Human Rights Commission head Daniel Bekele told Reuters a new investigation with the United Nations is gathering evidence about reprisals. It is due to report in around three months.

LAND OF THE AMHARA

As many Tigrayans fled to Sudan in the second week of November, Mebale, a petite Tigrayan mother of nine, stayed in Mai Kadra, hoping for news of her husband. He had left for the family farm on Nov. 9 with food for the labourers and didn't return, said Mebale, who asked not to be identified by her full name.

She was on good terms with her Amhara neighbours. She lived in the Amhara region as a girl and spoke good Amharic. Her 14-year-old son's best friend was Amhara; the two boys used to do their homework together.

Mebale remained as Amhara regional officials took over administering western Tigray, issuing new identification cards, reorganising the police and militia and taking control of hospitals and schools. She kept her children indoors and limited her shopping trips to the early mornings to avoid drawing attention. If someone accused her of being part of the "junta," the TPLF, she laughed it off, she said.

When Reuters visited western Tigray in March, street signs had been freshly repainted from Tigrinya to Amharic. On the highway outside a town called Dansha, a bright new sign in Amharic read, "Land of the Amhara."

Some Tigrayan villages were almost entirely destroyed. In one village, called Shumari, hundreds of homes had been levelled. Pages from Tigrinya school books lay scattered across the ground. In another town, all the homes were burned to the ground, only a few walls left standing.

In Mai Kadra, the streets of Samre, a Tigrayan neighbourhood, were largely deserted. In the Amhara neighbourhood of Genb Sefer, shops were open, selling black coffee and the round flatbread injera.

Some Amhara families are returning to lands they left during Ethiopia's civil war of the 1980s and the decades of TPLF rule that followed. Mebale, the Tigrayan mother of nine, said Amhara families moved into 10 homes on her Mai Kadra street.

Some families have travelled into western Tigray from the Amhara city of Gondar, which administered Mai Kadra and the surrounding area before the TPLF-dominated government redrew Tigray's boundaries almost 30 years ago. Mebratu Yaregal, an official at Gondar bus station, said in March about 20 buses were leaving daily, each carrying around 50 people. Reuters saw fleets of packed minibuses on the main road leading out of Gondar.

Among the returning Amharas is businessman Goshu Alebel, who spent time as a child in some of the same Sudanese camps that are now sheltering Tigrayans. Goshu arrived in the town of Humera in late November. He said his cousins and uncle are buried in the churchyard. A short drive away, the family's ruined, roofless brick house sits atop a small hill.

"It feels good" to be back, he told Reuters. "I want to show this place to my children, show them their heritage, their roots."

On May 10, the Amhara regional government published a circular inviting investors to lease farms in western Tigray. Almost all the 288 farms were previously owned by Tigrayans, according to a list of names published. Reuters couldn't determine ethnicity in a few cases where the farm was held by a company.

Yabsira, the administrator of western Tigray, told Reuters that the resettlement of 500,000 people who were previously displaced by the TPLF from their land will continue, including families from Sudan, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

Colonel Demeke Zewdu, an Amhara who served in the Ethiopian military, is in charge of security for western Tigray. He also heads a body that he co-founded with Waretaw which advocates for the return of Amharas displaced from the region. Reports of attacks on Tigrayans by Fano are "completely and absolutely false," Demeke told Reuters in a hotel lobby in Humera, a rifle leaning against his knee.

MASSACRE BY THE RIVER

As the sun rose over the Tekeze River in mid-January, Berhane Gebrezigher dragged himself out of the ditch where dozens of Tigrayan men lay dead. Many of the victims were from the nearby town of Adi Goshoo, he said; others he didn't recognise. They had been rounded up at the town police station, loaded onto trucks by Amhara forces and driven to the river.

Berhane had been shot in both legs. He struggled to the road and begged for water, but passers-by seemed afraid to approach him.

An Eritrean officer came to his aid with water and biscuits. Eritrean soldiers lifted Berhane onto a door that served as a stretcher. He received first aid in a nearby town and was then sent onwards to the Suhul General Hospital in Shire, the first major town east of the Tekeze River demarcation line.

Reuters met him there. His right leg was in a cast; X-rays showed it was broken. Doctors told Reuters they haven't removed a bullet from his left calf because it is not life threatening. A scar on his back was from a third bullet, Berhane said.

Reuters spoke to four Tigrayan men in the town of Shire who said they saw dozens of bodies at the location described by Berhane. Reuters also spoke to a local bus driver who said he too saw bodies.

Yabsira, the Amhara-​appointed administrator, didn't answer specific questions about these accounts, but rejected reports that Amhara forces attacked Tigrayan civilians.

DIFFERENT PATHS

In Mai Kadra, the lives of three women who survived - Mebale, Agerie and Bayesh - have taken different paths.

Mebale, the Tigrayan mother of nine, called her husband's phone when mobile service resumed early this year. An Amharic-speaking stranger answered and said he was dead.

On March 12, Mebale opened the door of her house to four Amhara militiamen. One was the father of her son's best friend. He used to be kind and brought her groceries after her husband disappeared, she said. But now, the militiamen told her, they wanted the last Tigrayans out. She bought a bus ticket to Shire and packed her belongings.

As Mebale's family left, her neighbour went inside his house and locked the door. His son walked with them to the bus station, crying.

Mebale arrived in Shire on March 15. Reuters saw her and her children spill out of a bus at an overcrowded school turned into a shelter for Tigrayans.

Bayesh and Agerie, the Amhara widows, still live in Mai Kadra.

Agerie said she managed to salvage a metal bedstead and metal box from the ashes of her former home. She now lives in a house across the street, which she said used to belong to Tigrayans. "It was the Fanos who gave it to me," she said. Scrawled in red letters on the door are the words, "This is an Amhara-owned house."

Bayesh never saw her husband alive again. Neighbours told her that the local Red Cross took him to Gondar University Referral Hospital in Amhara, where he died. The hospital didn't respond to questions about Bayesh's husband.

"He was innocent," she said, keening as mourners passed around a soft focus picture of her husband at a memorial event held on the day Reuters and a United Nations mission visited Mai Kadra.

In February, Bayesh gave birth to a son, whom she named Mitiku – "Replacement" in Amharic. Asked what she would tell the boy about his father, she held the newborn to her chest.

"I will tell him that he was killed by Tigrayans," she said.

(Reporting by Katharine Houreld, Michael Georgy and Silvia Aloisi; Additional reporting by Mohamed Nureldin, Seham Eloraby, Dawit Endeshaw, Baz Ratner, Khalid Aziz, Maggie Fick, Giulia Paravicini; Edited by Janet McBride and Alexandra Zavis)

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