Aksum massacre: “They shot my neighbor. Next to her children. Just like that.”

English translation of the article published on Der Spiegel (Germany), 26 February 2021 https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/tigray-aethiopien-augenzeugen-berichten-ueber-das-massaker-von-aksum-a-31ee33cb-5da2-44ac-957d-009c33634739

They looted and murdered until the bodies piled up: Soldiers from Eritrea committed massacres in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. The SPIEGEL has spoken to survivors.

By Fritz Schaap
Feb 26, 2021, 5:36 pm

Stummes Zeugnis: Zurückgelassene Schuhe von Geflüchteten in Tigray
Silent testimony: Abandoned shoes of refugees in Tigray. Photo: Nariman El-Mofty / dpa

Two days before the feast of Mary of Zion, the horror came to Aksum, the center of the Christian faith in Ethiopia. It was like a nightmare, a vision from hell, says Mikael*, who until then lived in Aksum, a town in Tigray province on the border with Eritrea.

Mikael was still wearing the white Gabi, the robe of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and was on his way to church when shots echoed through the city on that 28th november last year.

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“They were mainly looking for young men, they shot them in the street and in the houses.”

Mikael, 16

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He ran home and hid as Eritrean soldiers began to move from house to house and kill indiscriminately. The 16-year-old looked out the window. “They were mainly looking for young men, they shot them in the streets and in the houses,” he says on a Saturday in February at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, where he fled. ‘But I also watched them shoot my neighbor. Next to her children. Just like that.”

A few weeks earlier, on 4 November, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had declared war on the regional government of Tigray state. Since then, the Ethiopian army, on the orders of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been fighting jointly with its allies, including Eritrea against the associations of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). And against the civilian population there.

For many weeks, reports from Tigray reached the rest of the world only sparsely. The telephone networks remained switched off for a long time. Aid agencies still have very limited access, journalists almost none. But now that the phones are working more often and that more fleeing men, women and children from Tigray are telling their stories in the camps in Sudan, the picture is becoming clearer.

Now there are increasing reports of massive looting, rape, executions and massacres by Eritrean troops in particular. A campaign that, according to experts, has a genocidal traits.

From no place do the stories sound as brutal, as bloodthirsty as they are from Aksum.

Flucht vor dem Tod: Männer und Frauen an der Grenze zum Sudan
Escape from death: Men and women on the border with Sudan. Photo: Nariman El-Mofty / AP

The SPIEGEL was able to speak to half a dozen eyewitnesses in Sudan who survived the massacre. Their statements were compared with the reports reached by European researchers on branched networks from Tigray. They also coincide with a report by Amnesty International.

The stories form a picture of cruel war crimes and crimes against humanity. The image of a city that became a slaughterhouse, on whose streets the bodies piled up. Its occupiers fired for two days at those who tried to bury their dead. It was systematically looted and executed.

The Aksum massacre appears to be the most serious known war crime by Eritrean troops in northern Ethiopia. There are also historical reasons why Eritrea is sending troops to its neighbouring country in order to crush an insurgency jointly with the central government there. The TPLF, which is strong in Tigray province, is the arch-enemy of Isayas Afewerki, the longtime dictator of Eritrea.

“The extent of the violence by the Eritrean military is unimaginable,” says Franziska Ulm-Düsterhöft, Africa officer at Amnesty International. “In the assumption that the international community would not become aware of this, war crimes and alleged crimes against humanity were committed.” But the fear had already come to Aksum before the massacre.

Nine days before the bodies lined up outside Mikael’s door, shells fell on the city. On 19 November, the Eritrean army put Aksum under artillery fire alongside the Ethiopian forces.

Mikael saw a grenade in front of him hit a woman directly in the chest and tore her. Other residents also reported heavy artillery fire on civilian targets.

Tigray troops were not in the city, witnesses told Amnesty International. A refugee in Sudan told the SPIEGEL that he had seen a woman carrying her child on her back being hit by shrapnel in the back. Where her baby was tied up. Both died. A 23-year-old survivor recounted panicked escape scenes, of women with children under heavy artillery fire.

Soon after, Eritrean troops entered the city. They did what they did in most cases in this war: they looted shops and private homes, cars, generators, and machinery. And they killed. Already on the day of the invasion, they went from house to house in search of Tigrayan fighters; young men just suspected of knowing TPLF fighters were shot dead. Photos on their mobile phone appear to have been enough for a death sentence. In the following days they continued to plunder the city. There were also further shootings. Nine days of fear and terror had begun. But the worst was yet to come.

On the morning of November 28, a small group of Tigrayan militiamen attacked an Eritrean position on Mount Mai Koho, a few hundred meters east of the center of Aksum. Witnesses told Amnesty International that there were no more than 50 to 80 militiamen. They were supported by local youth. “Many of us wanted to help save our city,” a young man from Aksum told SPIEGEL, “with stones and sticks.”

It was an unequal struggle that developed over the next few hours. The Eritreans opened fire with assault rifles. And when they had fought back the attack, they went down to the city to take revenge. At the same time, according to eyewitness accounts, tanks and trucks with troops rolled into the city.

In the afternoon, Eritrean soldiers moved from house to house in the city. According to local residents, they dragged young men into the streets and shot them. Or they invaded the houses and shot them there. A student tells the SPIEGEL that he saw several groups of dead young men lying on his street the next morning. They had apparently had to stand side by side before they were executed.

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Five of my friends were already dead. The sixth was hit in the abdomen. Blood bubbled out of it like a fountain. I brought a sheet and tried to bind him while the bullets hit next to me.”

Survivor of the Aksum Massacre

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“I saw many of my friends die. One of them asked me for help,” a traumatized young man told Amnesty International. » The Eritrean soldiers lay on the ground and shot at us from a distance. Five of my friends were already dead. The sixth was hit in the abdomen. Blood bubbled out of it like a fountain. I brought a sheet and tried to bind him while the bullets were coming in next to me,” the eyewitness and survivor told the Amnesty experts. He kept asking, “Can you please take me to the hospital!” But I couldn’t. The hospital had already been looted, and they killed the patients there. Then he was dead. His last words were: “I am tired, I want to sleep. Save your life. Run away!”

The deacon of a church in Aksum, who collected the ID cards of the dead, estimates that about 800 people were massacred. Amnesty International has been able to identify the names of more than 200 people who have died. A young man told the SPIEGEL that the next day, when he tried to get home from the church to his mother, he counted more than 100 dead on the way.

As the Eritrean soldiers continued to roam the streets, they forbade people from burying their dead. For nearly two days, the bodies lay in the streets. The smell of decay spread over the centre of the city.

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“This is a step towards genocide.”

Jan Nyssen, Belgian Ethiopia expert

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According to Amnesty International, hundreds, if not thousands, of men were also arrested on 29 November. Several survivors report that Eritrean soldiers warned them that if they ever rebelled again, they would suffer as much as their dead.

“This is,” says Belgian Ethiopia expert Jan Nyssen, “a step towards genocide.”

* Mikael’s name has been changed in this text to protect his family, who are still living in Tigray.

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