Cluster bombing on Tigray by the Ethiopian army – more than 500 structures destroyed in Gijet

Jan Nyssen

Department of Geography, Ghent University, Belgium.


The map of civilian victims in the Tigray war[1] does partially include victims of the recent bombardments on the towns of Samre and Gijet, located southwest of Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle. Indeed, on 20-25 February 2021, the ENDF[2] has carried out multiple air raids on the towns of Gijet and Samre, held by the Tigray resistance. On 25 February, New York Times journalist Christiaan Triebert mentions that the Ethiopian Air Force bombings of Samre are evidenced by multiple photos of the tails of Soviet-era RBK cluster bombs[3], likely RBK250 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Tails of RBK-250 cluster bombs, as recovered nearby Samre – Photos availed by Christiaan Triebert (NYT)[4].

Image
Image

Fig. 2. Villagers have collected the bomb tails. Building style in red sandstone is typical for Samre’s surroundings. Note the wear and tear on the footpath, another typical feature of the sandstone[5] in the surroundings of Samre – Photos availed by Christiaan Triebert (NYT).

The recovered tails of the cluster bombs are fairly undamaged (Fig. 2), as it separates from the rest as the bomb falls, thereby releasing dozens of smaller, explosive bomblets that drop indiscriminately (Fig. 3).



Fig. 3. Technical details of RBK-250 bombs, after The New York Times[6]. Bomb dimensions are 2.3 m length by 0.4 m across. Each bomblet is 33 cm long, weights 2.8 kg and carries 500 g of explosive.Fig. 4. More than 500 structures deliberately destroyed in and around Gijet town – an analysis of satellite imagery shared by Reuters[7]. Australian Sky News showed that it are indeed homesteads burned down by Ethiopian government forces[8].  

Reuters Africa reports that satellite imagery shows more than 500 destroyed buildings in Gijet and three surrounding villages, between 21 and 23 February (Fig. 4).  MapEthiopia, which follow the military situation on the ground, mention that after a relentless air campaign, the ENDF has captured the towns of Samre and Gijet[9]. Intense airstrikes have forced the civilian population and TDF fighters out into the mountains to seek shelter from the bombs. MapEthiopia further state that “The towns here have seen a flip flop of territorial control although this is the first time that intense airstrikes have been used here. [We] could see similar tactics and strategies being used by the ENDF for other towns and large villages under TDF control”.

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Fig. 5. Flip-flop of territorial control Samre and Gijet area on 28 February 2021, after Map Ethiopia[10].

Because cluster bombs release many small bomblets over a wide area[11], they pose risks to civilians both during attacks and afterwards. Cluster munitions are prohibited for the 120 nations that ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions[12]; Ethiopia and Eritrea are not part of the convention. Yet, the use of these cluster bombs amounts to war crime[13].

Due to communication black-out, exact numbers of victims and their names are not yet known. One telephone contact mentions that victims “are numerous”. He describes a scorched earth campaign in the Samre-Adeba area with (among other things) the mango orchards in Adeba’s irrigation area (13.13528°N, 39.31776°E) cut down by Eritrean troops[14]. No rationale except hatred and destruction.

A Sky News television team visited the area in the beginning of March, filmed the burnt homesteads, and reported hundreds of deaths around Gijet and particularly in the village of Chile[15]. They mentioned that the major battles took place on 15 February and that the Ethiopian army came back on 23 February to take revenge on the villagers, which fits with the dates mentioned by Reuters (Fig. 4).


NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Annys, S., Vanden Bempt, T., Negash, E., De Sloover, L., Nyssen, J., 2021. Tigray: atlas of the humanitarian situation. Journal of Maps, preprint. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349824181 (Accessed on 17/3/2021)

[2] Acronyms: ENDF = Ethiopian National Defence Force; NYT = The New York Times; TDF = Tigray Defence Forces

[3] Pike, J., 2021. RBK cluster bombs. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/rbk-500.htm (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[4] Christiaan Triebert, 2021. Twitter message. https://twitter.com/trbrtc/status/1365517252360097797 (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[5] More particularly, this is Adigrat sandstone, named after the locality where it was first described. See also: Bussert, R., Nyssen J., 2019. Rock-hewn sandstone churches and man-made caves in and around Dogu’a Tembien. In: Nyssen, J., Jacob, M., Frankl, A. (eds), Geo-Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District. Springer GeoGuide, 121-137.

[6] The New York Times, 21 December 2012. Cluster bombs in Syria. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/12/21/world/middleeast/21cluster-.html (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[7] Reuters, 2021. Hundreds of buildings burned around Tigray town, research group says. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-fires-idUSKBN2AP196 (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[8] Sky News, 17 March 2021. Ethiopia: Hundreds executed, thousands homeless – the human cost of fighting in Tigray https://news.sky.com/story/ethiopia-hundreds-executed-thousands-homeless-the-human-cost-of-fighting-in-tigray-12247307 (Accessed on 17/3/2021)

[9] Map Ethiopia, 2021. Twitter message. https://twitter.com/MapEthiopia/status/1365409501428412417 (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[10] After Map Ethiopia, 2021. https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1ukq3h-fUshA0a0ZDcSI22WHbfC6PnKtX&hl=en&ll=13.381383364065378%2C39.11954327625986&z=10 (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[11] GICHD, 2007. A guide to cluster munitions. Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/45184/Guide-to-Cluster-Munitions-Nov2007.pdf (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[12] The Convention on Cluster Munitions, 2021. Official website. https://www.clusterconvention.org/ (Accessed on 28/2/2021)

[13] See for instance: Wiebe, V., 2000. Footprints of death: cluster bombs as indiscriminate weapons under international humanitarian law. Mich. J. International Law, 22, 85; Hulme, K., 2004. Of Questionable Legality: The Military Use of Cluster Bombs in Iraq in 2003. Can. YB International Law, 42, 143; and McDonnell, T.M., 2002. Cluster Bombs Over Kosovo: A Violation of International Law. Ariz. Law Rev., 44, 31.

[14] Dewaal, A., 2021. The Mango Orchards of Zamra, Tigray. World Peace Foundation. https://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2021/03/03/the-mango-orchards-of-zamra-tigray/

[15] See note 8.


Jan Nyssen is full professor of geography at Ghent University (Belgium). Besides numerous scientific publications mostly related to Ethiopia, he published two books: “ካብ ሓረስቶት ደጉዓ ተምቤን እንታይ ንስምዕ”? “What do we hear from the farmers in Dogu’a Tembien”? [in Tigrinya] (2016), and “Geo Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District”. Springer GeoGuide (2019).

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