INTERVIEW SOFIE ANNYS
English translation of an interview article published in De Standaard (Dutch), 6 April 2021. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20210405_97680296
Even more than the Ethiopian army, Eritrean soldiers are responsible for many civilian deaths in the war zone of Tigray. This is the conclusion of a detailed study by geographers from Ghent University.
Tuesday 6 April 2021
The war between the Ethiopian government army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has claimed the lives of many thousands of civilians over the past five months. The Eritrean army also intervened in the conflict. Together with four fellow researchers from Ghent University, geographer Sofie Annys was able to compile an atlas of the disastrous humanitarian situation in the region on the basis of 2,000 interviews.
How did you proceed?
‘Emnet Negash, Lars De Sloover, Jan Nyssen, Tim Vanden Bempt and I brought 2,000 victims into the picture. They were mainly from Central and Eastern Tigray, the most affected areas. Of those civilians, we were able to verify the names and also the circumstances in which they were killed. In addition, 1,800 media reports allowed us to investigate a second group of 7,000 civilian casualties whose names we could not verify, but whose location and probable date of death we could determine. We also investigated 151 massacres.’
How did these civilians lose their lives?
‘Of the 2,000 victims, a small minority (3 percent) were killed by airstrikes. Thirty-one percent were victims of targeted attacks; often these were door-to-door actions in which civilians under custody were driven together and executed. For 66 percent of the dead, we are less certain on what exactly happened to them, but we have elements to believe that a large proportion of those people have also been executed in targeted actions against civilians.’
Who killed those 2,000 people?
’18 percent were killed by Ethiopian soldiers and 43 percent were killed by Eritrean soldiers, whose presence in Tigray has been long denied. Then there is a group of 18% killed by the Ethiopian or Eritrean army, possibly in joint actions. A smaller group of 5 percent were victims of targeted attacks by militias from the Amhara region. The vast majority of deaths – 93 percent – are male. It is clear that the intention is to eliminate potential TPLF fighters.’
TPLF fighters recently switched to guerrilla tactics and would also recruit more and more civilians. Could it be that in this war it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish male civilians from combatants?
‘A lot of civilians joined the Tigray Defence Forces, but with the deaths we investigated, we have serious suspicions that they were civilians. We have to rely on what people tell us. But our general conclusion remains: innocent civilians are deliberately targeted and are victims of this war in large numbers.’
According to your research, the Eritrean army is the main party responsible for the war crimes. Between 1998 and 2000, Eritrea also waged war against Ethiopia, whose leaders and officers then came mainly from Tigray. It seems that Eritrea is settling old scores.
‘The hatred of Tigreans runs deep among the Eritrean military and is cultivated through various indoctrination methods. The old war demons seem to be surfacing again. Barely three years after the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea, we are once again left with a conflict that can drag on for a long time.’
The Ethiopian army also has blood on its hands. It is strange that the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate Abiy Ahmed is now suspected of war crimes.
‘It has to be said that the offensive against the insurgent Tigray Region initially could count on a lot of support in the other Ethiopian regions. A majority of Ethiopians supported Abiy Ahmed, who does not seem to be making a bad turn from a political point of view. But the big problem, of course, is that his government army is guilty of serious human rights violations against the civilian population. All indications are that the orders to kill civilians come from the upper echelons of the army.’
The war resulted in many thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons being deprived of the most essential humanitarian aid for months. A mass famine is feared.
‘For the time being, humanitarian aid is mainly reaching larger cities such as Mek’ele. But many people also fled into the mountains, making them difficult to reach for aid agencies. In rural areas, the situation remains particularly unsafe, so that civilians receive virtually no humanitarian aid. And if food and medicine does reach such places, the issue is whether it will not be stolen by Eritrean soldiers.’