Humanitarian situation in Tigray (22 June 2021)

Dear friends,

This circular letter addresses the changing military situation in Tigray and the consequences for the humanitarian situation (section 1), the status of land preparation for the next cropping season (section 2), the international investigations of war crimes in Ethiopia (section 3), media (section 4) and opinion articles (section 5).

  1. Military developments and humanitarian situation in Tigray

The military situation in Tigray is changing rapidly.

On 19 June, people mentioned more pressure from the soldiers in Mekelle. Suddenly, mobile phones were checked by them. They were looking for photos and videos of Tigray leaders, starving or wounded people. Telephone communication to rural areas such as Tembien also has stopped.

On 21 June, the frontline is not far from Mekelle (near Giba River). Places like Mahbere Dego, Enticho, Abiy Addi, Yechila, Hagere Selam are now again under control of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The government has suddenly restricted flights to Mekelle, has confined travel by foreigners, and has stopped giving permits for aid operations outside the city.

On 22 June, the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers left Adigrat overnight, and the road between Adigrat and Mekelle seemed under control of the TDF. In the day, Eritrean tanks came in from the north and the very mobile TDF moved out, after having resupplied itself in the army base.

Reports from the TDF are that a force of 15,000 ENDF was destroyed; that the TDF chose to attack the ENDF (Ethiopian army) as a softer target than the EDF; and that a fiercer fight with the EDF is the next prospect. In any case, in many towns in Tigray, the people celebrated and are hoping that the war will soon come to an end. Yet, it is not over, as we were reminded on 22 June, when the Togogwa market in Dogu’a Tembien was bombarded by the Ethiopian Air Force, and 30 civilians killed; ambulances were prevented by ENDF from picking the wounded people.

Update on the bombardment of Togogwa (23 June) 

Togogwa (ቶጎጓ) is a remote place, with poor telephone and no internet. In direct line 25 km west from Mekelle, but there is a deep gorge in between. Distance along the road is 57 km, of which 22 km on difficult dirt roads. More details, received from community leaders

  • Bombardment on Tuesday 22 June
  • Tuesday is market day in Togogwa; there were many people in the market, between 3000-5000 people from the wider surroundings (up to 15-20 km away, all people are on foot)
  • The market is a weekly market, but in June there are always many people in the market because it is sowing time, and people come to exchange or buy seed.
  • This was the first market day after the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies had retreated from the area under pressure of the Tigray Defence Forces. There were no „enemy“ soldiers around, and since Derg time, markets had not been a target of air bombardments, also not in this war, so it came unexpected.
  • Around the same time, a bomb was also thrown on the village of Addilal, some 20 km away. There was also market ongoing in Addilal, but the bomb missed its target and fell on school buildings.
  • The bombardment was around noon; markets start around 9 AM in Tigray as people need to travel on foot to the town – at noon the number of people in the market was at its maximum
  • In Togogwa there were two bombs, two heavy explosions
  • People assume that the bombardment was done on purpose that day, as a reminder of the Derg bombardment of Hawzen that took place on the same date, 33 years earlier
  • Around 50 people  were killed on the spot
  • „in the market, the blood of killed people and killed cattle was mixed“
  • We are constructing the list of victims, with details, but most victims are not from Togogwa itself, they were visitors of the market. After the massacre, relatives and friends collected the dead bodies, prepared makeshift stretchers, and carried them to their home village.
  • Ambulances were sent from Mekelle to collect the wounded people, but ENDF soldiers did not allow them to pass
  • Wounded people arrived with severe delays in Mekelle’s Ayder hospital, some died on the way or in the hospital
  • Total number of wounded around 150; 30 houses destroyed

We are yet to hear how this all affects the humanitarian access and hence the humanitarian response. It is to be reminded that according UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, there were 131 incidents of access violation in May 2021, out of which one was conducted by the TDF, and the 130 others by ENDF and allies.

Related information

  1. Land preparation for the next cropping season

Much has been discussed about the challenges for the Tigrayan farmers when they want to plough their land. We did an objective investigation using satellite imagery and telephone interviews, pertaining to the land preparation in April and May. Whereas plantation farms have not been ploughed, most irrigation schemes with smallholder farming are operational, with an overall increase in irrigated land by 6% as compared to 2019-2020. A partial shift from commercial crops to cereals has taken place, which requires less human presence on the fields, and hence involves less risk for the farmers to encounter soldiers and get killed. The same processed Sentinel imagery shows little tillage of rainfed farmland in western and NW Tigray, but relatively good ploughing progress in the rest of the region, with often more land ploughed than in 2020, despite less spring rainfall. The situation in western Tigray is particular, as there has been ethnic cleansing of the population and often the 2020 rainfed crops even have not been harvested. Many lands have remained unploughed, and irrigation along the Tekeze River has been abandoned. Overall in Tigray, war conditions have made ploughing very challenging. Oxen have been looted and deliberately killed, and farm inputs and farm tools have been destroyed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. Furthermore, farmers who want to plough feel vulnerable out in the open; in many places, Eritrean soldiers forbid the Tigrayan farmers to plough. While trying to produce, in any case, the Tigrayan farmers evaluate all risks involved with ploughing and organise lookouts verifying that no soldiers are approaching. However, there is still hope that a large part of the land will be sown timely, in difficult conditions, with crops that require minimal management, and without fertiliser, as the Tigrayan smallholder farming system, and farmer-led irrigation schemes are resilient, thanks to the remarkable ability of self-organisation by the local farming communities.

The preprint of the article may be obtained through ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351516150_Ploughing_in_the_Tigray_War

Related information

  1. Belgian Federal Prosecutor investigates war crimes in Ethiopia

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office of Brussels confirmed on 2 June 2021 that it has opened a file on various war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray, Ethiopia. Several Belgian victims of the war in northern Ethiopia had submitted testimonies to the Prosecutor’s Office. Their relatives were executed and properties looted.

Thousands of civilians have been killed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. Human rights organisations have observed ethnic persecutions, torture and mass executions. The Ethiopian army’s aggression against the Tigray minority has further increased in recent months. Gang rape is still widely used as a weapon of war. The United Nations also accuse the Ethiopian regime of deliberately delaying food aid to the region.

The Union of Tigrayans in Belgium supports the complaint of the Belgian-Tigrayan war victims. Five relatives of victims asked the Federal Prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation into the war criminals within the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes. It is possible in Belgium to prosecute crimes against humanity, even if they did not take place in Belgium, on the condition that some of the victims are Belgian.

Noteworthy, Ethiopia does not recognise the International Criminal Court. The investigation by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office would be the first to lead to a trial for crimes against humanity by members of the regime of Abiy Ahmed.

Contact: Gebrehiwot Abera, Union of Tigrayans in Belgium (warcrimestigray@gmail.com)

Related information

  1. In the media
  1. Opinion articles

Follow up communication compiled by Prof. Dr. Jan Nyssen.


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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