Did Eritrea Commit War Crimes in Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian government is facing mounting allegations that foreign soldiers and Amhara regional forces committed atrocities during the war in Tigray.
Ethiopia Faces Allegations of Atrocities
First came the emaciated refugees, then the satellite images of destruction, and then the witness accounts that seemed to confirm the worst—that atrocities were committed during Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict by many actors.
Charges of mass murder in an ancient city. On Feb. 26, Amnesty International released a report filled with harrowing witness accounts of the violence in Tigray. Witnesses and survivors told of systematic killings carried out by Eritrean troops in the ancient Ethiopian city of Axum.
In wresting control of the city from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last November, the report alleged soldiers mowed down civilians in the street, executing people randomly and shooting at anyone who tried to bury the dead. (An earlier report from Amnesty International alleged other atrocities were committed by forces loyal to the TPLF in November.)
The witnesses in Axum recognized Eritrean soldiers by their fatigues and language and said they went from house to house shooting adult men. They also reportedly rounded up citizens in the city’s cobbled streets, beating and threatening them—and also looted homes, hospitals, and businesses. “This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and southern Africa.
Did Eritrean soldiers commit atrocities on Ethiopian soil? An earlier story by The Associated Press also documented witness accounts of massacres in Axum. The Eritrean government dismissed the story as “outrageous lies.” As it has throughout this crisis, the Ethiopian government has dismissed most criticism of the war in Tigray as TPLF propaganda.
In response to Amnesty International’s findings, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs questioned the validity of the rights group’s sourcing. Even as it announced an investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the ministry still described last November’s violence as the “complete breakdown of law and order in Tigray” as a result of the TPLF’s aggression. It made no mention of Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict.
For its part, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission announced that Amnesty International’s report should be taken “very seriously.” While the commission is still finalizing its investigation, its preliminary findings indicate that Eritrean soldiers killed an unknown number of civilians in what it called a retaliatory attack in Axum.
The charge of Eritrean involvement is particularly sensitive because the two countries fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 that did not officially end until 2018. It was Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s peace deal with Eritrea that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. When approached by Foreign Policy, the prime minister’s office declined to offer further comments on these allegations.
On Biden’s desk. In an internal U.S. government report, officials said Ethiopia’s military and its allies are waging a systematic campaign to ethnically cleanse the Tigray region by “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”
The report, obtained by the New York Times, also accuses Eritrean soldiers and ethnic Amhara regional forces of war crimes such as rape and mass killings. Whole Tigrayan villages were razed in the effort, according to the report, while towns with a majority Amhara population appeared unscathed.
Blinken speaks to Abiy. Ethiopia is quickly becoming a major test for the Biden administration. In a Feb. 25 call with his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, President Joe Biden discussed the crisis in Tigray. A Feb. 27 statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s “grave concerns” over the reports of atrocities. Blinken also called for the removal of Amhara regional forces and Eritrean soldiers as a first step toward ending hostilities. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to that statement as a “regrettable” pronouncement on the country’s internal affairs.
Blinken then spoke directly with Abiy on Tuesday and called again for “the withdrawal of outside forces from Tigray” and requested Ethiopia’s cooperation in facilitating “independent, international, and credible investigations into reported human rights abuses and violations and to hold those responsible accountable,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Bad press. While much of the violence occurred during a media blackout, the picture emerging from the conflict is devastating. Refugees are arriving to humanitarian sites emaciated and traumatized. Satellite imagery from this year showed evidence of attacks on civilian buildings. The latest images show that fighting is likely ongoing, with more than 500 structures set on fire in the Gijet area. This contradicts Abiy’s declaration of victory in Tigray and shows that Ethiopia’s civil war could be far from over.
So, too, the war of words. Keen to restore its carefully crafted public image, Addis Ababa has reportedly hired a lobbying firm to look after its interests in Washington, and Ethiopian ambassadors have invited foreign journalists to roundtable discussions. The TPLF is also relying on a powerful diaspora to counter the government’s claims while Oromo nationalists, with ethnic grievances of their own, have also consistently challenged Addis Ababa’s narrative.
The detention of journalists covering the Tigray conflict, particularly those working for international press such as the recently detained BBC reporter Girmay Gebru, has not worked in Ethiopia’s favor. Meanwhile, violence among various groups in the Benishangul-Gumuz region has escalated in recent months.
With the country’s various conflicts spiraling out of control, controlling the narrative may be all that is left.