Addis Abeba — Amnesty International has compiled evidence based harrowing report on series of attacks that took place in Axum city in Tigray regional state and one of the most sacred places for followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Twahdo Church, and one of the sites of Ethiopia's ancient civilization.
The report detailed what took place over ten days between 19 and 29 November 2020, just a few weeks after the ongoing armed conflict between Ethiopia's federal government and forces allied with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) erupted, and more specifically "over an approximately 24-hour period on 28-29 November."
Amnesty's report is based on the accounts of 41 witnesses and survivors of the massacre in addition to 20 other people with knowledge relevant to the situation. The report said "Eritrean troops' massacre of hundreds of Axum civilians may amount to crime against humanity."
Corroborating the seriousness of the report, Daniel Bekele, chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said, "amnesty findings should be taken very seriously, and it would be a useful contribution for an ongoing investigation by EHRC throughout the Tigray region including Axum." The EHRC also said while it has not finalized its investigation, "preliminary findings indicate the killing of an, as yet, unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers in the city of Axum in retaliation for an earlier attack by TPLF soldiers who were joined by a small number of local residents. EHRC has also learned the attack was carried out by Eritrean soldiers after the TPLF soldiers left the area. EHRC is also investigating allegations of shelling in multiple places across Tigray region."
"The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa.
"This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum's residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials."
Massacre haunts Ethiopia's sacred city of Axum
According to Amnesty, on 28 and 29 November, Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street including those who tried to remove bodies from the street after the killings. They carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys as a retaliation for an earlier attack by a small number of local militiamen, joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones as stated in the report.
Indiscriminate shelling of Axum by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers began 10 days before the massacre, followed by Eritrean forces engaging in extrajudicial executions and engaged in widespread looting according to witness accounts. A man said he saw a woman and her infant child killed when artillery shells fell near the woman's house, which was located close to the Atse Menelik high school. "She was outside the compound and moving, trying to find a safe place," he recalled. "Then [the] shell fell on her. She had three kids. Two of them ran but the third was a little kid [she] carried on her back. He was killed with her."
When the shelling finished, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces entered Axum together. Eritrean soldiers went home to home in search of militias or anyone with a gun. The killing of men suspected of being affiliated with TPLF were based on 'slightest possible clues' like pictures of TPLF leaders on their phones or pieces of clothing such as shirit [a sarong-like wrap commonly associated with TPLF fighters] and camouflage shirts. None of the witnesses to whom Amnesty International spoke said that there was any armed resistance to the attack. "They didn't face any TPLF fighters; that's why they took control of the city within a day."
On November 28, TPLF fighters and/or pro-TPLF militia attacked the Eritrean position at Mai Koho, a mountain, located just east of the Axum Tsion St Mary Church. The group of assailants did not exceed 50-80 men armed with guns according to witnesses. The offensive received local support where some local youth joined the fight with improvised weapons, such as knives, sticks, and stones or bringing food to the fighters and an even larger number cheered in support.
A 26-year-old man who participated in the attack said "We expected that TPLF soldiers might come fight the Eritreans but it wasn't them. We heard it was some militiamen. We wanted to protect our city so we attempted to defend it especially from Eritrean soldiers ... The Eritrean soldiers were organized. They knew how to shoot and they had radios, communications. Even before we started fighting with them, they killed with snipers and Bren [machine guns] ... I didn't have a gun, just a stick."
Eritrean soldiers entered the city from the east in trucks and tanks then went on a rampage, shooting at civilian men and youths who were out on the streets attempting to flee in panic. Many witnesses said that Eritrean soldiers shot at men who posed no threat to them. The victims carried no weapons and in many cases were running away from the soldiers when they were shot.
A man described two killings in the Tsele neighbourhood.One of them was of a homeless man known as Oud who had suffered from mental health problems: "He was walking. After he started running, they shot him: he started running and then stopped and was lying on the incline of the asphalt. I saw when they shot him -- his body shook. They were about 70 meters from him."
Residents were caught in the dilemma of running for their lives or hiding but neither of them spared their lives. Residents say that teenage and adult men were killed in house-to-house raids by Eritrean soldiers between the afternoon of 28th of November and the morning of November 29. A man recounted what he witnessed through his window outside of his house near the Abnet Hotel on November 29
"They lined them up and shot them in the back from behind. Two of them I knew. They're from my neighborhood ... They asked "Where is your gun?" and they answered "We have no guns, we are civilians"... One soldier went to his leader who was Beni-Amir [ethnicity] -- he had three scars near each eye -- and asked him, "shall we kill them or free them?" and he said, "just kill them," and they did. They only shot twice for the six people ... They shot three people with one bullet. The first and second fell dead. The third one was injured, about to fall. They shot him a second time and killed the three others with the same bullet. They were lined up perfectly. They shot them with a Bren [light machine gun].
Axum residents who spoke to Amnesty International had no difficulty identifying the perpetrators as Eritrean soldiers, according to the report. "They wore Ethiopian defense uniforms but could be Eritreans because many Eritrean soldiers wore that uniform." In addition to looks; footwear,uniforms and ethnically distinct features, there were more blatant signs such as trucks whose license plates read "Eritrea." A woman said, "Some of them told us they are Eritrean soldiers,"
Residents fled to surrounding villages driven by threats of killing, detention and hunger. They returned days later and found dead neighbors on the street. They described that the victims were unarmed with' an overwhelming majority' of men. Residents also described injuries which suggested that some victims died because of a lack of medical treatment. Hospitals were out of service as they were looted by Eritrean soldiers.
One man found a 24-year-old neighbor named Abdallah Hassan who had been shot with three bullets; he was near China Road. The man said: "He was alive but injured. They took him to the Referral Hospital, but he died there. There were no doctors or anything. It was empty."
Witnesses also spoke about being prohibited from conducting funeral requiem for the dead or to clean and prepare the bodies. Those who tried to collect bodies and attend funerals were attacked. "... they did not allow us to pick the dead. The Eritrean soldiers said you cannot bury the dead before our dead soldiers are buried... " The survivors carried the dead to the churches using horse/donkey cart, carrying up to 10 bodies at a time. In some areas, the dead were buried in makeshift graves in the immediate vicinity of where they had been killed.
A woman recalled these days: "It was tough and scary. Everyone was afraid soldiers would kill people who helped bury the dead. It was very difficult. When soldiers came up to us, everyone ran, and when they passed, everyone returned to the proceedings. Another man recounted December 1st, where he saw Eritrean soldiers kill a man who was pulling a cart loaded with bodies near Axum's main bus station. Amnesty International was able to confirm sites of mass burial through Satellite imagery in the compounds of Arbeatu Ensessa and Abune Aregawi in a time frame that is consistent with these witness testimonies.
Eritrean soldiers detained hundreds, if not thousands, of male residents in different parts of the city on November 29. One of the men who was detained said: "The Eritrean soldiers surrounded us. One of their officers came up to us and made a speech "You people -- if you try fighting us and hold any weapon against us -- look at this red soil -- we will destroy Axum like this. So don't do anything against us."
The report also uncovered that Eritrean soldiers looted Axum systematically and on a massive scale, leaving residents without food or drink.They looted the university, private houses, hotels, hospitals, grain storage facilities, petrol stations, banks, electrical and maintenance stores, supermarkets, bakeries, jewelries, vendors' shacks (known locally as "containers") and other shops, breaking through entrance doors with automatic weapons. The looting left residents suffering hunger and thirst and people resorted to looting in order to eat.
The residents also suffered the worsening of disease resulting from the looting of hospital facilities. One man said his brother, who has heart disease, tried to obtain medicine at the pharmacies of the city's two hospitals, but that they had been looted. "28 December was the last time I saw him. He said he was really in suffering and pain from the disease because he didn't have his pill."
Citing 8 International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Humanitarian Laws, the Amnesty International said that the indiscriminate shelling of Axum by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops may amount to war crimes, and that the mass execution of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.
"Pillage (looting of personal property by soldiers) is prohibited and is a war crime, as cited in the report, murder, or torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages on personal dignity, collective punishment, and of rape and other forms of sexual violence, Violations of these rules are war crimes."
Amnesty International referred to the military's mass detention of residents on 29 November and soldiers' threats to resume killing in the event of resistance to conclude that the Eritrean military's killing of hundreds of civilians in Axum on 28-29 November was a coordinated and systematic attempt to terrorize the population into submission. Amnesty International called for a UN-led investigation into these events, and asked the Ethiopian government to cooperate fully by facilitating unrestricted access for UN investigators. Amnesty International suggested that the investigation should also look into the totality of the war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the context of the conflict in Tigray since 4 November 2020. It also urged assurance of accountability for suspected perpetrators and reparations for the victims and survivors.
Amnesty International also urged the African Union, the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations to encourage the Ethiopian authorities to stop the further engagement in human rights and humanitarian law violations, including indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment, and deliberate attacks on civilians and ensure unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray.
On 18 February, Amnesty International shared the research findings presented in this briefing with Ambassador Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for the Emergency Task Force in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but had not received a response at the time of writing. AS