Eritrean soldiers allegedly massacred at least 300 people near Adwa just days before the Ethiopian government and Tigray forces signed a peace deal. A survivor in the village of Mariam Shewito told DW her story.
In late October 2022, 63-year-old Abrehet Hagos heard that Eritrean soldiers had surrounded her village near the town of Adwa in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
During two years of civil war in northern Ethiopia, which began in November 2020, Eritrean soldiers had fought alongside the Ethiopian military against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The conflict is one of the deadliest in recent memory, with an estimated 600,000 people killed and millions displaced. Much of the population has been left hungry due to a blockade by the Ethiopian army.
But the fighting only reached Abrehet Hagos and her family in Mariam Shewito on October 26, when rumors about people being killed nearby started to circulate.
This was exactly one week before the Ethiopian government and theTigray forces signed a peace accord, ending the war and mandating the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Tigray.
"It was a Wednesday. That night, we knew we had to flee," Abrehet told DW. "But we had nowhere to go, so we spent the night hiding outside, near our house."
A son and husband murdered
The family continued hiding the next day, until they heard the animals making unusual noises. Her 70-year-old husband, Berihu Abay, and their 28-year-old son, Gidey Berihu, decided to go to the house to see what was going on.
"A soldier came and killed them both. There are five or six bullet holes in the door and the walls of the room. I think my son tried to hide in the room when he saw the soldier. He thought he might escape death," Hagos said.
She was so close she heard the killer's voice shortly before he opened fire. "He lisped. I only heard him say 'come'," Hagos recalled.
After he left. Hagos and her daughter crawled out from their hiding place and went into the house where they found a bloodbath. Hagos' husband, who had been a priest, was lying on the floor, holding his cross behind his head.
Hagos said she felt her pain growing worse every day: "I ask God why he didn't take me instead of my son. I am heartbroken." Her son was engaged and due to be married very soon.
"He [Gidey] worked all day. He was a well-mannered child. He liked tending to his trees. He planted all the trees you see around here. What are these trees now to me? They only remind me of him and that is painful. They killed my soul with him."
Buried in the backyard
Terrified, Hagos and her daughter didn't leave the house for four days, staying next to the dead bodies.
By then, the Eritrean soldiers had occupied Mariam Shewito and nearby villages.
Eventually, Hagos said, she left the house to go to the nearby church and see if she could bury the bodies there.
"There I met a high-ranking Eritrean soldier. He didn't threaten me. He told me they don't allow burials on the church compound. He also said it was us who attacked them. I told him we didn't. He said to bury them in the house."
So she buried the bodies in her backyard; they were moved to the church's graveyard two months later.
Hagos told DW that she was worried about her daughter who has a mental disability, adding that she had had nightmares and lost weight since the murders.
Retaliation for defeat
The administration of the town of Adwa told DW that over 300 people in several villages has been killed in the week of October 25 to 31.
Witnesses told DW that they believed the massacre of civilians was a retaliation by Eritrean soldiers for the defeat they had suffered at the hands of Tigrayan forces.
An investigation by the US Washington Post newspaper featured interviews of 22 relatives of the victims, including 15 who said they witnessed the killings or their immediate aftermath.
Satellite images published by the newspaper showed at least 67 severely damaged houses in the area where the killings reportedly happened. Other images show military vehicles matching witness descriptions of Eritrean vehicles, fewer than three miles away.
Eritrea rejects allegations
At a rare press conference during a visit to Nairobi in February of this year, President Isaias Afwerki rejected allegations of rights abuses by Eritrean forces, dismissing them as "fantasy."
DW requested a comment from Eritrean Information Minister Yemane, who referred to a statement released by the Eritrean embassy in the US in response to the Washington Post's report. It says that the Eritrean government "vehemently rejects the false allegations made against Eritrea and its disciplined army," saying that there was "no validation or verification" of the stories, which were "obviously planted." It adds that "Eritrea has an impeccable track record for its humane treatment not only of civilians but also its prisoners of war as well."
Rights groups and the UN have accused Eritrean forces of committing atrocities and human rights abuses against civilians, including mass killings, gang rapes, torture, arbitrary detentions and looting.
A report by UN-backed researchers from the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by all sides in the conflict: Ethiopian government troops, Eritrea's military and Tigray forces. The report also found that Ethiopian soldiers had also resorted to the "starvation of civilians" as a tool of war, while both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were seen to be responsible for "sexual slavery."
Justice for the victims
Since January, Eritrean troops have been seen retreating from several towns in Tigray but observers say they remain in the region. Eritrea was not a party to the peace deal and the continued presence of its forces in Tigray is seen as a major challenge to the agreement's implementation.
Mariam Shewito was one of the worst affected villages in the week-long massacre, social worker Atsede Abay told DW. She has compiled a record of the names, dates and causes of death of victims in the village, collecting photographs from relatives, and speaking to survivors and eyewitnesses.
"Of the 91 victims, 12 were women. Ten were religious leaders. One was a teacher," she said, adding that the youngest victim was a two-year-old baby, the oldest a 92-year-old. In one case, four members of the same family were massacred: a father, his two sons and his nephew.
In another gruesome account, both parents were killed in front of their five children. The youngest was six months old. After shooting dead the mother, named Tsige Gebrekirstos, the soldiers mutilated her breasts with a knife before putting the baby on top of her, Atsede said. She hoped the evidence she has gathered will one day help to bring justice to the victims.
"I am doing this because I believe those who committed the atrocities should be held accountable," she said.
Edited by Cristina Krippahl