It is now believed that thousands, not just hundreds, of civilians, including priests and Sunday school children, were killed in the war-torn and predominantly-Christian region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia since last November as survivors have described the brutal killings they witnessed.
Organizations, including Amnesty International, CNN and Sky News, have published investigations into massacres committed against civilian populations in the Tigray region. Fighting began after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked an Army base as part of an uprising in the region, which sparked military responses from Ethiopian forces joined by defense forces from neighboring Eritrea.
Priests, old men, women, entire families and a group of more than 20 Sunday school children, some as young as 14, were among the thousands killed in the Tigray region by soldiers from Ethiopia and Eritrea, according to eyewitnesses and family members who spoke with CNN.
In one instance of violence, hundreds of people were hiding in Maryam Tsiyon Church in Axum city, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant described in the book of Exodus, on Nov. 28.
In another attack, witnesses say Eritrean soldiers opened fire on the Maryam Dengelat Church, where hundreds of believers celebrated mass. Although many tried to flee on foot to neighboring villages, troops were said to have chased after them.
The massacre was said to have continued for three days as soldiers went house to house, dragging people from their homes and slaughtering residents.
The witnesses who spoke with CNN alleged that mothers were forced to tie up their sons in some cases.
CNN’s investigation included interviews with over 12 eyewitnesses and over 20 relatives of victims.
A pregnant woman was shot, her husband killed, and some survivors hid under the dead bodies, CNN further noted.
In a Feb. 26 report, Amnesty International reported that satellite images of mass graves in Axum suggested that hundreds of unarmed civilians were methodically hunted down and killed. Amnesty interviewed 41 survivors and witnesses to mass killings in November.
The massacre resulted in bodies being littered across the streets and plazas of Axum.
“I saw a lot of people dead on the street,” one 21-year-old male resident told Amnesty. “Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed.”
Witnesses told CNN that the soldiers didn’t allow burials to occur until Dec. 2 and threatened to kill anyone they saw mourning.
A local man named Abraham, who volunteered to bury the dead under the watchful eyes of the troops, sorted through the bodies of children and teenagers, the news network reported.
He collected identity cards, made notes about their clothing or hairstyle and placed their shoes on top of the burial mounds so that their relatives could later identify the bodies. Some, he said, were unrecognizable as they had been shot in the face.
Abraham alone buried more than 50 people, including a 15-year-old named Yohannes Yosef.
"Their hands were tied ... young children ... we saw them everywhere,” Abraham was quoted as saying. “There was an elderly man who had been killed on the road, an 80-something-year-old man. And the young kids they killed on the street in the open. I've never seen a massacre like this, and I don't want to [again].”
"We only survived by the grace of God,” he added.
Sky News also spoke with witnesses, including a United States-based man identified as Solomon. Solomon was visiting with his relatives around the time of the massacre.
On the afternoon of Nov. 28, Eritrean soldiers came into Axum and killed “so many people,” Solomon was quoted as saying.
“They were targeting young people especially, and anyone they thought could be a [member of a] militia,” he recounted. “[S]o three people from one house, four siblings from one house along with their dad, they were killing them.”
Another witness, identified as Woinshet, told Sky News that she saw wild animals and birds picking at the corpses.
She shared the story of her distant relative, a 65-year-old woman.
“They knocked on the door, her son opened it, and they shot him. And then the sister comes, and they shot her, and [the troops] left the compound,” Woinshet stated. “But what they didn’t know was the mother was inside. And when she walked out of the dining room, she saw two children shot dead in her house. She was left inside for a day-and-a-half because no one could help her. They were afraid. Nobody was going to [leave] their houses. Neighbors heard the shots, but they couldn’t check on her. So she was left in her house with her two dead children.”
The older woman is now going through a mental health crisis, she said.
In its report, Amnesty International called the evidence “compelling” and “points to a chilling conclusion.”
“Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum,” Amnesty International’s Deprose Muchena said in a statement. “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.”
Amnesty also notes that satellite imagery “corroborates reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting, as well as identifies signs of new mass burials near two of the city’s churches.”
Amnesty reports that Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum in a large-scale offensive on Nov. 19, killing and displacing civilians.
“In the nine days that followed, the Eritrean military engaged in widespread looting of civilian property and extrajudicial executions,” the report states.