Survivors of the ongoing Tigray conflict in Northern Ethiopia are now speaking out about the horrors of what they and their communities experienced after hundreds of citizens were reportedly killed and millions of others are in dire need of assistance.
Witnesses who spoke with The Associated Press have detailed killings, looting and other abuses committed by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray, a predominantly-Christian northernmost region of the East African country.
Known as the Tigray War, the armed conflict has been ongoing since last November between the Tigray Regional Government (led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front) and forces supportive of the Ethiopian government which include military forces from Eritrea.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that there have been a series of fatal assaults committed against citizens in the area.
“They would kill you for trying, or even crying,” a woman named Zenebu, a 48-year-old healthcare worker who lives in Colorado but was trapped in Tigray for weeks while visiting her mother, told AP.
The witness said that some Eritrean soldiers went from door-to-door, killing Tigrayan men and boys as young as 7 years old.
Zenebu detailed how she looked on as she saw Eritrean soldiers loot the belongings from residents' homes. She said their pockets were filled with stolen jewelry and recalled some troops trying on looted clothing.
“They were focused on trying to take everything of value,” she added, saying that they even stole diapers. She detailed that trucks were loaded with boxes of looted items that were to be delivered to places in Eritrea.
Estimates suggest that thousands of Eritrean soldiers have fought in the Tigray War on the side of the Ethiopian government. However, the Ethiopian government has denied the involvement of Eritrean soldiers in the conflict.
Zenebu said she first remembered seeing Eritrean soldiers in Tigray around mid-December. She fled with others into nearby mountains as fighting approached. But she returned less than two weeks later to check on her mother.
She told the AP that she stumbled over bodies when she returned and later realized that she knew about 70 of those who had been killed.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between human and animal bodies,” she said. She added that one body was that of a 12-year-old boy who had been recruited by soldiers to run errands but was later killed.
“I saw his body,” Zenebu said. “They just, like, threw him away.”
Another witness who escaped from the Tigray region and fled to the U.S. this month told the AP that Eritrean soldiers were “everywhere.” He confirmed accounts about their killings and looting.
“Same blood, same language,” he was quoted as saying of the troops’ close ties with Tigrayans. “I don’t know why they killed.”
Zenebu’s account comes after an unconfirmed report from earlier this month indicated that as many as 750 people were killed in an attack on an Orthodox Church in Aksum that some believe contained the Ark of the Covenant as described in the book of Exodus.
The Belgium-based nonprofit European External Programme with Africa reported on the alleged massacre in a situational report issued Jan. 9.
“Hundreds of people hiding in the Maryam Tsiyon Church were brought out and shot on the square in front,” the report reads. “The number of people killed is reported as 750.”
Because of lack of access to the region, the report of the massacre has not been confirmed. However, the report was released amid other reports of assaults in the area.
“The situation in northern Ethiopia is alarming. Communication is very precarious and for almost three weeks, the Tigray region has been totally isolated from the rest of the world,” Regina Lynch, a project manager for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, said in a statement. “But the news we get from those who have been able to visit the area is terrible.”
Lynch says that while her organization has not been able to verify the details of the reported church massacre, the organization has “received confirmation of a series of killings and attacks on innocent people in many parts of the region and also in the Aksum area.”
“The population is terrified,” she said.
Lynch noted that Aid to Church in Need had received additional information indicating “there might have been another massacre with more than a hundred victims in the church of Maryam Dengelat in December.”
Lynch said that nobody knows how many people have been killed in the Tigray conflict but stressed that among the deceased are priests and church leaders.
“Shops, schools, churches and convents have been robbed and destroyed,” she said. “Thousands of people have fled their homes. Many have crossed the border into Sudan, but others have sought refuge in remote areas, in the mountains, without water or access to food.”
According to the Joshua Project, about 96% of the Tigray region's population adheres to some form of Christianity. But sources told Lynch that the violence is motivated by politics, not religion.
U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said earlier this month that the international body has received reports of civilians killed and injured in Tigray. The U.N. estimates that as many as 2.3 million people in the region need life-saving assistance.
“Humanitarian assistance continues to be constrained by the lack of full, and safe, unhindered access to Tigray, caused by both insecurity and bureaucratic delays,” Dujarric said.
“The U.N. and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia urgently call on all parties to allow the immediate safe passage of humanitarian personnel and their supplies to the Tigray Region to be able to reach all people who desperately need assistance.”
Eritrean soldiers have also been accused of targeting Eritrean refugees taking shelter in Ethiopia.
One doctor who is among the refugees in Tigray told the AP that he, too, heard reports of Eritrean forces killing young men. One woman survivor who left Tigray to go to the U.S. questioned why the Eritrean military troops are in the region.
“There’s no [military] camp in Aksum, just monasteries,” she was quoted as saying. “Why are they there?”
The U.S. government has called for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia. In December, a State Department spokesperson called Eritrean involvement in the conflict a “grave development.”