Amnesty International says in a report that satellite images of mass graves suggest that hundreds of unarmed civilians were methodically hunted down and killed in northern Ethiopia’s predominantly-Christian and war-torn Tigray region by soldiers from neighboring Eritrea about three months ago.
“Satellite imagery analysis … corroborates reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting, as well as identifies signs of new mass burials near two of the city’s churches,” said the report, which revealed that Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray state systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the city of Axum on Nov. 28-29, 2020.
“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion,” Deprose Muchena, the human rights group’s director for East and Southern Africa, said. “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.”
In one instance, hundreds of people were hiding in Maryam Tsiyon Church in Axum, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant described in the book of Exodus in the Bible, amid an armed conflict on the day of the attacks. They were all brought out and shot to death, and local residents believed the aim was to take the Ark of Covenant to Addis Ababa, the Belgium-based nonprofit European External Programme with Africa reported in January’s situational report.
The fighting began in Tigray on Nov. 4 when the region’s ruling political party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, captured the Northern Command army base in the regional capital Mekelle as part of an uprising, after which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive. Military forces from Eritrea support the Ethiopian government.
“The number of people killed is reported as 750,” the situational report said. The church, the most ancient and sacred of Ethiopian Christianity and also known as the Church of St. Mary of Zion, belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
“I’ve not heard more than rumors about the looting of the Arc from Maryam Tsion, but if it’s true that up to 750 died defending it, it is conceivable that the attackers didn't stop there,” said Michael Gervers, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, at the time, according to The Telegraph. "The government and the Eritreans want to wipe out the Tigrayan culture. They think they’re better than rest of the people in the country. The looting is about destroying and removing the cultural presence of Tigray.”
Amnesty said 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.”
“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 earlier. The witness added that some Eritrean soldiers went door-to-door, killing Tigrayan men and boys as young as 7 years old.
The Amnesty report also includes testimonies of witnesses to extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting after Ethiopian and Eritrean troops led an offensive to take control of the city.
“I saw a lot of people dead on the street,” a 21-year-old male resident was quoted as saying. “Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed.”
After the killings, the city’s streets and cobblestone plazas were strewn with bodies, the group said. One man, who had run out of the city returned at night after the shooting stopped, said, “All we could see on the streets were dead bodies and people crying.”
On Nov. 29, Eritrean soldiers shot at anyone who tried to move the bodies of those killed.