By STEPHEN GREY
Ethiopian troops and their allies have driven back Tigrayan forces that had advanced on the capital. Reuters visited areas formerly held by the rebels and documented accounts of rapes and killings.
In the dappled shadows of a glade of cypress and eucalyptus, a deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church adjusted his roughly-spun cotton shawl and knelt by a white-washed grave. “He was my best friend,” Betsiha Derresse said. “We did everything together – sleep, work.”
In August, civil war reached the thin air of this town in the Amhara region, 3,000 metres up in a mountainous landscape once home to Ethiopia’s ancient rulers. Forces from neighbouring Tigray province had arrived. The delicate-framed Betsiha, 28, said he and many others hid in the forest, but his friend and fellow deacon, Mulat Aynekulu Mekonnen, turned back to collect a book.
The Tigrayan fighters “started to shoot at us, so we had to run away en masse,” Betsiha said. Mulat went back. “He said he would not leave without his psalm book.”
When Betsiha returned to his church three days later, he found 35-year-old Mulat’s body, he said. He’d been shot.
The head of the mayor’s office, Belete Asrate, said Tigrayan fighters killed 27 civilian men in the town. He, Betsiha and two others said the victims were unarmed. Another person said some of the victims were carrying weapons. None of these people witnessed the killings.
Townspeople said more than 70 women were raped by Tigrayan fighters. Reuters met three of the women and spoke to health workers, local officials and federal prosecutors. The Tigrayan perpetrators were young, said Agere Yaynalem, a 37-year-old woman, who said she was raped multiple times and left unconscious.
“I appealed to them,” Agere said. “Do you not have sisters? Think of them!” She asked that Reuters identify her by name and use her photo in this report. “The worst has already happened to me,” she said.
Since civil war erupted over a year ago in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Reuters has reported atrocities by all sides. Accounts of abuses in Nifas Mewcha and other towns in Amhara, documented by Reuters, are pulling into focus the role of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the war.
Tigrayan forces are ultimately commanded by leaders of the TPLF, which dominates Tigray and once controlled the Ethiopian government, although many foot soldiers are not TPLF members. Arrayed against them are Ethiopia’s federal army, as well as troops from the neighbouring country of Eritrea and from Amhara region.
“The worst has already happened to me.”Agere Yaynalem, who says she was raped
The conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives. It has plunged 400,000 people into famine conditions and left 9.4 million in need of food aid across northern Ethiopia, according to the United Nations. Around 60,000 people have poured across the border into Sudan, the U.N. says.
For eight months, the fighting was in Tigray. Allegations of killings and mass rape were documented by Reuters and others. From July, the war spread southward and eastward. Tigrayan fighters invaded the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara. In November, Amnesty International reported accusations that Tigrayan fighters committed rapes, looting and assaults in Nifas Mewcha. Amnesty wasn’t able to visit the town, basing its report on phone interviews with residents. The TPLF promised to investigate the alleged rapes and “bring perpetrators to justice.”
After the recent recapture of hundreds of square miles of territory in Amhara by the Ethiopian army, Reuters journalists were able to travel to Nifas Mewcha and other towns in late November. Witnesses such as Betsiha gave accounts of killings in Nifas Mewcha, reported for the first time here, and Agere and other women provided Reuters with on-the-record allegations of rape that support London-based Amnesty’s report.
The TPLF didn’t respond to questions about the claims of killings and other detailed inquiries for this article. TPLF leaders have repeatedly denied that Tigrayan forces have committed wide-scale abuses and have called for independent international investigations.
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