[Rough translation of an article by the French magazine Info Libé]

“Liberation” has collected the testimonies of witnesses of abuses in this historic city of Tigray, where war is taking place behind closed doors. Testimonies that are difficult to verify, but overlap to describe disturbing violence.

A satellite image shows the presence of military troops near Axum airport on November 23. (Maxar/AFP)

by Maria Malagardis (Feb. 11, 2021)

The Tripadvisor website has not changed its page inviting visitors to discover the city of Axum, “the cradle of Ethiopian civilization”. The only addition is recommendations “to travel safely during the Covid-19. However, it is not the fear of the virus that is now driving tourists away, but a closed-door war that has isolated the entire Tigray region for the past three months. Libération has collected several testimonies tracing some of the events that took place in November and December in this historic city in the far north of the country, quickly conquered by the federal army fighting against the regional leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

According to the accounts gathered, the city was not spared from shelling, looting and violence. “It was ordinary civilians who were killed. Sometimes it was enough to witness an abuse or looting to be killed in turn. They don’t want witnesses. That’s why there’s still no Internet, or even a a telephone,” says Aksumait, a young woman from Axum who lives in the United States. Aksumait is far from Ethiopia and the city where part of her family still resides. “I can still hear from relatives who regularly go to Mekele [the capital of Tigray], where the phone works,” she explains.

“We didn’t see anything coming”

It was through these exchanges that she learned how her uncle and brother were killed. “From what I was told, my uncle was shot in the street as he was leaving Mass on November 29. “For three days, our relatives were forbidden to bury him,” she says. My brother first fled to rural areas to hide. But driven by hunger, he returned home in the hope of finding food. He was in his house in Wukuro Maray, 20 kilometres from Axum, on the morning of 11 December when soldiers knocked on the door. They went from house to house and taking people. Four neighbors left with him. We never saw them again. My parents begged the army for a week to find out where he was. At the end, an officer advised them to go to the Eritrean military, who are present in the city [which the government still denies]. They were the ones who led my parents to the pit where my brother’s body was.”

Aksumait is an indirect witness, whose information is immediately unverifiable. So did Daniel, who was in Addis Ababa, the capital. He sometimes pauses, on the verge of tears. While talking on his mobile phone, he sent pictures of his father and three brothers “killed by soldiers, on November 28 in Axum,” according to what he was told.

Solomon had been on holiday with his family for more than a month when the conflict began on 4 November. “We didn’t see anything coming, and all of a sudden we found themselves in the middle of a war,” said the father of three children, who has since returned to the United States, on video. He has not forgotten that morning when he saw planes appear in the skies of Axum. “These were the first bombings, and then around November 15, people started pouring in, recounting scenes of looting and destruction. In our town, there was no fighting, the Ethiopian army took it easily. And then around November 26, the Eritreans arrived. They are the ones who started hell in Axum on November 28 and 29,” he said.

“On Saturday, it was shooting in all directions, they were killing people on the street. The next morning, they went to some neighborhoods, from house to house, killing the men who were there. I was lucky, my family lives on the other side of the obelisks, near the church of Yesus. But for three days, they forbade touching the bodies. When we were able to bury them, I went to help. I don’t remember how many dead people I’ve carried. Maybe 300 or 400? Then I went home and cried,” recalls Solomon, who eventually left Aksum by road in late December. He remains haunted by this bloody weekend: “How could they have done this, on the eve of the celebrations of St. Mary of Tsion, one of the most sacred festivals!”

Places of worship looted?

History and religion have always played an important role in Axum, a city “older than Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Moscow,” told the ecstatic Italian writer Curzio Malaparte in 1939 during a trip to the region. It was the kingdom of Axum which, in the 4th century, gave the name of Ethiopia to the territories under its control. And it is this mythical city that hosts the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, the most important orthodox place of worship in the country, that is at the heart of the celebrations that take place every 30 November.

The church is also houses the Ark of the Covenant. A chest that, according to tradition, would contain the Tablets of the Laws given by God to Moses. The son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Menelik, is said to have stolen it and brought it back to Ethiopia after a stay with his father in Jerusalem. A priest is its guardian for life, and the only one who can see it. “In reality, this relic is thought to date back to the Middle Ages. However, in the eyes of Ethiopians, it truly embodies the Ark of the Covenant,” explains German ethnohistorian Wolbert Smidt from Hamburg.

According to persistent rumors, on 15 December, worshippers gathered en masse in front of the church for fear that the military would seize this sacred object. A confrontation reportedly took place, killing several hundred people. Solomon heard about it, but says he can’t confirm anything. He no longer dared to leave his home at the supposed date of the tragedy. The church is still intact.

But how many other places of worship have already been destroyed or looted? This is the case with one of the holiest places of pilgrimage sites in Islam: in the city of Wukro, the Al-Nejashi Mosque was bombed and looted. It was built in the 7th century by certain companions of Muhammad, later buried on the site. The government has acknowledged the damage inflicted but blames the TPLF forces for it.

On 2 February on Facebook, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned “Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia” against alleged false information that “aims to smear the image of the country”. From the United States, Aksumait couldn’t help it: “It was my niece, after arriving in Mekele, who told me what happened to my loved ones. Why would she lie to me? If these are just rumors, then we open access to the Tigray and we will soon know the truth.”

[Names have been changed]