The fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray province continues unabated, but no one knows exactly what is happening. Two Dutch aid workers who were recently present in the area tell their story.

Erik van Zwam
24 February 2021, 9:47

[Rough translation of an article by Erik van Zwam published on Dutch magazine Trouw]

Ethiopia appears to have lost control of much of the rebellious northern region of Tigray. More than a hundred days ago, the Ethiopian army, the ENDF, invaded the region to put things in order. It received support from many divisions from neighboring Eritrea, which borders Tigray. The fight then centered on the militias in Tigray affiliated with the TPLF, the party that held power in Ethiopia for nearly 30 years.
There is still fierce fighting with fighters from the TPLF. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed broke from TPLF leadership in 2018 and became Prime Minister. The TPLF wants to restore the dominant position, which is out of the question, or continue with an autonomous Tigray. To win the battle against the well-armed Tigrayans, Abiy enlisted the help of Eritrea. Ethiopia would even pay the Eritrean soldiers.

The Eritrean army units now control large swaths of northern Tigray and, according to many partially unconfirmed reports, are killing, looting and raping through out the region. This is seen as retaliation for the bloody war between Eritrea and Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 and the eighteen years of the cold war that followed. Eritrea holds the TPLF responsible for all those years of hostilities. Prime Minister Abiy ended the bitter relations between the two countries and made peace with the neighboring country. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2019.

But the question now is whether Abiy has not opened Pandora's box. The Ethiopian army now has no control over about 40 percent of Tigray. The UN Security Council was recently informed about this behind closed doors. Most of this area is in the hands of Eritrean troops and part of Amhara militias, from the southern neighboring region of Tigray. It is unclear whether President Isaias Afewerki, of the dictatorially ruled and extremely closed Eritrea, intends to withdraw his troops. It could just be as well that he stays in the northern part of Tigray.

The United Nations warned last weekend of "a very serious malnutrition situation" in Tigray. The Ethiopian Red Cross said that 80 percent of the population is inaccessible for relief supplies. About half of its six million inhabitants would now depend on emergency aid, including food and medicine, to survive.

Relief supplies 
Ethiopia's president, Ms. Sahle-Work Zewde, paid a visit to Mekele, the capital of Tigray, late last week. The needs are tremendous, we cannot pretend that we don't see or hear what is unfolding," she said in a statement. "There are massive delays in the transportation of relief supplies to Tigray." She said it without going into more detail about the causes of the tragic circumstances.

Ethiopia's minister for women's affairs, Filsan Addullahi, confirmed more than a week ago that she received reports of rapes in Tigray, which she condemned as "horrific." The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has now reported 108 rape cases in the northern region. This number is expected to be the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, Tigray remains almost hermetically sealed from the outside world. Emergency workers are admitted sporadically. Prime Minister Abiy declared the total victory in Tigray at the end of November last year. Aid would start but nothing seems to be further from the truth. The war and violence continue unabated.

Naar Soedan gevluchte Tigrayers vieren de 46ste verjaardag van de partij van Tigray, de TPLF. 
 Beeld AFP
Tigrayers who fled to Sudan celebrate the 46th anniversary of Tigray's party, the TPLF.

Dutch aid workers who were recently in the area tell us about the atrocities in Tigray. "The outside world needs to know what's happening here."
It is still somewhat safe in the capital Mekele, says Hielke Zantema of the Dutch aid organization Zoa. He spent a week in the capital of Tigray in February. “I flew into Tigray. There were soldiers everywhere at the airport, even on the runway. They don't do anything, but they are there. On the way to the city you will pass checkpoints. As a Westerner you are immediately singled out and questioned about what you are doing to do here. They want to make sure you are not a journalist, because they do not tolerate prying eyes,” said the emergency coordinator.

His first impression on the street in Mekele: “Tense. If something small happens at all, panic immediately ensues. During that week I had to stay in my hotel room for two more days. Tigrayans are said to have erected barricades on the streets in the city. The military responded immediately. Everyone had to stay in. The roads were deserted and the shops closed. I heard that several people were shot.”

Karla Bil, medical director of Doctors without Borders, recognizes this tense situation. She was in the city of Shire in northern Tigray from mid-January to the first week of February. “There was no electricity in Shire. The banks were closed, so people had no money and could not buy food. The hospital was no longer functioning. Inhabitants of the city were desperate. Refugees from the west of Tigray were housed in three schools. They should have left everything behind. Their only possession was the clothes they wore.”

Bil had many conversations with refugees. “They were told: run or you will be killed. They were stories full of violence, destruction and rape. People have even lost their relatives.” The refugees told Bil that if an army unit or a militia lost a battle, a revenge action followed at the neighboring village. “People were then killed or slaughtered. According to Tigrayans there is a difference: murder is shot and slaughtered is done with a machete.”

And then there was the fear of mass rape. I helped two women who were raped,” says Bil. She was in Shire to get the hospital, clinics and mobile medical posts back up and running so that the sick and injured can be treated again.

The Zantema's organization (Zoa) has been operating in Tigray for some time. The aid organization was active in refugee camps. People sheltered here fled the regime in Eritrea, often to escape lifelong military service. The nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees have once again been forced to flee the Eritrean army in Tigray.

Resten van een bibliotheek in een verwoeste basisschool in Tigray. Beeld Eduardo Soteras Jalil/MSF
Remains of a library in a ruined primary school in Tigray. Image Eduardo Soteras Jalil / MSF

“The camps are largely empty. Some destroyed, such as Hitsats. One of our employees died there at the end of last year. I've been busy from Mekele to get our staff from Shire to Mekele. That did not seem feasible, but eventually we succeeded. They have passed about fifteen checkpoints. But we cannot go to those refugee camps. Even visiting new camps is not possible. I wanted to take pictures of them and then show them to the world, but in the end that is too dangerous for the people there.” 

Karla Bil, who had been in Tigray longer, went outside the city, in the countryside. “After permission from the Ethiopian army, we went out in cars to investigate. Sometimes we were stopped by armed men and sent back. The situation was different in each area.

“In one village a massacre had taken place. When we got there the village was deserted, a ghost town. You could hear the wind whipping through the streets. Doors rattling. The clinic had been robbed. Employees fled.” After a short stay, Bil met some people. “They are traumatized, frightened, the fear is visible on their faces. Wounded people in the bush do not dare to seek treatment because they are afraid of being arrested.

“The village had been retaliated against by soldiers who lost fighting in the area. In the end, some 70 villagers were murdered,” she says. The name of the village? She hesitates because because she cannot assess what the consequences will be for the remaining residents if she does give the name. So it remains quiet. A difficult decision, but unavoidable for now.

War crimes 
It now seems that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Tigray. UN organizations have been warning against this for some time. Bil from Doctors without Borders does not comment on this. “We are a medical organization, not Amnesty. Others have to determine how everything should be interpreted from their knowledge and experience. I do note that the people I met were severely traumatized. I also see many similarities with other war zones where I have been. The common man and woman, the doctor, the farmer, the teacher are always the victims. Here also. You can also see the total upheaval in Tigray. Families torn apart. It's similar to what I saw northern Nigeria after Boko Haram struck.”

Een man staat voor zijn verwoeste huis in het dorp Bisober, Ethiopië. Beeld Eduardo Soteras Jalil/MSF
A man stands in front of his ruined house in the village of Bisober, Tigray. Image Eduardo Soteras Jalil/MSF

She does recognize the stories about the misdeeds of the Eritrean troops. “They plundered hospitals. All things were then quickly brought across the border to Eritrea, even mattresses. No, it's not positive stories you heard about those Eritrean soldiers there.” 

Outside world 
Bil has at least been able to start bringing back a basic form of medical care. Also in the areas outside of Shire. Logistics are back up and running to some extent. "People keep saying to me: the outside world needs to know what's happening here," Bil says at the end of the conversation.

Zantema has the same experience. “What stayed with me most from that week in Mekele is my experience at the airport when I returned. An employee asked me in a low voice, "Are you from an aid organization?" When I nodded, the person said, "You have to help us. You are our only hope”. It was a cry for help that went through the bone.