City of Aksoum, Ethiopia. May 2021 © RFI/ Sébastien Németh
16 June 2021
Since November, Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, has been bloodied by a conflict between the former regional government and a coalition of the federal Ethiopian army, Eritrean soldiers, and militia from the Amhara ethnic group. In the town of Aksum, several human rights organizations documented a bloodbath committed on November 28 and 29 by the Eritrean army.
The reports suggest the possibility of Eritreans retaliating against the population after a rebel attack. In late November, after fighting, a large contingent arrived in the city of Aksum. The soldiers then began a horrifying door-to-door killing of those who opened their doors. At least 200 people were reportedly killed in 48 hours. [More than 800 civilians are reported to have been massacred that weekend at the church and thousands more in villages outside Axum.]
Gere runs a barber shop. The chair of his brother, who ran the business with him, is now empty. “My brother opened the door to the Eritreans who dragged him out and shot him for no reason. After this tragedy, I did not work for three months, but those around me encouraged me to start again. However, nothing will be the same as before. Life is not the same without him,” he says.
The Eritreans even tried to attack the Tsion Saint Mariam church. A holy place for the Ethiopians, where the Ark of the Covenant is thought to be kept. But the inhabitants, including Yasu, 75 years old, opposed it. “The Eritreans came in large numbers to loot the church. Some of them had gasoline cans to burn it. We blocked them by making a circle around the building, while their weapons were pointed at us,” he says. I was ready to die. But the Ethiopian soldiers intervened. They told the Eritreans not to touch this sacred place or they would start a fight. I think we saved the church, but we couldn’t save our friends killed in town.”
Despite their failure, the Eritreans continued their bloody work, killing mostly the men. They then refused to bury the bodies for several days. “The bodies were left outside. I saw animals eating them. I helped put the bodies on carts and bury them in a pit without ceremony, because the violence continued. Today, people cannot move on. Aksum cries every day and people spend their time praying,” said Haile, a priest.
The bodies were finally buried in a hurry in nine churches in the city, such as Enda Aarbaatu Insesa, where dozens of graves have red identification numbers. Biniam came to pay his respects to his friends, nieces and nephews buried there.
“I cry when I come here. In my house too, the Eritreans knocked on the door after we had just heard our neighbors screaming and being shot. I have a baby, but luckily he didn’t make a sound. This tragedy still affects us today. Little things annoy me, I quarrel with everyone. I feel sad and angry all the time,” he says.
At the end of May, the prosecutor pointed the finger at Eritrean troops in the massacre. But to this day, the crimes perpetrated by the soldiers from Asmara remain unpunished.