Picture: Believers flock to worship in Axum, Tigray region.© Johannes Dieterich

[Rough translation of a report by Von Johannes Dieterich for Frankfurter Rundschau – FR]

In Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, peace has supposedly prevailed for months. In fact, local militias are fighting quite successfully against the military from Addis Ababa and its allies from Eritrea. A report and pictures by Johannes Dieterich

Conflicts in Africa are easily forgotten – too easily. Over the weekend, Ethiopia and its embattled northern region of Tigray briefly returned to the spotlight: the deaths of three members of the aid organization Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) were reported. Who killed them? Government troops, Eritrean invaders, the Tigray Defense Forces? Everyone and no one. Hardly anyone is talking about the fact that six IDPs also died with the three. Reliable information from Tigray is scarce. Our reporter was there.

What were we doing here, asks the Ethiopian soldier guarding the roadblock on the outskirts of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray Region. From his point of view, the question is quite legitimate: For his commanders, the government in Addis Ababa, there is really nothing to report from the part of the country that has become sadly famous. The “law enforcement operation” for which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent his troops to the region last November was declared successfully completed by the head of government just four weeks later. Since then, he said, the soldiers have only been busy with “clean-up work.” Soon, Eritrean troops who had been allowed into the country to support the operation would also return home. Their presence in Tigray had initially been denied by Abiy for months. The 44-year-old prime minister also dismisses the United Nations’ warning calls that famine is brewing in the region as false reports: “No one is starving in Tigray,” Abiy recently told the BBC.

Are the reports from Ethiopia’s civil-war province really grossly exaggerated-or is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy suffering from acute reality blindness? For a reality check, we choose the road from Mekelle westward into the hinterland to Abiy Addi. The immaculately paved road is considered safe – like almost all connections between the towns in the province, which are controlled by either the Ethiopian or the Eritrean military. The soldier at the first of more than 20 roadblocks we will pass on our two-day round trip through Tigray also has no decisive objection to our continuing onward journey: He only wants to know from our two local companions, the driver and translator, why they have nothing better to do than to drive foreign journalists through the area.

A few kilometers later, the first burned-out tank appears at the side of the road; dozens more will follow on our way through the region. Almost without exception, these are Ethiopian tanks that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) seized from the Northern Command at the very beginning of the conflict. The TPLF soldiers had not reckoned with this: That Addis Ababa secured the support of the United Arab Emirates and its combat drones. Within a few days, they had turned the armored booty park into scrap metal. The insurgent provincial leadership was forced to radically rethink its approach: It abandoned conventional warfare and withdrew its forces to guerrilla warfare in the spectacular mountains of Tigray.

We have just passed one of the countless breathtaking passes of the mountainous country when a group of young men with Kalashnikovs strapped to their backs appear next to the road. Some of them are busy piling up small walls of stones to hide behind: An ambush is obviously being prepared here. “TDF,” says our driver, less frightened than awestruck.

A stocky man in his mid-forties with graying hair reveals himself as the commander of the group. The well-built gentleman introduces himself as a former businessman in Addis Ababa who had his accounts frozen by the government because he is from Tigray. He then returned home and joined the rebels. If Abiy Ahmed had expected Tigray’s population to patiently endure the prosecution, which was supposedly directed only against the provincial leadership, he was soon proven wrong: With each additional bloody day of occupation, hundreds of new recruits flocked to the rebel force, which has since been renamed the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF): Farmers’ sons, cab drivers, even university professors. With their “reign of terror,” the enemies have ensured “that we have no recruitment problems whatsoever,” says the commander.

Their guerrilla warfare has been so successful that they may now change their strategy again, adds the officer in jeans and plaid shirt: “While we used to retreat quickly after each attack, we are now looking to hold territory.” Already in a few days Abiy Addi will fall into their hands, the businessman is sure: “But now you have to go, because the Ethiopians will come soon.”

Indeed, as we continue our journey to Abiy Addi, a convoy of 19 Ethiopian army trucks soon meets us. On the back of each truck are about 30 soldiers: they are now rumbling towards their doom. When we turn back later to see what has happened, we don’t get far: the two trucks at the back of the convoy are blocking the road – gunfire and gun smoke make it clear that the battle is still going on. We won’t know the details until days later.

Abiy Addi has had no cell phone reception for days; the army keeps shutting down the network. The local coordinator of an international aid organization says that while visiting a famine-stricken region, he and his team were arrested by Ethiopian soldiers, beaten up and threatened with death. “The military wants to determine who gets aid and who doesn’t,” says the former university lecturer: “We have the food but are prevented from distributing it.” More than a third of children in the Abiy Addi region are malnourished, he says: The worst cases are already being treated in the clinic. However, because ambulances cannot be notified without mobile phones, only a few make it to the hospital.

Krisenregion Tigray
Crisis region Tigray© FR

It is not possible to return to Mekelle by the same route: fighting is still going on there. The road via Hawzen has also been closed in the meantime: TDF and Ethiopian army are also involved in fighting here. The only route that remains open is via Adua and Adigrat: a 300-kilometer detour through the heart of the terrorized province [region]. This route had been suggested to us by Maria Hernandez, emergency aid coordinator of the Spanish “Médecins Sans Frontières”: she is murdered a few days later together with her co-worker and driver. Who is responsible for the absurd act remains unexplained for the time being.

The road to Adua is controlled by Eritrean soldiers: they have long since stopped trying to cover up their controversial presence. They do not look like the former victors who had been able to drive out the Ethiopians after decades: Young guys or old fighters – the middle generation is said to have fled almost entirely to Europe. That it is Eritreans who control this area would be obvious even without the lighter uniforms of the occupiers: Almost the entire population has fled here, the doors of the houses are broken open, inside yawning emptiness. The Eritreans are particularly merciless with the civilian population, as we learn later in Mekelle’s Ayder Hospital: They go after even four-year-old children with their knives, rape young girls as well as elderly women, just to bring maximum terror on their historical arch-enemy. More than 20 years ago, Eritreans and Tigray, who belong to the same ethnic group and speak the same language, fought a cruel fratricidal war over the border in a semi-desert area.

Ein Milizionär der Tigray Defence Force.
A militiaman of the Tigray Defence Forces. © Johannes Dieterich

The next day, when we make a detour from Adigrat in the direction of the Eritrean border, the road is deserted. Only at the entrance to Fatsi stands a lonely old man who introduces himself as Alemu Gebremariam. He ran a small hostel, bar and shop, which were smashed by the invaders. The occupiers were firmly entrenched, the 59-year-old says: they set up camp in the school and installed their own administrator. Alemu believes it is impossible that the “army of beasts” will soon leave the province [region], as government leader Abiy has assured several times: “Without Eritreans, we would chase the Ethiopian army away in no time.”

On the road from Abiy Addi to Adua, we overtake a truck loaded with chairs, tables, planks and even plastic canisters: loot from the Eritrean soldiers that they are taking away to their homeland. The occupying forces have even ordered them to cut down the trees, a teenager tells us; they seriously want to get their trunks across the border.

In the evening we reach Axum, the Holy City of the Tigray, where the Ark of the Covenant of the Israelites is supposedly kept. Except for a chosen priest, no one is allowed to approach the tablets of the law carved in stone. Tradition is. And yet the invaders tried to get hold of them, too, as the story goes in Axum: Hundreds rushed to the holy site – and were killed there by Eritrean soldiers. However, there are many contradictory reports about the “Axum Massacre.” All that is certain is that the site now also contains a mass grave with an unknown number of corpses. We spend the night in a vacant four-star hotel with hung windows waiting for better times. And the next day, thousands celebrate the name day of the archangel Michael – as if they had nothing at all to criticize about his current performance as patron saint.

The return trip to Mekelle via Adigrat is uneventful. We pass several textile, glass or natural stone factories, all of which are completely destroyed, and encounter countless military convoys with thousands of Ethiopian soldiers, which give the lie to Abiy Ahmed’s assurance of the imminent end of the mission. In some areas, farmers are preparing their fields with oxen plows for the first rains; in other regions, the fields lie fallow. In total, more than two million Tigrayans are said to have already been driven from their homes, according to the United Nations: They live mostly crammed into schools with only makeshift food supplies. There have been no classes in the province for eight months.

Back in Mekelle, we contact the rebel command staff to get details about the fate of the businessman. His troops have captured 80 Ethiopian trucks and killed 2,000 soldiers, Getachew Reda, a member of the nine-member TDF leadership and formerly Ethiopian minister of information, tells us. This is certainly exaggerated beyond measure, but there is no doubt about the success of his ambush. The commander is well, Getachew assures us, and Abiy Addi will be captured in the next few days.

The next day, the government army takes revenge. Fighter jets bomb the village of Togoga near the road between Mekelle and Abiy Addi, where hundreds have gathered for market day. The attack kills more than 50 people, including many women and children. The Ethiopian army denies having attacked Togoga, saying that they were hunting “terrorists”. They are “masters at pretending to be victims,” the military claims. Apparently, others have the claim to masterful lying.