Fleeing Ethiopians Tell of Ethnic Massacres in Tigray War – New York Times
Mr. Ashenafi, 24, was racing on his motorcycle to the aid of a childhood friend trapped by the Ethiopian government’s military offensive in the northern region of Tigray when a group of men on foot confronted him. They identified themselves as militia members of a rival ethnic group, he said, and they took his cash and began beating him, laughing ominously.
“Finish him!” Mr. Ashenafi remembered one of the men saying.
As they tightened the noose around his neck and began pulling him along the road, Mr. Ashenafi was sure he was going to die, and he eventually passed out. But he said he awoke alone near a pile of bodies, children among them. His motorcycle was gone.
Mr. Ashenafi and dozens of other Tigrayan refugees fled the violence and settled outside the remote and dusty town of Hamdayet, a community of just a few thousand people near the border, where I spoke to them. Their firsthand accounts, shared a month after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared war on the Tigray region, detail a devastating conflict that has become a grisly wellspring of looting, ethnic antagonism and killings.
The Tigrayans describe being caught between indiscriminate military shelling and a campaign of killing, rape and looting by government-allied ethnic militias. Several told me that they saw dozens of bodies along the route as they fled their shops, homes and farms and took to the long road to the border with Sudan, in stifling heat.
As the fighting in Tigray continues, it is degenerating into a guerrilla war that could unravel both Ethiopia’s national fabric and the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region. That includes Eritrea, which is allied with Ethiopia against the Tigray and has been shelled by the rebel forces; and Sudan, which has heavily deployed its army along its restive border with Ethiopia even as it has allowed refugees to cross.
The Tigray make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, and they were the arbiters of power and money in the country from 1991, when they helped dismantle a military dictatorship, until 2018, when anti-government protests catapulted Mr. Abiy to power.
Mr. Abiy had sought to emphasize national unity and diversity in a multiethnic Ethiopia, even as he began methodically excluding Tigrayan figures from public life and condemning their abuses while they were in power. Now, the conflict stands at stark odds with the legacy he was seeking, and with the stability of the entire country.
If Mr. Abiy’s aim was to unite an increasingly divided country, then “this conflict has made that harder to achieve, and so increased the likelihood of serious ongoing political instability,” said William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group who was recently expelled from the country.
While Fano is a term loosely used to refer to young Amhara militias or protesters, Mr. Davison added that it is also “the name given to youthful Amhara vigilante groups that become more active during times when there is perceived to be insecurity that is not being managed by the authorities.”
Tigrayan refugees in Sudan said that Fano fighters attacked and maimed them, ransacked their properties and extorted them as they sought to flee. Many of the Tigrayans, including Mr. Ashenafi, said that they were afraid of going back and that the experience had left them sleepless and scarred.
After Mr. Ashenafi awoke and saw the bodies around him, he trudged through a nearby forest to reach the home of his friend, Haftamu Berhanu, who took him in. Photos taken by Mr. Haftamu and seen by The New York Times showed Mr. Ashenafi lying on his back, white skin peeled away around his neck from the noose.
For days afterward, Mr. Ashenafi could not talk or swallow anything and communicated with his friend through pointing or writing things down.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Haftamu said of the days caring for his friend.
“I didn’t expect in our life that our government would kill us,” Mr. Ashenafi said. “I am frightened so much. I am not sleeping at night.”
Many of the refugees who made it to Sudan have been resettled to the Um Rakuba camp about 43 miles away from the border. But many are also staying around a refugee transit point in Hamdayet, hoping to return home or reunite with their families once it is safe.
Many told me that they came from Humera, an agricultural town of about 30,000 people near both the Sudanese and Eritrean borders. Thousands suddenly fled the town with whatever they could carry when shelling began around midnight from what the refugees said was the direction of Eritrea.
Some gathered first at nearby churches, but after hearing that other churches had been shelled, they started the hourslong journey on foot to Sudan. They said that militia fighters began streaming in.