The region’s civilian population faces a serious humanitarian crisis as Ethiopian forces, Tigrayan forces and Eritrean forces are all accused of violent excesses.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political vision of centralisation has been met with fierce local resistance in the Tigray region in a protracted conflict, forcing the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to declare a unilateral ceasefire to prevent further setbacks on Monday.
In the last eight months, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), defenders of the ethno-federalist model, has battled federal troops, even most recently claiming back the regional capital, Mekelle in a blow to Ahmed’s political prestige.
Both the central government forces and Tigray forces are accused of committing atrocities, pushing the region to the brink of famine, according to human rights groups. But federal forces have particularly come under criticism for their brutality from both the international community and leading Western governments, primarily Washington.
“There is now ample evidence, based on our own research, of atrocities including war crimes of having been committed by warring parties during the conflict,” says Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“We have documented destruction and pillaging of civilian property by Ethiopian (central government) forces in the initial offensive in November,” Bader tells TRT World.
During the offensive, scores of civilians in the Tigray region have been killed and injured by Ethiopian forces in apparent “discriminative” attacks on towns and villages, she says. The attacks also led to “widespread displacement”. Last week, an Ethiopian airstrike killed dozens of peoplewhen it struck a crowded market in the village of Togoga in the Tigray region.
At the beginning of the central government’s controversial offensive in the rebel Tigray province, Ahmed appeared confident of a swift victory, imagining that that the operation would be over in a matter of weeks.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” Ahmed tweeted in late November. “The federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle,” said the prime minister in another statement, referring to the capital of the Tigray region.
But after an eight month-long protracted war, federal troops have ended up retreating from Mekelle in the face of a fierce guerrilla campaign launched by the region’s Tigray Defense Forces, which operates under Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading local political force.
Targeting civilian infrastructure
Both local and federal forces are accused of targeting a whole range of civilian infrastructure including hospitals, health facilities and schools, pillaging valuable supplies and equipment, according to HRW’s documentation. “The occupation of schools has been conducted by all warring parties including Tigrayan forces,” Bader says.
Among other atrocities, Bader recalls the central government occupation of “a very historic old school” in Mekelle. “Ethiopian forces not only occupied the school for several months but also destroyed a lot of equipment. They left horrific graffiti on the walls,” she says.
Eritrean forces have also committed atrocities in the Tigray region, according to Bader. Eritrea and Ethiopia have long been at loggerheads over several issues, but Prime Minister Ahmed was credited with resolving the conflict, leading the Nobel committee to award him with the peace prize.
However, the Eritrean government harbours a lot of resentment with the Tigray region. In the recent conflict, Eritrean forces have been involved in the Tigray region, fighting against local forces in collaboration with Ahmed’s federal troops.
HRW has documented “similar behaviour” (referring to atrocities) by Eritrean forces in Aksum, a historical town, where locals believe the ark of the covenant of Moses was held in a chapel.
“There is no doubt that serious international humanitarian law and human rights law crimes have been committed in the last eight months in the conflict by Ethiopian federal forces and their allies,” Bader says.
The Tigray conflict has also created a “tragic” humanitarian situation, says Bader. She thinks that the conflict has created not only a humanitarian crisis but also a human rights crisis because of warring parties’ actions.
HRW investigators reported a wide range of looting and burning of crops, all of which “has contributed to communities’ inability to survive without humanitarian assistance,” according to Bader.
Another worrying development reported by the UN and other humanitarian organisations is that the Ethiopian government and its allies have been pursuing a policy of “deliberate restrictions” on the movement of humanitarian actors in the war-torn region, the HRW Horn of Africa director observes.
Ensuring humanitarian access is already problematic in the Tigray region, and there is an epidemic of “widespread sexual violence against women” Bader says.
All these have left the population “very scared”, preventing many from reaching humanitarian assistance, Bader concludes.