Ethiopia’s Tigray region: War behind a ‘steel wall’


Ethiopia’s Tigray region: War behind a ‘steel wall’
Ethiopia has claimed that an Amnesty report painting a dark picture of the Tigray crisis supports misinformation. Yet the country has tried to keep international journalists far from witnesses — and out of the region.

Ethiopian refugees in eastern Sudan
The stream of worrying news from Tigray, Ethiopia, does not stop. A harrowing report published last week by Amnesty International (AI) led to strong criticism — from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

AI described horrific scenes in the northern city of Axum, including “extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting after Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces led an offensive to take control of the city.”

Eritrean troops “systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity,” according to the report.

Gunshots and looting
The international community reacted quickly and harshly.

“Hostilities must cease immediately and immediate, full and unfettered access to the whole of Tigray for all humanitarian actors and the media allowed,” the European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement, adding that “the level of suffering endured by civilians, including children, is appalling.”

Aid workers on the ground had reported hearing gunshots from the main cities, including the region’s capital Mekelle, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported.

“Residents and aid workers on the ground continue reporting incidents of house searches and indiscriminate looting, including of household items, farming equipment, ambulances and office vehicles, allegedly by various armed actors.”

‘Worsening humanitarian crisis’
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The United States is gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.”

Blinken called on the African Union and the international community to help address the “worsening humanitarian crisis,” emphasizing an urge for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara regional forces from Tigray and the “unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray.”

Thousands of refugees from Tigray have fled to Sudan
Thousands of refugees from Tigray have fled to neighboring Sudan

Ethiopia’s federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea. However, dozens of witnesses, diplomats, and an Ethiopian general have reported seeing them there.

The state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a statement that preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum, in retaliation for an earlier attack by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) soldiers.

On the defensive
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry reacted defensively: Pronouncements by the United States on Ethiopia’s internal affairs were “regrettable.”

“It should be clear that such matters are the sole responsibility of the Ethiopian government,” the ministry said in a statement.

Allegations of human rights abuses, including sexual violence, would be taken seriously, it added.

“The government is firmly committed to undertake the necessary investigation and ensure full accountability of all perpetrators.” However, “this kind of report based on such sources will not serve the purpose of justice but has the risk of further reinforcing the misinformation and propaganda by TPLF and its cohorts.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denies the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray

Eritrea’s government dismissed the Axum massacre as “outrageous lies.” Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, on Friday said his country was “outraged and categorically rejects the preposterous accusations” in the AI report.

“The AI report is transparently unprofessional and it is evident that the AI makes no effort to get the facts right and cross-check the veracity of the allegations.”

Also, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government criticized AI for the “methodology employed in producing this report,” referring to phone interviews.

“It would have been appropriate for Amnesty International to undertake the necessary fieldwork by visiting the region and talking to the competent Ethiopian authorities to uncover the truth,” the prime minister said.

Blackhole for reporters
But this is just where another problem lies. Access to the region remains difficult for media representatives.

A DW journalist managed to talk to Tigrayans on the ground.

“They are suffering from shelter, clothes, food, water,” according to one volunteer in a camp for displaced Tigrayans, who told DW about the dire situation. “The main problem is medication. Many people here have HIV and diabetes, but in Tigray there are no medications.”

Martin Plaut, a journalist specializing in conflicts on the Horn of Africa, strongly criticized the dangerous situation journalists find themselves in.

Beaten and arrested
Though Abiy Ahmed has opened access to Tigray for seven major media houses, Plaut also pointed out how restricted they are in doing their jobs. “A number of reporters and journalists have come under huge pressure,” Plaut told DW.

“Some have been arrested, some have been beaten. One journalist in Addis Ababa found herself arrested, two translators for foreign journalists in Tigray were beaten and arrested by Ethiopian soldiers.”

Two Ethiopian soldiers
Ethiopian journalists have been arrested by Ethiopian forces

This poses a huge obstacle for international journalists, Plaut said.

“It’s a way of really making it impossible for foreign journalists to operate effectively in Tigray, because most of them don’t speak Tigrinya.”

Plaut also reported on his blog that evidence of atrocities had been removed and witnesses relocated to other cities.

Getting reliable information becomes almost impossible, according to Plaut.

“Even local journalists have found it extremely difficult to report from Tigray. In a sense, this war has been conducted behind a steel wall. There was no way of getting in and it is very difficult to get information out because the Internet and telephone communications were frequently interrupted.”

Watch video02:01
Thousands of refugees flee crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region
The crisis in Tigray is of great concern — for everyone. That is why it needs urgent measures to halt the crisis, which could result in a new stream of refugees arriving in Europe if nothing is done now.

A first step would be the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, Plaut agreed.

“The problem is that the only language that the Eritreans really understand is direct pressure. And this has to be really taken up at the UN Security Council.”

The only way would be to impose sanctions, Plaut suggested. “If they want to try and force the Eritreans to act and to move in this matter, they will have to invoke sanctions. I can’t see any other way of doing it.”

The journalist hopes that the Ethiopian government will also understand the necessity of this step. He is counting on the anger of Ethiopians — who have witnessed the killings and violations of their own people at the hands of Eritrean forces.

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