Looting, rape stalk Ethiopia's Tigray despite peace deal


Women mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean Soldiers in the village of Dengolat, north of Mekele.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Ethiopia's allies in the Tigray war have unleashed a campaign of looting, rape and expulsions, residents and humanitarian workers in the northern region say, despite a peace deal to halt the fighting.

Since the November 2 peace agreement was signed to end the two-year-old conflict, aid has begun trickling into Tigray, phone lines have been partially restored, and the regional capital Mekele reconnected to the national electricity grid.

Access to Tigray is severely restricted and communication services are limited, making it impossible for journalists to independently verify the situation on the ground. 

But interviews with eight residents and aid workers found that civilians remain far from safe, with Eritrean forces and militias from the neighbouring Ethiopian province of Amhara accused of murder, rape and other abuses.

In Shire, a town in northwestern Tigray, a resident described a climate of fear under Eritrean and Amhara occupation and "continuous looting and kidnappings."

"Shire is almost a ghost town," he told AFP in mid-December, adding that civilians were suffering dire shortages of food, fuel and cash.

"Women fear leaving their homes and moving out in the open city for fear of sexual violence."

Looting, kidnappings, rapes

An aid worker in Shire, who like many interviewed for this story requested anonymity for security reasons, said his organisation had recorded 11 cases of rape.

He travelled extensively around Tigray between late November and early December and encountered Eritrean and Amhara forces across the region -- observations supported by other aid workers.

In another interview in November, he said "Amhara forces are engaged in looting homes and government offices, as well as kidnapping mainly young men and women" in Shire.

"Eritrean soldiers also continue to loot and abduct young people. The Ethiopian army (is) watching and not intervening," he added.

A resident based in Adwa, reached by AFP this week, said a family of seven she knew were killed by Eritrean forces on the town's outskirts in central Tigray. 

Last week Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN's World Health Organization, said his uncle was among 50 villagers who had been "murdered by the Eritrean army." 

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling authority in the region which signed the peace deal with Addis Ababa, has also accused Eritrean forces of carrying out massacres.

Neither Eritrea nor Amhara's regional authorities participated in the peace talks, and the agreement  makes no mention of their forces' presence or terms for their withdrawal.

The two parties have been major players in the conflict, backing Ethiopia's army and drawing accusations of vicious human rights abuses.

Their enmity with the TPLF goes back decades, with Eritrea fighting a bloody border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, a time when the Tigrayan party dominated the national government.

Nationalist elements within Amhara have long contested Tigray's claim to the fertile stretch of western Tigray, and the territory was occupied by Amhara forces after the conflict erupted in November 2020.

'We are scared' 

At the beginning of December, a resident of Mai Tsebri in southwest Tigray told AFP the city's Amhara authorities were "deporting and expelling ethnic Tigrayans and looting their properties".

"We are worried, we are afraid for our safety and our future," he said.

"The new leaders have started issuing identity cards to residents they consider to be of the Amhara ethnic group, as well as to settlers who arrived with the new authorities," he added.

The aid worker from Shire, who visited western Tigray in recent weeks, also confirmed the arrival of Amhara settlers, and said Tigrayans were being expelled to other regions or put into detention camps. 

The latest allegations follow US warnings of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray dating back to March 2021, that were denied by Amhara authorities.

Neither the federal government in Addis Ababa, nor regional authorities in Amhara, responded to requests for comment from AFP before publication.

'Broken and depressed'

The TPLF said this month that 65 percent of its fighters had "disengaged" from battle lines but Mekele remains under its control.

At Ayder Referral Hospital, conditions remain "the same as (during) the 18 months before," said Kibrom Gebreselassie, a senior official at Mekele's main medical facility.

"There is no budget, the medications we get are from donations which are barely enough for one to two days," he said.

A humanitarian worker in Mekele told AFP this month that residents appeared "broken and depressed by the situation as well as the general shortage of food, medicine and housing" despite the resumption of aid convoys.

Conditions in the rest of Tigray were no better, said a third aid worker who travelled from Shire to Adwa in early December.

Across northern Tigray, "there is a very serious lack of medicine, hygiene and sanitation," he told said.

But fear of violence remains the predominant concern.

Tigrayans have been "left alone to be killed by occupying foreign forces with impunity," said Kibrom.

"Everyone is tired of war. Peace is what the people want most. But everyone is also concerned... lest the peace deal be used as a cover-up for all the crimes committed against humanity," he said.

"Loving peace doesn't mean letting go (of) justice."