Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, the war-torn region in northern Ethiopia, according to a confidential US government report obtained by The New York Times.
The report, written earlier this month, documents in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for.
Fighters and officials from the neighbouring Amhara region of Ethiopia, who entered Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organised use of force and intimidation”, the report says.
“Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased,” it adds.
In a second report, published on Friday, Amnesty International said soldiers from Eritrea had systematically killed hundreds of Tigrayan civilians in the ancient city of Axum over a 10-day period in November, shooting some of them in the streets.
The worsening situation in Tigray – where Mr Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, launched a surprise military offensive in November – is shaping up to be the Biden administration’s first major test in Africa. Former president Donald Trump paid little attention to the continent and never visited it, but President Joe Biden has promised a more engaged approach.
In a call with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Thursday, Mr Biden brought up the Tigray crisis. The two leaders discussed “the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and ensure humanitarian access”, a White House statement said.
But thus far, Mr Biden and other US officials have been reluctant to openly criticise Mr Abiy’s conduct of the war, while European leaders and United Nations officials, worried about reports of widespread atrocities, have been increasingly outspoken.
On Tuesday, a European Union envoy, Finland’s foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, told reporters the situation in Tigray was “very out of control” after returning from a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia and Sudan. The bloc suspended €88m (£76m) in aid to Ethiopia at the start of the conflict, and last month the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned of possible war crimes in Tigray and said that the crisis was “unsettling” the entire region.
Ethiopia routinely dismisses critics of its campaign as stooges of its foes in Tigray. But on Friday afternoon, in response to the Amnesty International report, Mr Abiy’s office said it was ready to collaborate in an international investigation into atrocities in Tigray. The government “reiterates its commitment to enabling a stable and peaceful region”, it said in a statement.
Mr Abiy’s office also claimed that Ethiopia has given “unfettered” access to international aid groups in Tigray – in contrast with UN officials who estimate that just 20 per cent of the region can be reached by aid groups because of government-imposed restrictions.
The new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, spoke with Mr Ahmed by phone on 4 Feburary and urged him to allow humanitarian access to Tigray, the State Department said.
Alex de Waal, an expert on the Horn of Africa at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said it is time for the United States to urgently focus on the crisis in Tigray, before more atrocities are committed and the humanitarian crisis lurches toward a famine.
“What is needed is political leadership at the highest level, and that means the US,” he said.
When the United States assumes the chair of the UN Security Council in March, Professor de Waal said, it should use that position to bring international pressure to bear on the belligerents to step back from a ruinous conflict.
Mr Ahmed launched the Tigray campaign on 4 November after months of tension with the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which ruled Ethiopia with a tight grip for almost three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.
But many of the worst abuses of the war have been blamed not on the Ethiopian military or the TPLF – whose armed wing is now known as the Tigray Defence Forces – but on the irregular and undeclared forces that have rallied behind Prime Minister Ahmed’s military campaign.
Within weeks of the start of the conflict came the first reports that soldiers from Eritrea – Ethiopia’s bitter rival until the two countries reached a peace deal in 2018 – had quietly crossed into Tigray to assist Mr Ahmed’s overstretched federal forces.
In western Tigray, ethnic fighters from Amhara, a region with a long rivalry with Tigray, flooded in, quickly helping Mr Ahmed to capture the area.
Now it is the Eritreans and Amhara fighters who face the most serious accusations, including rape, plunder and massacres that, experts say, could constitute war crimes.
The US government report about the situation in western Tigray, an area now largely controlled by Amhara militias, documents in vivid terms what it describes as an apparent campaign to force out the ethnic Tigrayan population under the cover of war.
The report, which is categorised by the government as “sensitive but unclassified”, documents how in several towns ethnic Tigrayans had been attacked and had their homes pillaged and burned. Some had fled into the bush; others crossed illegally into Sudan; and still others had been rounded up and forcibly relocated to other parts of Tigray, the report says.
In contrast, towns with a majority Amharan population were thriving, with bustling shops, bars and restaurants, the report said.
The US report is not the first accusation of ethnic cleansing since the Tigray crisis erupted. But it does highlight how US officials are quietly documenting those abuses and reporting them to superiors in Washington.
The looming spectre of mass hunger is also driving the sense of urgency over Tigray. At least 4.5 million people in the region urgently need food aid, according to the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre, which is run by Ethiopia’s federal government. Ethiopian officials say that some people have already died.
A document from Tigray’s regional government dated 2 February and obtained by The New York Times notes that 21 people starved to death in the eastern Tigray district of Gulomokeda. Such numbers could be just the tip of the iceberg, aid officials warned.
“Today it could be one, two or three, but you know after a month it means thousands,” Abera Tola, president of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, told reporters earlier this month. “After two months it will be tens of thousands.”
The political outrage over Tigray, though, especially among European lawmakers, is being fuelled by the growing tide of accounts of human rights abuses.
The Amnesty International report published on Friday asserts that Eritrean soldiers conducted house-to-house searches in Axum in November, shooting civilians in the street and conducting extrajudicial executions of men and boys. When the shooting stopped, residents who tried to remove the bodies from the street were fired upon, the report says.
Amnesty said the massacre was likely a crime against humanity. Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane G Meskel, rejected the report, calling it “transparently unprofessional”.
Axum, a city of ancient ruins and churches, holds great significance to followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. When the Eritrean soldiers relented and allowed the bodies to be collected, hundreds were piled up in churches, including the Church of St Mary of Zion, where many Ethiopians believe that the ark of the covenant – said to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments – is housed.