It was well before noon, yet Beyenesh Tekleyohannes’s house had already been buzzing for hours: more than 30 guests were singing, praying and sharing plates of shiro stew and lentils in honour of a major Orthodox Christian holiday.
The atmosphere on that November day was so lively that no one noticed the Eritrean troops approaching on foot down the winding dirt road into Dengolat, a village in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, until it was too late.
Wearing military uniforms and speaking in an Eritrean dialect of the Tigrinya language, the soldiers forced all the guests inside, yanked out the men and boys and marched them to a sun-scorched patch of earth down the hill.
Beyenesh heard the first gunshots as she fled in the opposite direction to safety, and immediately feared the worst for her male loved ones down below: her husband, two adult sons and two nephews.
When she emerged from hiding three days later, Beyenesh discovered all five had perished in the massacre.
The soldiers had tied their hands with belts and ropes and shot them in the head.
“I’d rather die than have lived to see this,” Beyenesh told AFP, tears rolling down her face as she described how the annual festival of Saint Mary turned into a bloodbath.
Local church officials say 164 civilians were killed in Dengolat , with most of the deaths occurring on November 30, one day after the festival.
That makes it one of the worst known atrocities in the ongoing conflict in Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has tightly restricted humanitarian and media access to the region, and for nearly three months Dengolat residents despaired of sharing their story with the world.
AFP reached Dengolat last week, interviewing survivors and viewing mass graves that now dot the village, a collection of stone houses surrounded by Tigray’s signature steep rock escarpments.
Human rights groups fear that instead of an extreme example of the violence in Tigray, what happened in Dengolat could turn out to be disturbingly typical.
“There are so many spots of violence and massacres in Tigray. The full scale is yet to be known,” said Fisseha Tekle, Ethiopia researcher for Amnesty International.
“That’s why we are asking for a UN-led investigation. The details of the atrocities need to come out, and accountability should follow.”
So far only Addis Ababa has said it is probing “alleged crimes” in the region.
– No mistaking Eritreans –
Abiy — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 — announced military operations in Tigray four weeks before the festival, saying they came in response to attacks by Tigray’s longtime ruling party on federal army camps.
The powerful Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian politics for decades, and tensions had soared with Abiy after he took office in 2018 and was accused of sidelining the party.
As the war drags on and reports of atrocities mount, soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, widely reported to be backing up Ethiopian troops, are often fingered as culprits.
Addis Ababa and Asmara deny Eritrea’s military is present in Tigray at all.
Last week Amnesty published a report detailing how Eritrean troops “systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians” in the Tigrayan city of Axum, also in November 2020.
Tigrayans in both places have said there was no mistaking the nationality of the perpetrators: In addition to their accents, they cited facial scars specific to Eritrea’s Ben Amir ethnic group.
Dengolat survivor Tamrat Kidanu, 66, told AFP he was walking to his maize fields the morning the Eritreans arrived, and was shot in the right thigh.
Unable to move, he lay on the ground and listened as the soldiers mowed down other men, including his recently married 26-year-old son.
Two decades ago, when the TPLF dominated the central government, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a brutal border war that left tens of thousands dead.
Many Tigrayans including Tamrat see Eritrean soldiers’ present-day conduct as a form of revenge.
“This kind of crime is to exterminate us, to humiliate us,” Tamrat said from his hospital bed in the regional capital Mekele, where he is unable to sit up without the aid of a rope.
– Church under fire –
As Eritrean soldiers fired on men in the centre of Dengolat, hundreds of other civilians cowered in terror in a centuries-old Orthodox church up in the mountains.
The soldiers soon warned, though, that the church would be shelled if the men didn’t walk out and surrender.
Some tried to flee higher into the mountains, but Eritrean soldiers shot them dead before they could get very far.
Gebremariam, 30, who requested his name be changed for fear of reprisals, was among the few who turned himself over to the Eritreans.
He was tasked with helping to bury the dead, transporting the bodies — their heads blasted open by bullets — on a makeshift stretcher to mass grave sites.
Standing before one of the sites, situated behind a cluster of cacti, Gebremariam scoffed at officials’ claims that the conflict has involved minimal civilian harm.
“What you see in front of you proves that is a lie,” he said.
– ‘You need to speak’ –
Dengolat residents have had few chances to tell the story of the massacre.
After the Eritrean soldiers left, Gebremariam and other Dengolat residents painted some of the stones marking the mass graves a bright sky blue.
“We thought that way maybe a satellite could see them,” Gebremariam said.
When a team of AFP journalists arrived in the village, dozens of men and women rushed out, some clutching framed photographs of their dead relatives.
As women wept and pounded the ground, some crying out the names of their dead sons, men sobbed into scarves pulled over their faces.
Kahsu Gebrehiwot, a priest at the Orthodox church in Dengolat, bemoaned the fact that not even Ethiopia’s Orthodox leaders were denouncing the killings, to say nothing of the federal government.
“When people are dying and they are saying nothing, that’s a sign that they fear for their lives,” Kahsu said, referring to the church leadership.
“But as the Bible tells us, if you see something bad happening to people, you need to pray, but you also need to speak.”
This is the exchange in the House of Lords yesterday:
And some previous questions and interventions:
Ethiopia: Northern Tigray Region – Question (2 Dec 2020)
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement by the government of Ethiopia on 30 November that military operations in the northern Tigray region are complete, what assessment they have made of the situation in that region; and what access they have (1) requested, and (2) been granted, to the region to establish (a) humanitarian needs, and (b) any evidence of war crimes.
Ethiopia: Northern Tigray Region – Question (2 Dec 2020)
Lord Alton of Liverpool: …for that reply. Can I press him further on the issue of the humanitarian corridor? Will this conform to United Nations principles of neutrality, and will access be granted to our diplomats to visit Tigray? Secondly, how do we intend to hold to account those who have been responsible for the torture of refugees, the forced reform of refugees and some pretty barbaric acts which have been…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Baroness Sugg on 24 November (HC Deb, cols 134–9), why the UN Security Council meeting to consider the conflict in Tigray due to occur on 24 November was cancelled and rescheduled for later that day; what was the outcome of that meeting; and what assessment they have made of reports that people were killed and injured as a…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: …Sudan diplomats have been expelled from Addis Ababa, and (2) Ethiopian diplomats have been expelled from Juba; what assessment they have made of how those expulsions relate to military action in Tigray; and what discussions they have had with the government (a) of South Sudan, and (b) of Ethiopia, following those expulsions.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ask the government of Ethiopia (1) to establish a humanitarian corridor into the Tigray region, and (2) to ensure that any such corridor is supervised in conformity with the neutrality principles laid down by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and what plans they have to seek access for UK diplomats to all areas…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that the EU is considering withholding aid from the government of Ethiopia until the impact of the conflict in Tigray on human rights in the region can be assessed; how much UK aid was given to Ethiopia (1) last year, and (2) over the past decade; and what plans they have, if any, to use UK funding to the government of…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) reports from UN refugee camps in Tigray of the forcible return of Eritrean refugees to Eritrea, and (2) whether any such refugees are at risk of (a) torture, and (b) imprisonment, in Eritrea; whether they have raised this matter with the government of Eritrea; and, if so, what response they have received.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports (1) that UN workers were shot at by Ethiopian forces in Tigray, and (2) that the provision of humanitarian aid to areas of Tigray that are not controlled by the government of Ethiopia has been blocked; and what steps they intend to take in response to the statement by the International Committee for the Red Cross on 8…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports (1) that the Eritrean military is fighting in Tigray, (2) that people have been abducted and returned to Ethiopia, and (3) of the seizure of Tigrayan land by (a) the government of Eritrea, and (b) the Amhara regional government; and what assessment hey have made of the impact of any such actions on the long-term…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether humanitarian corridors are being established in Tigray as part of the UN operation in that region; whether any such corridors will conform to the principles of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; whether such corridors will be supervised by the government of Ethiopia in a way that does not compromise the neutrality of the…
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the use of ‘quiet’ diplomacy to resolve the conflict in Tigray; and what plans they have to withhold aid to Ethiopia until the impact of the conflict on human rights can be assessed.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: …Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made representations to the government of Ethiopia to accept the role of the African Union’s former presidents in mediating an end to the conflict in Tigray; and if so, what response they have received.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports from UN refugee camps in Tigray region that Eritrean refugees are being forcibly returned to Eritrea; whether they have raised concerns with the government of Eritrea about such reports; and what steps they are taking to uphold the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ mandate to protect any refugees in its care.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to end the forced repatriation of refugees to Eritrea from refugee camps in Tigray; and what assessment they have made of (1) reports of armed attacks on those refugee camps; and (2) of the humanitarian needs of the refugees in those camps.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the World Food programme about the humanitarian requirements of people displaced by conflict in Tigray; and what estimate they have made of the number of people who have been so displaced.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statement from the UNHCR on 19 January concerning the impact of the conflict in Tigray on Eritrean refugee camps in the region.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the damage to cultural monuments and artefacts caused by the conflict in Tigray; and whether they intend to ask UNESCO for its response to any such assessment.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: … they have made of the estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that more than 58,000 refugees have fled into neighbouring countries to escape the conflict in Tigray; and what estimate they have made of the percentage of the 79.5 million people estimated by the UNHCR to be currently displaced worldwide who are so displaced as a consequence of conflict.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of damage and looting as a result of a military offensive by the government of Ethiopia in the diocese of Adigrat in Tigray.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statement by the President of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society that 80 per cent of Tigray is currently unreachable for aid access and that people are at risk of starvation.