Mekelle, Ethiopia – December 4th is a date that horrifies Mona Lisa Abraha. It was then, says the 18-year-old, that Eritrean soldiers entered her village of Tembin, in Ethiopia’s besieged Tigray region.
“They tried to rape me and I was thrown to the ground. Then one of the soldiers fired bullets to scare me, but they hit my hand and then fired another bullet that went through my arm, ”Abraha recalls from a hospital bed in the room. outskirts of the capital of Tigray, Mekelle.
“I was bleeding for hours. Then I had my arm amputated, ”she said, before bursting into tears.
Abraha’s account is one of the few to emerge from the secret conflict in Tigray, where communications were cut for many weeks and media access was severely restricted before being slightly facilitated recently. Al Jazeera has now gained rare access and has heard from witnesses and survivors who claim to have suffered serious abuse at the hands of Eritrean troops.
After months of tension, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an air and ground offensive in Tigray in early November to oust the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), following the attack. attacks on federal army camps. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, presided over a brutal 1998-2000 war with Eritrea.
Witnesses, survivors and locals told Al Jazeera that Eritrean forces committed blatant crimes after entering Tigray to support the Ethiopian army against their longtime enemy.
“Some of the girls and I managed to leave the village, but on the road we were stopped by Eritrean soldiers,” Saba, a displaced woman from Mai Kadra, told Al Jazeera. “More than 10 soldiers took turns raping us.”
“My husband was killed in our village,” said another displaced woman from Mai Kadra, accusing Eritrean troops, before pleading, “Tell the world that we are dying.”
Mai Kadra, in western Tigray, was also the place where around 600 civilians were killed on November 9. massacre blamed on a group of young Tigrayans, as well as on the local police and militia.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied that Eritrean troops took part in the conflict that is believed to have killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused severe shortages of food, water and medicine. Witnesses, however, believed that the Eritrean soldiers counted by the thousands, while Al Jazeera obtained images showing trucks with Eritrean license plates in Tigray carrying soldiers.
Key members of the state-appointed interim government in Tigray also acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops and accusations of looting and murder.
“The TPLF attacked the federal government army in the [Tigray] region, which is what revealed their location and led Eritrean forces to enter, ”Mulu Nega, interim governor of the Tigray region, told Al Jazeera. “It happened against our will.”
Last week Amnesty International said in a report that hundreds of civilians were massacred by Eritrean soldiers in the city of Aksum in November, amounting to “a series of violations of human rights and humanitarian law”.
The massacre was carried out in a “coordinated and systematic” manner in order to “terrorize the population into subjugation” and may constitute a crime against humanity, according to the report.
Its findings were based on 41 interviews with witnesses and survivors of the massacre, all of Tigrayan origin.
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, author of the report, told Al Jazeera: “The Eritrean forces have called [for] reinforcements and began shooting civilians in the streets using sniper rifles and machine guns. “
Residents of Axum cited in Amnesty ‘s report identified the perpetrators as Eritrean soldiers, claiming that they often drove in trucks with license plates marked “Eritrea”.
Witnesses said most wore uniforms and shoes easily recognizable from those of Ethiopian soldiers. They noted that the troops stood out as Eritreans when they spoke in a distinctive dialect with their own words and accent.
Some soldiers had three scars on each temple near their eye, identifying themselves as Beni-Amir, an ethnic group that straddles Sudan and Eritrea but is absent from Ethiopia, according to the report.
The Ethiopian government has questioned the accuracy of Amnesty’s sources, but says an investigation will be launched. Ethiopia’s state-appointed Human Rights Commission also said Amnesty International’s report should be taken seriously and preliminary inquiries indicated Eritrean soldiers killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum.
But in a letter to Al Jazeera, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Qatar, Samia Zekaria Gutu, called Amnesty’s report “baked”.
“This type of ‘report’ based on unreliable sources is known to have the risk of further reinforcing disinformation and propaganda by [the] TPLF criminal gang, ”Gutu wrote.
Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Meskel has rejected Amnesty’s “absurd accusations”.
# Eritrea is outraged and categorically rejects the absurd accusations leveled against him by Amnesty International in a spurious report released today. The report is largely based on testimonies from some 31 people from Hamdayet refugee camp in Sudan.
– Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) February 26, 2021
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 after reestablishing ties with Eritrea after the 1998-2000 war, declared victory against the TPLF on November 28 after federal forces entered Mekelle. TPLF leaders, however, pledged to continue fighting and clashes persisted in the region, hampering efforts to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance.
Last month, the United States said all Eritrean soldiers should leave the Tigray region “immediately”.
Meanwhile, residents of Mekelle who spoke to Al Jazeera called on Eritrean forces to leave the country.
“Why did all this happen? The Eritrean forces have committed serious crimes. We want all those who committed these crimes to be brought to justice and for foreign forces to leave our homeland, ”said Loul Malas, a trader.
Kibrom Zaro, an engineer, added: “Our infrastructure is destroyed and basic services are missing. There is no security and we want the world to know about our struggle. “