Ethiopia: massacre in Tigray fuels genocide fears

Almost 200 civilians killed by Ethiopia and Eritrean military forces in latest human rights abuse in region

A small number of Tigrayan activists outside the UN in New York
Tigrayan activists outside the UN in New York
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A deadly attack on Tigrayan people in northern Ethiopia has triggered warnings that violence against the ethnic group threatens to escalate into genocide.

Witnesses in Abi Addi, in the Temben region of Central Tigray, told The Telegraph that Ethiopian federal soldiers and Eritrean troops killed a total of 182 local people in a house-to-house massacre in the town and surrounding villages.

The paper reports that most of the victims were said to be farmers, whose bodies were then “dumped in a nearby crater” until their families and village elders “begged Ethiopian soldiers to allow burials to take place”.

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One survivor who escaped into nearby mountains described seeing “dead bodies scattered, bodies half-eaten by dogs”, after returning to his village.

“The soldiers did not allow anyone to get close to the corpses,” 26-year-old Tesfay Gebremedhin continued. “But later, they started to feel disturbed by the terrible smell of the dead bodies. So they covered the bodies with dust.”

Humanitarian crisis

Ethiopian federal troops first moved into Tigray in November with the stated aim of “restoring the rule of law” by deposing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party.

The deployment followed attacks on army bases by fighters loyal to the TPLF, which has been feuding with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since shortly after he came to power, in 2018.

The army’s retaliatory attack was declared a success, but by late January the TPLF had rallied and was “waging an intensifying insurgency against federal forces”, The Guardian reports.

In a bid to quell the rebels, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ahmed allied with forces from Eritrea and ethnic militias from Tigray’s neighbouring Amhara region.

But in what the newspaper describes as “a sharp break” from his government’s previous declaration of victory, the Ethiopian leader admitted this week that his troops are fighting a “difficult and tiresome” guerrilla war.

“The junta which we had eliminated within three weeks [in November] has now turned itself into a guerrilla force, mingled with farmers and started moving from place to place,” he said.

As the conflict escalates, “millions of displaced people in the northern region of Tigray are now facing a further crisis - hunger”, writes ITV’s Africa correspondent Jamal Osman.

“Violence has interrupted the main food supply routes and farms have been destroyed” during skirmishes between the military and TPLF, he continues. Many Tigrayans “have lost their income and prices have increased for the little food still available to buy”.

The region’s ousted leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, has accused the government and its allies of waging a “devastating and genocidal war” against Tigray’s indigenous people.

The government has downplayed those claims, but pressure is mounting on Ahmed to deliver aid to Tigray following the reports of the Abi Addi massacre and other allegations of mass executions and rapes by troops.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

The claims about indiscriminate violence against Tigrayans in Abi Addi are the latest in “a deluge of credible reports pointing towards a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, rape and man-made starvation”, says The Telegraph.

International aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) last month gave CBS News an “eyewitness account” of how Ethiopian forces had “executed civilians in cold blood” after stopping a “clearly marked MSF car and two public buses travelling behind it”.

The medics’ “driver was beaten but allowed back into the vehicle”, according to the US broadcaster. But “the passengers on the buses were offloaded, the men and women separated and the men, who numbered at least four, were shot at point-blank range”.

The Guardian’s Africa correspondent Jason Burke reported last week that researchers tracking the ongoing conflict believe that a total of almost 2,000 people have been killed “in more than 150 massacres by soldiers, paramilitaries and insurgents” in Tigray. “The oldest victims were in their 90s and the youngest were infants,” Burke writes.

Reports have also emerged of “sexual violence being used as a deliberate weapon of war” by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, says CNN.

The broadcaster cites medical records and survivor testimonies that describe how “women are being gang-raped, drugged and held hostage”, while doctors on the ground have warned of “an alarming increase in sexual assault and rape cases” since the assault on Tigray began in November.

Victims who spoke to CNN reportedly “said the troops were on a self-proclaimed mission of retribution and were operating with near-total impunity in the region”. And “many say they were raped by Amhara forces who told them they were intent on ethnically cleansing Tigray”.

The alleged rights abuses were condemned in a joint statement issued last month by high-profile United Nations figures including aid chief Mark Lowcock, human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and refugee chief Filippo Grandi, as well as World Health Organization director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The signatories called for “an independent investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray”.

The statement also stressed that “humanitarian access” to the region is “essential”. But getting aid staff and supplies into Tigray is becoming increasingly hazardous, as the “wave of atrocities” committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces fuels retaliatory strikes and “recruitment to the TPLF’s forces”, The Guardian reports.

As the fighting intensifies, streams of refugees from Tigray are flooding into neighbouring Sudan. Sky News reported last month that a further 300,000 people were camping in “six schools, a local college and any number of half constructed buildings” in the already “beleaguered” town of Shire in northern Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, global observers are becoming increasingly worried about the wider ramifications. Many fear that the conflict “could seriously destabilise Ethiopia, previously a linchpin of stability and Western security strategy in one of Africa’s most volatile regions”, says The Guardian.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.