A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia. ‘I never saw hell before, but now I have.’

Millions have been displaced, thousands killed, and reports of human rights violations are rampant as a civil war escalates in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Orthodox Christians gather to pray at Saint Selassie Church in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, a semi-autonomous federal state in northern Ethiopia. 

Photograph by Lynsey Addario
By Lynsey Addario, Rachel Hartigan
photographs by Lynsey Addario
Published 1 Jun 2021, 11:02 BST

The only roads open in besieged Tigray, a semi-autonomous federal state in northern Ethiopia, lead to endless tales of darkness. Most roads north and south from Tigray’s capital of Mekele have been closed to journalists and humanitarian aid. Burnt-out tanks and looted ambulances stripped of engines and wheels line the road west. Patches of towering eucalyptus trees give way to rocky, untilled fields—and checkpoint after checkpoint manned by Ethiopian troops. Soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea saunter casually through villages, marking their presence.

Almost everyone in the region has a story to share, but few will show their faces on camera. Fear is everywhere.

Araya Gebretekle had six sons. Four of them were executed while harvesting millet in their fields on the outskirts of the town of Abiy Addi in west Tigray. Araya says Ethiopian soldiers approached five of his sons with their guns raised; as his children begged for their lives in the fields—explaining they were simply farmers—a female soldier ordered them dead. They pleaded for the troops to spare one of the brothers in order to help their elderly father work the fields. The soldiers let the youngest—a 15-year-old—go free. He lived to recount the story to his parents. Now, says Araya, “my wife is staying at home always crying. I haven’t left the house until today, and every night I dream of them.… There were six sons. I asked the oldest one to be there, too, but thank God he refused.”

Tigrayan soldiers walk through Adi Chilo village in west Tigray and man checkpoints. Local civilians say the village was overrun with fighting in February. When the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers lost a battle against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), villagers claimed they returned later to execute most of the men in the village, killing dozens. Many are still buried in shallow graves by their homes, though some have been moved to the church grounds.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Kesanet Gebremichael wails as nurses try to change the bandages and clean the wounds on her charred flesh at Ayder Hospital in the regional capital Mekele. The 13-year-old was inside her home in the village of Ahferom, near Aksum, when it was hit by long-range artillery. “My house was destroyed in the fire,” says her mother, Genet Asmelash. “My child was inside.” The girl suffered burns on more than 40 percent of her body.

Senayit was raped by soldiers on two separate occasions—in her home in Edagahamus, and as she tried to flee to Mekele with her 12-year-old son. (The names of the rape victims mentioned in this story are pseudonyms.) The second time, she was pulled from a minibus, drugged, and brought to a military base, where she was tied to a tree and sexually assaulted repeatedly over the course of 10 days. She fell in and out of consciousness from the pain, exhaustion, and trauma. At one point, she awoke to a horrifying sight: Her son, along with a woman and her new baby, were all dead at her feet. “I saw my son with blood from his neck,” she says. “I saw only his neck was bleeding. He was dead.” Senayit crumpled into her tears, her fists clenched against her face, and howled a visceral cry of pain and sadness, unable to stop weeping. “I never buried him,” she screamed, between sobs. “I never buried him.”

Genet Asmelash holds her 13-year-old daughter Kesanet while nurses treat the burns the girl received when long-range artillery hit her house. The paediatric ward at Ayder Hospital in Mekele is full of children who have been injured and maimed in their homes, their villages, and while on the run.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Abeba Girmay (centre) and Fetlework Amaha (left) sit on the grave of their loved ones at the Abune Aregawi church, in Abiy Addi in west Tigray. One of Fetlework's cousins is buried there and four of Abeba's nephews. The brothers were buried here after they were executed while farming on the outskirts of Abiy Addi in February. “I thought the boys were hiding somewhere” Abeba says, “When I arrived, and saw them dead, I was devastated.” The two women are comforted by nuns who heard their cries.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Why war erupted

A political conflict between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has exploded into war and a grave humanitarian crisis. As many as two million people in the region have been displaced and thousands have been killed. Yet the full extent of the catastrophe is unknown because the Ethiopian government has shut down communications and limited access to Tigray.  

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario managed to travel to the region in mid-May to chronicle how the violence was affecting the people who live there. She found a devastating situation, where men, women, and children—civilians—were terrified and traumatised, and praying for those who hadn't yet made it to the capital of Mekele, or another relatively safe place. People she met referred repeatedly to countless others who were still in hiding.

The roots of the clash go back to the 1970s, when the TPLF formed as a militia in rebellion against Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian president who ruled as a dictator from 1977 to 1991. Eventually the TPLF established itself as the most powerful insurgent group in the country, leading the alliance that toppled Mengistu in 1991.

The rebel alliance became the country’s ruling coalition, which consisted of political parties tied to ethnic groups. Although Tigrayans account for just 6 to 7 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 118 million, they became the dominant political force in the country.

Farmer Kiros Tadros plows his land in Adi Kolakul village. Eritrean soldiers have tried to prevent him from farming but if he doesn't farm his seven children will have nothing to eat.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

But the TPLF-led government was repressive—targeting political opponents, limiting free speech, and employing torture. Protests against the government erupted in 2015, eventually leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Abiy replaced him in 2018.

Abiy quickly made peace with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s longtime opponent in a brutal border war, and won himself the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He also set about purging Tigrayans from the federal government and reorganised the ruling coalition into a single political party, which the TPLF refused to join.

The TPLF was sidelined nationally but still potent in Tigray. The party controls the regional government and as many as 250,000 militia fighters. When Abiy cancelled last September’s elections due to the pandemic, the TPLF held regional parliamentary elections anyway. The federal government retaliated in October by cutting funding to Tigray.

On November 3, the TPLF attacked a military base in what they called a preemptive strike. The Ethiopian government launched an extensive military offensive the next day. With Abiy’s encouragement, Eritrean forces invaded Tigray from the north and militias from the Amhara ethnic group poured in from the south. Both held longstanding grudges against the TPLF: The Eritreans blame the party for their suffering during the war with Ethiopia, while Amharans claim it annexed some of their most valuable land.

Since then, the fighting between Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amharan forces on one side and Tigrayan forces on the other has been unrelenting with no one gaining the upper hand.

Women line up behind barbed wire as they wait to be called for food distribution in Agulae, on the road north in Tigray. “We don’t have any food, we don’t have any medication, all our property was looted," says Salam Abrha (centre). "Every day people are dying here."

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Food is stored in this warehouse in Agulae. Military forces have not allowed trucks with food to travel north, according to a local aid worker.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Mulu Werede is among the internally displaced Tigrayans from Humera, in west Tigray, who are living in a school in Abiy Addi after fleeing from violence in their villages at the beginning of the war.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Mattresses donated by civilians in Mekele are distributed to recently displaced Tigrayans living in the Maiweini Elementary School.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Letebrhan Desaley holds her malnourished baby, while the child receives oxygen at Ayder Hospital. "There was no food so we couldn't give the baby food," she says. "My breasts were dry." They have been in the hospital for six weeks, but her baby, who suffers from severe malnutrition, epilepsy, and meningitis, has not improved.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Reports of atrocities are rampant—including mass rapes, executions, the intentional bombardment of civilians, and the flagrant looting of hospitals and health clinics. All sides, including the TPLF, have been accused of war crimes but Eritreans have been blamed for the worst abuses. In March, Abiy said that the Eritreans would soon leave; the United Nations reports they are still there.

Senayit, the woman who was tied to a tree, says that the soldiers who raped her and murdered her son were Eritreans wearing Ethiopian uniforms: “I could identify them by the cuts in their faces, they spoke Tigrinya [Ethiopian troops speak Amharic], and they wore plastic shoes.”

Loss of aid   

Meanwhile, people are starving. “A total of 5.2 million people, a staggering 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance,” says Peter Smerdon, the spokesperson the United Nations World Food Programme in Eastern Africa. Nearly a quarter of the children that agencies have been able to screen are malnourished, but Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers are blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid.

The war began during harvest season. Now it is time to plant. In the village of Adi Kolakul on the road between Mekele and Abiy Addi, Kiros Tadros, a father of seven, was back in his fields. “Our land as well the mountains overlooking our houses were invaded by Eritrean soldiers,” he says. “They came to each household and demanded we provide them food, give them our livestock. They also demanded that we do not plough and give them information on the whereabouts of the militia.” He mulled over the past few years, already made difficult by the effects of climate change: “It’s like doomsday: first came the frozen rains, then the locusts, then the war.”

The United Nations has called for an investigation of war crimes, and the United States has cut economic and security aid to Ethiopia and banned travel to the U.S. by officials involved in the violence or in blocking humanitarian aid. In a May 26 statement, President Joe Biden said, “The large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end.”

Shewit knows what’s at stake. She was raped in front of her children by soldiers who told her: “The Tigrayan race must be eliminated.” 

At Ayder Hospital, 430 women have been treated for rape. “But the numbers are not telling the reality in the ground,” says Mussie Tesfay Atsbaha, the hospital’s chief administrator. “If one person has come, another 20 are dead somewhere.”

“I never saw hell before,” he adds, “but now I have.”

Internally displaced Ethiopians live in makeshift conditions in the Maiweini Elementary School in Mekele. Most were displaced from south and west Tigray.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Ethiopian troops ride through traffic in Mekele.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

A tank sits on the road to Abiy Addi, the site of heavy fighting from November to April. Ethiopians call the area the Bermuda Triangle.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Villagers claim that 15 people are buried at this grave site in the village of Adi Chilo on the road west of Abiy Addi.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Gebrey Zenebe holds his 15-year-old daughter Beriha Gebray. She was shot in the face while fleeing fighting south of Mekele and lost a lot of blood. She is now permanently blind in both eyes.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Tigrayan children eat macaroni off the bottom of a pot in the Maiweini Elementary School where meals are cooked in large quantities for the displaced people living there.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

“In the cave, I had literally nothing to eat," says Abeba Gebru, the mother of this baby, "and that is why my child was born malnourished." Many civilians fled to caves to escape the fighting. Her baby is being cared for at the Abiy Addi Health Center in west Tigray.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Ten-year-old Desnest Gebreabzgi was wounded when she and other children were playing with unexploded ordinance in her village of Denbela.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Tsigabu Nega stands at the site where her husband was executed outside their home. "I didn't hear the gunshots," she says, "because my kids were crying and shouting a lot."

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Araya Gebretekle weeps for his four sons, who were executed while harvesting millet in his fields near the town of Abiy Addi.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Senayit grieves for her 12-year-old son. She was drugged, tied to a tree, and raped by Eritrean soldiers for 10 days. At one point she awoke to find her son dead at her feet. “I never buried him,” she screams, between sobs. “I never buried him.”

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Nineteen-year-old Rahel is at Abiy Addi Hospital because she is pregnant after being raped by Ethiopian soldiers. "They did this to eliminate Tigrayans, and for the generations of babies delivered to be Ethiopian, because they don’t want the next generation to be Tigrayan," she says. "I am waiting to abort this baby."

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Fifteen soldiers raped her over the course of a week, says Eyerus, and now she doesn't know where her children are. "Why is this happening?" she asks. "This is doomsday for me.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

At the center for rape victims at Mekele Hospital, Letehana recounts how Eritrean soldiers accused her of helping Tigrayan forces—her son is a member of TPLF—and then raped her. "They took everything," she said.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Soldiers raped Shewit in front of her children. "I told them, 'I am HIV-positive. Be careful, please don’t do this.' And they didn’t care. They didn’t even use protection." They said, “The Tigrayan race must be eliminated.”

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Tigrayan soldiers pass the wreckage of war—burned-out cars, military vehicles, and soiled, discarded uniforms of the Ethiopian military—on the road in Adi Chilo village.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Editor's Note: This article previously misstated former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's ethnicity. He is from the Wolayta ethnic group.

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