The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ethiopian refugees say they escaped ‘final stage of ethnic cleansing’ in western Tigray

Daniel Gebremariam, center, an 11-year-old Tigrayan, watches as food aid is distributed in March in Hamdayet, Sudan, near the Ethiopian border. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
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HAMDAYET, Sudan — Samson Tsegaye thought that having a mixed background would protect him as militias drawn from the ethnic groups of his Amhara mother and his Tigrayan father went to war in Ethiopia last year.

But as Amhara fighters and their allies gained the upper hand in his home region of western Tigray, he watched a more ominous reality take hold.

First there were the tit-for-tat massacres late last year — with hundreds of dead in each — between neighbors that had until recently lived and worked side-by-side.

Then, the forced mass expulsions of tens of thousands of Tigrayans, including Samson’s wife and daughter.

On Wednesday, after months of lying low, he was confronted on the street in Humera, a town on the border with Sudan and Eritrea, by a former high school classmate who was carrying a machete.

“He called me dik’ala — a ‘hybrid,’ because he knew that from before the war,” Samson, 26, said hours after crossing into Sudan. “And you know, I had thought being dik’ala was what would save me. But now, even one drop of Tigrayan blood in anyone is a death sentence.

“He said, ‘We’re coming for you next.’ ”

They fled hundreds of miles to escape war in Ethiopia. But they fear it wasn’t far enough.

Elsewhere in Ethiopia, the war that has erupted between Ethiopia’s central government, which is allied with Amhara militias, and the Tigray region’s ruling party, which commands a giant militia of its own, is now marked by bloody battles, shifting front lines in the country’s ragged highlands and a growing campaign of airstrikes by the government. Millions are now dependent on humanitarian aid to survive, even as warring parties disrupt its delivery or, in some cases, commandeer it themselves, according to aid agencies.

But in western Tigray, a long-disputed expanse of farm fields dotted with towns that is now fully under Amhara control, battles have given way to a campaign of revenge against Tigrayans that has reached what Samson called the “final stage of ethnic cleansing.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the term back in March to describe mass expulsions of Tigrayans from that area; Ethiopia’s government has rejected it. Amhara’s regional spokesman cast the expulsions as restoring his people’s control over a lucrative farming region that was taken from them unfairly when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front played a dominant role in Ethiopia’s politics in the 1990s. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.2 million people have been displaced from western Tigray alone.

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The Ethiopian government has restricted the access of journalists, human rights groups and aid groups to western Tigray. What little information is available on conditions there comes largely from the few — such as Samson — who manage to escape.

Half a dozen people who fled in recent days told The Washington Post of arbitrary detentions, torture and extortion by armed Amhara locals, who they said have mostly taken over security from the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries that had occupied the area in the war’s early stages.

All spoke of witnessing killings and seeing places where multiple corpses had been left to rot. They said that the Tigrayans who remained in western Tigray were either in detention facilities or had disappeared. All asked not to be photographed.

Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh called the refugees’ allegations “totally groundless and unjustifiable.”

“First of all, there is no place called Western Tigray in Amhara Region,” he said in a text message. He said the region was in a state of war caused by Tigrayan aggression, not Amhara designs.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Thursday reported further details on the unfolding abuses in western Tigray, with interviews with 31 recently arrived refugees.

“The new onslaught of abuses by Amhara forces against Tigrayan civilians remaining in several towns in western Tigray should ring alarm bells,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response.

Gizachew said reporting on atrocities in western Tigray was “biased and one-sided.” He accused the media and human rights organizations of “manufacturing fake reports and backing the revival of the” Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have also recently released reports that contain allegations against Tigrayan forces of mass rapes, summary executions of civilians and the use of human shields in the Amhara and Afar regions, some of which could constitute war crimes.

The State Department responded by saying it noted “with grave concern unconfirmed new reports alleging egregious human rights abuses, atrocities, and destruction of civilian infrastructure by Tigrayan forces.”

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On Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Council is scheduled to convene a special session — called for mainly by Western countries that have taken a more confrontational stance against the Ethiopian government — to discuss the cycle of atrocities.

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly accused Washington of implicitly supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, with whom the United States had close relations over the nearly three decades it held sway over national politics. Addis Ababa says Washington has created a false equivalence between an elected government and what it calls a terrorist insurgency.

“It becomes 'unconfirmed reports’ and ‘claims’ when a favorite terrorist group commits crimes on innocent civilians in regions it violently occupied,” tweeted Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. “It is taken as fact when same terrorist group cries foul in an orchestrated manner. #Ethiopia says #NoMore to double standards.”

The Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have each taken to responding to allegations of abuses and atrocities by claiming its enemy is waging a smear campaign to curry international sympathy. With little access for independent observers, most claims are difficult to assess. Only one U.N.-sanctioned investigation into human rights abuses has been allowed by Ethiopia’s government — and it was carried out in conjunction with a government-appointed human rights body. Its authors acknowledged that the investigation was hampered by severe limitations on access.

The refugees from western Tigray said they were among the few Tigrayans in the region who until recently were still living on their own properties, even if they were regularly detained or forced to pay money to avoid detention. All the other Tigrayans they knew, they said, had been forcibly expelled, had fled to Sudan or farther into Tigray, had joined the Tigrayan militias, were in indefinite detention or were dead.

Childhood friends Hentsa Birhane, 25, and Kahsay Negash, 24, said they had been paying bribes to Amhara officials in the town of Rawyan to shield them from harm. But as Tigrayan forces appeared to be making gains against government-aligned troops elsewhere in Ethiopia last month, they said, the money stopped mattering.

“Even for the people we had been friendly with, it became a heroic thing to kill a Tigrayan — something to brag about,” Hentsa said. “That is why it is extremely difficult to escape Tigray now. Anyone can kill you, everyone wants to kill you — it’s total lawlessness.”

“Between Rawyan and the river” that separates Ethiopia from Sudan, a distance of a few miles, “you cannot walk for two minutes without stumbling onto a corpse,” he said.

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Hentsa and Kahsay were crossing last week when they saw the bodies of five people who evidently had just been shot, they said. The blood that flowed from their wounds was still bright red. The two friends hid for hours among thornbushes that could barely conceal them, then finally made a dash for the river.

A Sudanese intelligence official who oversees the town where refugees first arrive said a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t hear gunfire. “Every night it wakes me up, or every day it makes me look up from my desk,” said Saad al-Hindi Saad. “There is no front line along the river. You just hear ‘pop, pop, pop,’ and then silence. The only thing that explains this is people being shot.”

About 50,000 people have crossed from western Tigray into Sudan since the war began, but in recent months the numbers have slowed to fewer than 100 a week. The head of the United Nations’ refugee agency in Sudan said “longer term” solutions such as sturdier housing would probably have to be undertaken, given the likelihood that the war won’t end soon — and that western Tigray might not be a welcoming place for Tigrayans for much longer, even if the war were to end.

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Samson had just changed out of the wet clothes he’d worn since he crossed the river Wednesday morning.

“At first the war seemed like politics to us,” he said.

“It’s far beyond a political game now. It is about killing innocents. It is about eliminating Tigrayans, even ‘hybrids’ like me,” he said. “How can we ever imagine going back?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the day on which Tigrayan refugee Samson Tsegaye crossed into Sudan. He entered the country on Wednesday, not Thursday. The article has been corrected.

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