Burned-out military vehicles, boxes of ammunition and the bodies of federal troops were still scattered along the dirt road that runs through the Ethiopian village of Sheweate Hugum three weeks after the fighting subsided.
Beside them lay the leftovers of lives cut short: family photographs, school diplomas, Ethiopian flags.
What happened here in mid-June was just one battle in an eight-month war between Ethiopia’s military and rebellious forces in the northern region of Tigray.
But, in a conflict largely waged far from the world’s cameras, it sheds light on a key turning point.
In June, Tigrayan fighters regained the regional capital Mekelle, three hours’ drive to the east, in a major setback for the central government. On the same day, the city was retaken, Addis Ababa declared a unilateral ceasefire.
Fighting first broke out in Tigray in November when the government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases across the region – an accusation the group denied.
The government declared victory three weeks later when it took control of Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting and has since taken back most of the region, including its capital on June 28.
Tesfay Gebregziabher, the logistics coordinator for approximately 6,000 Tigrayan fighters who he said fought at Sheweate Hugum, said he saw about 350 Ethiopian soldiers retreat into the village school during the fighting.
His troops surrounded the building and killed those who did not surrender, he said during an interview in Mekelle. Reuters could not independently confirm his version of events.
In the two-room schoolhouse in Sheweate Hugum, Reuters saw more than two dozen bodies in Ethiopian military uniforms, including women, lying among upturned desks and charred books.
They were illuminated by rays of sunlight through bullet holes in the roof and door.
Open tins of food lay next to most of the bodies.