With communications gradually being restored to parts of Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region, survivors and residents in the town of Mai Kadra have been able to share harrowing accounts of the slaughter of civilians more than a month ago, the worst confirmed atrocity in a weeks-long conflict between government forces and the now-fugitive regional government.
On November 12, nearly two weeks after the start of the fighting in the northern region, an Amnesty International investigation cited witnesses as saying that forces linked to the embattled Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had gone on a rampage in the small town three days earlier.
Armed with weapons including machetes and knives, the attackers hacked and stabbed residents to death, the witnesses told Amnesty, which said it could confirm “the massacre of a very large number of civilians” after examining and verifying gruesome photographs and videos from the scene.
Days later, a preliminary investigation by a government-appointed rights watchdog stated that there may be as many as 600 victims, saying the killings were committed by a local youth group with the support of other Tigrayan civilians, police and militia.
Home to up to 45,000 people of Tigrayan, Amhara and other ethnic origins, Mai Kadra had been under the control of the TPLF until its forces retreated from the town a day after the massacre as Ethiopian government troops made advances in western Tigray.
Despite the Ethiopian government’s capture of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle on November 28, fighting between the TPLF and Ethiopian army units is believed to be continuing in parts of rural Tigray. Swaths of the region remain inaccessible to journalists and aid workers, making it hard to verify claims from all sides and leaving observers fearing that additional war crimes may yet be uncovered.
The federal government imposed a communications blackout when it began its military operation on November 4, but Mai Kadra has had its phone services restored for a little more than a week now. Al Jazeera has been able to communicate with a total of six survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims who were in Mai Kadra on November 9 and said the bloodletting went on unabated for nearly 24 hours.
‘I thought it was the end’
Solomon Chaklu said he had come to Mai Kadra from the town of Dansha to inspect a vehicle he had intended to buy.
“Police and TPLF youth militias went all over town searching for non-Tigrayans to kill,” Solomon told Al Jazeera on the phone. “At around 3pm, police and the youths with machetes came to the home we were hiding in,” he said.
“They dragged me outside, where I saw maybe 20 or 30 bodies of people who lay dying or were dead. I thought it was the end for me.”
The Ethiopian government maintains that a TPLF-backed Tigrayan youth militia dubbed the “Samri” singled out men like Solomon and Ferede, who are of ethnic Amhara descent. There have been long-standing tensions between Tigrayans and Amhara and militia members from the Amhara region neighbouring Tigray have taken part in fighting against the TPLF’s forces alongside the Ethiopian army.
Solomon said he, his friend Ferede Leu and a third man were asked to produce ID cards that would identify their ethnic group. The third man was left alone after he pleaded for his life in Tigrinya, the language of the assailants, according to Solomon.
“They tried to kill me,” he said. “I was surrounded by four men and one of them struck me in the head and back with his machete. I remember the others laughing as they watched him.”
When he regained consciousness, Solomon was informed that his friend, Ferede, had been hacked to death. He himself was bleeding profusely and the next day was taken to hospital in the city of Gonder some 260km (162 miles) away. Discharged after two weeks, he is currently recovering from multiple machete blows and a broken leg in his home in Dansha.
“Men turned into bloodthirsty beasts that day,” he said.
‘We can still hear the horrific sounds’
Ethiopian state media reported that the massacre was the result of surviving TPLF units taking out their frustration on the town’s residents after having been routed in battles with the Ethiopian army.
Hadas Mezgebu, whose husband of 17 years was murdered in front of the family’s home in Mai Kadra, said she believed the attackers “had planned this for days”.
“They had asked to see people’s identity cards. When the killings started, they knew which homes to go to. They knew my husband was Amhara.”
On the day of the killings, Tilahun Getnet says he hid in the home of his half-brother, Tebekaw Zewdu, who had lived in Mai Kadra for nearly 30 years.
“We heard the Samri gang wasn’t targeting women and children, so we lay hidden just above the ceiling of my brother’s home for hours,” Tilahun said on the phone. “Twice they searched the home and left after only finding my brother’s wife and children.”
But the machete-wielding killers came back for a third search of the home and grew frustrated when they could not locate Tebekaw, 37. They began threatening his wife and son.
“When she refused to reveal where her husband was hidden, they seized their 11-year-old son and threatened to slaughter him if she didn’t reveal his husband’s whereabouts. That’s when my brother came out from hiding. They hacked him to death there, in front of his wife and son who screamed for mercy.”
Tilahun said his half-brother’s family has since moved out of Mai Kadra. “We can still hear the horrific sounds of that day when we dream at night.”
Reports of Tigrayans targeted
Thousands of people are thought to have been killed since fighting began in Tigray on November 4, with the United Nations saying that an estimated one million people have been displaced across the region, in addition to the nearly 50,000 who have fled to neighbouring Sudan.
In the Sudanese refugee camps, a number of Tigrayan refugees have told journalists they escaped after Tigrayan civilians in Mai Kadra had been killed by Ethiopian federal forces and members of an Amhara militia. Some said they had seen hundreds of bodies and described scenes of ethnically motivated attacks, including killings with knives and beatings.
Amid the divergent accounts, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has dismissed accusations of his forces’ involvement in any mass killings as “baseless”, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said the federal forces have not killed a single civilian during their operation against the TPLF.
When probed by Al Jazeera, TPLF official Fesseha Tessema said the group is aware of killings involving Tigrayan victims. “The heinous crime committed against Tigrayans in Mai Kadra is just one among similar crimes that should be investigated by an international body,” he said.
Earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said there is “an urgent need” for independent monitoring of the developments in Tigray, warning that the “exceedingly worrying and volatile” situation “is spiralling out of control, with appalling impact on civilians”.
Amnesty, meanwhile, concurs there may be victims of additional atrocities among people of both ethnicities during the fighting, but its lead Ethiopia researcher said the organisation has no doubt as to who was behind the killings of November 9.
“We have had follow-up interviews with victims, who say the killers were provided support by armed local [TPLF] militia,” Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty’s lead Ethiopia researcher, told Al Jazeera. “Youth groups were armed with axes, machetes and knives and told to go home to home in search of Amhara men.”
While Ethiopian officials say the conflict is dwindling down and reject what they describe as outside “interference”, the United Nations continues to press the government to grant it access to people in war-torn areas to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.