Mekelle, Ethiopia – December 4 is a date that fills Mona Lisa Abraha with horror. It was then, the 18-year-old says, that Eritrean soldiers entered her village of Tembin in Ethiopia’s embattled region of Tigray.
“They tried to rape me and I was thrown to the ground. Then, one of the soldiers fired bullets to scare me, but they hit my hand and then fired another bullet that went through my arm,” Abraha recalls from a hospital bed on the outskirts of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.
“I was bleeding for hours. Then, I had my arm amputated,” she says, before breaking down in tears.
Abraha’s account is one of few emerging from the secretive conflict in Tigray, where communications were cut for many weeks and media access was severely curbed before being slightly eased recently. Al Jazeera has now gained rare access and heard from witnesses and survivors who allege they suffered grave abuses at the hands of Eritrean troops.
After months of tension, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in early November ordered an air and ground offensive in Tigray to remove the region’s governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), following attacks on federal army camps. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, had presided over a brutal 1998-2000 war with Eritrea.
Witnesses, survivors and residents told Al Jazeera that forces from Eritrea committed egregious crimes after entering Tigray to support the Ethiopian military against their longtime foe.
“Some girls and I managed to leave the village, but on the road we were caught by Eritrean soldiers,” Saba, a displaced woman from Mai Kadra, told Al Jazeera. “More than 10 soldiers took turns raping us.”
“My husband was killed in our village,” another displaced woman from Mai Kadra said, blaming Eritrean troops, before pleading: “Tell the world we are dying.”
Mai Kadra, in western Tigray, was also where an estimated 600 civilians were killed in a November 9 massacre blamed on a Tigrayan youth group, as well as local police and militiamen.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied that Eritrean troops took part in the conflict that is believed to have killed thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands and sparked major shortages of food, water and medicine. Witnesses, however, have estimated that Eritrean soldiers numbered in the thousands, while Al Jazeera has obtained images showing trucks with Eritrean licence plates in Tigray carrying soldiers.
Top members of the state-appointed interim government in Tigray have also acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops and accusations of looting and killing.
“The TPLF attacked the federal government’s army in the [Tigray] region, which is what exposed their location and led the Eritrean forces to enter,” Mulu Nega, temporary governor of the Tigray region, told Al Jazeera. “It happened against our will.”
Last week, Amnesty International said in a report that hundreds of civilians were massacred by Eritrean soldiers in the town of Axum in November, amounting to “a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations”.
The massacre was committed in a “coordinated and systematic” manner in order “to terrorise the population into submission” and may amount to a crime against humanity, the report said.
Its findings were based on 41 interviews with witnesses and survivors of the massacre, all ethnic Tigrayans.
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, author of the report, told Al Jazeera: “The Eritrean forces called [for] reinforcements and proceeded to shoot at civilians on the streets using sniper rifles and machine guns.”
Axum residents quoted in the Amnesty report identified the perpetrators as Eritrean soldiers, saying that they often rode in trucks with licence plates reading “Eritrea”.
Witnesses said most wore a uniform and shoes easily distinguishable from those of Ethiopian soldiers. They remarked that the troops distinguished themselves as Eritrean when they spoke in a distinctive dialect with its own words and accent.
Some soldiers had three scars on each temple near the eye, identifying themselves as Beni-Amir, an ethnic group that straddles Sudan and Eritrea but is absent from Ethiopia, the report said.
Ethiopia’s government has questioned the accuracy of Amnesty’s sources, but says an investigation will be launched. The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also said that Amnesty’s report should be taken seriously and that preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum.
But in a letter to Al Jazeera, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Qatar, Samia Zekaria Gutu, called the Amnesty report “cooked”.
“This kind of ‘report’ based on unreliable sources is known to have the risk of further reinforcing the misinformation and propaganda by [the] TPLF criminal clique,” Gutu wrote.
Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Meskel rejected Amnesty’s “preposterous accusations”.
#Eritrea is outraged and categorically rejects the preposterous accusations levelled against it by Amnesty International in a fallacious report issued today. The report is largely based on testimonies of some 31 individuals from the Hamdayet Refugee camp in the Sudan.
— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) February 26, 2021
Abiy, who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize after restoring ties with Eritrea following the 1998-2000 war, declared victory against the TPLF on November 28 after federal forces entered Mekelle. The TPLF’s leaders, however, have pledged to continue fighting and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.
Last month, the United States said all soldiers from Eritrea should leave the Tigray region “immediately”.
Meanwhile, Mekelle residents that spoke to Al Jazeera demanded Eritrean forces leave the country.
“Why did all of this happen? The Eritrean forces committed grave crimes. We want everyone who committed these crimes to be put on trial and want foreign forces to leave our homeland,” said Loul Malas, a trader.
Kibrom Zaro, an engineer, added: “Our infrastructure is destroyed and basic services are absent. There is no safety and we want the world to know our struggle.”