'LEave No Tigrayan': In Ethiopia, An Ethnicity Is Erased

Ordained priest Berhane Debesu, 34, a Tigrayan refugee from Humera, stands with a cross at the church in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 15, 2021. What started as a political dispute in one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries has turned into a campaign of what is being called ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan and dozens more by phone, along with international officials. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Ordained priest Berhane Debesu, 34, a Tigrayan refugee from Humera, stands with a cross at the church in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 15, 2021. What started as a political dispute in one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries has turned into a campaign of what is being called ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan and dozens more by phone, along with international officials. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
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HAMDAYET, Sudan (AP) — The atrocities have been seared into the skin and the minds of Tigrayans, who take shelter by the thousands within sight of the homeland they fled in northern Ethiopia.

They arrive in heat that soars above 38 C (100 F), carrying the pain of gunshot wounds, injured vaginas, welts on beaten backs. Less visible are the horrors that jolt them awake at night: Memories of dozens of bodies strewn on riverbanks. Fighters raping a woman one by one for speaking her own language. A child, weakened by hunger, left behind.

Now, for the first time, they also bring proof of an official attempt at what is being called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that eliminates all traces of Tigray, as confirmed to The Associated Press by nine refugees from different communities. Written in a language not their own, issued by authorities from another ethnic group, the ID cards are the latest evidence of a systematic drive by the Ethiopian government and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.

The Amhara authorities now in charge of the nearby city of Humera took Seid Mussa Omar’s original ID card displaying his Tigrayan identity and burned it, the soft-spoken nurse said. On his new card examined by the AP, issued in January with the Amharic language, an Amhara stamp and a border of tiny hearts, even the word Tigray had vanished.

“I kept it to show the world,” Seid said. He added that only 10 Tigrayans remained of the roughly 400 who worked at the hospital where he had been employed, the rest killed or fleeing. “This is genocide … Their aim is to erase Tigray.”

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This story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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What started as a political dispute in one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries has turned into a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan and dozens more by phone, along with international experts. The Ethiopian government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed is accused of teaming up with his ethnic group — his mother was Amhara — and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to punish around 6 million people. Witnesses say they have split much of Tigray between them, with the Amhara in the west and Eritrean forces in the east.

Ethiopia claims that life in Tigray is returning to normal, and Abiy has called the conflict “tiresome.” But the refugees the AP spoke with, including some who arrived just hours before, said abuses were still occurring. Almost all described killings, often of multiple people, rapes and the looting and burning of crops that without massive food aid could tip the region into starvation.

For months, the people of Tigray have been largely sealed off from the world, with electricity and telecommunication access severed and mobile phones often seized, leaving little to back up their claims of thousands, even tens of thousands, killed. That has begun to change.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted last month that “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in western Tigray, marking the first time a top official in the international community has openly described the situation as such. The term refers to forcing a population from a region through expulsions and other violence, often including killings and rapes. The spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called the accounts in the AP story “harrowing” and said, “We are very concerned.”

Refugees told the AP that Amhara authorities and allied forces in western Tigray have taken over whole communities, ordering Tigrayans out or rounding them up. A refugee from Humera, Goitom Hagos, said he saw thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks and doesn't know what happened to them.

The Amhara now control some government offices in western Tigray and decide who belongs — and even whether Tigrayans exist at all. Some were ordered to accept the Amhara identity or leave, and others were told to leave anyway, the refugees said.

Lemlem Gebrehiwet was forced to flee while heavily pregnant and gave birth three days after reaching Sudan. She recalled the new authorities telling her, “This is Amhara.”

Shy, her baby girl waiting, she struggled to comprehend. “Maybe we did something wrong.”

Seid, the nurse, fled Humera early in the conflict after his hospital came under heavy shelling, with the wounded carried in screaming and colleagues killed. He returned in January in the hope that conditions had improved, as Abiy’s government promised.

They hadn't. His home had been looted, and the remaining Tigrayans had shrunk to a quiet population of the elderly, women and children who were discouraged from speaking their own language, Tigrinya.

At the hospital, Tigrayans had to pay for care, unlike the Amhara. Anyone who came was allowed to speak Amharic only. Tigrayan staffers weren't paid, and every night there was gunfire.

Ten days after returning to the hospital, Seid left for Sudan. Now, at this dusty post, refugees pass blazing days sprawled on plastic mats under shelters of woven straw. They stay perilously close to the border in the hope that missing loved ones will emerge from Tigray.

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The conflict began in November as a political clash of past and present, with all of Ethiopia arguably at stake.

Tigray leaders had dominated the country’s government for nearly three decades, creating a system of ethnic-based regional states. But when Abiy took office in 2018, he moved to centralize power. He sidelined the Tigray leaders and made peace with Eritrea after years of war, earning a Nobel Peace Prize.

After last year’s election was delayed, the defiant Tigray leaders viewed Abiy’s mandate as illegal and held their own vote. The government then opened a military offensive, saying Tigray forces had attacked a military base.

“The federal government is trying to be king. We Tigrayans refuse,” said one refugee, Nega Chekole.

In response to allegations that the Amhara are ordering Tigrayans to leave and issuing new ID cards, the spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, Billene Seyoum, said the area is under a provisional administration “who are all from the region.”

Ethiopia said in a foreign ministry statement Wednesday that the government “once again is deeply dismayed by the deaths of civilians and the unfortunate circumstances that led them to endure unbearable situations.” But it criticized “the rush to accuse the government” and called the former Tigray leaders and Tigray forces a "criminal enterprise that had been armed to its teeth.”

Almost everyone the AP interviewed said they had watched fellow Tigrayans being killed or seen bodies on the ground. In her town of more than a dozen ethnic groups, Belaynesh Beyene was dealt a ghastly lesson in just how little Tigrayans suddenly were worth.

In the early days of the fighting, she said she saw 24 bodies in the streets of Dansha in western Tigray. The 58-year-old grandmother and other residents were prevented from burying them by the Amhara youth militia, a practice that witnesses across Tigray have reported as an added insult to grief. The practice applies only to Tigrayan corpses.

“They accidentally killed an ethnic Oromo in a Tigrayan household,” she said. “When they realized their ‘mistake,’ they came and buried him.”

A spokesman for the Amhara regional government, Gizachew Muluneh, didn't answer questions from the AP. The Amhara have said they are taking back land they claim belongs to them.

Soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders, have also been blamed for some of the worst human rights abuses. Under pressure, Abiy said last month the soldiers will leave, after long denying their presence.

Hiwot Hadush, a teacher from Zalambessa, said scores of people were killed after the Eritreans went house to house, opening fire.

“Even if someone was dead, they shot them again, dozens of times. I saw this,” she said. “I saw many bodies, even priests. They killed all Tigrayans.”

In another border community, Irob, furniture maker Awalom Mebrahtom described hiding and watching Eritrean soldiers order 18 Tigrayans, mostly young men like him, to lie in a remote field. They were shot to death.

The killings continue. In early March, after months on the run, 30-year-old Alem Mebrahtu attempted a desperate crossing of the Tekeze river. Separated from her three small children in the early chaos of the conflict, she had heard they were in Sudan.

Sympathetic women from the Wolkait ethnic group pleaded with Eritrean soldiers near the river to let Alem cross, while urging her to pretend to be Wolkait, too. It worked, but she saw a grim reminder of what could have happened if she had failed.

Bodies lay scattered near the riverbank, she said. She estimated around 50 corpses.

“Some were face-down. Some were looking up at the sky,” she said.

Exhaustion still pressed deep under her eyes, Alem started to cry. There by the river, confronted with death, tears hadn't been allowed. The Eritrean soldiers beat people for expressing grief, she said.

Samrawit Weldegerima, who had arrived just two weeks earlier in Hamdayet, also saw corpses by the river, counting seven. Freshly branded on their temples were the markings some Tigrayans have to express their identity, she said.

“When I saw them, I was terrified,” Samrawit said, touching her belly, six months pregnant. “I thought I was already dead.”

Those who crossed the river were amazed to find that the Amhara were now in charge in western Tigray. Alem's home in Humera was occupied by Amhara militia. She asked them for her clothes, but they had been burned. She was told to get out.

Reluctantly, to protect herself, she is trying to learn Amharic.

“Their aim is to leave no Tigrayan,” she said. “I hope there will be a Tigray for my children to go home to.”

The idea of home remains dangerous. Days after Abiy urged people in Tigray to return in late March, at least two men trying to do so from Hamdayet were fatally shot within sight of the border crossing.

They were buried by hundreds of refugees at the Orthodox church in Hamdayet, where the blank walls are being mapped for murals of sacrifice and salvation. Some of the faithful drop to their knees and clutch the stones, deep in prayer. Others rest their foreheads against the entrance, as if they can't go on.

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Even as the Amhara fighters took turns raping her, they offered the young woman a twisted path to what they considered redemption.

She had returned to her looted home in Humera. There, she was seized by militia members speaking Amharic. When she asked them to speak her native Tigrinya, which she understood far better, they became angry and started kicking her.

She fell, and they fell upon her. She remembers at least three men.

“Let the Tigray government come and help you,” she recalled them saying.

They also made her a proposal: “Claim to be Amhara and we’ll give you back your house and find you a husband. But if you claim to be Tigrayan, we will come and rape you again.”

The woman’s Amhara neighbor was present during the attack. When she later approached him for help, there was none.

“So what?” she recalled him saying. “You came back. Behave and be quiet.”

The woman cried all night. The next day, she found little comfort in learning that many others in her neighborhood had been raped, too.

“One mother and daughter had been forced to watch each other,” she said. “One woman was raped on the road, with people watching. Other accounts were worse than mine.”

She left for Sudan. It was mid-February. Afraid to speak with anyone, she waited almost a month before seeking medical care.

“I was ashamed,” she said, and started to cry. She watched the doorway warily, fearing the rumors that can spread among the refugees.

She said she was grateful to be HIV-negative, but she is pregnant. For a long moment, she was silent. She can hardly think about that yet. Her family back home doesn’t know.

The United Nations has said more than 500 rapes in Tigray have been reported to health care workers. But the woman from Humera, whose account was confirmed by her doctor, assumes many more survivors are hiding it just as she did. The AP doesn't name people who have been sexually abused.

Several refugees from different Tigray communities told the AP they watched or listened helplessly as women were taken away by Amhara or Eritrean fighters and raped. It was like taunting, said Adhanom Gebrehanis from Korarit village, who had just arrived in Hamdayet with the welts from a beating by Eritrean soldiers on his back.

“They do these things openly to make us ashamed,” he said.

He described watching Eritreans pull aside 20 women from a group of Tigrayans and rape them. The next day, 13 of the women were returned.

“Go,” Adhanom said the Eritreans told the others. “We already have what we want.”

A midwife from Adwa, Elsa Tesfa Berhe, described treating women secretly after Eritrean soldiers swept through health centers, looting even the beds and telling patients to leave. As Berhe snuck out to deliver babies and care for the wounded, she saw people trying to bury bodies at the risk of being shot, or pouring alcohol on corpses in an attempt to hide the smell.

With the health centers destroyed, little if any care remains for women and girls who have been raped. No one knows how many now carry the children of their attackers.

Berhe had just arrived in Sudan. She cried as she recalled a 60-year-old woman who was raped vaginally and anally by Eritrean soldiers and then waited for days, trying to hide the bleeding, before seeking help.

“She didn’t want to tell anyone,” Berhe said. She heard the woman ask, “Can anyone trust me if I say I was raped?”

Another woman was raped by four Eritrean soldiers while her husband hid under the bed, Berhe said. Her husband recounted the attack when they sought an abortion.

A third woman described how Eritrean soldiers ordered her father to rape her, then shot and killed him when he refused. The soldiers raped her instead.

Berhe fears that the situation in rural areas is even worse, as described by the displaced people arriving in cities. So far, few from the outside world can reach the areas where the majority of Tigrayans lived before the conflict, as fighting continues.

“Do you think there is a word to explain this? There is no word,” said a midwife from Humera, who gave only her first name, Mulu.

In Hamdayet she befriended seven women from the same village, Mai Gaba, who said they were raped separately by various fighters, including Ethiopian federal forces. Mulu fears that Mai Gaba is a conservative example and estimates that some communities have seen scores of assaults.

“This is to harm the community psychologically,” Mulu said. “Most of the people in Tigray support the (fugitive Tigray leaders). To destroy them, you must destroy Tigrayans.”

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There is more to come.

Almost every person interviewed described a worrying shortage of food, and some said Tigrayans are being starved. Many recalled seeing crops being looted or burned in communities by Amhara or Eritrean fighters, a toll that even shows up in satellite imagery.

Kidu Gebregirgis, a farmer, said he was questioned almost daily about his ethnicity, his shirt yanked aside to check for marks from the strap of a gun. He said the Amhara harvested around 5,000 kilograms (5.5 short tons) of sorghum from his fields and hauled it away, a task that took two weeks. He shook his head in amazement.

The conflict began shortly before the harvest in the largely agricultural region. Now the planting season approaches.

“But there is no seed,” Kidu said. “There’s nothing to start again.”

The prospect is terrifying, said Alex de Waal, the author of a new report warning of mass starvation in Tigray and a researcher at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“What I fear is that millions of people are in the rural areas, staying because they are hopeful they will be able to plant,” he said. “If they’re not able to plant, if food supplies run out, then all of a sudden we could see a mass migration.”

Tigrayans who passed through rural communities described starving people, often elderly, begging outside churches. Sometimes they did, too.

Alem, the exhausted mother, begged for money and tightened her clothes to control the hunger pangs. Abedom, a day laborer who only gave one name, begged while roaming the mountains and villages for three months.

“It was normal to go a whole day without food,” he said. “So many people were hungry. They loot everything, so if they take it all, how do I survive?”

The hunger was staggering. One refugee saw a man faint on the road in Adi Asr, close to death. Another described a fellow traveler so tired he simply stopped walking. Yet another saw a child, too weak to go on, left behind.

Again, ethnicity was crucial. Belaynesh, from Dansha, said she made sure to speak Amharic when approaching farmhouses in western Tigray for food.

Ethiopia, under international pressure, has said food aid has been distributed to more than 4 million people in Tigray. Refugees disagreed, saying they saw no such thing in their communities or asserting that food was being diverted.

Maza Girmay, 65, said she heard food was being distributed, so she went to the government office in her community of Bahkar to inquire.

“They told me, ‘Go home, you’re Tigrayan,’” she said. “We Tigrayans are Ethiopian. Why do they treat us as non-Ethiopian?”

The rejection brought her to tears. An Orthodox cross tattooed on her forehead, long faded from childhood, wrinkled with her sorrow.

In the community of Division, farmer Berhane Gebrewahid said he was shot by Amhara fighters seeking his cattle. He said food aid was distributed in February by Amhara authorities but refused to Tigrayans, including him. Even the name of his homeland had been changed to Northern Gondar, after a major city in Amhara.

A colonel with the Tigray fighters, Bahre Tebeje, worried that starvation will kill more people than the war itself.

“Most food aid returns to the Amhara and Eritreans,” he asserted, leaning forward intently, a tattered black-and-white kaffiyeh around his neck. “It’s not being distributed to the people.”

Severe malnutrition is already above emergency levels as humanitarian workers rush to reach communities, the U.N. has said. In Hamdayet, a handful of such cases were recently sent to a regional hospital for treatment, according to a doctor there. One woman, recovering, still couldn’t produce milk for her baby, who whimpered and sucked at a limp breast.

Battered and hungry, Tigrayans still arrive daily at the border post where Sudanese soldiers watch a no man’s land in the shadow of a fading flag. One recent evening, the AP saw three new refugees approaching.

In Sudan, the Tigrayans are registered and asked for their ethnicity. For once, they are free to answer.