Ethiopia's Tigray: Bodies Float into Sudan

By Simon Marks and Declan Walsh

The disfigured bodies are the latest indication of atrocities as the conflict over the Tigray region spreads to other parts of Ethiopia and across international borders.

The Sitit River, known as the Tekeze River in Ethiopia, near Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. Dozens of bloated bodies have washed onto these shores. El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters

AL-FASHAGA, Sudan — The bodies floated over the border in ones and twos, bloated and bearing knife or gunshot wounds, carried on waters that flow from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.

At least 40 bodies have washed up on a riverbank in eastern Sudan in the past week, in some cases just a few hundred yards from the border with Ethiopia, according to international aid workers and doctors who helped retrieve the corpses.

The grisly finds at the river are apparent evidence of the latest atrocities in a brutal, nine-month civil war between Ethiopian federal forces and their allies, and fighters in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia — a conflict accompanied by reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual assault.

Few of the bodies have been identified, but several contained tattoos that suggested they were ethnic Tigrayans, and many bore signs of a violent death or had their hands bound behind their backs, witnesses said.

“They were terribly injured, and some were riddled with bullets,” said Tewodros Tefera, a surgeon with the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian group, who works in a refugee camp beside the border.

Dr. Tewodros, who himself fled Ethiopia for Sudan at the start of the war in November, said in a telephone interview that he personally had buried two bodies pulled from the Sitit River (known as the Tekeze River in Ethiopia) near the village of Hamdayet, on Sudan’s border with Ethiopia.

Tewodros Tefera, a surgeon who fled Ethiopia for Sudan at the start of the war in November, said that he personally had buried two of the bodies pulled from the river. Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

The surgeon said the bodies had come from the direction of Humera, an Ethiopian town on the river six miles upstream, which has become a recent focus of the intensifying war between Tigrayan forces and those allied with Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

The killings came to public attention on Monday after images of grotesquely bloated bodies floating in the river circulated on social media, recalling the horrors of the genocide in the East African nation of Rwanda in 1994, when the bodies of victims also flowed over an international border.

Ethiopia’s government denounced the pictures appearing this week as fakes, orchestrated by its Tigrayan foes to discredit Mr. Abiy.

Mr. Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has faced a stream of reports of atrocities committed by Ethiopian troops and their allies in Tigray in recent months. His government has hit back with claims that the Tigrayans have also committed abuses, including recruiting child soldiers to their cause.

In a text message, Mr. Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, referred to a government statement from July 22 that appeared to anticipate the controversy, accusing Tigrayan forces of dumping in Humera the bodies of 300 people who had been killed in other parts of Tigray in an effort to generate “made-up propaganda of a massacre.”

A senior official with an international aid organization, however, confirmed that 40 bodies had been pulled from the river near Hamdayet, and broadly supported the accounts given by Dr. Tewodros and two other refugees at the camp. The official requested anonymity to avoid imperiling his organization’s relationship with the Ethiopian authorities.

The gruesome spectacle highlighted how the accelerating conflict in Tigray, where at least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions, is spreading to other parts of Ethiopia and even across the country’s international borders.

In recent weeks fighting has raged in Ethiopia’s neighboring Afar region to the east of Tigray, displacing thousands of civilians, as Tigrayan fighters seek to pressure Mr. Abiy’s government by trying to cut off the country’s most important supply route.

Emergency food distribution in the city of Mekelle in June. Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times © 2021 The New York Times Company

Friction is also mounting between the Ethiopian government and international aid agencies trying to stave off a humanitarian crisis in Tigray. On Tuesday two major aid groups, the Dutch arm of Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said Ethiopia had suspended their operations for three months.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, the visiting United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said Ethiopian accusations, made last month by a cabinet minister, that international aid groups are aiding the Tigrayan rebels, were “dangerous.”

In western Tigray, tensions have been rising as the pro-government forces that control the area — ethnic militia fighters from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia and allied soldiers from the country of Eritrea, to the north — gird for an expected Tigrayan assault.

The Tigrayans, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, have been threatening to attack western Tigray since they won a series of battles in late June, including the recapture of the provincial capital, Mekelle.

In Humera, Amharan and Eritrean forces have dug trenches, amassed military equipment and detained local civilians they accuse of helping the Tigrayan forces, according to refugees and aid workers.