Fear and Hostility Simmer as Ethiopia’s Military Keeps Hold on Tigray

Accounts of atrocities keep coming in as the wounded flee to the regional capital, Mekelle, where Tigrayans say they are being winnowed for their leaders’ rebellion.

Declan Walsh / The New York Times

With its bustling streets and shops, Mekelle, Tigray’s biggest city, has an air of relative calm. [Maggie Fick/Reuters]

The calm is deceptive.

A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace.

Then the stories start spilling out.

Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds — people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew.

Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar. Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.

Of a nightlong battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Alefesha Hadusha, her head swaddled in bandages, as she gave a whispered account in a hospital ward. Her parents and two brothers were killed instantly in the attack, she said. An X-ray by her bed showed the bullet lodged in her head.

Alefesha Hadusha lost her two brothers and parents last month after Eritrean and Ethiopian troops entered her home and opened fire on innocent civilians. [The New York Times}

When Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, began a sweeping military operation in the restive region of Tigray on Nov. 4, he cast his goal in narrow terms: to capture the leadership of the region’s ruling party. The party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, had brazenly defied his authority for months, and then attacked a federal military base.

But four months on, the operation has degenerated into a bitter civil conflict marked by accounts of egregious rights violations — massacres, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and fears that starvation is being used a war tactic — that have set off alarm across the world.

In Mekelle, the region’s biggest city, many Tigrayans say they feel that they, not their leaders, are the true targets of Mr. Abiy’s military campaign.

Hospitals are filled with casualties from the fighting that rages in the countryside, many of them terrified civilians arriving with grievous wounds.

Schools house some of the 71,000 people who fled to the city, often bringing accounts of horrific abuses at the hands of pro-government forces.

Refugees serving lunch donated by the local population at a makeshift camp situated inside a secondary school for internally displaced people in Mekelle. [The New York Times]

A palpable current of fear and resentment courses through the streets, where hostilities between residents and patrolling government soldiers often erupt into violence.

“We don’t say that everything was perfect under the T.P.L.F.,” said Assimee Misgina, a philosophy lecturer at Mekelle University, referring to the Liberation Front. “But this is a war against the people of Tigray. Basically, we are under an existential threat.”

Mr. Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, denies responsibility for any atrocities, and United Nations officials say that all sides including the T.P.L.F. may have committed war crimes.

But the majority of serious accusations have been aimed at government troops and their allies — the ethnic Amhara militias that moved into the western part of Tigray, and soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor and onetime enemy.

Mr. Abiy’s spokeswoman and the head of an Ethiopian government task force dealing with the crisis in Tigray did not respond to a list of questions or repeated requests for comment for this article.

In Mekelle, captured by government troops on Nov. 28, residents have learned to toe the government line, even if the nearest battleground is 60 miles away.

Restaurants and bars no longer play certain songs in the local Tigrinya language, fearing retribution. A TV station that once broadcast local news now offers the government perspective.

The interim president of Tigray, Mulu Nega, holds court in a luxury hotel where federal soldiers stand guard by the entrance. The internet has been shut down since November.

In late February, when the authorities permitted a rare visit to Mekelle by international reporters, Tigrayans flocked to the hotels where journalists were staying, desperate for news of the outside world — and to tell their own stories.

In the lobby of the Northern Star hotel, Berhane Takelle, the manager of a garment factory, produced a video that showed the remains of his business in Adwa, 100 miles to the north — charred machinery, a destroyed roof and garments strewn across an empty factory floor. It was all that remained, he said, following a series of violent raids by plundering Eritrean soldiers. “They took everything,” Mr. Berhane said, shaking his head.

At the city’s main hospital, the Ayder Referral hospital, officials said they received the bodies of 250 men, ages 20 to 35, between Nov. 28, when Ethiopian soldiers seized Mekelle, and March 9. Four-fifths of the bodies had gunshot wounds, and the remainder had been injured with knives, said a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.