In early February, the crash of shells and bullets in the remote Jawmaro mountains in northern Ethiopia seemed to have stopped.
Civilians in Abi Addi, a town about 60 miles from the Tigray region’s capital, were relieved. At last, a small measure of peace.
But on February 10, all the terrors of Ethiopia’s civil war descended on the town and at least a dozen surrounding villages.
In exclusive testimony shared with the Telegraph, 18 witnesses told how Ethiopian federal soldiers and Eritrean troops surrounded the area and went from house to house killing a total of 182 people.
“I saw dead bodies scattered, bodies half-eaten by dogs. The soldiers did not allow anyone to get close to the corpses,” said 26-year-old Tesfay Gebremedhin from the village of Semret, who fled into the mountains along with many other terrified young men.
“But later, they started to feel disturbed by the terrible smell of the dead bodies. So they covered the bodies with dust.”
One of those who survived the massacre in Wetelako village was five-year-old Merhawit Weldegebreal. She was shot in her leg. Her uncle, Abrha Zenebe, died trying to shield her from the bullets.
“The soldiers came and shouted at my uncle. They also shouted at my father. But dad ran away. The soldiers hit my uncle in his leg with their guns. And then they shot him in his belly. They also shot me in my knee,” the little girl told the Telegraph on the phone from her hospital bed in the Ayder hospital in the regional capital Mekele.
Since the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the most powerful military in Africa into the country’s northern Tigray region to oust its ruling party in November, all hell has been unleashed on the ethnic Tigrayan people.
Mr Abiy sided with forces from Eritrea and ethnic militias from Tigray’s neighbouring Amhara region to crush forces loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a three-pronged attack.
Now a deluge of credible reports pointing towards a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, rape and man-made starvation are emerging.
Survivors told the Telegraph that civilians, mainly farmers, had been massacred in Abi Addi and the villages of Adi Asmiean, Bega Sheka, Adichilo, Amberswa, Wetlaqo, Semret, Guya, Zelakme, Arena, Mitsawerki, Yeqyer and Shilum Emni.
Four brothers in their 20s were among those killed at Adi Asmiean. Gebremedhin, Kibrom, Gueshaya and Tesfamariym Araya were at the family farm, harvesting their sorghum crop when Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers arrived.
Witnesses told the Telegraph they were shot and their bodies were dumped in a nearby crater. It took five days for their father, Araya Gebretekle, and his eldest son, Mebrahten Araya, to find the bodies of their loved ones.
“When they took my sons, I was in town with Mebrahten purchasing some goods. Returning home, I heard neighbours saying the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers took many young men from the village. That was when I also learned my sons were among those taken,” says Mr Araya.
Mr Araya was only able to identify his sons by their clothing. “They asked me if I was sure the bodies belonged to my sons. I told them I was sure. How can I not know my sons?” he says.
In the village of Adi Asmiean near Abi Addi, parents and elders say that they begged Ethiopian soldiers to allow burials to take place.
“On February 15, the Ethiopian soldiers showed us the whereabouts of the dead bodies they threw into the crater. We went there with some parents of the dead. When we arrived, all villagers could not move an inch towards the bodies because of the terrible smell,” says Hadush Meruts, a local priest.
Mr Meruts and three other priests managed to retrieve just seven corpses.
“It was difficult to pull them out. Most were already eaten by wild animals. Others were half-eaten by dogs. Their bodies were torn into pieces; their faces were filled with insects. We splashed fuel on the bodies to cleanse the insects,” he says.
When asked for comment about the massacre, Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, could not address the events of Abi Addi specifically.
“The government of Eritrea has zero tolerance for and never targets civilians in war. But in the past four months, we have seen a barrage of fabricated accusations mainly from TPLF remnants,” he said.
List compiled by researchers of victims of mass killings includes infants and people in their 90s
Almost 2,000 people killed in more than 150 massacres by soldiers, paramilitaries and insurgents in Tigray have been identified by researchers studying the conflict. The oldest victims were in their 90s and the youngest were infants.
The identifications are based on reports from a network of informants in the northern Ethiopian province run by a team at the University of Ghent in Belgium. The team, which has been studying the conflict in Tigray since it broke out last year, has crosschecked reports with testimony from family members and friends, media reports and other sources.
The list is one of the most complete public records of the mass killing of civilians during the war, and will increase international pressure on Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has claimed that many reports of atrocities are exaggerated or fabricated.
Abiy launched a military offensive in November to “restore the rule of law” in Tigray by ousting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party then in power in the province, following a surprise attack on a federal army base.
The offensive was declared successful after the TPLF leadership evacuated its stronghold of Mekelle, the provincial capital, and an interim administration loyal to Addis Ababa was installed.
Mass killings and violence directed at civilians have continued since, however, as federal forces and their allies battle insurgents. There have been clashes in recent days around the town of Selekleka, on a key road in the centre of Tigra
Twenty of the massacres the team listed – defined as incidents in which at least five people died – occurred in the last month. They include the killing of an estimated 250 civilians over three days in Humera, a town of significant economic and strategic importance in the far west of Tigray where the ethnic cleansing of local communities has been reported.
Eight days ago, Eritrean soldiers searching for suspected TPLF insurgents killed 13 people in Grizana, a village 50 miles south-west of Mekelle in an area where fierce fighting has taken place. The victims included three men in their 50s, several women, a 15-year-old and a two-year-old.
Prof Jan Nyssen, a geographer who led the investigation and who has spent decades living and working in Tigray, said the research was “like a war memorial”.
He said: “These individuals should not be forgotten and these war crimes should be investigated … The list is to show the magnitude of what is happening. We know there are many more but … we know the name and the circumstances of these 1,900.”
The list of identified victims was compiled after more than 2,000 telephone calls, including around 100 in-depth interviews with witnesses. The full list of victims the team has compiled from social media posts and other sources runs to more than 7,000. The main research findings based on the information were published on Thursday, and the names were released on Twitter.
The researchers found that only 3% of the identified victims had been killed in airstrikes or by artillery. Most had been shot dead in summary executions during searches or in organised massacres such as that at Aksum, in which 800 people are thought to have died, or at the town of Mai Kadra, where 600 died in violence blamed on militias loyal to the TPLF.
More than 90% of the victims identified were male. Among incidents where blame can be confidently determined, Ethiopian soldiers appear to have been responsible for 14% of the killings, Eritrean troops who have fought alongside federal forces 45%, and irregular paramilitaries from the neighbouring province of Amhara 5%. Witnesses blamed Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers operating together in 18% of cases.
Tim Vanden Bempt, one of the researchers, said the team’s list of massacres did not include perpetrators because information was often fragmentary.
“A lot is still unknown. There are many incidents where we can’t conclude which side is responsible for the moment. So for example, it is possible that there have been two or three massacres committed by TPLF-aligned fighters but we cannot say for sure,” he said.
Abiy publicly acknowledged the possibility of war crimes in Tigray for the first time last month. He told parliamentarians that despite the TPLF’s “propaganda of exaggeration … reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region”.
He said war was “a nasty thing” and pledged that soldiers who had raped women or committed other war crimes would be held responsible.
Eritrean officials have described allegations of atrocities by their soldiers as “outrageous lies
Humanitarian officials have said a growing number of people could be starving to death in Tigray. Madiha Raza, of the International Rescue Committee, recently visited the province and said conditions were dire.
“The situation in rural areas is the worst. Medical centres, schools, hospitals, banks and hotels have been looted. People I interviewed had heard multiple reports of civilians being rounded up and killed. Farm animals and grain are being burned or destroyed and fear tactics are being used across the conflict,” Raza said.
There are continuing claims of widespread human rights abuses, including a wave of sexual assaults. More than 500 rape cases have been reported to five clinics in Tigray, the UN said last month. Actual numbers were likely to be much higher because of stigma and a lack of health services, it said.
Selam, a 26-year-old farmer, fled her home in the central town of Korarit with her husband and children and hundreds of others in mid-November “because the Amhara special forces were beating and killing people”. The family walked for a month to reach safety.
“We saw a lot of dead bodies during our journey … I witnessed a lot of women get raped in front of my eyes. Five or more troops would rape each woman. Some of them were left for dead because of how many men raped them,” she said.
Other witnesses described teenage girls with “broken bones after they’d been raped by 15 or 16 men each”. Metal fences have recently been installed at Mekelle University to protect hostels housing female students.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UN, Taye Atskeselassie Amde, said last week that his government took the allegations of sexual violence very seriously and had deployed a fact-finding mission
In a leaked recording of a meeting last month between foreign diplomats and an Ethiopian army general, Yohannes Tesfamariam, he described the conflict in Tigray as a “dirty war” and civilians as defenceless.
The lead author of the Ghent report, Dr Sofie Annys, said their maps and database would be updated on a regular basis.