Kibrom Hailu wasn’t too worried when his 15-year-old son stepped out to play volleyball one morning last month near their home in Wukro, in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region.
There had been protests in town that week — young men burning tyres and denouncing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — but his son, Henok, wasn’t involved and promised not to go far.
Only when he heard gunfire did Kibrom realise the danger, and by then it was too late: Henok’s body lay dead in the dirt road right outside the gate of their compound.
Henok was one of 18 civilians shot and killed that day by Ethiopian soldiers, according to a tally provided by St Mary’s College in Wukro, which has documented abuses by security forces against civilians in the town since fighting erupted last November.
For Kibrom, though, the timing was just as revealing as the toll: the killings came around two and a half months after Abiy announced military operations in Tigray had “ceased” and life would return to normal.
In fact the opposite is true, Kibrom and other Wukro residents told AFP journalists who reached the town earlier this month.
“The war is escalating. Now it is focused on the civilians,” Kibrom said.
“How can we live like this?”
Every phase of the four-month-old conflict in Tigray has brought suffering to Wukro, a fast-growing transport hub once best-known for its religious and archaeological sites.
Ahead of federal forces’ arrival in late November, heavy shelling levelled homes and businesses and sent plumes of dust and smoke rising above near-deserted streets.
Since then the town has been heavily patrolled by soldiers — Eritreans at first, now mostly Ethiopians — whose abuses fuel a steady flow of civilian casualties and stoke anger with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Abiy.
“We are constantly receiving patients who are injured by the war,” said Dr Adonai Hans, medical director of Wukro General Hospital.
“If somebody says there is no war in Tigray, that would be a joke for me.”
Sons of the junta
Abiy sent troops into Tigray on November 4 after blaming the region’s once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
Several weeks later, as federal forces advanced on the regional capital Mekele, Wukro residents realised their town, 50 kilometres (31 miles) north, would be overrun.
Many fled to the surrounding mountains, looking on in horror as shells rained down on the town, some recording the carnage with their cellphones.
People react as they stand next to a mass grave containing the bodies of 81 victims of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, killed during violence of the previous months, in the city of Wukro, north of Mekele, on February 28, 2021.
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
What they returned to was even worse: Angry Eritreans who spent days looting homes, banks and factories and shooting dead scores of young men suspected of sympathising with the TPLF “junta”, according to religious and medical officials.
“Killing is their kind of daily work. They don’t even sense they are killing people,” a Catholic official in Wukro said of the Eritreans, requesting anonymity to avoid reprisals.
Nebiyu Kiflom, a building materials vendor, was home with his housemates — including three of his brothers — when Eritreans barged through the door one night in late November.
“They said, ‘You are the sons of the junta,'” he recalled. “We were just sitting at home. We weren’t doing anything.”
The soldiers killed six people that night, and Nebiyu was stuck indoors for three days with the bodies before he summoned the courage to go for help.
By early December, scores of young men were dead in Wukro, including 81 now buried at the back of an Orthodox church.
“We have seen the bodies with our own eyes. We have buried them,” said priest Gebrehana Hailemariam.
“They were killed in the town and brought to us.”
None of the death tolls provided could be independently verified.
During the first wave of killings, Wukro residents had almost no access to medical care.
Damage from shelling and looting destroyed 75 percent of the hospital’s facilities and equipment, forcing it to close for a month, said Dr Adonai, the medical director.
The timing could not have been worse for Elisabeth Gebrekidan, who delivered twins in early December and suffered what her family believes was postpartum haemorrhage.
Her brother, Elias, pleaded with a soldier for permission to hire an ambulance to take her to Mekele for treatment but was rebuffed.
“He said to me, ‘Get out of my face, you are a son of the junta’,” Elias recalled, tears streaming down his face at the memory.
Elisabeth died after four days at home, leaving Elias to raise the twins — girls named Tsion and Roda — with the help of his mother.
Elias Gebrekidan (C) stands next to members of his family who holds his twin nieces Tsion and Roda, who were born during the hostilities, in Wukro, north of Mekele, on March 1, 2021.
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
These days, the hospital is open and running, albeit at limited capacity.
Patients include rape survivors — some of whom wait weeks or months before seeking medical care — and freshly-wounded civilians who give an idea of just how close fighting continues to be.
One recent afternoon, a 45-year-old construction worker named Meles was being treated for a gunshot blast to his right thigh.
He said Eritrean soldiers had opened fire on civilians in his hometown of Agula, 12 kilometres south of Wukro, one morning in late February after pro-TPLF forces ambushed one of their positions in the town.
“Still the fighting continues,” Meles said.
“The international community needs to act now before it’s too late, before we vanish.”
‘This is our home’
Ethiopia’s military did not respond to requests for comment, though Abiy’s government has previously rejected allegations that soldiers have killed civilians in Tigray.
Both Addis Ababa and Asmara deny Eritrean soldiers are in the region at all, despite contrary accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats and members of Tigray’s Abiy-appointed interim government.
These claims draw mocking laughter on Wukro’s main commercial drag, where glass from shot-out windows litters sidewalks, and shopkeepers stand before empty shelves clutching photographs of what their businesses looked like before the war.
The pro-TPLF network Dimtsi Weyane recently aired a 13-minute video highlighting the scars of conflict in Wukro, with a narrator lamenting that the town, once an “earthly paradise”, now “looks like Syria and Yemen.”
A woman walks in front of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele, on March 1, 2021
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
Residents, for their part, said what they want most is for soldiers to leave so they can rebuild.
“They shouldn’t stay here even for a single night,” said Nebiyu, the building materials vendor.
“This is our home. It’s where we live. Otherwise, we would leave.”