EXPLAINER: Why Ethiopia's deadly Tigray crisis is growing

CARA ANNA
·5 min read

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Civilians massacred. Journalists arrested. People starving to death. Ethiopia’s government is under growing pressure to allow the world to see firsthand what has occurred in its embattled Tigray region as its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister rejects “partisan interventions.”

That pressure is expected to spike this month as the United States chairs the United Nations Security Council and addresses the first major African crisis of the Biden administration. Millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia, a key security ally in the region, are at stake.

Here’s a look at the turmoil in Tigray as the Security Council meets behind closed doors on Thursday to discuss it:

WHAT ABOUT CIVILIANS MASSACRED?

Last month The Associated Press exposed the killing of an estimated 800 people in the city of Axum, citing several witnesses, and a week later Amnesty International reported “many hundreds” killed there, citing more than 40 witnesses. Soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, long an enemy of Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders, were blamed.

Ethiopia continues to deny the Eritreans’ presence, even as senior officials with the interim Tigray government that Ethiopia appointed are increasingly outspoken about them. There is growing concern that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea, has now teamed up with it in war. Eritrea called the AP story on Axum “outrageous lies.”

Amid the denials, untold thousands of civilians have been killed as Ethiopian and allied forces pursue the former Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government before Abiy took office in 2018. Each side came to regard each other as illegitimate, then turned to fighting.

Axum is far from the only massacre alleged in the Tigray conflict. More are now coming to light as telephone service resumes in the region and more people flee.

The Telegraph, citing witnesses, has reported one in Debre Abay. CNN, citing witnesses, has reported one in Dengelat. And Agence France-Presse further exposed the Dengelat killings during a rare visit to the scene.

On Thursday, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said her office has corroborated information about incidents including “mass killings” in Axum and Dengelat, and warned of possible war crimes. Victims "must not be denied their rights to the truth and to justice,” she said, urging Ethiopia to let independent monitors into Tigray.

After U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend issued the strongest statement yet from Washington on Tigray and spoke with Abiy this week, the prime minister’s office on Wednesday reversed its skeptical stance on the Axum massacre and said it was investigating “credible allegations” in the city and elsewhere in the region.

But human rights groups and others are calling for independent international investigations, ideally led by the U.N., arguing that a government accused of involvement in atrocities cannot effectively investigate itself.

CAN JOURNALISTS REPORT FROM TIGRAY?

Yes, at their peril. Ethiopia in recent days began allowing a limited number of foreign media outlets to visit Tigray — the AP did not receive permission — but several Ethiopian media workers with the outlets were quickly detained.

Even as it announced the limited media access, Ethiopia warned journalists to essentially behave themselves. The government’s statement on Wednesday said Ethiopian defense forces would “ensure the security” of journalists in the parts of Tigray under their control, but those who leave the areas do so at their own risk. And journalists who break national laws, “including by aiding and abetting criminal entities and perpetrators, will be held accountable.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists this week criticized Ethiopia’s actions, saying that “the scarcity of independent reporting coming out of Tigray during this conflict was already deeply alarming. Now, the Ethiopian military’s arrests of journalists and media workers will undoubtedly lead to fear and self-censorship.”

Without unhindered access to Tigray, it is challenging to determine the fate of an estimated 6 million people four months after the region was cut off from the world.

ARE PEOPLE STARVING TO DEATH?

Yes, according to local officials, though it’s not clear how many. While humanitarian aid to Tigray has increased in recent weeks, aid workers have said it is far from enough and some 80% of the region remains unreachable.

In the starkest warning yet, the Ethiopian Red Cross last month said if humanitarian access didn’t improve, thousands of people would be starving to death in a month, and tens of thousands in two months.

Ethiopia’s government on Wednesday said it had distributed food aid to some 3.8 million people, and it again asserted that humanitarian organizations now have unfettered access to Tigray.

But humanitarian workers say the reality is far different, citing obstacles from authorities and the insecurity. An access map published this week by the U.N. humanitarian agency showed much of Tigray inaccessible beyond major roads and cities.

The fighting, which is ongoing in parts of Tigray, erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops, while forces from the neighboring Amhara region have reportedly occupied large parts of Tigray.

This week a senior interim Tigray official, Gebremeskel Kassa, told the BBC that “we are not able to know the whereabouts of a million people.”

The U.S. now says both the Eritreans and the Amhara forces should leave Tigray immediately.