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Ethiopia's Amhara region shattered after weeks of war

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
December 17, 2021

Two weeks ago, the Ethiopian army regained control of key territories in the Amhara region from Tigrayan forces. Their war has left communities displaced and in mourning, infrastructure looted and the economy shattered.

Two men and a woman pictured in Teraf
The residents of the village of Teraf say children were among the victims they buriedImage: Maria Gerth-Niculescu/DW

The road to Kombolcha in the Amhara region is strewn with burned trucks and bullet casings. There's a smell of decaying bodies and bits of human remains, left to hyenas, along the asphalt.

As life between the golden fields of wheat and sorghum resumes, even children seem undisturbed by the fate of an enemy, dehumanized in war.

Most of the bodies are of fighters from the adjacent Tigray. 

There are remants of drones believed to have been used by the Ethiopian army. 

In early December Tigrayan fighters retreated from North Shewa and South Wollo. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) said the withdrawal was strategic.

Advance halted 

Tigrayan forces had been advancing south towards Addis Ababa, in what they said was a response to a humanitarian siege imposed on the Tigray region.By early November, the Tigrayans had gained control of the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, in the Amhara region.

A man holding an assault rifle in a ransacked building
Amhara militias in Lalibela in the Amhara region supported Ethiopian forces against Tigrayan fightersImage: AFP via Getty Images

The Tigrayan advance was halted in the mountains around Debre Sina, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa. Farmers in the area say heavy fighting stretched on for five days.

"Even our cattle didn't go into the fields. They were hungering, and we were suffering a lot too," Desale Weldie said. "It was not possible to go to the market or anywhere, we could just stay home."

Eyewitnesses say the fighting in this part of Amhara stopped on 2 December. Those who had fought left clothing, biscuit packaging and empty water bottles on the roads. Civilians appear relieved but tired after weeks spent indoors, hoping their homes would be spared the looting.

Map of regions of Ethiopia

Civilians 'powerless'

In some villages, residents are recounting the killing of civilians by Tigrayan and Oromo fighters. "We collected the bodies after [the fighters] left. The local people buried them," Ahmed Hassen, a school director in the village of Teraf, told DW. He buried 25 people, 21 of whom were unarmed civilians. Some were as young as eight, he said.

Teraf is part of a special zone in the Amhara region, under Oromo administration. Ahmed Hassen says local Oromo armed groups teamed up with Tigrayan fighters and pointed out Amhara residents. "We are powerless," he says.

A 17-year-old survivor said she was shot while in her home. Her wounded arm is causing her so much pain she would have "preferred to be dead."

Hundreds of thousands of people who fled the violence have sought refuge in cities to the south.

In Debre Berhan, the capital of the North Shewa zone, schools have been turned into makeshift camps. With the Tigrayan fighters gone, many residents wish to return home, but some lack means to do so. Others know they have nothing to go back to. "What could we do if we go back? Our houses are burned down," says Mamito Belachew.

A man with a rifle points to a hilltop
Local militias in Amhara region are still on the lookout for Tigrayan fighersImage: Maria Gerth-Niculescu/DW

Economy shattered

Most of those displaced by the conflict are farmers. The Amhara region relies on agriculture — cereals such as teff, wheat, sorghum or barley.

Many farmers haven't been able to harvest matured crops. "This created a lot of damage," says Workalemu Akostre, head of the North Shewa agriculture department. In some areas, harvest started "a week before they [the TPLF] entered, but then it got interrupted." 

The extent of the losses has yet to be properly estimated.

A military vehicle with an Ethiopian national flag
An Ethiopian army vehicle in KombolchaImage: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images

Humanitarian crisis

Warehouses for humanitarian aid in the region were looted and health facilities are lacking.

In Dessie, the referral hospital for about eight million people was trashed. Medicines, machines, fridges, and computers were stolen or damaged. Tigrayan fighters were responsible, according to Melaku Sete, manager of the hospital's oxygen center. "They took about 19 machines and loaded it into their cars. They also took medicines and destroyed the rest before leaving." 

Banks, shops, universities, and hotels not spared either. Electricity and running water have yet to be reestablished, as are telecommunication services. The region's economy is almost at a standstill.

Heavy fighting is continuing north of Dessie and Tigrayan fighters have reportedly regained control of the town of Lalibela from Ethiopian government and Amhara forces

Calls by the international community for ceasefire and negotiations have failed to slow-down the hostilities as the hate speech and inter-ethnic resentment persists on both sides of the conflict.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen