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Tigray: War behind a 'steel wall'

March 1, 2021

Ethiopia has claimed that an Amnesty report painting a dark picture of the Tigray crisis supports misinformation. Now the government has invited journalists to visit Tigray — only to arrest them.

Ethiopian refugees in eastern Sudan
Image: Hussein Ery/AFP

The stream of worrying news from Tigray, Ethiopia, does not stop. A harrowing report published last week by Amnesty International (AI) led to strong criticism — from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

AI described horrific scenes in the northern city of Axum, including "extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting after Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces led an offensive to take control of the city." 

Eritrean troops "systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity," according to the report

Gunshots and looting

The international community reacted quickly and harshly.

"Hostilities must cease immediately and immediate, full and unfettered access to the whole of Tigray for all humanitarian actors and the media allowed," the European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement, adding that "the level of suffering endured by civilians, including children, is appalling."

Aid workers on the ground had reported hearing gunshots from the main cities, including the region's capital Mekelle, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported.

"Residents and aid workers on the ground continue reporting incidents of house searches and indiscriminate looting, including of household items, farming equipment, ambulances and office vehicles, allegedly by various armed actors.''

'Worsening humanitarian crisis'

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "The United States is gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia."

Blinken called on the African Union and the international community to help address the "worsening humanitarian crisis," emphasizing an urge for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara regional forces from Tigray and the "unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray."

Thousands of refugees from Tigray have fled to Sudan
Thousands of refugees from Tigray have fled to neighboring SudanImage: Hussein Ery/AFP

Ethiopia's federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea. However, dozens of witnesses, diplomats, and an Ethiopian general have reported seeing them there. 

The state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a statement that preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum, in retaliation for an earlier attack by Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) soldiers.

On the defensive

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry reacted defensively: Pronouncements by the United States on Ethiopia's internal affairs were "regrettable." 

"It should be clear that such matters are the sole responsibility of the Ethiopian government," the ministry said in a statement.

Allegations of human rights abuses, including sexual violence, would be taken seriously, it added.

"The government is firmly committed to undertake the necessary investigation and ensure full accountability of all perpetrators." However, "this kind of report based on such sources will not serve the purpose of justice but has the risk of further reinforcing the misinformation and propaganda by TPLF and its cohorts."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denies the presence of Eritrean forces in TigrayImage: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP


Eritrea's government dismissed the Axum massacre as "outrageous lies." Eritrea's information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, on Friday said his country was "outraged and categorically rejects the preposterous accusations" in the AI report.

"The AI report is transparently unprofessional and it is evident that the AI makes no effort to get the facts right and cross-check the veracity of the allegations."

Also, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government criticized AI for the "methodology employed in producing this report," referring to phone interviews.

"It would have been appropriate for Amnesty International to undertake the necessary fieldwork by visiting the region and talking to the competent Ethiopian authorities to uncover the truth," the prime minister said.

Media under siege

But this is just where another problem lies. Access to the region remains difficult for media representatives.

On February 24, the Ethiopian prime minister's office said in a statement that it had invited journalists from seven international media outlets to report on the conflict in the North.

According to the media watchdog CPJ, "two days later, a ruling party official was quoted by the state-owned Ethiopia Press Agency saying that the government would take measures against people he accused of 'trying to supply wrong information' to international journalists in Tigray."

Fears for the safety of local journalists working for international media outlets were confirmed when on February 27, soldiers arrested at least 4 people, including translators Fitsum Berhane and Alula Akalu, according to reports by the Agence France Press (AFP) and the Financial Times.

On Monday, Girmay Gebru, a local journalist with the BBC's Tigrinya Service, was arrested at a cafe in Mekelle and taken to a military camp.

"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," said CPJ.

A DW journalist based in Addis Ababa is currently in Tigray and is allowed to freely talk to Tigrayans on the ground.

"They are suffering from shelter, clothes, food, water," according to one volunteer in a camp for displaced Tigrayans, who told DW about the dire situation. "The main problem is medication. Many people here have HIV and diabetes, but in Tigray there are no medications."

Two Ethiopian soldiers
Ethiopian journalists have been arrested by Ethiopian forcesImage: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

Beaten and arrested

The intimidation of local stringers poses a huge obstacle for international journalists, Martin Plaut, a former Africa editor for BBC World Service News, said.

"It's a way of really making it impossible for foreign journalists to operate effectively in Tigray, because most of them don't speak Tigrinya."

Getting reliable information becomes almost impossible, according to Plaut.

"Even local journalists have found it extremely difficult to report from Tigray. In a sense, this war has been conducted behind a steel wall. There was no way of getting in and it is very difficult to get information out because the Internet and telephone communications were frequently interrupted."

Media watchdog CPJ has issued a statement that “Ethiopian authorities should release these journalists and media workers immediately and provide guarantees that the press can cover the conflict in Tigray without intimidation.”

The battle between the federal government and the TPLF of Tigray has moved on to become a war for access to independent information.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's name. The error has been corrected. 

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.