November 29, 2021 - 5:07pm

On 28th November 2020 Eritrean soldiers went on the rampage in Axum, a holy city in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, whose main church is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to hold the Ark of Covenant. Over the course of 24 hours, they went door to door summarily shooting unarmed young men and boys.

Some of the victims were as young as 13. The Eritrean soldiers forbade residents from burying slain relatives and neighbours so the bodies lay rotting in the streets for days. Witnesses later described hearing hyenas come at night to feed on the dead.

Eritrean soldiers had shelled and then occupied Axum around a week earlier, having invaded Tigray in early November in support of an offensive by Ethiopia’s federal government against the region’s rebellious leaders. The killings were carried out in apparent retaliation for an attack by local Tigrayan militia and residents on Eritrean soldiers, who had been pillaging the town for days.

Amid a total communications blackout that plunged the region of 6 million into darkness, it took weeks for the news to seep to the outside world. On 9th December 2020, less than two weeks after the massacre, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres told a New York press conference that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had personally assured him that Eritrean soldiers had not even entered Tigray. Abiy, who less than a year before the Axum massacre received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for reconciling with Eritrea, would not admit the presence of Eritrean troops until April.

The contrast to other recent conflicts is stark. When war erupted in Gaza earlier this year, for instance, the internet was quickly flooded with images of bomb damage and explosions. Viewers of Al Jazeera could watch live as the owner of a block housing the Associated Press and other media negotiated over the phone with the Israeli military, who were poised to blow the building up.

“It is incredible that – in this emblematic town – such horror could happen without the international community responding,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “The reports only really started coming out three months later. Where else in the world can you have a massacre on this scale that is completely kept in darkness for that long?”

Barred from Ethiopia, researchers from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International resorted to piecing together what happened in Axum through phone calls and interviews with refugees who had fled over the border to Sudan. Between March and June international journalists were briefly allowed into Tigray, but checkpoints and fighting in the region meant few were able to reach the city.

The fighting also prevented a joint team from the United Nations and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHCR) from travelling there. When they released their much-anticipated report into human rights abuses committed in Tigray earlier this month it contained no testimony gathered in Axum. This was, remember, the site of one of the worst atrocities in a now year-long conflict that has been characterised by reports of summary executions, torture, starvation, gang rapes and rampant looting. 

As a result, much of what happened there remains unclear. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International believe several hundred civilians were massacred, whereas the joint UN-EHRC investigation vaguely concluded that “more than 100” were killed. A senior Ethiopian diplomat dismissed initial reports of the massacre as “very, very crazy” but later the attorney general’s office concluded Eritrean troops had in fact killed civilians in reprisal shootings, giving the figure of 110.

These patterns of contestation run through the whole conflict in Northern Ethiopia. Meanwhile communities caught on both sides of the fighting are living with immense trauma. When I visited the eastern Tigray village of Dengelat in April, residents had buried dozens of loved ones in graves topped with stones and bloodstained pieces of clothing. They had been killed by Eritrean soldiers during a religious festival six months before, but people there had received little outside help, except for some food supplies from aid agencies. Investigators have still not visited the site, and the whole of Tigray has once again been cut off from the outside world.

Unlike Dengelat, researchers from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission did manage to visit Axum on a “fact-finding mission” in late February and early March, which was separate to the joint report with the UN, but they did not do a full investigation. Laetitia Bader from Human Rights Watch believes the story of what happened there during those 24 hours last year may never be fully uncovered: “Day by day, the chances for in-depth investigations that could lead to criminal prosecutions are receding.”

Fred Harter is Ethiopia correspondent for The Times and reports from Addis Ababa.