by Fred Harter
Monday, 29
November 2021

We may never know the full truth about the Axum massacre

What happened on a 24-hour killing spree in Tigray last year remains unclear
by Fred Harter
Women mourn the victims of a massacre by Eritrean Soldiers in Dengolat, the capital of Tigray

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.”

Join the discussion

To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
D Ward
D Ward
5 months ago

Page 17 of today’s Daily Terriblegraph had the following headline: “Briton told soldiers ‘to commit genocide’.”

We are then told in the report that this guy Tsege, who is the subject of the report, is “an Ethiopian-born UK citizen”.

I don’t know about you, but as a genuine born-and-bred Briton I get really ticked off with being lumped in with every other criminal who happens to have got hold of a UK passport.

This guy is not a “Briton” and it ill behoves the Terriblegraph to portray him as one.

5 months ago
Reply to  D Ward

Perhaps it’s because I was born in Africa, but what’s happening in Ethiopia and the fact that they’ve put this on page 17, and buried it deeply in the website, matters rather more to me. As the report states, Ethiopia does not allow dual nationality and he was granted asylum back in 1979 after his brother was murdered.
It surely behoves us all to question why our media and politicians have taken so little interest in civil war in a country that once inspired a song that raised millions for famine relief (and which we’ll still endure this Christmas), and the professor at the European Institute quoted by the Telegraph is right. It is baffling that the UK is silent on a genocidal incitement and war by one of its nationals, especially when an Iranian-British woman jailed in Iran gets lots of attention.
Although it may be difficult to get hold of the best-forgotten Philip Hammond, who lobbied for this lowlife to be released from jail, Liz Truss and Secretary Blinken are about to meet at a NATO conference in Latvia. Perhaps someone will ask Ms Truss what she thinks about a British citizen urging people in Ethiopia to resort to “”the most barbaric of cruelties””.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago
Reply to  jgillferguson

Hi Jill, I do hope you post regularly here as getting a different perspective is fantastic. I overpost, and am amazed I have not been banned as I always am by political sites, but try to give the perspective from my own weird angle, and like writing outlandish opinions….

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago

I did not read this as slaughter I know nothing about is not really what I feel to read now – the only thing was it brought to mind:

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scooped’ ‘about the civil war in fictional African country of Ishmaelia’, which was based on Ethiopia – and the general indifference the public in Britain felt on it all, although war correspondents were dutifully dispatched, including the hapless Mr Boot, a nature writer of the most dripping sentimentally kind, is sent to cover it.

“In 1935, Waugh was sent by the Daily Mail newspaper to cover Italy’s second invasion of Abyssinia, this time by Benito Mussolini against Emperor Haile Selassie. The Italians annexed parts of the country and requisitioned the Taitu, using it for administrative and housing purposes. It was renamed the Imperial Hotel and Ethiopians were barred.”

Waugh placed a couple stories in Ishmaelia, he was an amazing man, becoming one of the dreaded British Commandos in WWII, and a world traveler. The most interesting coverage of Ethiopia by a British man is from Wilfred Thesiger who was born in Abbas Abba, and with the Mad Colonel Wingate and a handful of soldiers took all the Italian Army in Ethiopia prisoner of the Crown – as they very much wanted to surrender to any British solider rather than be taken by the Ethiopians…

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
5 months ago

The reason why we have heard very little about this conflict, is that they are still trying to work out a reason why the natural born British People should be made to feel guilty about it. (A clue for them – The British Army having defeated the Italians at the battle of Keren (1941) occupied Eritrea until 1950. So obviously it MUST all be our fault and I hear no-one complaining about the Italians.)
Once they sort that little problem out, we’ll hear about nothing else.
Although, in fairness, we still get blamed for the war in Yemen, with heartstring plucking “charity” appeals broadcast nightly. We marched out of Aden (at the farest southern tip of Yemen) back in 1967. Still all our fault. The wars in Northern Yemen go back to the 1930s and especially after 1962. Still, obviously our fault.
Demolish Nelson’s Column and replace with George Floyd Column, to assuage our obvious guilt.

D Glover
D Glover
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Brumby

The mainstream media have never made much of the brutal killing of Alexander Monson(English, innocent) in a Kenyan police station. The MSM shriek if the Israeli police, or the Minneapolis police, abuse somebody.
It is almost as though the MSM are racist, expecting lower standards in Eritrea and Kenya than in in Israel or the US.