Eritrean armed forces massacred scores of civilians, including children as young as 13, in the historic town of Axum in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations should urgently establish an independent inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in the region to pave the way for accountability, and Ethiopian authorities should grant it full and immediate access.
On November 19, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shelled Axum, killing and wounding civilians. For a week after taking control of the town, the forces shot civilians and pillaged and destroyed property, including healthcare facilities. After Tigray militia and Axum residents attacked Eritrean forces on November 28, Eritrean forces, in apparent retaliation, fatally shot and summarily executed several hundred residents, mostly men and boys, over a 24-hour period.
“Eritrean troops committed heinous killings in Axum with wanton disregard for civilian lives,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopian and Eritrean officials can no longer hide behind a curtain of denial, but should allow space for justice and redress, not add to the layers of trauma that survivors already face.”
The attacks in Axum followed weeks of fighting between the Ethiopian military and allied forces from the Amhara region and Eritrean troops against forces affiliated with the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Between December 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 28 witnesses and victims of abuses and their relatives in Axum and examined videos of attacks and their aftermath.
Survivors consistently identified Eritrean troops by the vehicles bearing Eritrean license plates, their distinctive uniforms, the spoken dialect of Tigrinya, and their plastic “congo” shoes, worn by Eritrean forces since the liberation struggle.
On November 19, after Tigrayan forces and militia withdrew from Axum, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces began shelling the town around 4 p.m., continuing into the evening. The next day, witnesses saw Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shoot at civilians, including in the town’s Saint Mary’s hospital.
For about a week, the military forces pillaged. While several residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch saw Ethiopian forces participate, most said the soldiers just stood by and watched. “It was painful,” said one man. “I thought the Ethiopian military stood for Ethiopia and its people… but they did nothing as Eritrean forces looted and killed. They just kept silent.”
The abuses generated considerable anger in the town. On November 28, after 7 a.m., a group of Tigrayan militia and town residents attacked Eritrean forces, triggering fighting. That afternoon, Eritrean reinforcements entered Axum and went on a 24-hour killing spree.
Survivors described the horror of Eritrean soldiers moving through the town, going house to house, searching for young men and boys, and executing them. A student described watching helplessly as Eritrean soldiers led six neighbors, including a 17-year-old the witness knew as “Jambo” and another young man, outside. He said: “They made them take off their belts, then their shoes. They lined them up and walked behind them. The Eritrean soldiers fired their guns. The first three then fell. They fired other shots, and the other three fell.”
Eritrean troops shot other civilians on the street. “A group of soldiers killed a man and then forced a pregnant woman and two children that were with him to kneel on the asphalt street beside his body,” said one witness.
Those retrieving bodies for burial did not escape harm. Several residents said Eritrean forces shot at them while they tried to collect the dead on November 28 and 29.
The massacre left the town’s inhabitants reeling. One man visited a relative who lost her children in the house-to-house killings: “They killed her children and locked the compound door behind them, so no one could get in at first. She was left alone with the bodies of her two dead children for a day and a half. She was numb, unresponsive by the time we saw her.”
Human Rights Watch was unable to determine the number of civilian deaths resulting from the joint Ethiopian-Eritrean offensive on Axum and the ensuing massacre. However, based on interviews with elders, community members collecting identification cards of those killed, and those assisting the retrieval of the dead, Human Rights Watch estimates that over 200 civilians were most likely killed on November 28-29 alone. Human Rights Watch also received a list of 166 names of victims allegedly killed in Axum in November, 21 of which correspond to the names of those killed on November 28 and 29 given by witnesses interviewed.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applicable to the armed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians and attacks that are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian harm. Indiscriminate attacks strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction, including those not directed at a specific military target. The laws of war also prohibit all violence against captured combatants and civilians, including murder and torture. Pillage and looting are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious laws-of-war violations with criminal intent, including as a matter of command responsibility, are liable for war crimes.
Crimes against humanity include murder and other unlawful acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population.
The late November attacks were documented by media organizations, as well as by Amnesty International. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has also begun investigations. Human Rights Watch provided its findings to Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials on February 18 but received no response. On February 26, the Ethiopian government announced it would thoroughly investigate events in Axum and expressed “readiness to collaborate with international human rights experts.”
While the lack of access to conflict areas has hindered reporting on the conflict, Human Rights Watch and others have reported on other massacres, the indiscriminate shelling of towns, widespread pillaging, including destruction of crops, and the apparent extrajudicial executions by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, as well as forces from the neighboring Amhara region.
Given the presence of multiple armed forces and groups and the poor track record of the warring parties in investigating grave abuses, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should conduct an urgent, independent inquiry focused on establishing the facts, collecting forensic and other criminal evidence, and investigating war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Axum and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said.
“Condemnations are not enough to bring justice to the victims of grave abuses committed by both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray,” Bader said. “Attention and action by UN member states is needed now to ensure those responsible for these grave abuses are held accountable. So far, reports of these chilling abuses have been met by shameful silence.”