All warring parties in Tigray have been implicated in the attacking, pillaging, and occupying of schools since the conflict started, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
On just one example, government forces used the historic Atse Yohannes preparatory school in the regional capital, Mekelle, as a barracks after taking control of the city from the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, in late November 2020, and continued to use the school through mid-April 2021. Recent government efforts to reopen schools have partly been hindered by continuing insecurity, damage to schools, and protection concerns for students and teachers.
“The fighting in Tigray is depriving many children of an education and the warring factions are only making matters worse,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Occupying and damaging schools ends up affecting the lives of Tigray’s future generations, adding to the losses that communities in Tigray have faced for the last six months.”
Human Rights Watch conducted telephone interviews between January and May with 15 residents, teachers, parents, former students, and aid workers about the situation facing Tigray’s schools, and assessed reporting by media outlets, aid agencies, and national human rights institutions. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery that confirmed the presence of military vehicles inside the compound of Atse Yohannes high school in December and March, as well as videos and photographs showing damage to school property.
Several Mekelle residents said that in early December, Ethiopian forces began using the Atse Yohannes school as a base. After occupying the school for several weeks, they left; trucking away computers, plasma screens, and food. Interim authorities soon began to repair the damage so that classes could resume, but soldiers returned in February and occupied the school for another three months.
During this time, troops posted armed sentries at the school gate and built fortifications using stones around the school grounds. A Mekelle resident working near the school witnessed women enter and leave the school’s guarded compound on several occasions. “I saw different women taken inside. Sometimes they would stay two, three, or five days, and we would see them go in and out of the school,” she said. “They appeared beaten and were crying as they would leave… No one could ask the women what happened to them, and the atmosphere made it difficult to do so.”
Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm whether the soldiers sexually exploited or otherwise abused the women, but during the conflict there have been widespread reports of sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, including in Mekelle.
After Ethiopian forces suddenly left the school in April, Mekelle residents found widespread damage to classrooms and offices, and destruction of electrical installations, water pipes, and other property. Videos posted on social media and photos sent to Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts. In April, Tigray’s interim government presented aid groups with a list of damaged and pillaged property at the school, from pens and student records to 288 burned chairs and three destroyed science labs.
“I have given my life and service to the school,” one teacher said. “There is now nothing left to try and begin again, to resume classes. The school won’t be functional even for next year, because of the damage. Everything was taken.”
Ethiopian soldiers also left behind walls covered with hateful and vulgar anti-Tigrayan messages. “On the walls were phrases insulting Tigrayan people,” said one parent. “It was painful to see and read, let alone repeat again.”
Government authorities are now trying to reopen schools in Tigray, where about 25 percent of schools have been damaged. In western Tigray, fighting displaced many teachers and left shortages of learning materials. The Education Ministry estimated that 48,500 teachers are in need of psychosocial and mental health support, and that some teachers at private schools are struggling to feed their families due to unpaid salaries.
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Tigray, the occupation of a school by military forces makes the school subject to attack. The military’s destruction or seizure of civilian property not justified by reasons of military necessity is prohibited and may be a war crime. An extended military deployment without providing alternative educational facilities can also deny students their right to education under international human rights law.
The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has called on African countries to “either ban the use of schools for military purposes, or, at a minimum, enact concrete measures to deter the use of schools for military purposes.”
The African Union Peace and Security Council has urged all African countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment – currently supported by 108 countries – to take concrete measures to better protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack during conflict, including by refraining from using schools for military purposes.
The Ethiopian government should endorse the declaration and incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation, Human Rights Watch said. Forces affiliated or allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front should also refrain from using schools as barracks or to store weapons. For schools that are housing internally displaced persons or need repair, the authorities should consult with communities and assess their needs and priorities, including protection concerns before pushing for schools to reopen, and request assistance from the United Nations and aid agencies to ensure that students deprived of education are provided safe and suitable alternative facilities.
“The conflict in Tigray has taken a terrible toll on children and their education,” Bader said. “International partners should now urge the Ethiopian government to take all necessary steps to ensure schools can reopen safely, including by ending the military use of schools and punishing military personnel responsible for abuses.”