Atrocities on the rise in Ethiopia

The video of a Tigrayan man being torched by men in uniform, then thrown into a smouldering pyre and literally “cooked” has stunned Ethiopians and shocked the world. The blackened pit shows other human remains, suggesting he could be one of a number of prisoners executed in similar fashion.

The macabre spectacle would not have been known about were it not for the ghoulish fantasy of one solitary soldier and his desire to show off his “war trophy”. His colleagues partake in this dark ritual while making tasteless cannibalistic jokes. “His grilled flesh would be good to eat with injera,” says one of them. “With bread,” retort the others, amid guffaws and further insults.

The barbarism and atavism of this latest atrocity speaks to the nihilism and dehumanisation that now disfigures all involved in this conflict — combatants and noncombatants alike. 

Implicated in the massacre are federal units supported by a motley collection of ethnic forces: the Amhara Fano militia, special forces from the Gambela, Sidama and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region. The Fano, in particular, have been among the most vicious and prolific perpetrators of rights abuses.

The incident, which occurred in Metekel, Beni-Shangul Gumuz state, has been widely condemned. The state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission termed it an act of extra-judicial killing. A senior official from the commission told the BBC that a joint security team arrested 11 men — nine of them Tigrayans — and seized radio communication sets, cash and weapons. The men were apparently on a covert mission, he said.

Other media reports suggested the men were from a commando unit of the Tigray Defence Forces sent to blow up the Grand Renaissance Dam. The claim is outlandish, not least because there is no overt hostility to the dam in Tigray and the president of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — Debretsion Gebremichael — was actually intimately involved in the early stages of the project.

The “human flesh barbecue” horror is part of a long chain of documented atrocities in the 15-month conflict, with all parties to the conflict complicit. The pattern of mass killings was established barely weeks after the start of the war in November 2020. 

Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in the town of Axum in what Amnesty International called the single worst documented atrocity of the war.

The Ethiopian state outsourced the war to ethnic militias and turned the conflict into a violent ethnic grudge match. Incendiary rhetoric and hate speech by politicians against Tigrayans, the collapse of the professional army and its chain of command, the absence of any meaningful system of accountability, all contribute to a culture of impunity that embolden combatants to commit mass atrocities.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his inner circle feed the anti-Tigray frenzy. Mass arrests of Tigrayans, purges of Tigrayan public servants and the shutdown of Tigrayan-owned businesses is now routine across Ethiopia. Hate is sanctioned at the highest levels of the state.

 In July 2021 Abiy vowed to “remove the weed”. His spiritual adviser, Deacon Daniel Kibret, in September 2021 told Ethiopians the TPLF “should be erased and disappeared from historical records”. Another senior regime supporter said “the enemy does not deserve your compassion or your mercy”.

The Metekel horror ought to serve as a wake-up call. The world must end its conscious denial of the gravity of the human rights crisis in Ethiopia and hold all the belligerents accountable. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the Mail & Guardian’s pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Rashid Abdi
Rashid Abdi is a Horn of Africa analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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