/ 18 September 2023

Ethiopian forces implicated in Amhara war crimes

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File photo: Members of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) are seen on a truck in Shewa Robit, Ethiopia, on December 05, 2021. (Photo by Amanuel Sileshi / AFP) (Photo by AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

The footage is grainy. But what it depicts is very clear: the apparent execution of two unarmed individuals, in broad daylight, by uniformed troops.

Believed to have been filmed in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, it was widely circulated by Ethiopian social media users and has sparked outrage.

An investigation by The Continent has confirmed that the footage was filmed in Debre Markos, a city in Amhara, just a few kilometres from the local police academy.

In the undated 93-second clip, several people in civilian clothing are seated on the sidewalk. They appear to be held captive by the men in uniform.

They are beaten and then dragged from the sidewalk into the street.

Two bursts of automatic rifle gunfire are heard, and a man slumps over in a way that suggests he has been shot in the back.

At another point, a different person is on his knees and appears to be pleading for his life.

As the clip ends, several people in civilian attire walk away with their hands in the air. Two dead bodies are left behind.

“[The footage] is under investigation,” Daniel Bekele, the chief commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, told The Continent.

By analysing the landmarks seen in the video – including a gas station and nearby residential buildings – The Continent geolocated the killings to an area in the south of Debre Markos, along the main A3 road to the capital Addis Ababa, which is about 380km away.

Although it was filmed at a distance, the attire of the dozen or so soldiers in the video is discernible and consistent with the uniforms worn by soldiers of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF).

These are not isolated scenes.

Residents of Debre Markos told The Continent that, beginning in the middle of August, government forces have killed scores of civilians in the city, after accusing them of being members of, or sympathising with, a local militia known as Fano.

“I witnessed killings and only just escaped with my life. Children have died too, ” said a resident who, like everyone else in this story, requested anonymity.

A sudden escalation

What is happening in Debre Markos is part of a broader conflict that has recently engulfed this part of the country. It has its roots in the two-year civil war between the Ethiopian government and the regional government of Tigray, which officially ended in November 2022.

During that war, the Ethiopian government empowered the Fano – a militia group which recruits its members from the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group. The militia fought alongside government troops against the Tigrayans.

But following the ceasefire last year, the militia took issue with orders from Addis Ababa to disband.

Fano leaders argued that the federal government did not have the capacity to protect ethnic Amhara civilians, who in recent years have been targeted in massacres across western Ethiopia.

The parties also disagree on how to deal with the disputed Western Tigray territory bordering Sudan. Amhara forces have controlled it since capturing the area from Tigrayan forces in 2020, but Defence Minister Abraham Belay recently announced that the region’s fate would be decided in a referendum.

Tensions simmered between the two parties until early August, when the Fano militia suddenly announced that they had captured a slew of cities and towns across the region from federal forces.

On 3 August Yilikal Kefale, Amhara’s regional president at the time, wrote to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed asking him to intervene by sending federal troops. The next day, Addis authorities declared a six-month state of emergency in the region and began a forceful response.

Within weeks, federal troops had forced the rebels from major towns – but, as reports on the ground show, and The Continent’s reporting confirms, the campaign has been brutal.

A brutal pattern

Debre Markos was one of the cities that was captured by the Fano and then retaken by federal forces. The extrajudicial killings captured in the viral video are likely to have happened in the immediate aftermath of government soldiers entering the city on 11 August.

This is supported by elements of the video itself. On 2 August, locals in the city had set up makeshift road blockades to slow down the advance of federal military vehicles. Photos published by local media, and eyewitnesses interviewed by The Continent, confirm this. In the video, these roadblocks appear to have been dismantled – a tyre and large rocks are strewn about the street.

The spate of extrajudicial killings in Debre Markos appears to have continued for several weeks following the filmed incident.

On 27 August, Ethiopian troops shot and killed Limatu Amare, a lecturer at the town’s university as he was leaving a church, witnesses in the city said.

“He was a hard-working and beloved teacher to many students in the area. He wasn’t a member of any armed group,” the witness added, explaining that he too was shot at in the same incident. “I remember Limatu used to speak glowingly of the Ethiopian army. But they are the ones who spilled his blood.”

According to the Fano militia, the brutality in Debre Markos was repeated elsewhere in the region. “Debre Markos wasn’t the only city where such killings happened,” said Mere Wedajo, a Fano military commander. “To compensate for their battlefield losses, the soldiers get emotional and massacre the people.”

Accounts from Majete, a town 500km east of Debre Markos, give credence to Wedajo’s claims.

Several Majete residents told The Continent that on 2 September, upon entering the town after days of fighting, federal forces conducted a house-to- house search during which they killed several residents and physically assaulted many others. They blame federal forces for 31 civilian deaths in the town.

One woman said that her young brother was shot dead inside their house, where he was sleeping when soldiers forced their way in late in the night.

“He begged them to not kill him. My older brother fled but they caught my younger brother,” the woman said.

She and several others fled Majete that night, fearing further violence, especially the threat of sexual assault.

Another resident, who spoke from a nearby town where he is in hiding, said that he found the dead bodies of his two sons on the outskirts of Majete three days after they were taken into custody by federal forces.

At least 183 people have been killed so far since the Amhara conflict escalated last month, according to the United Nations. At least two dozen of them were killed in a 13 August government air strike on the town of Finote Selam (about 83km northwest of Debre Markos).

Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the allegations contained in this story. The Continent also sent questions to the ministry of defence. No response was received.

Additional reporting by Liban Mahamed.

This article was first published by The Continent.