Massacre in the mountains: How an Ethiopian festival turned into a killing spree

The corpses, some dressed in white church robes drenched in blood, have been scattered in arid fields, scrubby farmlands and a dry riverbed. Others had been shot on their doorsteps with their fingers sure with belts. Among the useless have been clergymen, previous males, girls, whole households and a group of greater than 20 Sunday college kids, some as younger as 14, in accordance with eyewitnesses, dad and mom and their instructor.

Abraham acknowledged a few of the kids instantly. They have been from his city in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray area, Edaga Hamus, and had additionally fled preventing there two weeks earlier. As clashes raged, Abraham and his household, together with lots of of different displaced individuals, escaped to Dengelat, a close by village in a craggy valley ringed by steep, rust-colored cliffs. They sought shelter at Maryam Dengelat, a historic monastery advanced famed for a centuries-old, rock-hewn church.

On November 30, they have been joined by scores of non secular pilgrims for the Orthodox festival of Tsion Maryam, an annual feast to mark the day Ethiopians consider the Ark of the Covenant was dropped at the nation from Jerusalem. The holy day was a welcome respite from weeks of violence, however it might not final.

A bunch of Eritrean troopers opened fireplace on Maryam Dengelat church whereas lots of of congregants have been celebrating mass, eyewitnesses say. People tried to flee on foot, scrambling up cliff paths to neighboring villages. The troops adopted, spraying the mountainside with bullets.

A CNN investigation drawing on interviews with 12 eyewitnesses, greater than 20 family members of the survivors and photographic proof sheds mild on what occurred subsequent.

The troopers went door to door, dragging individuals from their houses. Mothers have been compelled to tie up their sons. A pregnant lady was shot, her husband killed. Some of the survivors hid beneath the our bodies of the useless.

The mayhem continued for 3 days, with troopers slaughtering native residents, displaced individuals and pilgrims. Finally, on December 2, the troopers allowed casual burials to happen, however threatened to kill anybody they noticed mourning. Abraham volunteered.

Footage obtained by CNN exhibits the sneakers of a few of these killed in Dengelat. Credit: Obtained by CNN

Under their watchful eyes, he held again tears as he sorted by the our bodies of youngsters and youngsters, amassing identification playing cards from pockets and making meticulous notes about their clothes or coiffure. Some have been fully unrecognizable, having been shot in the face, Abraham mentioned.

Then he coated their our bodies with earth and thorny tree branches, praying that they would not be washed away, or carried off by prowling hyenas and circling vultures. Finally he positioned their sneakers on high of the burial mounds, so he may return with their dad and mom to establish them.

One was Yohannes Yosef, who was simply 15.

“Their hands were tied … young children … we saw them everywhere. There was an elderly man who had been killed on the road, an 80-something-year-old man. And the young kids they killed on the street in the open. I’ve never seen a massacre like this and I don’t want to [again],” Abraham mentioned.

“We only survived by the grace of God.”

Abraham mentioned he buried greater than 50 people who day, however estimates greater than 100 died in the assault.

They’re amongst hundreds of civilians believed to have been killed since November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving a long-running battle with neighboring Eritrea, launched a major military operation towards the political celebration that governs the Tigray area. He accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopia for almost three a long time earlier than Abiy took workplace in 2018, of attacking a authorities army base and making an attempt to steal weapons. The TPLF denies the declare.

The battle is the fruits of escalating tensions between the two sides, and the most dire of a number of current ethno-nationalist clashes in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

After seizing management of Tigray’s fundamental cities in late November, Abiy declared victory and maintained that no civilians were harmed in the offensive. Abiy has additionally denied that troopers from Eritrea crossed into Tigray to assist Ethiopian forces.
But the preventing has raged on in rural and mountainous areas the place the TPLF and its armed supporters are reportedly hiding out, resisting Abiy’s drive to consolidate energy. The violence has spilled over into native communities, catching civilians in the crossfire and triggering what the United Nations refugee agency has referred to as the worst flight of refugees from the area in 20 years.
The UN special adviser on genocide prevention mentioned in early February that the group had obtained a number of reviews of “extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting, mass executions and impeded humanitarian access.”

Many of these abuses have been blamed on Eritrean troopers, whose presence on the floor means that Abiy’s much-lauded peace cope with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki set the stage for the two sides to wage struggle towards the TPLF — their mutual enemy.

The US State Department, in a assertion to CNN, referred to as for Eritrean forces to be “withdrawn from Tigray immediately,” citing credible reviews of their involvement in “deeply troubling conduct.” In response to CNN’s findings, the spokesperson mentioned “reports of a massacre at Maryam Dengelat are gravely concerning and demand an independent investigation.”

Ethiopia responded to CNN’s request for remark with a assertion that didn’t instantly deal with the assault in Dengelat. The authorities mentioned it might “continue bringing all perpetrators to justice following thorough investigations into alleged crimes in the region,” however gave no particulars about these investigations.

“They were taking them barefoot and killing them in front of their mothers”


CNN has reached out for remark to Eritrea, which has but to reply. On Friday, the government vehemently denied its troopers had dedicated atrocities throughout one other bloodbath in Tigray reported by Amnesty International.

CNN has additionally reached out to TPLF for remark.

Still, the state of affairs inside the nation stays opaque. Ethiopia’s authorities has severely restricted entry to journalists and prevented most aid from reaching areas past the authorities’s management, making it difficult to confirm accounts from survivors. And an intermittent communications blackout throughout the preventing has successfully blocked the struggle from the world’s eyes.

Now that curtain is being pulled again, as witnesses fleeing components of Tigray attain web entry and telephone strains are restored. They element a disastrous battle that has given rise to ethnic violence, together with assaults on church buildings and mosques.

For months, rumors unfold of a grisly assault on an Orthodox church in Dengelat. A listing of the useless started circulating on social media in early December, shared amongst the Tigrayan diaspora. Then images of the deceased, together with younger kids, began cropping up on-line.

Through a community of activists and family members, CNN tracked down eyewitnesses to the assault. In numerous telephone calls — many disconnected and dropped — Abraham and others supplied the most detailed account of the lethal bloodbath to this point.

Footage of the 2019 festival exhibits congregants celebrating exterior the church. Credit: Bernadette Gilbertas

Eyewitnesses mentioned that the festival began a lot because it had every other 12 months. Footage of the celebrations from 2019 exhibits clergymen dressed in white ceremonial robes and crowns, carrying crosses aloft, main lots of of individuals in prayer at Maryam Dengelat church. The trustworthy sang, danced and ululated in unison.

As prayers concluded in the early hours of November 30, Abraham appeared out from the hilltop the place the church is perched to see troops arriving by foot, adopted by extra troopers in vehicles. At first, they have been peaceable, he mentioned. They have been invited to eat, and rested beneath the shade of a tree grove.

But, as congregants have been celebrating mass round noon, shelling and gunfire erupted, sending individuals fleeing up mountain paths and into close by houses.

Desta, who helped with preparations for the festival, mentioned he was at the church when troops arrived at the village entrance, blockading the street and firing photographs. He heard individuals screaming and fled, operating up Ziqallay mountainside. From the rocky plateau he surveyed the chaos taking part in out beneath.

We may see individuals operating right here and there … [the soldiers] have been killing everybody who was coming from the church,” Desta said.

Eight eyewitnesses said they could tell the troops were Eritrean, based on their uniforms and dialect. Some speculated that soldiers were meting out revenge by targeting young men, assuming they were members of the TPLF forces or allied local militias. But Abraham and others maintained there were no militia in Dengelat or the church.

Marta, who was visiting Dengelat for the holiday, says she left the church with her husband Biniam after morning prayers. As the newlyweds walked back to their relative’s home, a stream of people began sprinting up the hill, shouting that soldiers were rounding people up in the village.

Biniam, left, and Marta on their wedding day.

She recalled the horrifying second troopers arrived at their home, capturing into the compound and calling out: “Come out, come out you b*tches.” Marta said they went outside holding their identity cards aloft, saying “we’re civilians.” But the troops opened fire anyway, hitting Biniam, his sister and several others.

“I used to be holding Bini, he wasn’t useless … I assumed he was going to outlive, however he died [in my arms].

The couple had simply been married in October. Marta discovered after the bloodbath that she was pregnant.

After the troopers left, Marta, who mentioned she was shot in the hand, helped drag the seven our bodies inside, in order that the hyenas would not eat them. “We slept near the bodies … and we couldn’t bury them because they [the soldiers] were still there,” she mentioned.

(Clockwise from left) Isayas Asgedom, Isaaq Isayas Asgedom, Arsema Yemane, Biniam Yemane and Alemtsahay Asgedom were all killed at the house where Marta was staying. 

Marta and different eyewitnesses described troopers going home to accommodate by Dengelat, dragging individuals exterior, binding their fingers or asking others to take action, after which capturing them.

Rahwa, who was a part of the Sunday college group from Edaga Hamus and left Dengelat sooner than others, managing to flee being killed, mentioned moms have been compelled to tie up their sons.

“They were ordering their mothers to tie their sons’ hands. They were taking them barefoot and killing them in front of their mothers,” Rahwa mentioned eyewitnesses informed her.

Samuel, one other eyewitness, mentioned that he had eaten and drank with the troopers earlier than they got here to his home, which is simply behind the church, and killed his family members. He mentioned he survived by hiding beneath one in every of their our bodies for hours.

“They started pushing the people out of their houses and they were killing all children, women and old men. After they killed them outside their houses, they were looting and taking all the property,” Samuel mentioned.

As the violence raged, lots of of individuals remained in the church corridor. In a lull in the gunfire, clergymen suggested those that may to go residence, ushering them exterior. Several of the clergymen have been killed as they left the church, Abraham mentioned.

With nowhere to run to, Abraham sheltered inside Maryam Dengelat, mendacity on the ground as artillery pounded the tin roof. “We lost hope and we decided to stay and die at the church. We didn’t try to run,” he mentioned.

Two days later, the troops referred to as parishioners down from the church to cope with the useless. Abraham mentioned he and 5 different males spent the day burying our bodies, together with these from Marta’s family and the Sunday college kids. But the troops forbid them from burying our bodies at the church, in line with Orthodox custom, and compelled them to make mass graves as a substitute — a observe that has been described elsewhere in Tigray.

“… most of them were eaten by vultures before they got buried, it was horrible”


Abraham shared images and movies of the grave websites, which CNN geolocated to Dengelat with the assist of satellite tv for pc picture evaluation from a number of consultants. The evaluation was unable to conclusively establish particular person graves, which witnesses mentioned have been shallow, however one skilled mentioned there have been indicators that components of the panorama had modified.

The preliminary bloodshed was adopted by a interval of two tense weeks, Abraham mentioned. Soldiers stayed in the space in a number of encampments, stealing automobiles, burning crops and killing livestock earlier than finally shifting on.

Tedros, who was born in Dengelat and traveled there after the troopers had left, mentioned that the village smelled of demise and that vultures have been circling over the mountains, a signal that there could also be extra our bodies left uncounted there.

“Some of them were also killed in the far fields while they were trying to escape and most of them were eaten by vultures before they got buried, it was horrible. [The soldiers] tied them and killed them in front of their doors, and they shot them in the head just to save bullets,” he mentioned.

Tedros visited the burial grounds described by eyewitnesses and mentioned he noticed cracks in the church partitions the place artillery hit. In interviews with villagers and members of the family, he compiled a demise toll of greater than 70 individuals.

The households hope that the names of their family members, which Tedros, Abraham and others risked their lives to file, will finally be learn out at a conventional funeral ceremony at the Maryam Dengelat church — uncommon closure in an ongoing battle.

Three months after the bloodbath, the graves in Dengelat are a day by day reminder of the bloodshed for the survivors who stay in the village. But it has not but been secure sufficient to reinter the our bodies of those that died, and that actuality is weighing on them.

Edited by Nick Thompson. Editorial supervised by Dan Wright. Design and visible enhancing by Peter Robertson, Henrik Pettersson, Brett Roegiers, Sarah Tilotta, Temujin Doran and Lauren Cook.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report from Washington, DC.

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