‘Dead bodies and people crying’: Axum massacre survivors recount horror as Amnesty accuses Eritrean troops of killing hundreds, “I saw a lot of people dead on the street”, says Ayana*, a 21-year-old resident of Axum, a small town in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Ayana managed to flee when state troops and government-backed forces fighting in the Tigray war descended on Axum in November last year.
But hundreds of other locals were not so fortunate. “Even my uncle’s family,” Ayana adds. “Six of his family members were killed.
So many people were killed.” With phone lines cut and journalists banned from setting foot in Tigray, the atrocities occurred largely in the shadows.
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Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, had announced the fighting while the rest of the world focused on the US election.
He has repeatedly denied the presence of foreign troops in Ethiopia or that they are being used against his own people.
He also claims no civilians were killed. But evidence to the contrary is growing as communication with the region slowly resumes. The killings left Axum’s streets and cobblestone plazas strewn with bodies.
“All we could see on the streets were dead bodies and people crying,” said one man, who had fled the town but returned after the shooting stopped.
Among the dead were Christians who had raced to The Church of St Mary of Zion, where worshippers believe the Ark of the Covenant — a wooden casket which is said to have been built to hold Moses’s Ten Commandments — is housed.
The mass killings came just before the annual celebration of Aksum Tsion Mariam, a major Ethiopian Orthodox Christian festival on 30 November, compounding the trauma by casting a pall over an annual event that draws many pilgrims and tourists to the sacred city.
St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum, the region of Ethiopia
On 19 November, Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum in a large-scale offensive.
According to witnesses spoken to by Amnesty International, the Eritrean troops unleashed the worst of the violence on 28 to 29 November.
The onslaught came directly after a small band of pro-Tigray People’s Liberation Front militiamen attacked the soldiers’ base on Mai Koho mountain on the morning of 28 November.
The militiamen were armed with rifles and supported by residents brandishing improvised weapons — including sticks, knives and stones.
One man, who wanted to bring food to the militia, said Eritrean troops fired at random.
“The Eritrean soldiers were trained but the young residents didn’t even know how to shoot…a lot of the [local] fighters started running away and dropped their weapons,” he says.
“The Eritrean soldiers came into the city and started killing randomly,” he adds. Other witnesses said they could easily identify the Eritrean forces.
They drove vehicles with Eritrean registration plates, wore distinctive camouflage and footwear used by the Eritrean army, and spoke Arabic or a dialect of Tigrinya not spoken in Ethiopia.
Some bore the ritual facial scars of the Ben Amir, an ethnic group absent from Ethiopia. Others also made no secret of their identity, openly telling residents they were Eritrean.
Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty Eritrean forces deliberately and wantonly shot at civilians from about 4pm onwards on 28 November.
According to residents, the victims carried no weapons and many were running away from the soldiers when they were shot.
One man who hid in an unfinished building said he saw a group of six Eritrean soldiers kill a neighbour with a vehicle-mounted heavy machine-gun on the street near the Mana Hotel.
“He was standing. I think he was confused,” the man recalls. “They were probably around 10 metres from him.
They shot him in the head.” Witnesses said that on 29 November Eritrean soldiers shot at anyone who tried to move the bodies of those killed.
The soldiers also continued to carry out house-to-house raids, hunting down and killing adult men, as well as some teenage boys and a smaller number of women.
One man said he watched through his window and saw six men killed in the street outside his house on 29 November. He said the soldiers lined them up and shot from behind, using a light-machine gun to kill several at a time with a single bullet.
Interviewees named scores of people they knew who were killed, and Amnesty has collected the names of more than 240 of the victims.
The organisation was unable to independently verify the overall death toll, but consistent witness testimonies and corroborating evidence make it plausible that hundreds of residents were killed. Most of the burials took place on 30 November, but the process of collecting and burying the bodies lasted several days.
Many residents said they volunteered to move the bodies on carts, in batches of five to ten at a time – one said he transported 45 bodies.
Residents estimate that several hundred people were buried in the aftermath of the massacre, and they attended funerals at several churches where scores were buried.
Last week, a local deacon — who chose not to be named as he remains in Axum and helped with burials — put the death toll at 800.
Hundreds were buried at the largest funeral, held at the complex that includes the Arba’etu Ensessa church and the Axum Tsion St Mariam Church.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, accused Ethiopian and Eritrean troops of war crimes and called for a United Nations-led investigation “The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion.
Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum,” he said.
“Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity.”
Prime minister Ahmed accuses Tigray’s regional forces, whose leaders dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades before he took office, of attacking the Ethiopian military. Tigray’s leaders called it self-defence after months of tensions.
While the world clamours for access to Tigray to investigate suspected atrocities on all sides and deliver aid to millions of hungry people, the prime minister has rejected outside “interference.”
He declared victory in late November and said no civilians had been killed.
His government denies the presence of thousands of soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray leaders. Meanwhile, the killing is said to be continuing. A local deacon said he helped to bury three people last week.