Saturday July 3, 2021
MEKELLE, Ethiopia – Thousands of Ethiopian prisoners of war marched through the regional capital of Tigray on Friday as jubilant crowds marched through the streets to taunt the captives and cheer on the Tigrayian forces which days earlier had routed the one of the most powerful armies in Africa.
Many soldiers bowed their heads and looked down. Some had to be carried on stretchers, and others wore bandages freshly stained with blood.
The rapid defeat of Ethiopian forces was an astonishing reversal in a civil war that resulted in the displacement of nearly two million people in the Tigray region, widespread famine and reports that civilians were victims of atrocities and sexual violence.
The parade of prisoners served as a sharp rebuke to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who proclaimed in a speech in the nation’s capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday that reports of his troops’ defeat were “a lie” . He had declared a unilateral ceasefire, he insisted, for humanitarian reasons.
Mr Abiy actually declared victory last year, just about a month after he launched the military operation in Tigray in November – but the fighting continued for another seven months.
Flanked by Tigrayan fighters, columns of defeated Ethiopian soldiers had marched for four days from the quickly established battle camps where they had been held since the fighting ended this week. They flooded the streets of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and were taken to a large prison on the northern outskirts of the city.
A 14-year-old girl rushed down the street to run alongside the column, shouting her admiration for the leader of the Tigrayan forces, calling him a “lion”.
“All these soldiers tried to kill us,” said the young woman, Mearge Gebroemedhin, moments later, referring to the Ethiopian government forces. “But the Tigrayan soldiers showed mercy. I am proud of our soldiers.
While some in the crowd mocked the soldiers, onlookers focused much of their anger on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy.
Almost eight months earlier, Mr. Abiy had sent his forces to Mekelle to wrest power from the leaders in the region, saying the move was necessary because the Tigrayans had held local elections without federal government permission and attempted to seize an Ethiopian military base. .
Now the victorious Tigrayan rulers are back in Mekelle, reoccupying their old offices.
In a lengthy exclusive interview shortly after arriving from his hideout in the mountains, Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said his fighters captured more than 6,000 Ethiopian soldiers.
He said the Tigrayan officials had been in contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross and would soon release lower-ranking soldiers, but would keep the officers in detention.
Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be provided with food and clothing, and be protected from violence, intimidation and “public curiosity”. There was no immediate indication that the Ethiopian soldiers had been mistreated or whether marching them through the streets of Mekelle was in violation of the Conventions.
Since Ethiopia announced a unilateral ceasefire on Monday and pulled its troops out of Mekelle, Tigray has experienced blackouts, telecommunications and internet. The consequences will worsen an already dire humanitarian situation, according to the United Nations.
International aid agencies have warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe and said it was not clear whether the rebels’ victory would allow international aid to begin reaching those most in need in the country. Tigray region, which is bordered by Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west.
The UN said at least 350,000 people in the conflict-ravaged region have entered a state of famine. The United States Agency for International Development has estimated that 900,000 people are facing famine.
On Thursday, a bridge was destroyed that provided vital access over the Tekeze River to the town of Shire in central Tigray, where the UN estimates there are between 400,000 and 600,000 internally displaced people. country living in dire conditions.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the bridge was destroyed by troops belonging to the Amhara special forces and the army of Eritrea, the country north of Tigray, who had fought as that allied with the Ethiopian troops.
“The destruction of the bridge will have an impact,” said Claire Nevill, spokesperson for the World Food Program.
An aid agency worker who was traveling through Tigray on Thursday said there was “almost nothing” entering the area at the moment and food trucks had been prevented from arriving there by troops. along the border with the Amhara region.
In the interview, Debretsion said the Tigrayan leaders are working to deliver international aid as quickly as possible.
Analysts say Abiy, who has been Ethiopian prime minister since 2018 and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea and implementing national democratic reforms, now faces challenges. ‘huge political challenges.
The alliance Ethiopia has forged with Eritrea and fighters in the Amhara region could shatter as Ethiopian troops continue to withdraw from direct engagement and fighters in Tigray go on the offensive .
“The Amhara’s support for him will eventually wane,” said Mehari Taddele Maru, professor of governance and geopolitics at the European University Institute. “The only thing that kept things together in the Amhara region was anti-Tigray sentiment. Once the Tigray issue is out of the game, the glue that held its support together is no longer there.
Getachew Reda, a senior Tigrayan leader, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that Tigray forces would not hesitate to enter Eritrea, and might even try to advance towards its capital, if that is what it is. was needed to prevent Eritrean troops from attacking again. And he claimed that in recent days, the Tigrayan forces had killed many Ethiopian soldiers and militiamen.
Since June 30, fighting has continued between Tigrayan and Eritrean forces in northwest Tigray, near the disputed towns of Badme and Shiraro, according to UN security documents.
“We want to degrade as much enemy capability as possible,” Mr. Getachew said. “We are always on our heels so that the enemy forces do not represent a threat to our Tigray in any way. “
As Friday wore on, many marching Ethiopian soldiers who arrived at the prison looked hungry and exhausted. They were put in cells, the men separated from the women.
They had passed through a Tigrayan gauntlet celebrating their capture. Adanay Hagos, 23, who had walked alongside the soldiers shouting at them, later explained that he was so angry that some of his friends had been killed by Eritrean troops allied with the Ethiopian army.
“This is just a step,” he said. “They invaded our lands from the west and the south. Until they leave, the war is not over.
Simon Marks contributed reporting from Brussels.