ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia / NAIROBI, Kenya
Since November 2020, the bloody war between Ethiopian government forces and rebels from the northern Tigray region has left the nation’s economy battered, devastated its infrastructure, and left thousands dead and many displaced.
A joint report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) accuses the Tigray Special Forces (TSF), Eritrean Defense Force (EDF), and Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) of destroying infrastructure in Ethiopia.
“The ENDF, EDF, and TSF carried out attacks on civilians resulting in the deaths of and injuries to men, women, boys, and girls. Civilian objects which enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law such as health facilities, schools, places of worship, and houses were indiscriminately attacked,” said the report.
“ENDF and TSF occupied and used civilian infrastructure, such as schools and health facilities without appropriate justification for military usage.”
The UN said there has been large-scale destruction and appropriation of property by various actors, including armed forces, militias, and civilians, as the war in Ethiopia waged on.
“The ENDF looted and destroyed property in Atsey Yohannes School in Mekelle (the Tigray capital, also spelled Mekele) on two occasions while using the school as a military camp and took three cars from the premises of the Supreme Court in Mekelle,” the report said, also accusing the EDF of looting public and private property, including objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population in southern Tigray, including Keih Emba, Samre, Adi Gibai, Adi Awsa, Bora, and Wukro in eastern Tigray.
“Tigray forces looted and destroyed private and public property and infrastructures in Western Tigray and parts of North-Western Tigray. Amhara militia and Fano have been implicated in looting and appropriation of houses and businesses in parts of Western Tigray such as Humera and Maikadra,” said the report.
Tigray accuse government of destruction
Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region, has accused the army of bombing the 300 megawatt Tekeze Dam, a one-of-a-kind hydroelectric project in northern Ethiopia. It is one of many claims by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which Gebremichael also leads, accusing the government of targeting infrastructure projects in Tigray.
Last November the Tigray rebels claimed to have made major inroads in their fight against government forces, saying their forces had moved to less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital. They have since withdrawn to their border in northern Tigray.
The country is witnessing a kind of cease-fire after months of heavy bombardment, heavy gunfights, and wanton killing by both sides, according to the UN.
What remains in the year-long conflict is the ugly face of war, which has left damages estimated in the billions of dollars.
The government is on record saying that its many aerial bombardments of the Tigray region have destroyed manufacturing and industrial facilities, saying in its defense that the regions had been turned into Tigray rebels’ military facilities.
Residents from Tigray who spoke to Anadolu Agency said in such attacks, civilians, including children, were among those killed in the populous regions where Tigrayans eke out a living.
Abrihet Fessehaye, a student, told Anadolu Agency: “If you walk around the city, you will see for yourself the damage that has been done by the Ethiopian army on its own people. We are Ethiopians and we don’t want war. So many places have been bombed, leaving us with no jobs. We want the war to end, we want peace, it will be costly to rebuild.”
Aside from the damage caused to markets that were bombed by the government in Tigray, Ethiopian forces have also been accused of bombing a section of the Tekeze Dam located between Amhara and the Tigray region, which generates 300 MW of power on a 105-kilometer (65-mile) transmission line joining the national grid.
Since the start of the war, government forces have been accused of targeting and destroying telecommunications infrastructure, with most areas in Tigray cut off from network connectivity as the war intensified.
The UN said that while more than 7 million people need humanitarian aid in northern Ethiopia, efforts to mobilize assistance in Tigray, where more than 5 million lack food and an estimated 400,000 now live in famine-like conditions, have been made more difficult due to the inability to move cash, fuel, and supplies into the region.
“No aid trucks have reached Mekelle since 18 October amid continued airstrikes,” Rosemary DiCarlo, undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, told a Nov. 8 news conference.
She added that UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flights to the Tigray capital have remained suspended since Oct. 22 while fuel shipments have been blocked since August.
Ethiopia accuses rebel group of destruction in formerly captured cities
In November, a government counter-offensive, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the battlefield leading his army, began freeing key towns in the Amhara and Afar regional states, which had been under Tigray rebels.
The conflict began in November 2020. According to the government, the war broke out after Tigray People’s Liberation Forces (TPLF) attacked federal army bases stationed in Tigray, including the regional capital Mekele, killing soldiers and looting cosiderable property.
A joint investigation report by the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said the conflict started after the TPLF attacked federal army bases – a claim neither denied nor confirmed by the rebels.
A June 29, 2021 unilateral cease-fire declared by Premier Ahmed was scoffed at as a “sick joke” by rebel leaders.
Ever since – in addition to the thousands killed in the war – social and economic infrastructure has been totally or partially damaged, including schools, universities, health institutions, and other facilities, according to the government, Tigray forces, and international aid agency reports.
The cost has yet to be assessed in full, but experts estimate the destruction must have cost the Horn of Africa nation billions of dollars.
One victim of the war is the globally renowned Turkish construction company Yapi Merkezi. It has been engaged in building railway tracks from Awash, Hara Gebeya in the north for about 10 years.
Yapi Merkezi’s project is part of a multi-billion dollar electric railway line project that links the central, southern, and eastern parts of Ethiopia with neighboring Djibouti, a coastal country through which Ethiopia does more than 95% of its import-export activities.
“After they came here, they (TPLF fighters) turned this project site into their camp,” said Mohammed Nur, once a heavy-duty truck driver with the Turkish contractor. “We witnessed as they transported property from here and whatever they could not take away, they damaged. What we witnessed was horrible and not expected from any group that claims to be fighters.”
Standing outside the office at the camp under a blue, cloud-flecked sky, Nur heaved with sadness as he told Anadolu Agency that TPLF fighters committed hope-shattering pillage at the camp.
“This company is a very big one that is beneficial to any country. For example, I am the breadwinner for my family. I am rendered jobless now because the company I work for has been forced out. So I have now become someone with nothing, nothing at all. I am telling (you) what I have seen,” he said.
“This is a big company that employed many workers; many workers with so many dependents have been rendered jobless, displaced from here,” Nur added. “The workers have children of their own and many have dependents such as their mothers. It was an eyesore to witness them taking away company property. It is a shame to see people we consider Ethiopians do such things. Some of them were the very people who were working with us.
“One of them is someone I regarded a friend. He was a driver of a concrete mixer truck. We saw him taking away the trucks. It was such a shame. He towed two mixing trucks on a low-bed. We could have killed him if we had known he would do that but all along we saw him as one of our own. It was painful to witness all that.
“This company is one in which all ethnic groups – Amhara, Oromo, Tigre, what have you – come and work. I was rendered jobless due to this (TPLF) force.”
Health care shattered
According to the Amhara regional state government, 14 hospitals, 153 health centers, and 642 health posts were destroyed by TPLF forces when they made incursions south into neighboring regions since last July.
In addition, rebel fighters are accused of destroying nearly 10,000 schools across the Amhara and Afar regions, robbing 1.2 million students of opportunities to pursue their education, a claim that Anadolu Agency cannot verify.
“Around 10 million people were served by this hospital. After being captured by the TPLF, militias damaged or looted our hospital service equipment and medications starting with the oxygen production center. We lost oxygen production material, and the machinery was totally damaged,” Haimanot Ayali, medical director of the Dessie General Hospital, told Anadolu Agency.
She said rebels destroyed the operation room, adding: “Our entire department was totally damaged and destroyed.”
“We started at the primary level – primary healthcare service, and only simple procedures we started today. Nowadays, we can’t say it is a specialized hospital,” she said. “IDP (internally displaced persons) service, sick baby service, gynecology service, heart service, delivery service, neonatal intensive care unit service, malnutrition service, so many service specialists are also corrupted.”
The conflict has affected other areas of the country, forcing at least 2 million people from their homes and leaving millions without access to critical humanitarian assistance.
Acute food insecurity is now affecting more than 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Within Tigray, 5.2 million people, roughly 90% of the population, need humanitarian aid.