Interview: An Eyewitness Account of the War on Tigray as Witnessed in Hawzien
It has been very difficult to obtain an eyewitness account of the war on Tigray due to the communication blackout, blockade and fear. The following shocking account of the war on Tigray from a Tigrayan American eyewitness who was in Hawzien when the invading forces entered the area is one of the first.
The account was aired by Tigrai Media House on 12 January 2021. The host is Millete Birhanemaskel, and the interviewee Zenebu. For safety reasons, Zenebu is not shown in the video, and Semhal, her daughter, helps translate Zenebu’s Tigrinya replies to English. Because the account is such a useful testimony about what is happening in Tigray, concerned Tigrayans have made the effort yo transcribe it. We present the transcribed interview from minute 2.15 below. If you want to listen to it, jump to the end of the page.
Millete Birhanemaskel: The news is really devastating. We know that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said ‘no civilians have been targeted; no one has been killed; everything is calm on the ground’ – but it is not true. And today we have a really powerful story to share with you from an eyewitness who was in Hawzien when the war began. Zenebu is going to share her story and the various atrocities that she saw first-hand. I have her daughter with us as well, Semhal, who is going to be translating. We have decided not to show Zenebu’s face for safety reasons.
Millete: Thank you both for being here. Hi Semhal; Hi Zenebu.
Zenebu/Semhal – Hi Millete. Thank you for having us.
Millete: So, Zenbeu you were in Hawzien, if I am not mistaken, for three weeks before the war began. Can you tell us, how did you figure, or how were you notified that the country was at war? Because what we hear is that there was really no warning. It was pretty much a surprise attack. So how did you learn that Hawzien was being attacked and that Tigray was being attacked?
Zenebu/Semhal: We heard about the attacks first from people coming from Nebelet and surrounding areas saying that the explosions were getting closer and closer to Hawzien. The troops were getting closer and closer, so we ran.
Millete: And how did you know – because there were a couple of instances when you thought that you might be at war but that it wasn’t, right? Wasn’t there an instance where there was some shooting or something that you heard? How did you know this was real?
Zenebu/Semhal: A week before the beginning, on market day, people were hearing planes and stuff like that, so they had already begun to flee. So, there were rumours of it beforehand. In the beginning no one believed it, there were talks of it, but no one believed it. And then there were people that were coming and saying that the rumours were true and that the troops were closing in on Hawzien.
Millete: So, when you ran – when you realised that yes, we are being attacked the war has actually started – first of all I am sure you were shocked, what were you thinking? And then what did you do? What did you grab? Where did you go? What was the first thing you did?
Zenebu/Semhal: In the beginning I didn’t believe it. My brothers and my sisters were the ones who convinced me that I had to go because I was going to stay. I didn’t think that it was true. I grabbed a backpack, but it was empty. And we didn’t take anything.
Millete: And your family got separated, right? You didn’t all – I mean it is chaos, right? Everybody is running at this point and your family got separated?
Zenebu/Semhal: One of my brothers, my mother and some children stayed behind, and I left with my brother and two other family members.
Millete: And where did you guys go? You just ran for the hills, right? Did you know where you were going?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, in the beginning there were people coming from Adigrat saying that they were just going to attack like the main highways and the main roads, so they didn’t think that Hawzien would be under attack either. And so, they just went. They had no idea where they were going to go. They just began to run.
Millete: And you said that you were out in the hills, basically. Who were you staying with? Just random people that you met?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, in the beginning we ran for the hills and in the beginning, there were people, like friends of family members, people that we didn’t really know but knew off through family and so we started there but then the bombs started getting closer to their as well, so they told them they had to leave and go somewhere else.
Millete: So, the people, the house you were at, told you, you had to leave?
Zenebu/Semhal: They told us that the people were coming, and they were getting closer and they said that we had children, so we had to leave. And so, we took the children, and we went underground.
Millete: What were you thinking at this point? Did you think you were going to die? I mean, what where your thoughts at that point? You are hearing the fighting getting closer, you are hearing the bombs and you are fleeing for your life, obviously, what were you thinking? What was going through your mind at that time?
Zenebu/Semhal: I told everyone to stay strong and don’t worry that we were going to be okay. There were small children, and everyone was just hysterical crying, but even though I told them to be strong and that we were going to be okay in my heart I thought that we were going to die.
Millete: And so, you ended up being in those hills for twelve days? Is that how long you were there before you returned back to Hawzien? To the city?
Zenebu/Semhal: Everyday we just kept going to different places. Maybe for three or four days we kept travelling. We didn’t stay in one area at all. So, we did that for about twelve days.
Millete: Just changing locations, as it got closer and closer. Tell me about – there was an incident when you were there with a young man who was shot. Tell me about that.
Zenebu/Semhal: There were 15 people in the home [that they finally found shelter in] they weren’t close family members either. They were distant relatives.
Millete: There where fifteen people?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, there were 30 other people. There were 15 that came but with the people that were already there, there about 30 people total.
Millete: and this probably isn’t not a big home, right? This is probably a one room or two room type of house?
Zenebu/Semhal: The house was very small. The kitchen, the bedroom everything was one room.
Millete: So, thirty people in this one room now and someone comes, do you hear screaming? How does this young man, who we find out later was shot by Eritrean soldiers, how does he come into the picture? Do you hear someone screaming or how does it happen?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, he came in. He was crying. And there was blood everywhere. He was bleeding. He came in sobbing,crying. And he laid on something similar to a coat, not necessarily a bed. He jumped over the people that were there and laid himself out.
Millete: So, he came into the house? He came into your house.
Zenebu/Semhal: [Not my house, it wasn’t my house] He came in screaming and yelling because he was in so much pain and no one was happy because they were scared that he was going to lead people into the home, so it was a safety risk. So, no one wanted him there as well.
Millete: Yes, you have no idea if he is a soldier or if he is being followed by soldiers or who he is at this point. But he comes in the house and he is bleeding and screaming, and everyone is trying to get him to be quiet. When do you realize he has been shot, other than the fact that there is blood everywhere?
Zenebu/Semhal: He was holding his arm, and he was drenched – like his jacket his whole entire body was covered in blood, so I knew right away that he was shot.
Millete: So, what did you do next?
Zenebu/Semhal: He kept crying and we all kept begging him to be quiet. One of the people there recognized him as a security officer at a bank. And everyone was just begging him to be quiet, but he was yelling in pain. I was the only one who wanted to help him, everyone else wanted him to leave because he was risking the entire home’s safety. So, I grinded up some garlic and I attempted to help him. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was so heartbroken. I was in pain seeing how he was hurting.
Millete: How did you know to get garlic? How did you know that would help him?
Zenebu/Semhal: When I was younger and people would get hurt or they would have open wounds or stuff they would say to use garlic so that it wouldn’t be infected, so I remembered that from early childhood.
Millete: That’s amazing that your instincts kicked in, in that way and that you thought about that. Okay, so you get garlic, and you grind it up and you put it on his wound?
Zenebu/Semhal: I asked someone else to help me as well because I had no idea what I was doing. I asked another man to help me tie it. I kept begging him to be quiet. I told him that if he was quiet that I would help him and that he was going to be okay.
Millete: And he was asking you to kill him, right? He was in so much pain, what was he saying?
Zenebu/Semhal: He said I am not asking you guys for anything. I am asking you to do just do me a huge favour and just help me get out of my misery, please kill me. Just kill me.
Millete: So, you clean his wound with Sewa and garlic and then you bandage him up? What did you use to bandage him with?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, I used a dirty piece of a blanket, a cotton covering (Netsela), I ripped it and then I helped tie it above the wound and I used like ashes to kind of disinfect it because it was very dirty (so I used that so that it wouldn’t get infected) to tie it to stop the blood.
Millete: I am amazed that your mental clarity was what it was in the middle of warfare. I mean you are scared to death and you are still able to think clearly enough in terms of how to treat his wound and how to wrap it. That is really, the resilience of Tegaru people is really incredible! That is amazing! And how did he do? Was he able to calm down at that point? What happened next?
Zenebu/Semhal: There was a priest there and he was telling him to listen to me because I am a doctor. And he kept saying I was sent by God; he was saying I was sent by God to help. I was telling him that he would be okay. I didn’t act like I didn’t know what I was doing. I acted like I was confident, and I told him he was going to survive and that he was going to be fine.
Millete: But you are not a doctor, right? I know they kept saying listen to her she is a doctor, but you are not a doctor.
Zenebu/Semhal: Not even close, I don’t have any idea.
Millete: So, he survived right? I am assuming.
Zenebu/Semhal: I did ask about him later. They did say that he made it and I felt bad because we didn’t have any supplies, so I made do with what we had. But he was in a lot of pain he still cried in the middle of the night. I knew that I couldn’t give him water so I asked the people there if they had Tiheneand they mixed the Tihene and the water together and they gave me what they had to give to him so that I could give him some strength.
Millete: So, you saved his life.
Millete: Yes, temporarily. So, tell me, all in all moving from place to place you were in the mountains, in the hills for about twelve days. And then you decided to come back to Hawzien, to the city? Why did you decide to come back to the city? How did you know it was safe enough to come back or what pushed you back into the city?
Zenebu/Semhal: At that point there were military troops around the area, so they had already began getting closer and I realised that if I am going to die, I would die with my family. My mom was still back in Hawzien, so I decided to go back. And there was a lot of talk about people being killed and deaths in Hawzien, so I felt I had to go check on my family. With my brother we discussed it, with my brother and his wife as well. We started to separate, and I said I would go, and I took his wife and his kids with me and we started to go back to Hawzien.
Millete: And when you got back to Hawzien what did you see?
Zenebu/Semhal: Before I even got into Hawzien, the roads, everything just along the way was trash. There were beer bottles, champagne bottles, there were leftover animals – it smelled really bad. I remember the smell. There were people, wrappers of food. It was just completely trashed.
Millete: And tell me about who you saw? So, we know that up until now it has been denied that there are Eritrean troops, but we know that there are Eritrean troops. So, tell me who you saw? I know you said your house was looted, banks were robbed, stores were completely looted. Tell me about when you got to your house and it was looted and who you saw doing that? Cause they came back multiple times?
Zenebu/Semhal: When I initially got to my house it was empty. Everything was gone. There weren’t blankets, there weren’t food, there weren’t kids’ clothes weren’t there, there was no water, there was nothing. I was hysterical, my mom was hysterical just that we were even alive. We began to all stay in one room and stay close to each other for body heat because we had no jackets, no blankets, there was nothing left in my house.
Millete: You even said they took the diapers in the house they took diapers; they took pots, they took everything?
Zenebu/Semhal: When I came back with the kids, they had rashes because they hadn’t been able to shower or bathe for days in the hills. So, when we got there, we couldn’t find any clothes. We couldn’t find anything. Even there was no baby formula. Everything we had left behind was gone, as well.
Millete: And there is no electricity and there is no running water; everything has been shut off at this point, right?
Zenebu/Semhal: It was complete darkness. The only time that there was even light was the flashlights that they had brought in to search the homes when the troops came.
Millete: And so, your house was empty when you came but then they came back again; so, what did they come back for and how many times did they come back?
Zenebu/Semhal: They came daily when I was there, and we would tell them that our homes were already searched and that we had nothing left; there was nothing to take. And they would say that ‘oh, it wasn’t us that came, it was someone else’ and they would ask us for berber’e, they would ask us for spices, for containers to take water like pots, pans they asked for everything and they still searched us even though we told them we had nothing.
Millete: And it was a pretty sophisticated operation, right? I know you told me that they would take things and then they would give them to someone else and tell them where to drop it of in Eritrea, right?
Zenebu/Semhal: So, when they packed the trucks with all the goods that they had stolen – this was not inside the house, this was along the way we would see their big trucks filled with goods – and everyone would have it boxed up and labelled to which family member or which city they wanted it delivered to; anything from jewelry, gold, pots, and pans, you name it.
Millete: It’s so shocking to hear. So, they are sending these packages, basically, home?
Zenebu/Semhal: When they would come to search our homes, you could see their pants were filled with jewellery and gold and silver and they even made noise; their pockets were overflowing with stuff that they had stolen.
Millete: Were you shocked to see the Eritreans there when you came back to the city? Was that a shock to you?
Zenebu/Semhal: I had heard things before I got there but when I see it with my own eyes, I was extremely shocked. I couldn’t believe it.
Millete: It is really shocking, especially to us because you know the Prime Minister had said over and over and over again ‘there are no Eritreans; there are no Eritreans they not there’ and every story that is coming out; the most devastating things that are happening are happening by Eritrean troops.And now of course now there is lots of evidence, satellite imagery and all of this to show that – and eyewitness accounts like yours. Tell me about the food situation. I know you said you were rationing food. There was an issue because there are no generators, the generators were taken and even if people did have some grains, they couldn’t grind them? Tell me about the food situation?
Zenebu/Semhal: It was heart-breaking. It was so sad. Some people were literally starving, they had nothing. And even other people who had pounds and pounds they had no way to grind the food, so they still didn’t have a way to eat it. It was very sad. They kept promising us that they were going to get a generator and that we were going to be able to grind our food, so we all got into a line – people got into lines, just waiting. Wating for days – it was up to three days – waiting for this generator to work so that they could grind the food that they had. And the generator never worked.
Millete: Who is they? Who told you they are bringing a generator? Is this the Eritreans? I mean, who is it at that point?
Zenebu/Semhal: There were military officials that were saying that. Because the people we were begging them like this is not government funded. This is not from the government. These generators are for the people. We need this to survive. So, they promised us, and they told everyone to stay in line and that it would come soon.
Millete: But it never came. The generators never came, and they never worked?
Zenebu/Semhal: They brought it, but it didn’t fit, there was no way for it to work so it never worked. It never ended up working. So, there were people who waited for three days in line and ended up having to turn back and go home.
Millete: You said you guys were rationing food at that point, because you didn’t know when you would get more food – so you were eating once a day. Tell me more about that.
Zenebu/Semhal: There were some people who had food, but we still had to ration it out. So usually, we would sacrifice and give it to the young children because they needed to eat. And then there were others who ate breakfast and skipped until dinner the next day. And then there were other people who didn’t eat at all and give it to the people who needed it more.
Millete: I was just going to say, what’s sad about that is that after everything has been looted even if there were stores or places you could go and buy food no one can access money, all of the banks are closed. So, even if you fix one issue you still have the other. So, how do you think people are doing now? I know, you’ve left, but with hospitals being looted, with everything being gone, I mean you can’t even treat normal illness let alone being shot? How do you think that people are dealing with specifically the hunger issue but just in general having no electricity? No way to grind their food even if they have it?
Zenebu/Semhal: Even if you had money there was no way to buy anything; they robbed the entire stores. So, money didn’t serve a purpose. They have already stolen the entire stores so there were no stores to get food from. Or supplies. The banks had already been robbed so there was no money even left in the city. They are suffering, people are starving, they have nothing, but they are still remaining strong. Before I left there was another city about two hours outside of Hawzien they said that some people had a grinder that partially worked so people had begun the journey going there in order to grind their food.
Millete: We are hearing a lot of stories now, really painfulstories about women being trafficked in Adigrat? We are hearing about rape on a scale and a level that is unimaginable. There was an Ethiopian Defence force member – a video leaked – he was kind of challenging his comrades about the rapes that were happening? We know that the situation is dire for girls and women on the ground. You mentioned an incident of a young woman in your home who was almost raped – and you were all able to fortunately stop the situation. Tell me what happened?
Zenebu/Semhal: There was a young girl in our home, she came with my brother. She worked as a nanny in the daytime and she would go to school at night. And she wasn’t from Tigray, she was originally from Gondar. The troops that came in to search our homes, while they were searching our home they took her and said show us the bedroom – and at that point there was no bedroom because the mattress everything was gone so it was just an empty room – we were all calling out her name, we kept calling her name and we didn’t get a response and the door wasn’t able to shut anymore because they had already busted it open so when we entered into the room we saw her there, with the soldier. He had asked her to take of her shirt and he had a gun to her head. He told her that she couldn’t respond to her name being called – she told us afterward – she said that the reason why she couldn’t respond was because he had a gun to her head and said he would kill her if she said anything or if she answered us. He had her top off when we entered the room. Luckily – they had whistles that their troops would blow when it was time to go – in that moment, the whistle went off, so they all left our home together.
Millete: That makes me really emotional, just to think about the level of devastation and how women are being violated and that this young girl couldn’t even respond when you were calling her name because there was a gun to her head. And he had her shirt of at that point. What if you hadn’t gotten to the room on time? What if his fellow troops had not whistled and said it was time to go – what would have happened? I mean this is the reality for these girls on the ground and it is so heart-breaking. And I am so glad that it didn’t happen to her, but it is happening to so many, so many others. Just devastating. You gave me a really chilling account of dead bodies. Tell me about that again and how many dead bodies you counted. And also, you talked about how people can’t bury their loved ones, or if they can, they are secretly burying their loved ones. Tell me about that again, tell me about the dead bodies and how many you personally counted?
Zenebu/Semhal: We were not allowed to bury any of the bodies and so they were laid out across everywhere. There were about 140, but that I saw personally was 70. When I started asking about individuals and they told me they were dead, there was about a 140 people that knew off. And some of them were afforded the luxury of being covered with a blanket. But others they would put rocks to label it off because when we would be walking – I was walking to church – there wasn’t a path to walk because they were covered in the bodies. You could smell it – it just smelled horrifying. The smell was terrible. And some of them they would put hats down. There was a guy specifically I knew, and he always wore this hat so they put the hat next to his body so that we could recognize him and hopefully bury him at a later day. But we weren’t allowed to mourn. If they saw anyone crying or mourning, they would kill them they would say that ‘we are not allowed to bury our troops; so, you are not allowed to bury your families or cry for them.’ And they were saying,‘Who is going to cry for us? Who is going to bury us?’
Millete: It is almost incredulous. It is bad, it is almost unbelievable if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes. So, tell me how you ultimately got out? I know your daughter was doing her best here trying to advocate for you and trying to get you out of the country but how did you make it out? Because no one could leave for a long time. I know that because we were trying to advocate for American citizens who were stuck in Tigray and we were told that there was nothing anyone can do. There were no flights, there is active war all around you, how did you finally get out of Hawzien?
Zenebu/Semhal: There was an announcement that people said they heard, that Abiy had declared that any citizens of Mekelle students, workers they needed to all return by Monday and that things were back to normal, and that they had to all go to their respective jobs or offices. And there were no cars so there were private contractors that you could take, it was 400 hundred a person, and there was also a huge risk along the way because you don’t know if they are going to kill you because they think that you have money or that you are wealthy so it was all taking a chance but I tried to mix in with this people and make my way back to Mekelle.
Millete: So, you made it to Mekelle and then from Mekelle were you able to fly out to Addis? Or how did you get out? I know that now, I think, the flights are operating – were they operating at that time? Or how did you get out of Mekelle?
Zenebu/Semhal: The only thing that was better in Mekelle was that there was some phone connectivity, so I was able to reach some of my loved ones. They were saying that flights were resumed, and that life was back to normal and cars were operating and stuff but I would spend days going back and forth to the airport but when I got there they would say ‘oh it’s only for meeting or it’s only for some officials’ that flights were resumed. So, I still didn’t have access to get a flight. There is no internet or anything so the only way to get a ticket is if a family member or someone sent it to you from Addis Ababa through an agency. So, it still wasn’t readily available to just purchase the ticket.
Millete: So, then what did you do?
Zenebu/Semhal: Finally, we found someone – through a family member – who had a private car and we told them that we would pay them when we got to Addis Ababa and to take us with their private car. Even though we knew that it was risky that was the only chance that I had to get out of Mekelle.
Millete: Do you guys get stopped along the way.
Zenebu/Semhal: We got stopped a lot. We got stopped about 13 times along the way.
Millete: What do they do when they stop you? Are they checking ID’s? What do they say?
Zenebu/Semhal: They would look for weapons and there was a guy that was with us that was a Canadian resident who had something as simple as a razor, but they said that if they found anything, any type of a weapon, they would kill us too.
Millete: I am sure you were relieved to finally make it to Addis. I am sure that wasn’t easy. Did you guys drive straight through or did you stop anywhere? I can’t imagine, where would you stay?
Zenebu/Semhal: It was over a day. We had to drive straight through, but we were stopped and searched so many different times. And the driver would use tactics; he would give them money – he would pay them off, he would tell us to not look – there were a couple of other people with us -so he could bribe them and stuff. But it took us well over a day just because of the different stops and searches that the troops were doing.
Millete: And all of this because you were Tigrayans. Not because you were soldiers. Not because you have done something wrong. All of this because you come from a specific ethnic group.
Zenebu/Semhal: The driver, he was scared because he knew that we were Tigrayans. So, he would tell us to try and cover our faces because of the markings that we had, and he would say if they saw that we were Tigrayans that they would kill us. Even when we made it and we were finished with our journey he kept telling us how lucky we were because they should have killed us and that he never thought we would make it.
Millete: It’s just really devastating. Just the things that you have seen, and you are one person. I can’t imagine how much is going on, om the ground that we just don’t have access to. There are no journalists on the ground. It is because of people like you who are willing to come out and speak up and say what you have seen that we are even able to get a glimpse of what is happening. What do you want people to know about what is happening in Tigray? What is your biggest fear now that you have seen it and you have come out of it?
Zenebu/Semhal: The atrocities that are being committed in Tigray – all the way from young students that don’t have any supplies, the old people do not have food and medicine, everyone’s mental health is destroyed. There is no food, they are starving. They are trying to keep their hope through all this. But we need to expose everything that is going on – the atrocities being committed – because there is no way to document what is happening in these small villages so these stories can’t get heard. Everyone needs to help Tigray. They need us. They need their stories to be heard, what they are doing. They have left them with no food, no medicine, no electricity. We need people to come forward and not be scared and to tell these stories because no one else will. We have to help Tigray because no one else will.
Millete: Thank you. Thank you Zenebu, for sharing your story. Thank you for your bravery on the ground, you likely saved that young man’s life who was shot – the bank worker. ANd Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for shedding light on this dark, dark, dark, period on Tigray. We have some very serious issues to address – and especially the food issue. This is a page right out of the Dergue handbook of starving the people to death. Thank you, for sharing yourstory, and we will pray for you and the people of Tigray and hope that by sharing your story someone will listen. Thank you for being a voice for the voiceless.
Zenebu/Semhal: Thank you for giving me this opportunity and this chance. Thank you for having me and thank you for speaking out for Tigray.