Editor’s note: This is an eyewitness account of what transpired in Aksum when and after the invading Eritrean and Ethiopian forces took control of the city. The eyewitness, Woinishet, who lives in the US, went back to her birthplace of Aksum after about 40 years to participate in the colorful Hidar Tsion annual celebration which now, we know, did not happen due to the war on Tigray.
Translator’s note: This is a dynamic and in places paraphrased translation [up to minute 46] because the deep emotion and trauma of the interviewee made a direct/verbatim transcription and translation difficult. The interview was conducted by Tedros Tsegaye of Reyot media. This translation was made with the kind permission of Reyot Media.
Given the communication blackout imposed in Tigray, the surveillance, censorship, silencing, targeting and ethnic profiling of Tigrayans resulting in a dearth of eyewitness accounts of the war on Tigray, Tghat and the translator, Meron T Gebreananaye, believe the translation of this interview and its publishing will give readers a picture of the atrocities of the genocidal war on Tigray.
The interview: Tedros Tsegaye Interviews Woinishet
Tewodros Tsegaye: Thank you W/zo Woineshet for being willing to share with us today what you witnessed first-hand while you were in Aksum. You are currently outside of Ethiopia, but would you like to tell us where you are now?
Woinshet: Good evening. I live in the United States of America.
Tewodros Tsegaye: To start off, please share with us when you went to Aksum and after how long? If you could make it clear to us why you went to Aksum?
Woinshet: It had been a long time since I left the country, I had returned home after almost forty-five years. I was only born in Aksum, I didn’t grow up there, but my entire family still lives there. I grew up in Addis Ababa. This was my first time back, after having left around the age of 7. I was hoping to visit and to meet family as well as to celebrate the annual feast day of Saint Mary (Hedar Tsion) at Aksum Tsion church. But unfortunately, the celebration never happened.
Tewodros Tsegaye: You went to Aksum before the war started, didn’t you?
Woinshet: I flew to Addis Ababa just before the Ethiopian New Year. I arrived on the 7th of September and I was in quarantine during the New Year. It was peaceful the first weeks I was there. I went on a pilgrimage to a monastery about 30 minutes outside of Aksum. I was really looking forward to Hedar Tsion because it was my first time being there and I was hoping to visit other places after that celebration.
Tewodros Tsegaye: How did you first come to realize that the war had started? What were the first signs you noticed?
Woinshet: We had no idea that war was coming, even after fighting had already started in Humera. We didn’t know until people started flooding into Aksum. Electricity was down so we couldn’t get any information from the media. Electricity and water services were all turned off.
Tewodros Tsegaye: Why wasn’t there electricity? Aksum normally has electric coverage does it not?
Woinshet: Yes, it did. It has had for a long time. There were some electricity and water outages while I was there, but it was completely turned off by the time we learned the war had started.
Tewodros Tsegaye: You were telling us that a lot of people were arriving in Aksum. Where were they coming from and what were they telling you?
Woinshet: Yes. My sister’s children arrived from Humera. We first thought that they had just come early for Hedar Tsion but they told us that war had broken out. They told us that their home had been bit hit during the shelling and that people had been killed. We were extremely shocked and terrified. Then the war started coming closer and closer Shire, Sheraro, Endabaguna, Wuqero …It was so desperate people had left their children behind when they fled for their lives. One of my nieces is in Sudan. People told us that she had fled to Sudan, but we have no way of getting in touch with her. No one had time to collect possessions or find relatives, they just fled however they could. I know people from Alamata who have died, people from Gondar too.
Tewodros Tsegaye: You told me that you then heard gunfire in Aksum? Who was firing? What did you see?
Woinshet: Shabia! Shabia [Eritrean] soldiers came in with their tanks! The earth shook.
Tewodros Tsegaye: The Prime Minister claimed that there were no Eritrean troops present so could you tell me a little more about what you saw in Aksum?
Woinshet: Eritrean soldiers were in Aksum without any question! I am a witness to this. I was searched by them at least four times.
Tewodros Tsegaye: Was that when you left?
Woinshet: What do you mean when I left? I was searched on my way to church in Aksum! It was as if it wasn’t enough that I had to step over dead bodies to get there. The entire city from the bus station to the park was covered in bodies. I was searched four times.
Tewodros Tsegaye: Were the dead people you saw civilians?
Woinshet: Yes. Civilians. Innocent civilians killed when they hit [shelled] St. Michael church. We suffered a lot! [sobbing] Why won’t you open your eyes? Why are lies being told? What need is there for lies? Eritrean troops were in Aksum, they are still there! This is the truth. I have a question for the Prime Minister, I have a question for him! How can someone who claims to be the leader of Ethiopia invite foreign forces to invade Aksum? The Ethiopian people need to go and see for themselves. Our people have been silenced; they have no means of escape. What is happening in Aksum is genocide! Why is he lying? I want to take him to court if I could! If I knew where to go to do that. My nephew was hit twice on the head! Why are they lying? Open up communications and let the people speak for themselves! Let them tell you what was done to them! [sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: I am asking you these questions so the rest of us can better understand the suffering you witnessed. What did the Eritrean soldiers do to innocent civilians in Aksum?
Woinshet: They fired at us! I can’t begin to tell you how much hatred there was in their eyes! They were like animals. Animals! [Incoherent sobbing] They fired indiscriminately at anyone that was before them! They killed people without warning. We were not given any warning. They fell upon us suddenly. And they just fired on everything. They are filled with hate! What did we do to them? [Incoherent sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: I can only imagine the trauma you have been through. I only ask you these questions so our listeners can understand everything that happened. What did they do? For example, you said they fired at everyone indiscriminately, did they say why?
Woinshet: They said they had been told to kill, to kill all Tigrayan males over the age of four. They said we are told to kill them all so that they don’t come to take revenge upon us in the future. You can ask anyone in Aksum. This needs to be investigated by independent investigators! Why did all of this happen to Aksum? Why? Someone told me that bodies were mutilated.People were just living their ordinary lives. Going to church, going shopping, traders were trading until they came. We had no idea what was happening. I am lucky that I survived.
Tewodros Tsegaye: Are there people you know that were killed?
Woinshet: I don’t know many people because it was my first time in Aksum after more than forty years. But people that my sister’s children knew – they said they were drivers – were killed. They had fled from Humera for safety, but they ended up dying in Aksum. But I saw the bodies and I fell sick. My nephew, who was displaced from Humera, had to go looking for medicine for me. I had never seen anything like this before.
Tewodros Tsegaye: You said that your nephew found you some medicine. One of the things that we have been hearing is that Eritrean troops are looting hospitals and health centres.
Woinshet: That is true! They took what they could and anything that they were not able to carry of they blew up or they destroyed. Shame! What kind of soldiers do something like this?
Tewodros Tsegaye: Another thing that the Prime Minister said was that there were no civilians killed in the conflict.
Woinshet: Of course, civilians were killed! I can show him the bodies! I can show him the evidence in front of witnesses. I can show him all the dead bodies! The bodies were left to the hyenas! To the hyenas! We can never forget this! Human beings left to the hyenas! I have never imagined anything this terrible in my life [Incoherent sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: Where there any Ethiopian National Defence Forces [ENDF] in Aksum?
Woinshet: They arrived later. After so many people were killed. The Federal Police that came with them are also terrifying, they are rude. [Incoherent sobbing] The ENDF soldiers seemed like they were afraid. I am not sure why, but they just watched. They did not do anything. I don’t know why they were afraid. [Incoherent sobbing] A lot of people were killed. Old people were killed. This is what happened. You can be 100% sure that Shabia came into Aksum and massacred the people! They were merciless and filled with hate! Abiy Ahmed sent vengeful foreign soldiers to massacre us! [Incoherent sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: When did you decide how to leave Aksum? How did you leave Aksum and Tigray?
Woinshet: My nephew, got us on a van driving to Mekelle. He would beg and plead to get us through the checkpoints.
Tewodros Tsegaye: Where were you searched? Who did the searching?
Woinshet: We were searched sixteen times between Aksum and Mekelle.
Tewodros Tsegaye: What can you tell us about the people that are still in Aksum?
Woinshet: They are seeking refuge at Mariam Tsion Church. There are Eritreans and people displaced from other parts of Tigray with them. What is even worse is that they don’t have food. There is no food. Even if they had grains, they have no way to get it milled. The Ethiopian soldiers offered to give us diesel if we could find a diesel operated generator. They are very kind. It’s just that they don’t say anything to the Eritrean troops. I don’t know if they have been told not to do anything or why they are afraid. I heard they tried to stop the Eritrean troops from leaving with looted goods and that the Eritreans fired at them, so they don’t do anything because of that. The Eritreans were completely in charge. They did house to house searches, broke down doors. We couldn’t even hide in our own homes. He killed his own people; he destroyed the Eritrean people and now he is counselling this child to do the same to us! A great wrong is being done. A Moslem girl was shot down for crying out when they killed a university teacher in front of her.
Tewodros Tsegaye: They fired on people for expressing shock?
Woinshet: Yes. She only let out a scream. It was around Nigist Saba. They said he was a teacher, a very good one, at Aksum University. She was just passing by. But they shot her down. What is there in Aksum? Only a church! There is no military encampment there! There is no need to lie. Isaias Afewerki has sent in his troops! How many times did they miss Aksum Tsion Church with their shells? One of the shells landed on and destroyed the latrine of my aunt’s house. The entire family would have perished if it had hit the house instead. God saved us from so much worse. We could only pray. That is all the people could do. Pray. I pray for justice from God. Human beings were eaten by hyenas. How many people were left to be eaten by hyenas? Who is counting them? Tell him to stop lying! [Incoherent sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: How are people managing?
Woinshet: Praying. Nothing else. People just go to church and pray. They are no longer afraid because what worse can happen? They have lost their children. How can this be leading a country? How can you commit genocide on your own people? Save the people, they have nothing. Save them! Help them please. The Ethiopian soldiers could tell him if they were not afraid. [Incoherent sobbing]
Tewodros Tsegaye: How are people getting food? If there are no shops?
Woinshet: There is no food. Nothing. Let me tell you what Shabia soldiers did. I was ready to come because everyone urged me to go. I wanted to go to visit my mother’s family, but we couldn’t get there because the Eritrean soldiers were there. They went there to kill the priests, to kill farmers, to burn crops, why? They forced farmers and priests to slaughter their own animals and killed them if they refused to do so because it was a fast day [Incoherent sobbing]. This is what Shabia did. How can he say that Shabia did not come to Aksum? Who hit my nephew who had to get stiches in his head? They almost killed him because he said they were the ones who shot his friend. Who killed all those people? Who was it that wouldn’t even let us mourn for our dead? How could you fire and shootdown unarmed civilians? [Incoherent sobbing].
Tewodros Tsegaye: Thank you. Thank you, for sharing this with us. Just as a final question, you said you were searched sixteen times between Aksum and Mekelle, tell us how you got from Mekelle to Addis Ababa?
Woinshet: The journey back was very difficult. I saw them savagely beat a young man who was traveling with us because he didn’t have ID on him. I have heard of old women being raped young girls being raped …I can’t anymore! Just please make this known! Save them! Get to them!
Tewodros Tsegaye: Okay Thank you very much W/zo Woinshet.