Sesame farmer Tilahun Belay, 58, had just sold a large part of his harvest. He was walking back to town to deposit his check and grab a soda when he stumbled upon a gruesome scene.
“We saw evil things, people whose necks were cut, limbs hanging,” Belay said. “There was no one to bury the dead. They were just lying there.”
That horrific massacre in Mai Kadra on Nov. 9-10 was a defining moment in the war on Tigray launched by Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government. Ahmed politicized the massacre, blaming “TPLF supporters” and a Tigrayan youth group he called “samri.”
Dozens of Tigrayan refugees from Mai Kadra. sharply reject the story sold by Ahmed and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission – a quasi-independent agency appointed by the federal government. The refugees now in Sudan said they never saw the attack coming. They have never heard of “samri” and they listed dozens and dozens of Tigrayan neighbors who were killed.
The refugees challenge Ahmed’s narrative: “Wrong! The Ethiopian government is wrong! The government wants to criminalize Tigrayans, but these people were sent by the government of Ethiopia to do this to us,” said Genet Haile, a woman who witnessed her father being attacked in the onslaught.
Farm laborer Teklehiwot Abraham was returning from work when a crowd of more than 200 people confronted him and two friends, he said. They had knives, axes and machetes. “We didn’t know what was going on,” Abraham said. “They hit my leg and my head with an ax. They left me for dead. We couldn’t even speak. We didn’t know what was happening to us.”
Tensions have been simmering between the federal government of Ethiopia and the northernmost state of Tigray for some time. The supply routes into Tigray have been choked off for nearly two years. The Regional Government of Tigray bucked Ahmed’s efforts to consolidate regional political parties into a single Prosperity Party. And federal dollars were withheld from the state after it conducted a regional election in defiance of the federal government, which has yet to conduct a national election that was due in March 2020.
A boiling point was reached when Ahmed accused the Regional Government of Tigray of attacking a federal base. The regional government denied the accusation, saying it defended itself from a coup. Government war partners contradicted Ahmed, publicly stating that war preparations started several months prior to the alleged base attack.
Ethiopia has seen ethnic violence implode since Ahmed was appointed in 2018. Oromo activists claim thousands of political prisoners are in jail, including Ahmed’s staunchest political opponents Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba who are on a hunger strike. Tigray was the only region not embroiled in ethnic violence. That peace was violently disrupted when Ahmed partnered with the Amhara regional militia, Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki and the United Arab Emirates, which is accused of launching drone attacks from its base in Eritrea.
The now-infamous Mai Kadra massacre was a shock to Tigrayans worldwide. It is the first known ethnic clash in the region and, because of a government-imposed communications blackout, only a one-sided, gruesome account emerged that favored the Ethiopian government. That story went viral as the Ethiopian government tried to convince the world that Tigrayans and TPLF deserved what was coming.
“The People Being Slaughtered in Mai kadra Were Tigrayans”
Mai Kadra is a farming town in western Tigray and, although the residents are predominantly Tigrayan, there is a significant diversity in a district known as “Gimbi Sefer.” The medley of people is a result of resettlements done under the Derg and has never been a source of conflict prior to recent history.
All refugee accounts of what occurred on Nov. 9 begin with federal forces sweeping the town. They came in, and there was shooting. Well aware of tensions with the federal government, few were surprised by their arrival. What they didn’t expect were the gangs that followed the federal soldiers.
Refugee accounts repeatedly state that between 200 to 300 armed Amhara gangs known as “Fano” and “Salug” crept into Mai Kadra behind the federal troops. Tigrayans are divided on whether they think these gangs were invited by the government or whether they simply took advantage of the opportunity.
Haile Woldegiorgis said there was a clash when the gangs arrived. They were trying to loot and steal from people. “People fought back when they were trying to loot,” Woldegiorgis said. “That day many people died, Tigrayans and Amhara. There was a confrontation.”
When Tigrayans realized that this was a coordinated effort and that they were outnumbered, they fled for the fields where the tall crops could provide temporary refuge. The injured Amhara gangs remained in town and sought medical care for their wounds. They told aid workers that they were attacked by Tigrayan gang members. And that version of events became a major talking point for Ahmed, who was losing favor among international audiences.
Ahmed even went on to create a short documentary with interviews from non-Tigrayan Mai Kadra. residents. Interviewing Tigrayans was not possible as they had either fled to Sudan, were hiding in the homes of their Amhara and Wolkait neighbors, or were pretending not to be Tigrayans to avoid being killed. More than 7,000 who didn’t escape were held in a makeshift jail in the town.
“The Ethiopian government flipped the story. The people being slaughtered in Mai Kadra were Tigrayans,” Amshalaka Woldegebriel said. “This isn’t what someone told me. I saw it.”
Seventeen-year-old Tsige and her sisters hid at a neighbor’s house for five days. The neighbors pushed food to them under the bed. But even those neighbors were repeating the government-version of Mai Kadra, she said.
“The people who were hiding us who are very pro-Abiy said that Tigrayans were the ones who started the massacre. But we saw it with our own eyes. Tigrayans were being attacked. We saw Tigrayans being killed,” Tsige said.
Many stories emerged about neighbors who tried to shelter Tigrayans from the armed gangs. But for every righteous neighbor, there was another who went door to door identifying Tigrayans’ homes. The betrayal of their neighbors stung deeper than the axes and machetes for many.
“People who know everything about you would get you killed”
Abrahaley Yonas was among those who fled for the fields on the night of the initial attack. Three nights later, an elder from town came by and told them it was safe to return. Many refugees said they were lured back to town by their neighbors and people they trusted.
As soon as Yonas and his family entered town, Salug gangsters snatched him from his parents. They took him down the road and beat him with machetes and axes. His head was struck repeatedly. He said he was losing blood, couldn’t walk and was seeing dark splotches.
One of his attackers, “was about to slash my neck, but the other guy said, ‘No. He is a Tigrayan, let him suffer,’ ” Yonas said.
While lying in the street, Yonas heard his father calling for him. It was dark, and, though he tried, he was too weak to respond. His mom found him the next morning. She came to collect his body, sure he was dead. “I was alive,” Yonas said, shocked by his own survival.
Yonas was recovering at home when a neighbor told the gangsters he was alive. He heard them say they would kill his entire family if it was true. He hid at a neighbor’s house, where he again heard familiar voices looking for him.
“Four or five of my friends, they are Amhara, were looking for me. They are people I used to eat and drink with,” Yonas said.
Haile Woldegiorgis was first lured out of his home by federal officers. They were badgering him to turn over his gun. Woldegiorgis begged for mercy, pleading that he didn’t have a gun. A teenage neighbor vouched for him, saying that Woldegiorgis was a farmer and hard-working man.
The soldiers led him down the road where they were confronted by 20-25 gangsters who had bloody axes. They convinced the soldiers to turn him over to them. Woldegiorgis tried to convince them that he was Wolkait and not Tigrayan. They were unmoved.
“I knew that I was among killers, people who have been killing,” Woldegiorgis said. “They took an ax to my head. They hit me three times, and I fell. Look at my ear. They cut it with a knife.”
Woldegiorgis said his body was thrown into the street between two dead bodies. He said he begged for them to kill him as they walked away laughing. “Sometime in the evening, it was getting cold, and I felt my spirit strengthening,” he said. “I was able to crawl a bit, and then I got up, wobbling and walked. I was close to home.”
Woldegiorgis made it to his front door and collapsed on a mattress outside. His neighbor, a retired soldier, found him in the morning. The pharmacies were looted but his neighbor was able to find alcohol to treat the infected wounds. In the same breath of gratitude for one neighbor, Woldegiorgis mentioned another neighbor who told his daughters not to worry because it was only boys over 12 ordered to be killed.
“This is a neighbor we know,” Woldegiorgis said as he listed the names of dozens of Tigrayans killed in his neighborhood alone. “This is a genocide. This is an attempt to erase us. There is no doubt in the world.”
Woldegiorgis and Yonas both snuck out of town before their bodies could heal. Their journeys, like so many others, to Sudan were different and yet connected by the tragedy in Mai Kadra.
Shewit Guesh questions how she can ever return to Mai Kadra., a town she has lived in since she was a child. “For every decent neighbor, there was one who would divulge our identity,” she said. “It was people you grew up with. People who know everything about you that would get you killed.”
No one even considered women and children would be attacked
Tigrayans know war well. The music often highlights battle stories and the people’s resiliency. Nearly every generation can speak to personal war stories, and there are currently Tigrayans in Sudan who are refugees for the second time.
In 1943, Emperor Haile Selassie partnered with Britain to bomb Tigray and quell a peasant uprising known as “Woyane.” In 1991, rebel groups led by the “Second Woyane” defeated the Derg after a 17-year struggle that saw more than 1 million people die of a man-made famine.
Still, in spite of the cruel familiarity with war, most Tigrayans didn’t expect women and children to become targets. Initially, women didn’t flee when chaos hit their towns.
Awetash Yibra, 32, was with her three young children when a Wolkait neighbor came banging at her door: “Get out! Our side won!”
Yibra grabbed her children, a scarf and ran for the fields. They had no food or water so Yibra left her children, aged 18 months to 8 years old, with others who were hiding and returned to the town. She was paralyzed by what she saw. There were dead bodies in the streets and people were shaming Tigrayans calling them “lice.”
“I shouldn’t have gone back,” Yibra said. She rushed back to her children, but they were gone. She spent the next 52 days scouring Mai Kadra, looking for them. She went house to house searching, careful to conceal her ethnicity and pretend to be Wolkait, speaking only in Amharic. Soldiers would constantly threaten her, and she often relives the nightmarish scenes.
“They ran a boy over in the street. I feel bad for his parents. We don’t even know who he is,” Yibra said. “There were dead boys everywhere, their body parts were cut. They were spread throughout the sidewalk and streets. I can’t get the boy they ran over out of my head. It makes you wish you were dead.”
After 52 days of searching, Yibra learned that her children were safe in Sudan. Her 8-year-old is still traumatized. “She is old enough to know what’s happening. Her eyes were bloodshot with grief. She was mourning my death,” Yibra said about her oldest when they reunited.
Beriye Atsbaha said she hasn’t known peace since Ahmed was appointed. “They tell us the Amhara are coming, the Fano are coming,” she said. “Fano slaughters people. Fano kills people. They kill you because you are Tigrayan.”
Atsbaha hitched tractor rides with wealthier neighbors to get her toddler son to Sudan. It took two weeks and they begged for food from people along the way, often not eating for days. She balks at the government story on Mai Kadra.
“The Ethiopian government is wrong. We still don’t know where our brothers are. We are hearing about so many people, Tigrayans, we know who were killed by Ahmara, killed by Fano. Children can’t find their parents. We are mourning, crying with them every day,” Atsbaha said.
Tigrayan refugees gather news while in the camps mostly through radio sources or social media. Some areas have a community television with satellite. Most have heard Ahmed’s version of Mai Kadra – the story that is their first hand experience. They hear their story being twisted to villainize Tigrayan youth, youth who they say were the targets of the attack and who were the ones lying dead in the streets unable to be buried.
Crouched next to a tractor with wheels larger than him, elder and refugee Hadush Gebremariam sets his Bible down and asks a simple question: “What troubles does the Ethiopian government have? Amhara and Oromo are not here. Tigrayans are being erased,” he said.
“They are killing farmers, laborers and business people. They aren’t killing any soldiers. The world needs to know this. They are killing peaceful people.”