The below is a summary and translation (with subtitled video excerpts) of the interview that Dr. Tewodros Tafera gave to Tewodros Tsegaye, broadcast on Reyot Media on the 7th of August, 2021.
Doctor Tewodros Tefera is currently a Tigrayan refugee in Hamdayet. Before the start of the war on Tigray, however, he was a surgeon in Humera city, Western Tigray. He had stayed in this position for ten years despite other opportunities with better benefits because of his passion and commitment to service. Everything changed on the 4th of November 2020 when the combined Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara regional forces launched an attack on Tigray. In a few short weeks Dr. Tewodros was forced to flee to Sudan for his life, to not only become a refugee himself but a doctor and counselor to thousands of other Tigrayans that had fled the same of violence that had made him a refugee, becoming as one newspaper, poignantly designated him the “chronicler of horrors”.
Days leading to the war and the Immediate Aftermath
In the days leading up to the war, the situation in Humera and roundabouts was tense but people were carrying on with their lives as usual. Things changed drastically on the 3rd of November. The news came that war was ongoing far from Humera, and more and more injured soldiers were coming in from both the Tigrayan and Federal sides, disrupting daily life, including the hospital’s daily operation. Focus shifted to treating wounded soldiers until the 9th of November when the city came under indiscriminate shelling from four sides, especially from the Eritrean (Omahager) side. There were at least 100 civilians wounded in the first day alone, with wounds much more severe than that observed on soldiers. Fifteen people were killed outright and brought to the hospital. The shelling continued for a second day from early morning until lunchtime, resulting in more wounded and killed civilians arriving at the hospital. The shelling hit homes, schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, hotels, market places exacting horrendous damages, including an entire family eradicated according to teams that were scouting for wounded people.
The shelling, however, soon reached the hospital environs (10-15 meters from the fence) and those who were able had to evacuate the hospital. 37 patients, including 5 soldiers were moved on a tractor with a trailer to a small health centre in Adebay – 30 kilometers from Humera, in two days. Dr. Tewodros performed surgery on five soldiers needing immediate attention under these conditions.
The situation worsened, especially when the Federal forces were followed by Amhara Special Forces [ASF], Fano, and Saelog. They started selectively killing civilians on their way, including civil servants and those working in hotels and restaurants, saying, “you were feeding and serving Tigrayans.”
Who are the “Saelog”?
Fleeing into Sudan
Dr. Tewodros and those with him hid in the nearby woods for two days sleeping rough. More people soon joined them bringing with them news of more death; civilians sometimes entire families including children killed. When things continued getting worse they decided to leave for Shire (7 – 8 days on foot) but were advised it was too dangerous and to head to Sudan (half a day’s journey away). The group divided into two with the majority deciding to travel on to Shire while some, including Dr. Tewodros, headed to Sudan. The journey was dangerous, because of military convoys on the road. Many people were killed on that road – that takes from Rawyan to Humera.
“When the convoy [Federal military] had passed, it was getting dark, so we crossed the road in a hurry. I had a yellow jacket on – by the way I only had slippers and joggers because I was in surgery just before [they fled] – and I was told the jacket would reflect and attract attention, so I had to cross naked. Then we ran fast for about 15 minutes. The road was extremely rough with thorn trees around; we fell repetitively and even collided with a cow because we could not see it.”
They crossed the river early the next morning. For the next seven days, they camped where they could until Dr. Tewodros was offered a place to stay where he currently works and he has stayed there ever since.
Chronicling Horrors: Testimonies of Survivours
Dr. Tewordos speaks of the victims he had seen who had experienced and barely survived horrendous attacks:
“In one incident from Mai Kadra, a boy was attacked brutally in front of his mother and father for two consecutive days. They beat him like a snake. They hit him in his head, neck, chest, legs, and hands. After they beat him badly, they did not want to kill him: that would be easy, they said. They left him to die in agony. They told him that they wouldn’t even kill him, and he heard what they said. They left him to die in pain, but he reached where I was with open wounds and bleeding.”
There were others who arrived at the health centre where Dr. Tewodros worked with bullet and machete wounds. Along with the much-publicized Mai Kadra massacre, he remembers a similar incident that occurred in the town of Dansha where civilians were brutally killed by Fano with the support of Saelog, the ASF, and ENDF. Reports of what happened in Mai Kadra were all carried over the border into Sudan by people who had fled, some of them wounded. Dr. Tewodros explained that the investigation into the Mai Kadra was incomplete at best considering that when the government claimed to have conducted interviews and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a report the survivors of the massacre were either in Sudan, in the woods, or in central Tigray. Dr. Tewodros also said that he had never heard of the group called Samri, which according to the government report was responsible for the massacre in Mai Kadra.
One of the more horrific characteristics of the war on Tigray has been the extent and brutality of weaponized sexual violence. Survivors of such attacks were amongst those that made it to the health centre run by Dr. Tewodros.
“On top of the killing, there is rape without any mercy irrespective of age, including pregnant women; it is deplorable. When they rape them, it is not just a physical act; it is also psychological trauma. As you have heard, as they rape them, they were telling them, ‘we are cleansing your race.’ They were telling them if they renounced their Tigrayan identity, they could live in peace with their kids and property. Mother and daughter were raped in front of the husband/father. If they tried anything, their fate would be to get killed. There were many who were killed because they resisted rape. There was one girl that I personally know who was killed because she resisted; they shot her. It is two minutes to the hospital; the doctors tried to stop the bleeding. It was not successful, and she died.”
He goes on to describe the various terrible nature of the sexual violence unleashed on unsuspecting civilians:
“It is just beyond belief. Sometimes, the soldiers take the girls to the woods and keep them there. If the girls show any sign of resistance, they would kill them, beat them, burn them. I know a girl whose leg was burned. Sometimes they keep them captive for two/three days as sex slaves. Not sure if that is the right word, but it is rape. The act is dehumanizing and worse than even just sex slaves. Anyways, they keep them captive for days. There were Eritreans as well. Sometimes the Eritreans would confide in them and tell them that ‘your government is cruel, ours told us just to rape you. Your government told their soldiers to kill men and rape women. Let them [Tigrayan women/girls] get pregnant from the enemy and live their life after in agony” that is what your government told its soldiers, according to the Eritrean soldiers.”
He notes that survivors struggled with psychological trauma and most do not even tell their families because they believe it is their fault and blame themselves and lock themselves away in despair.
Raising Awareness: How much does the world know?
According to Dr. Tewodros, awareness of and reaction to what is happening in Tigray is different depending on positionality. But even in instances where there is an understanding, relevant parties including international actors have been reluctant to take meaningful action. He expressed particular disappointment with the near-total lack of empathy and solidarity from the Ethiopian community at large with the Tigrayan people.
“I used to be proud of the fact that no one could be more Ethiopian than I, by virtue of identity, deed, and faith. I used to believe I was for Ethiopia and Ethiopia was for me. I never dreamed of or thought of anything outside of Ethiopia. But in the face of the betrayal and even more seeing the brutal atrocities, and the cruelty that is difficult to imagine could be done by human beings I am forced to ask if we are all Ethiopians? Are we all really both Ethiopian? I used to believe we were more civilized, that we had rationality. When crises occurred elsewhere I thought we Ethiopians are better, we have more human kindness. What is happening now is beneath human dignity – it is a disgrace to human dignity.”
Living Conditions of Refugees in Sudan
The original flood of refugees that arrived in November was unexpected and hence overwhelming. Refugees had to sleep rough and eat basic gruel. Later on, tents were made available but were flimsy in the face of winds and flooding. Quality of life for Tigrayan refugees in Sudan is still very poor with respiratory problems – possibly including Covid – and waterborne diseases including cholera being particular problems. He said that cholera vaccines were being made available and that he and those that work alongside him had proposed setting up a team to respond to infectious diseases.
Bodies on the Tekeze
Dr. Tewodros described the details behind the bodies that keep being discovered floating on the Tekeze River, having been carried downstream after being mutilated and/or killed in Western Tigray, including in Humera.
Concluding Reflections and Asks
Dr. Tewodros noted the role of Fano and ASF, even to the extent of directly coercing federal forces, in violently enacting a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. He also stressed the influence of some of the recent rhetoric from Prime Minister Abiy that has encouraged intensified mass arrests and killings across Western Tigray. Dr. Tewodros expressed his concern about the lack of meaningful action from the International Community and shared that ultimately he relied more on the Tigray Defense Forces liberating Western Tigray as it had already managed to liberate other parts.
- He highlighted the urgent need for international efforts to deploy active searches along the 70KM of the Tekeze river and Forensic investigation to recover, identify all remains brought on Tekeze
- He asked the Tigrayan Diaspora to sustain unity and solidarity to enhance humanitarian, material and advocacy efforts.