Scenes of war before the Aksum Massacre
I am a survivor of the Aksum Massacre. I was an Assistant Professor of Tourism Management at Aksum University, Tigray before the war on Tigray started. I wanted to share my account of the November 2020 Aksum Massacre by Eritrean forces and other related human catastrophes.
The ongoing war on Tigray began on the night of 3rd November – the early morning of 4th of November 2020. Starting that day everything was completely shut down in Tigray; banks, telecommunication, electricity, running water, and every means of transportation were suddenly blocked. Access to humanitarian, human rights, and media organizations was also restricted.
Because everything was shut down, we didn’t have clear information about what was happening. On Saturday, November 14, 2020, however, people fleeing from Humera and Welkait started to arrive in Aksum on every mode of transportation including tractors, buses, and private cars painted in black clay (to avoid being targeted from a distance or above), motorcycles, and bicycles. They told us that the combined Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, as well as Amhara militia and vigilante groups, had displaced them from Humera and Welkait through indiscriminate shelling and that Tigrayans were being killed systematically in areas controlled by these forces.
On Tuesday, November 17, 2020, thousands of people from Shire, 67 km west of Aksum, fleeing towards Aksum, and to the east reported that the invading forces were approaching Aksum from different directions.
On Wednesday, November 18, 2020, a friend’s mother-in-law arrived from Rama, a town northeast of Aksum and bordering Eritrea. She told us that Eritrean troops were shelling Rama with heavy artillery, residents had fled already, and pregnant women were in particular danger of being forced to give birth in the forests, mountains, and rivers.
“I have no words to describe the crisis, especially for pregnant mothers, senior citizens, differently-abled people, and children,” she told us in a very traumatized manner. “I am sure they will come here and it will be the same, so let’s decide fast and move out before their arrival.”
I thought that if the same situation came to us, it would be dangerous for my pregnant wife as she wouldn’t be physically able to run away. So, I decided to take my wife out of Akusm to the villages ahead of their arrival.
On Thursday morning, November 19, 2020, I took my wife to the Southern village of Aksum, Medego, on a cart to relatives of our house help. I planned to place her there and come back to watch my house until the invading forces got closer to us.
To my surprise, around 2.00 PM on the same day, November 19, 2020, as we were arriving in Medego, we started to hear heavy artillery shelling the city of Aksum and its surroundings. From a distance, I saw smoke coming out and covering a large slice of the sky. My employer Aksum University had been shelled and was burning.
We departed from Medego southwards to the mountain hills during the night and saved ourselves. I remember the desperate time when our house help’s mother-in-law told us: “I am old with weak eyes and legs. I can’t run with you in this dark time but you, go run and save your life; don’t worry about me, I have lived enough.”
We came back late at night, as the shelling moved to the next villages and we found that the neighbourhood houses had been hit and burnt with their livestock.
That night, November 19, 2020, Aksum was controlled by the combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara paramilitary forces. We heard from people that escaped later that a large number of the Ethiopian Army and some Eritrean units stayed in Aksum, but that a larger mechanized army of both had continued to Adwa and eastwards shooting every man they found in their way.
Staying in Medego village for a week we were told, and later confirmed, that random shelling killed many people, including a mother and her two children who had come from Humera to escape the war. The passing forces killed many boys and men they found on and around the streets. We also learned that the army units that stayed in Aksum were searching house to house for TPLF members of all genders, all men and boys, militia forces and regional special force members, community leaders, and business people all targeted to be killed.
I later confirmed that these troops were looting government offices, pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, businesses, shops, hotels, banks, and ATMs. They took away medicine, generators, cars, gold, electronics, and cash. Household items such as refrigerators, televisions, beds, laptops, chairs, and tables were also looted by Eritrean forces.
We stayed there, in the Medego village, for eight days and came back to Aksum on Thursday, November 26, 2020. Our resources were depleted and the farmers could not feed us anymore because there was no electricity and no mill to grind grains and, therefore, no flour. We also wanted to know what happened to senior citizens, differently-abled people, pregnant women, and people with sicknesses that didn’t escape, as well as to find out what happened to our house.
So, we had to go back; Thursday, November 26, 2020, morning.
On the way back, our house helper wanted to save my life. “You are a man, you are the most targeted,” she told me. So, she wanted to first go and check and tell us to come when she feels ok or to stand still if she feels something may be around.
In this manner, we reached the border of the city of Aksum through the public Aksum University side. I immediately noticed the burnt construction machinery, at the gate of Aksum University.
We could see that the main roads were deserted and deafeningly silent. No one, except some military patrol cars of the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces with snipers mounted on them, was moving. The military patrol cars move around in the completely silent city making a very scary sound that can be heard from quite a distance.
We could also see that all shops, stores, pharmacies, clinics, hotels, and restaurants, were either broken into and looted or closed. It was heartbreaking to see and experience. It felt like I was in a horror movie, but then, I looked around and saw my tired pregnant wife, my kind house help, and her children. So, it was real. We were afraid of walking on the silent main road. So, we entered our house not through the main road, but via a small alley on the back side of the residences. The time of our arrival was noon; November 26, 2020.
On Friday, 27th November 2020, I went to a friend’s house, through the alley to check on them, because we had left them there. I found him, locked in his house, and when I knocked he had to check through a hole. He opened it, he was alone. He told me his wife and daughter have gone eastwards to another village and he stayed there as he couldn’t escape the flood of forces because of lack of transport. I asked him about what happened that day, who was there, who died, which house had been shelled, and everything. He briefly told me what he knew but also told me he had no chance to go out and check comprehensively what had happened where.
That day ( 27, November) around 5:00 PM, we saw Eritrean troops climbing towards Yeha Hotel, on the northern escarpment of the Aksum World Heritage Site and the Holy Church of Maryam Tsion of Aksum. They came from many sides; some came from the University side and passed by where we lived, many from the Wukro Marai side, and a lot more from the Adwa side.
My friend said to me: “I am afraid; what are they going to do with all this artillery and troops? Something may happen tonight or tomorrow.” But, I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying because I didn’t know the previous patterns of their movements. But it was scary so I said goodbye and went back to my house.
On Saturday morning, November 28, around 5 AM, we started hearing what sounded like battle and gunfire. We heard a lot of gunfire and loud sounds like the shelling we had first heard on Thursday, November 19, 2020, when the invaders first arrived in Aksum. The sound was terrifying; our building was shaking because the firing was so heavy that it seemed they were attacking our block. We didn’t know what was happening; it felt like there was a full-scale battle and sometimes it felt like gunfire was coming from all directions. We didn’t know what was happening. We stayed inside our house until around 3:00 PM when we figured out the battle was more on the northern side of the city-Mai Koho escarpment (our house was in the southern part).
Through the window, we could see some youth standing by the gate of Kaleb School. It seemed like they were talking about the battle as they were pointing their hands northwards and watching with curiosity. My wife and I wanted to know what was happening to decide whether to escape again. The spot where they stood was very close to our house, so we joined them. From there, it was visible where the battle was. We could see individual fighters running from one place to another, the landing of bullets, and soldiers running to pick and carry the ones that fell from being hit by bullets. We were told that the Eritrean troops were under and around the telecom station on the top of the escarpment. And the people fighting them from the side of Yeha Hotel were local militia and youth.
As we stood there, we saw three of the local militia going back to the University side from the side of the city centre. Maybe they had been in the fight and were leaving because they were either tired or they knew that additional Eritrean forces were arriving. Some people told us that young people were defending the Church of Maryam Tsion, which housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Aksum UNESCO World Heritage Site from being hit by Eritrean forces. Others were saying that the youth were not only defending these sites but were angry at the rape, looting, and demolishing of important institutions of the city.
As we stood there a lot of men were passing in uniforms that we didn’t know. Suddenly, my wife saw that they are holding bombs in their hands and that they were concealing them. Apparently, they were Eritrean soldiers. The whole city was surrounded by thousands of Eritrean troops who came from different directions.
Seconds after that, they started firing bullets and throwing bombs from all directions. All of us fell but no one was injured. We were trying to escape and scattered in every direction. I had to call my wife who was running toward danger.
We jumped into the University teachers’ condominium compound and into a house that we had never been to before.
We somehow survived the immediate indiscriminate firing in this way but the firing continued turning the place we were standing before and the whole residential neighbourhood into a battlefield. We stayed for around three hours until they passed to the next blocks of residences. Around 6:00 PM, there was a very short moment of silence in our area where we were able to swiftly cross back to the side of our house.
The Eritrean soldiers continued to carry out house-to-house raids, hunting down and killing adult men, as well as some teenage boys and women mainly in the northern, eastern, and southeastern parts of the city. Again a lot of gunfire, heavy sounds, the sounds of the firing of the tanks, and other medium-level artillery were heard.
Sometimes, young people were rounded up from their homes or any other place, made to take off their shoes and belts and taken to public squares, and gunned down. Some were made to dig burying ground for dead Eritrean soldiers and, after that, they were killed. Some escaped from these killings. And a very few “lucky” survivors spent the night being beaten by sticks and gunstock and were released in the morning.
In the early morning of Sunday, November 29, 2020, we were inside our house. Through the window, I saw three very senior citizens looking toward Kaleb Elementary School and making the sign of the cross. Apparently, vultures and crows had come and were making terrifying sounds as they were fighting each other. I told my wife that I was going out to have a look. Although she protested, I went out anyway and I saw the corpse of a young man eaten by hyenas except for the face and head from which people identified who he was. He was a horse cart owner. The seniors told me “we found such corpses in every corner, but Eritrean forces prohibited people from burying them”. As we stood there, we heard the forces shouting at the backside of our block. So, we all ran and entered our houses.
On this same day, Sunday, November 29, 2020, we spent the day at home. The vultures and crows were eating the dead boy the whole day. Their noise was terrifying. The hyenas finished the corpse later that night. Since there was no communication, we couldn’t know what was happening in the blocks next to us or the city except for the gunfire we heard. We knew people were being killed, but we didn’t know the scale and brutality. We couldn’t think of helping those families who were losing their loved ones. Like people on a sinking ship, it was every man and woman to himself or herself. It is sad but it was like that.
November 29 is the eve of the colourful annual celebration of Aksum Tsion.
Things slowed down over the next few days, and I was able to move around more. I learned that the most significant attacks had been committed around the Church of Maryam Tsion, and the homes around the back of the Aksum obelisks through to Michael Church, at the escarpment in front of the bus station, at the exit to Adwa, and around the Airport. As I had lived there for around five months only, I didn’t know many people in the city. So, even if I knew friends who had lived in the city long, it is not easy to know the exact number of people who were killed in these two days.
A relative, who was a teacher at Aksum Polytechnic College, and his other teacher friends were killed in his house while they were in a small circle gathered for his daughter’s birthday. Four Professors of Aksum University were killed. One of them, Alemshewit Gebrewahid, was from my department, the Department of Tourism Management, in the Institute of Archaeology and Tourism.
Continuous Killings After the Massacre
In the following days, it became common to hear the sound of five to fifteen guns being fired at night and followed by the bad news that at least one person had been killed. As the Eritrean soldiers left some weeks after the massacre, these additional killings after the massacre were perpetrated by the Ethiopian soldiers.
One day, the Ethiopian troops killed five young people around Ezana Park, alleging that they were thieves. I went to see. It was in front of Antica Restaurant. I had an exchange with a soldier: “if they were thieves why don’t you guys apprehend them and bring them to justice? Why is extrajudicial killing preferred? Who are you to judge them, thieves, before proper investigation? We don’t know, but even if they are thieves, can killing be justified for theft?” He warned me that he will make me like them.
Another day, they killed two men around Queen of Sheba Elementary School at the exit of Aksum to Shire under the eucalyptus trees. On a third day, they killed a woman that had a bar at the back of the old stadium. Such killings continued.
The Span and Scope of the Massacre out of the City
In two weeks, we learned the magnitude of the massacres inside Aksum. However, my wife and I were not aware of what was happening around the city and to our families in Ahse’a, some 60 KMs north-east of Aksum. I wanted to go on foot as transport was prohibited and unsafe, but I was afraid that the Eritreans and Ethiopian forces would kill me on the way. My wife decided to go with me (though she was six months pregnant) to save me from the soldiers by telling them that I am her husband in the event that they target me. She told me, let’s at least go to Adwa and we may meet some people there to send messages of our survival and hear about them. I wasn’t happy about her having to trek with me, but we went anyway.
Starting from when we left Aksum to Adwa through Endeyesus and the lowlands of May Shigurti, there was a very bad smell of corpses on the roadsides, in front of Aksum Airport, in the farmlands, and under the eucalyptus trees.
The sight and scene were terrifying.
I realized that the massacre in the rural neighbourhoods of Aksum, especially to the north, east, and south-east of the city, was worse. Yet, these massacres aren’t known.
The Eritrean army killed more than 200 civilians including youths, elderly people, and priests later on in the southwest of Aksum, or just south of Wukro Maray, in a village called May Atsmi. In addition to this, these same forces massacred some 100 civilians in the south of Aksum in a village called Saglamen and southwards around the irrigation areas. I learned about the first case because one of the priests killed was my friend’s father. I learned about the second one because a teenage girl escaped those killings and arrived in Aksum city. I met her at the market around the old stadium. In both cases, the Eritrean forces killed the civilians as a retaliation for the losses they encountered on the war front. There was also a horrific killing by the same forces on civilians that were travelling from Aksum to Adet to be with their families during Christmas week, 2020. They took 20 travellers off a mini-bus and took them south from Adet where they killed 19 of them. Only one person escaped that massacre. The Mahbere-Dego horrific massacre that took the life of more than 50 youths and senior citizens can also be seen as an extension of the Aksum Massacre, although the perpetrators of this mass killings were the Ethiopian defence forces.
Incidences of Rape and Gang Rape
During this time, we also observed hundreds of rape cases in Aksum Referral Hospital. I had a friend who was working in the hospital and lived in the same compound as us. One day, he told me about the cases there, and I went to observe. I saw teenagers and mothers that had been raped and gang-raped. Another day, I saw three Eritrean soldiers moving around shops in our residence. They went from shop to shop looking for girls and women and if they found one, they told them that they would pay them for sex, and that, if not, they would come at night and do what they wanted. When they met men in the shops, they asked for “Areki” (local alcohol) and when they gave them, they said they wanted Eritrean Areki, which was clearly a diversion.
On that same day, they entered a residence where they met a woman in the compound and ordered her to enter a room. Coincidentally, her grandmother entered from outside and saw and heard whereupon she shouted loudly for help: “uuy… uuy…. uuy…. rideuni”. The community gathered and the soldiers left. That day, we were so scared because many Eritrean troops were roaming in threes and twos around the residences. Coincidentally, that evening fighting broke out around Adet and Saglamen (just a few km south of Aksum) and they left the city that same night. After that time, they were replaced by Ethiopian soldiers and weren’t seen in Aksum city anymore. Had they stayed longer in the city, no one could imagine the level of rape and sexual violence that would have occurred given what I saw in the hospital in that short period and the rape attempts I saw during the day around our place. However, they left Aksum, and not Tigray and so it is easy to imagine what they might have done in other parts of Tigray where they set foot.
The Envious Mind of the Eritrean Forces and their Stealing Unit
Another shocking experience was observing the envious resentment of the Eritrean troops against Tigray’s green environment and overall development. My friend’s mother-in-law from Rama, a town North of Aksum, near the Mereb River and just a few kilometres from the barren area of Enda Gergis in Eritrea, told me that the Eritrean troops ordered each household to cut their trees in their compound. They also called the residents to collectively come out and cut the trees in the streets of Rama. They wanted to change it into a treeless and lifeless town.
A resident of Aksum had a truck. When the invaders arrived, he wasn’t able to hide it. So, he took out some of the important parts making sure it won’t function, and escaped from the area. For two weeks, they tried to fix it and take it. But, they couldn’t. One day, my friends and I were inside a coffee house from where we could see the truck, but people couldn’t see us from outside. The Eritreans came and tried to move the truck yet again. They couldn’t. They brought three technicians, and finally, another one who came with spare parts. He checked it, immediately knew what was missing, and fixed it. At least five soldiers were pointing their guns in all directions while he was fixing it. He succeeded and they drove it away. I also heard that the 524 division of the Eritrean Army that entered Tigray was a fully trained division to rob factories, vehicles, machinery, and electronics.
What happened to Aksum University, my employer?
My employer, Aksum University, which is a public higher education institution established in 2007 and had more than 1500 academic staff and more than 14000 students, was turned into a military base for the Ethiopian Defence Forces, as Adigrat University and Raya University were.
Aksum University was first shelled by heavy artillery, then completely looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean Defence Forces, and the rest was destroyed by fire or bombs.
I have seen the following damages to the University of Aksum by the Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers;
- Computers, tables, chairs, IT centre equipment, and laboratory equipment were looted, (especially our hotel management department’s multi-million dollar lab)
- Doors of almost all rooms and offices were destroyed
- Kitchen equipment for students dining and students’ mattresses were stolen
- Offices documents and academic records were destroyed
- Teaching and learning have stopped and the University is closed
- Aksum University’s bank accounts have been frozen
- There is no salary yet (for 20 months now, except some three months’ brief salary in the middle)
- Aksum University’s Website www.aku.edu.et is down
Almost all health facilities, pharmacies, and schools have been looted and damaged and some of them were used as military bases.
Kaleb Elementary school was burned by the Ethiopian Defense Forces and Queen of Sheba Elementary School was used as a military base for the Eritrean forces.
Heritage Cleansing in Aksum
Parts of Aksum’s world heritage site were shelled by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. About 23 gold, silver, and maybe diamond coins (some of them as old as 2000 years) have been looted from the Archeological Museum compound during the war. Other heritage-related damages can be seen in an article I published earlier.
At this time I am caught up in diverse emotions. On one hand, I have a terrible memory that causes me deep pain. I saw my people in Aksum being butchered. I saw the blood, flesh, and bones of my people in Aksum massacred by Eritreans. I lost my father and tens of extended families. So, I am in deep mourning. I grieve knowing that there are hundreds of massacres in and out of Tigray that targeted Tigrayans. I mourn and remember the Aksum massacre as I continue to hear daily about Tigrayans being killed and indiscriminately detained in concentration camps in different parts of the country. It pains me deeply and triggers flashbacks of the Aksum massacre knowing that there still are people and places of Tigray in the hands of these mass killers. I think of the people in Irob, Zalambesa, Western Tigray, and North West of Tigray that are under horrible occupation for 20 months now. It pains me that the international community is not acting to save my people under siege and double siege.
On the other hand, I am afraid. I fear that the perpetrators of the Aksum Massacre and others like it may never be made accountable. I worry that the international community will continue to neglect this. I fear that it will take a long time to free the people who are currently under the control of the invaders and that the rest of our people may fall again under these forces. I fear the time when the telecommunication blackout is lifted and I learn of the people killed in different places that I didn’t know; of people and children who have died because of hunger and malnutrition; of people who died because of lack of medication. I wait for the day of the breaking of the siege and the reinstatement of essential services, but at the same time, I am afraid of that day as I don’t know what additional bad news it will bring with it.
Finally, I hope for the light at the end of the tunnel when I will see my people thriving, and hear my daughter born in that darkness calling me “Dad”. I see a light at the end of the tunnel as I see my people everywhere fighting the criminals from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yes, I am in emotional turmoil, but I remain confident that in the end, no matter the time that it will take, Tigray will prevail despite the odds.