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The Irob: A people in peril 




This article describes the existential threats and catastrophic humanitarian suffering the Irob People of Tigray have been in at the hands of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces since the beginning of the war on Tigray in November 2020.  It tries to show the massacres, kidnappings, rape, lootings, and abduction committed on the people of Irob, the ongoing atrocities in areas currently controlled by these forces, and of their urgent need to be freed, get food, medications and other basic services. It makes the case for urgent intervention by humanitarian aid organizations, the need for either safe evacuation or safe passage and the urgent need to break the siege by all means available to ensure their survival as people.  

It also highlights horrific acts perpetrated by the Eritrean Forces on the Irob since the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war and how Irob land has been shrinking over the course of time due to aggressive annexation by Eritrea and the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It provides a historical context regarding the territory of Irob, such as Arafali, Port Smyth, Marsa Fatuma all the way to Dahlak Manne Islands of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Zula, which were also territories of the Axumite civilization, and Dejeat Subagadis’ territory. Probing along this line, it also details how large swathes of the territory of Ragali, Dalol, Ertale, Arho and the northern part of Zone Two of the current Afar Region were taken from Irob and annexed into the Afar Region in 1995.  


The data regarding destruction and atrocities used in this piece was obtained from people who had a first-hand account of events and have since fled Irob. I have withheld their names to protect the safety of their family members who are still in Irob. Data about the territory and historical evolution of the Irob was collated from the literature. The rest was acquired from Irob Anina Civil Society, Tigrai TV, and Asimba Media. I acknowledge their  efforts to document facts about Irob on different outlets.

The Irob

The Irob people are an ethnic group who predominantly live in the mountainous highlands of the northeastern part of Tigray. Under the current administrative structure of Tigray, the Irob land and its inhabitants constitute a Woreda (roughly translates to a province) with eight Tabias. (A Tabia is the smallest unit in the administrative structure of Tigray.) The remainder of the Tigrayan Irob live in the adjacent Woreda of Saesie Tsaedaemba, making up one Tabia and some of them in Eritrea. 

The Irobs trace their lineage to Summe, son of Neguse Worede-Mehret, who migrated to the Irob Land from Tsira’e in Kilite Awla’elo, about 700 years ago. Neguse Worede-Mehret is believed to have descended from Axum. 

The current boundaries of Irob are: Eritrea to the north (five Tabias have borders with Eritrea; Agarale Koma, Woraetle, Indalgeda up to Moko and Emba SoiraAlitena and Randa Coma of Arae); Afar to the east (part of Tabia Arae is bordered with Afar region of Ethiopia); Saesie Tsaedaemba and Afar to the south (part of the Tabia of Arae is also bordered with Afar); and Shoumezana (the Tabia of Agarale) and Gulomakeda (the Tabia of Edamosa) to the west. It is  believed that Irob is home to the first modern school — Lideta Mariam — in Ethiopia. (The school was established in 1845 GC in Alitena).  

Irob also houses historical places such as the Gunda Gundo Monastery. Built in the late 14th century A.D, the monastery is known for its prolific scriptorium and manuscripts. This collection of over 220 volumes, dating from before the 16th century, is one of the largest collections of its kind in Tigray.

A people under existential threat

On 4 May 2021, Al Jazeera reported that the Irob people faced an existential crisis in addition to humanitarian suffering caused by Eritrean forces. Currently, more than 50% of Irob is in a very catastrophic situation. This catastrophe has persisted for about 20 months now. It can be said that the people are living under two sieges:  First, Tigray is under a complete blockade and siege by Amhara, Ethiopian and Afar forces; Second, the people of Irob and its surroundings are under another circular attack by Eritrean forces. The Tabias of Agarale, part of Alitena, Endelgida and Weraetle are still in the control of the forces of Eritrea and they are under an extremely dangerous situation. 

Below is a list of some of the of the crimes perpetrated in Irob per eye-witnesses accounts:

  • Men and boys were killed and kidnapped; houses were raided and plundered; the whereabouts of those who have been kidnapped people is unknown . For example, in Aletena Tabia, 13 people from one family were taken from one house and killed in the day of Tigrayn Chirtsmas in a river called Zegarut in 2020. Only on January 7, 2021, members of the Eritream Army went to a gathering of a Christmas Celebration, took 29 civilians and shot them in a line.
  • Killings are committed in a very horrific way such as hanging people alive on a tree, beating them, and dismembering their bodies.
  • Families of killed person were not allowed to bury the bodies of their loved ones. Only the bodies of 14 out of 74 civilians killed have been buried. 
  • If a person tries to escape from that besieged area and is caught by Eritrean forces in his or her way, that person is killed without any judicial process. If one person from a family somehow manages to escape from the controlled areas to the freed parts of Tigray, the rest of the family are either killed or detained in retaliation; 
  • Women and girls are being raped; 
  • If it is known that a person has any one of their families or extended families out of Ethiopia, a relative is taken to Eritrea and held in a difficult situation and he or she is made to call to the relative in diaspora and ask them to send tens of thousands USD to the Eritrean aggressors as ransom;
  • The people of Irob under the control of Eritrea are denied their Tigray identification cards (ID) and instead are forcefully provided with Eritrean ID; 
  • Livestock of the people were looted; 
  • Farming equipment of farmers were either damaged or looted;
  • The people don’t have any medical service facilities; 
  • All house items, shops and groceries are looted;
  • The people are also dying from extreme hunger and disease. Children are dying from extreme malnutrition. Senior citizens are dying even from curable diseases of little complexities;
  • No humanitarian organizations have managed to enter the area for 20 months now. This problem of humanitarian access extends to the parts where the Tigray Defence Force controls mainly because of shortage of fuel for transportation resulted from the sealing-off of Tigray in general; 
  • They don’t have any banking services and nor do they have electricity for this same period; 
  • According to Aljazeera  people have tried to escape that zone and are living dispersed around the towns of Adigrat through Mekelle and Addis Ababa. To quote Aljazeera directly,  “the social structure of the Irob community has been turned totally upside down,”. “Many, perhaps up to 50 percent of the original population … fled to regional cities in Tigray and even to Addis Ababa, leaving mostly elderly and children behind.”
  • Other civilians want to leave these controlled zones but can’t do so. Nor do safe humanitarian passages exist. From Ukraine to Syria, the ICRC has been involved in safe passage operations to help people trapped in hostilities or to get access to victims of armed conflicts. However, it has not reached the areas of Irob and Western Tigray. The controlled part of Irob doesn’t have any humanitarian corridor. The Eritrean forces do not allow civilians to leave, humanitarian assistance to come in or allow for the evacuation of the wounded, sick or dead people of Irob;
  • The entirety of two villages, Buhulo and Magabi Dagal have been forced to leave their village. 
  • Civilians of Irob are not allowed to evacuate from a besieged area and so are not protected from the effects of Eritrean aggression for the two years now;
  • Humanitarian organizations are not able to work to provide protection and assistance to the Irob people affected by Eritrean forces;
  • Those that have managed to escape Irob do not have adequate shelter, access to sufficient food, hygiene facilities and health-care provision and are not kept safe. In fact this is a problem to all Tigrayans who are displaced internally. These are people who have fled the different massacres, and others from the complete disruption of their livelihoods, disturbance of food production and the confiscation of food supplies by Eritrean forces;

Massacre in the early hours of the start of the war

During the early days of November 2020, after the war started, more than 75 civilians were massacred. Though Tigray TV has stated that 68 people have been killed, later reports show that more than 75 people were killed in the early days.

Th following photo presents the photos of the victims in the day of commoration by the Irob people. The list of victims in the image below is not exhaustive. 

Photos of Killed Civilians:      Source; Tigrai TV

The worst parts of the massacres were committed in Endamosa and Alitena. More than 200 civilians have been severely injured. More than 40 youngsters, out of whom more than 12 are girls, were kidnapped from the Tabias of Irob which are not under the current holdings of Eritrean aggressors alone.  

Lootings of Proporeties 

Every household item of the peoples of Irob has been looted by Eritrean aggressors. The livestock (goats, sheeps, cattle, donkeys, horses) and crops of farmers have been completely looted. Those who tried to hide their livestock in the mountains have been either killed or family members have been caught as collateral to bring the livestock. To mention an example, 31 vehicles that were parking in Tabia Arae (hidden from different areas of Irob) were taken to Eritrea. Similar to what happened in the rest of Tigray, other vehicles in different places of Irob, were also taken by the invading Eritrean forces. In some instances, they also have either the drivers of the vehicles or have taken and their whereabouts are not known. 

Looting and damages to Asabol Dam in Dawhan

All tools, generators, water pipelines and systems of Asabol Dam in Dawhan, the town which is the seat of the Woreda,  have been looted. The pipeline that connected Asabol Dam to Alitena and Daya has been transported to Eritrea. As a result, the irrigation zones of these areas are now dried and farmers are in hunger. 

Asabol Dam; Satellite Imagery

  1. Looting and Damages to Kala-Asa PolyTechnic College

Kala-Asa PolyTechnic College has been looted and damaged. The people of Alitena have been forced to load the utilities and all materials in store of the college into the lories of Eritrean forces. Some of those who were forced to load college materials have been killed at the end of the day. 

Kala-Asa Poly Technic College; Satellite Imagery

Lootings and damages to Irob Lake Lodge

Irob Lake Lodge, which  was developed by Swiss development expert Bruno Strebel, has been looted and damaged. The Lodge is found in Asabol River of Dawhan. 

Damages on Monasteries and Churches

Meskele Kristos Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Tigray, which was  built in the 6th century AD and was later rehabilitated by the leadership of Abba Zewengel, has been shelled and looted. Apart from the shelling and looting of the monastery, more than 300 monks and church hermits (“menenti”) who used to live in the monastery, have disappeared from the monastery and their whereabouts is not known. All church items and manuscripts have been burned and looted by the Eritrean forces. Among them are four generators and a mill have been looted and the store of the monastery has been burnt. 

The Michael church of Haraze has been damaged and looted and the society has been avoided from using it anymore. They have locked it not to be opened and have warned the society not to try to open it. 

Enda Silasse and Baeta Maryam Catholic church of Arae as well as Enda Gebriel Catholic church of Magauma have been looted by the Eritrean forces. 

In general, almost all churches in Irob have been either shelled, burnt, looted or damaged by the Eritrean forces. 

Aother damages on monasteries and churches of Irob are not known to the witness.

Looting and damages on government offices

According to Tigray Television, all government offices of 22 sectors and 10 development organizations have been looted and the remaining turned to ashes.  All clinics, schools, and agricultural training centers have either been burnt or completely damaged. Damosa Clinic, which has the capacity of giving services to more than 10,000 inhabitants, has been burnt by the Eritrean force.

Irob before November 2020

Apart from the current horrific acts of the Eritrean government against the Irob people, the Irob nationality had also been under repeated attacks since 1998 by Eritrean forces.  In the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war, the Eritrean forces controlled significant parts of Irob. They controlled up to Alitena, parts of Haraze and Oroe. 

The forces committed the same atrocities they have been doing since November, 2020.  They killed hundreds of people in Irob only. They also abducted more than one hundred people from the places controlled in Irob. The whereabouts of the abducted people is still unknown.  This poses a fundamental question of humanity to the international community and both humanitarian and political questions to the Government of Tigray. 

Similar to the current situation, the Eritrean aggressors looted every household item of the peoples of Irob at that time. The livestock and crops of farmers were also completely looted. All government and private institutions were both looted, robbed, burnt and damaged.   

The shrinking Irob land and its historical place in the Axumite Kingdom

The Irob land is shrinking over time because of aggressors from the north and the east of it. History presents that these areas of Irob land were one of the core territories of the Axumite civilization. More recently, the land of Irob has been under Dejeat Subagadis’ territory. Much of the historical remains of Axumite and Pre-Axumite Kingdom are more vived in areas of Present Axum, east wards to, Yeha, Irob around Woraetle , Kohayto, and  Adulis. There are rock arts and stone based inscriptions around Woraetle of Irob. The following map presents the general coverage of the Axumite and Pre-Axumite civilization, as BBC News Africa has detailed it. 

Source: BBC News Africa 

Historically, significant parts of the Red Sea such as Arafali, Port Smyth, Marsa Fatuma all the way to Dahlak Manne Islands were the territories of Irob. Vast geographies of the  Arafali potential port area of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Zula such as Foro were the historical territories of the Irob people. These areas are not totally under the state of Eritrea. 

Over the course of time, however, the Irob land has been forcibly shrunk down to a very small territory, completely undermining its historical territorial integrity. 

Currently the Irob Land is around 40 Kms from Arafali and Marsa Fatuma parts of the Red Sea. This direction of the Red Sea, which was the historical territory of Irob and Tigray at large, is 38.93 km far from Gheraale and Moko, measured to Arafali and is 38 km far from Gheraale around  Ragali to Marsa Fatuma.  

Satellite Distance from Gheraale and Moko to Arafali

Satellite Distance from Gheraale to Marsa Fatuma, of the Red Sea

After 1995, large areas of the territory of Ragali, Dalol, Ertale, Arho and the northern part of Zone Two of the current Afar Region has again been taken out of the Irob land. 

The clan of Enda Hasebela, who was the father of Buda Subagadis (who built the historical  Gundagundo Monastery), resided in Fokay area of Ragali. As a continuation of this clan, Moqoho Sifare the son of Buda Subagadis lived around Ragali. The lineage of Ser’at Mae Redakum, the son of Moqoho Sifare also lived in these areas Ragali.   

Dalo Subagadis who is the son of Ser’at Mae Redakum and the father of Ilko Hina Sifare in the lower clan of the Irob people was residing around the Dalol Area, currently administered by Afar Regional State of Ethiopia. 

In the recent lineage of the Irob people, Ilko Hina Sifare was the father of Hansab Subagadis.  . Dejeat Subagadis is found in the lineage of this specific clan. In this regard, Ona Sifare was the son of Hansab Subagadis and  Inda Sibhat was the son of Ona Sifare. Shum Kumanit was the son of Inda Sibhat. Shum Agame Woldu was the son of Shum Kumanit. 

Dejeat Subagadis, the then leader of Tigray Tigrigna, is the son of Shum Agame Woldu. So, these lineages and clans used to reside around the areas of Dalol, Ertaele, and Ragali which are now dominantly in the Afar Region of Ethiopia and partly in Eritrea. 

Ragali, (only 39 km away from the Marsa Fatuma potential port of the Red Sea) which is now partly in the Afar Region of Ethiopia and partly inside Eritrea, was a land of Irob in all times before the cessation of Eritrea. There still are “Mase” songs of the Irob people around the areas of Ragali and Dysaele. In 1997, the nearby Afar forces of Ethiopia have invaded the area combing their forces with Eritrean armies before the official 1998 aggression of Eritrea on Ethiopia. The Eritrean forces were pushed back by Tigray forces. However, the conflict over these areas between the Irob people and Afar occupants continued even though the Ethiopian government attempted to resolve the conflict through local talks and the Afar people continued to reside and occupy these areas. 

The vast agricultural land of Woraetle area around the Indeli area, river Indeli, Masolaye and Ghelaalo are taken by Eritrea during the cessation of Eritrea.  Masolaye is northwest of Renda Coma and Southeast of Indeli. 

Southern parts of Emba Soira and north part of Makata, in Indalgeda (around 40 km and 45 km from the Arafali potential port of the Red Sea, respectively) which have been under the Irob land are now controlled by Eritrean forces. Territorites around Indalgeda, areas of Naduwe, a place which was the strong hold of Irob, northern Aramo, and northern Mako were also taken by Eritrea.  

Very vast agricultural and irrigation lands from Renda Coma to Dysaele and Amidale Daga around the large river of La Asa are now dominated by Afar occupants. Afar administrations have also extended their authority and constructed schools, the Baribare Elementary school for example, and road infrastructures. These areas have been delineated to Irob of Tigray and of course they are the historical territories of Irob. However, over the course of time, these vast agricultural farms, and irrigation lands have been silently populated by Afar dwellers.

Sample Irrigation Area by Afar Occupants around the river of La Asa of Irob

Concluding remarks

The Irob people have found themselves at the receiving end of the brutality of the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes. They have been subjected to various atrocities, including rape at a large scale, forced disappearances, abduction and deliberate starvation. Moreover, Irob has been devastated through the destruction of infrastructure, looting of properties, including cattle and agricultural implements, and desecration of monasteries and churches.

The atrocities have been committed with absolute impunity. It is not just that no one has been held accountable for unleashing atrocities on the defenseless people of Irob. It is also that no local or international media have reported on any of the atrocities. The people continue to face an existential threat as the international community looks the other way. They have been left at the mercy of the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, and neither has shown any mercy on the people so far.

The international community has so far failed to protect the people of Irob from the horrors unleashed on them by both regimes. It has also failed to tell their story of suffering. The international community ought to make amends for its gross failure by using the resources and leverages it has to come to the rescue of the Irob people. Furthermore, the Tigray Government, all the political parties in Tigray, Tigrayan political activists and scholars, the Tigrayan diaspora community and Tigrayan civic organisations should pull every available resource to put an end to the existential threat the Irob people are facing with the sense of urgency that the dire situation demands.

Hiyab Gebretsadik (Ph.D) was an Assistant Professor of Tourism Management at Aksum University, Tigray, before he was forced into exile because of the war on Tigray. His main research lines include Tourism Competitiveness, African Tourism Ecosystem, Tourism Policy and Frameworks, Heritage Politics, and Heritage Economics.

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