A new Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Report on Crimes against humanity in Western Tigray zone of Ethiopia has named three individuals as responsible for some of the war crimes committed against civilians in the Western Tigray region.
The report titled “We will erase you from this land,” a phrase coined from the harrowing testimony of a victim of forceful eviction, shows how simmering tensions in Western Tigray comprises the findings of a 15-month research of medical and forensic reports, court documents, and interviews of over 400 victims of the clashes including those who fled to Sudan.
It names Colonel Demeke Zewdu the deputy administrator and head of security of the Western Tigray Zone, Dejene Maru “Shaleqa” the commander of the 2nd battalion of the Gafat Brigade, Amhara special forces and Belay Ayalew believed to be an intelligence officer based in Humera as the main persons who should be held accountable for crimes under international law for their roles in facilitating war crimes of murder, torture, sexual violence amongst others.
Speaking to The EastAfrican, Ms Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa Director at HRW, called for an independent probe on their individual command roles to determine their direct involvement in the documented crimes.
“We call on the Ethiopian government to immediately investigate them and suspend them from their positions of power where they continue to commit crimes against the civilians,” Ms Laetitia said.
Given the gravity of the crimes documented in the report, both HRW and Amnesty International have further called on the International Commission of Human rights experts on Ethiopia, set up by the UN Human Rights Council recently, to include events in Western Tigray since November 2020 as part of its investigations.
They said this will help identify more individuals responsible where possible and make recommendations on how they can be held accountable through local, regional and international justice bodies including the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The report has documented fresh details of how Amhara security forces acting under Amhara and Walqayte officials, but allied to the government forces, conducted ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other crimes in Western Tigray.
“Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that Amhara regional officials and regional special forces and militias, with federal forces complicity, are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from Western Tigray,” the report states.
Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher Mr Fisseha Tekle said a combination of abuses including extra judicial executions, mass arrests and expulsions, detentions, torture, sexual violence, looting, denial of humanitarian aid and denial of access to their land have been used to drive Tigrayans out of the Western Tigray zone.
Since the outbreak off armed conflict on November 4, 2020, hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans living in Western Tigray have been displaced from their homes.
“The abuses forced the Tigrayans to leave and they are afraid to return because they were targeted for abuse as they are seen as supporters of TPLF,” said Mr Tekle.
Some of the most disturbing findings are claims of execution of about 60 Tigrayan men by the Tekeze river, gang rape incidents, deaths in detention cells and coordinated marching out of Tigrayans from their homes.
“Tigrayans have faced mass arrests and prolonged arbitrary detention in formal and informal detention sites where detainees were killed, tortured and ill-treated,” the report notes in part.
According to the report, the conflict stemmed from a reversal of the changes to internal boundaries that had been enacted by the TPLF-Led government in 1992, when the rebels ran the country as a ruling party.
The changes recommended by the government boundary commission were effected in November 2020 thereby triggering conflict between Amhara activists (in the Western Tigray zone and in the Amhara region) and the government.
“The outbreak of the conflict in November 2020 brought these longstanding and unaddressed grievances to the fore; Amhara regional forces along with Ethiopian Federal Forces seized these territories and displaced the Tigrayan civilians in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign,” the report says.
At the time, a joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights similarly found that more than 200 people were killed. After that report, Ethiopia said it will pursue justice and punish perpetrators. Addis Ababa has, however, rejected a fresh round of investigations by the UN commission, terming it as a revision. It has yet to respond to the watchdogs’ report published on Wednesday.
The document says that as both sides' forces fought and killed each other, residents were forced to flee with those that declined getting detained in official and makeshift detention facilities, their property was pillaged and occupied and provision of food aid obstructed before ahead of their eventual expulsion from West Tigray towards the end of December 2020.