Ethiopia: Unlawful Shelling of Tigray Urban Areas

Ethiopian federal forces carried out apparently indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in the Tigray region in November 2020 in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. Artillery attacks at the start of the armed conflict struck homes, hospitals, schools, and markets in the city of Mekelle, and the towns of Humera and Shire, killing at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300.

“At the war’s start, Ethiopian federal forces fired artillery into Tigray’s urban areas in an apparently indiscriminate manner that was bound to cause civilian casualties and property damage,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks have shattered civilian lives in Tigray and displaced thousands of people, underscoring the urgency for ending unlawful attacks and holding those responsible to account.”

Overview map of Tigray region, Ethiopia. Click to expand Image
Overview map of Tigray region, Ethiopia. Production © 2021 Human Rights Watch
On November 4, the Ethiopian military began operations in Tigray in response to what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as attacks on federal forces and bases by forces affiliated with the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). As of February 2021, many Tigray residents lack adequate access to food, fuel, water, and medicines. More than 200,000 people are internally displaced, while tens of thousands have also fled to neighboring Sudan.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 witnesses and victims of government attacks on Humera, Shire, and Mekelle, as well as 9 journalists, aid workers, and human rights and forensic experts. Interviews were conducted in person in Sudan and by phone between December 2020 and January 2021. Human Rights Watch also examined satellite imagery, and reviewed photographs and videos from the site of six attacks that corroborated witness accounts.
Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its preliminary findings to the Ethiopian government but received no response. In a parliamentary address on November 30, Prime Minister Abiy maintained that Ethiopian federal forces had not caused civilian casualties during their military operations in Tigray that month. A government Twitter account created during the conflict claimed that federal forces had “avoided combat in cities and towns of the Tigray region.”

Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces before they captured Humera, Shire, and Mekelle in November. In each of these attacks the Tigrayan special forces appeared to have withdrawn, while in Humera local militias lacked a significant presence to defend the town. Many of the artillery attacks did not appear aimed at specific military targets but struck generalized populated areas. Human Rights Watch found similar patterns in interviews with 13 people from the towns of Rawyan and Axum.

These attacks caused civilian deaths and injuries; damaged homes, businesses, and infrastructure; struck near schools; disrupted medical services; and prompted thousands of civilians to flee.

In the western border town of Humera, residents said that on November 9, artillery fired from Eritrea terrified unsuspecting civilians, striking them in their homes and as they fled. The shelling damaged residential areas in the Kebele 02 neighborhood, and struck near a church and a school, near a mosque in Kebele 01, and hit areas near the town’s main hospital.

A man who was transporting the wounded on his motorbike said he saw a shell tear through the roof of a house made of steel sheets about 100 meters away from Saint Gabriel church: “Five people were dead. We only found a 7-month-old infant crying among them. He was barely alive, so we took him to the church.”

Doctors from the town’s main Kahsay Aberra’s hospital said they were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of dead bodies and patients with severe injuries. One estimated that the shelling on November 9 killed at least 46 people and wounded over 200.

In the northwestern town of Shire, shelling began on November 17 and hit buildings in the center of town and an industrial area. Civilians were killed and injured as they fled near the Abuna Aregawi church. Later that day, witnesses saw Ethiopian forces pass through Shire alongside Eritrean forces.

Residents from the regional capital, Mekelle, said that heavy shelling on November 28 killed 27 civilians, including children, and wounded over 100. In one attack, shells struck a residential compound near a market, mosque, and an empty school in Ayder sub-city, and killed four members of a single family, including two young children, and wounded five adults and a 9-year-old child.

The laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Tigray prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks expected to cause greater harm to civilians than the anticipated military gain. Indiscriminate attacks include those not directed at a specific military target and that use means of attack that cannot be directed at a specific military target. Bombardments that treat distinct military targets in a city or town as a single military objective would also constitute an indiscriminate attack. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war deliberately or recklessly are responsible for war crimes.

All forces have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians. They are required to take all feasible precautions to ensure that attacks are directed at military targets, and not civilians. Though several residents in Humera and Mekelle said they saw the use of apparent spotters to direct mortar fire, Human Rights Watch could not determine whether spotters were systematically used or effective, as shells repeatedly struck populated areas that contained no evident military targets.

As fighting in Tigray continues, all parties to the conflict should abide by the laws of war. Ethiopian federal forces should cease indiscriminate attacks, investigate alleged laws-of-war violations, and refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. All sides should allow unhindered access by humanitarian agencies and ensure that health facilities can adequately function. Access to essential services and communications should also be restored.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights should send a fact-finding team into the region to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war in Tigray, and to ensure that evidence of abuses is preserved, Human Rights Watch said.

“As the civilian toll of the Tigray conflict comes to light, it is clear that a thorough inquiry into alleged laws-of-war violations in the region that pave the way for justice is desperately needed,” Bader said. “The Ethiopian government should promptly allow UN investigators into Tigray to document the conduct by warring parties in a conflict that has devastated the lives of millions and should no longer be ignored.”

Tigray Conflict

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades as part of a ruling coalition that was responsible for serious human rights violations, before Abiy became prime minister in April 2018. Tensions between the federal government and the Tigray regional authorities increased after the federal government reconfigured the ruling coalition into a single party in 2019, and postponed highly anticipated national elections citing Covid-19 related health risks in March 2020. Several opposition parties denounced the federal government’s decision to delay elections, including the TPLF, which held a regional election in Tigray in September in defiance of the federal government’s decision.

Phone and internet communications were swiftly cut off in Tigray once Ethiopian military operations began on November 4. Road and air access to the region was also restricted, hampering humanitarian agencies’ provision of aid, including desperately needed medical assistance.

Heavy fighting initially concentrated in western Tigray, where Ethiopian military offensives and a massacre in Mai Kadra on November 9 displaced tens of thousands of women, men, and children, including 14,000 who crossed the border into Sudan by November 10. Two days later, the Ethiopian government announced it had regained control of western Tigray.

Though access and telecom services have been restored in some areas in Tigray as of February 2021, communications and access restrictions hampered initial reporting on abuses. Despite the limitations, there have been credible reports of widespread abuses, including apparent extrajudicial killings, pillage, and arbitrary detention by Ethiopian federal forces and special forces and youth militia known as “Fano” from the neighboring Amhara region. Reports of similar abuses by Eritrean forces have also emerged. Tigrayan forces have launched rockets and artillery in the neighboring Amhara region and Eritrea, allegedly damaged civilian infrastructure, including bridges and airports, and occupied an empty elementary school in south-eastern Tigray for military purposes.

Artillery Attacks in Humera, November 9-10

Humera is an agricultural town that is home to about 30,000 people in western Tigray, bordering Eritrea and close to Sudan.

Soon after the conflict began, an exchange of gunfire between Ethiopian federal forces and Tigray local militia at a camp near the border crossing with Eritrea killed at least one federal soldier as he ran across the bridge toward Eritrea, and wounded both Ethiopian federal forces and Tigray local militia.

Tail fin from a mortar projectile that stuck the asphalt road in the main square of Humera town, Tigray region, Ethiopia in November 2020.Click to expand Image
Tail fin from a mortar projectile that stuck the asphalt road in the main square of Humera town, Tigray region, Ethiopia in November 2020. © 2020 Image shared by Will Brown for the Telegraph
On the morning of November 9, residents heard shellfire from a camp called “Heligan” on the outskirts of Humera. Moments later, mortar and tank fire came from the direction of Eritrea, killing and wounding civilians, damaging and destroying homes and businesses, and exploding near schools, places of worship, the town’s main hospital, and a slaughterhouse. The shelling continued into the evening.

A local militia member said that Tigray special forces were fighting around other towns in western Tigray on November 9, so they were not in Humera. He said that militia remained in the town but did not set up significant defensive systems, possessed only “AK47s [assault rifles], machine guns, and snipers,” and were mainly positioned along the Tekeze River bordering Eritrea. “We were not prepared on November 9,” he said. “We were not shooting because they were using heavy weapons and we didn’t want to show them our positions.”

Five residents said shelling resumed on the morning of November 10. Local militias fired machine guns at soldiers crossing the Tekeze bridge from Eritrea into Ethiopia. He said that Tigray special forces also passed through Humera on November 10, fired toward Eritrea with heavy weaponry, but continued to central Tigray.

On November 11, the Ethiopian government declared that it controlled Humera.

Civilian Deaths and Injuries

Doctors at Humera’s main Kahsay Aberra hospital estimated that at least 46 people were killed, including children, and another 200 wounded on November 9. The total casualties that day were most likely higher. Many staff fled the hospital after shelling started that morning. Those who remained were overwhelmed as the patients streamed in. One doctor said:

Civilians started arriving in the hospital with injuries to the abdomen, chest, head. We were at a loss … People with no hands, people with their stomachs hanging out. This continued the whole day. I don’t know how he did it, but a young boy brought a woman to the hospital; her intestines were out. He had tried to tie a scarf around her waist. We somehow managed to stitch her up.

The artillery attacks killed and wounded civilians and damaged several homes near Saint Mary’s church in the Kebele 02 neighborhood. A 22-year-old student said she saw two women die and four others wounded in Kebele 02 as she fled: “We just started running because we didn’t know where it would land. I saw one shell hit a woman’s head; she had just been married the day before and was pregnant.”

One man who fled Kebele 02 during the shelling returned home later that day. He found his 55-year-old father and his father’s close friend dead, and his three siblings, including a 10-year-old brother, wounded. His father had fragment injuries in his heart and stomach. His father’s friend had chest wounds. The blast also blew out the home’s windows and doors and damaged the walls, while remnants of the exploded mortar shell and a projectile tail fin were embedded in the asphalt road outside the house. He said:

I took my injured siblings to Kahsay Aberra hospital. When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I saw.… A friend I used to play football with, had his legs blown off … [At that point] I thought if I stayed [in Humera], I might end up like my siblings or family.

Another witness confirmed seeing the severed legs of the friend, who was wounded by a mortar round that killed his sister as they were traveling on a bajaj (a rickshaw bike).

The shelling continued until evening. Residents sought shelter in churches, storm drains, and under bridges. One man dug a hole in his garden to protect his mother before he escaped. He said: “My mother was too old and didn’t want to leave Humera with me.”

Those fleeing into neighboring towns or to Sudan faced more artillery fire. A farmer in Kebele 01 quickly decided to leave without her three daughters, who were not there when her neighborhood was shelled. Running away toward Rawyan, a town south of Humera, she said:

I saw a young boy get knocked down from the impact of a bomb falling on the asphalt road in front of me. I was nervous and afraid one would hit me if I looked back, so I wasn’t able to check if he was alive or dead.

A student who returned to Humera on November 10 saw many munitions impacts visible at the entrance to the town, some which left pockmarks on the asphalt road. She said: “There was still bombing. A man fleeing shouted at us to go back, that there were still bombs in the city. We picked him up [in our car], and he said we have to go to Sudan.”

Impact on Hospital and Access to Medical Care

The shelling forced many residents, including staff at the Kahsay Aberra hospital, to flee the town. The few medical staff remaining worked under difficult conditions, with limited supplies. “There was no light, so we used generators, or we put a flashlight on to work,” one hospital worker said. “The water supply had also run out.”

As shells continued to fall in the surrounding areas including in the vicinity of the hospital compound, the staff, concerned that the hospital could be hit, arranged for trucks and took about 50 injured people, including six Ethiopian federal soldiers who had been injured before November 9, with them toward Adebay, a town east of Humera. They believed they would be safer there and continued to treat the wounded.

On November 10, a man injured by a mortar shell arrived at the hospital around 10 a.m. and found it nearly empty:

There were no nurses or doctors; they had already left. There were injured people and dead bodies mostly covered with a bedsheet. I found some tissues and gloves near a dead body in front of me on a stretcher. I knew the man – he used to work at the bus station in Rawyan. I put the gloves on, used some alcohol, took out the fragment in my arm, cleaned the wound, and put a bandage on.

During a visit in mid-November, investigators with the national Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that the Kahsay Aberra hospital did not have enough medical staff, supplies, or equipment. Only five employees remained, just one of whom was a medical doctor. However, since mid-December, the commission reported that 116 hospital staff had resumed work.

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