‘The fighting continues’: A Tigray town reels from drawn-out war

Kibrom Hailu wasn’t too worried when his 15-year-old son stepped out to play volleyball one-morning last month near their home in Wukro, in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region

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There had been protests in town that week — young men burning tires and denouncing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — but his son, Henok, wasn’t involved and promised not to go far, AfricaNews told us.

Only when he heard gunfire did Kibrom realize the danger, and by then it was too late: Henok’s body lay dead in the dirt road right outside the gate of their compound.

Henok was one of 18 civilians shot and killed that day, according to a tally provided by St Mary’s College in Wukro, which has documented abuses by security forces against civilians in the town since fighting erupted last November.

For Kibrom, though, the timing was just as revealing as the toll: the killings came around two and a half months after Prime minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations in Tigray had “ceased” and life would return to normal.

In fact, the opposite is true, according to Wukro residents.

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“The war is escalating. Now it is focused on the civilians,” Kibrom said.

“How can we live like this?”

Every phase of the four-month-old conflict in Tigray has brought suffering to Wukro, a fast-growing transport hub once best-known for its religious and archaeological sites.

Ahead of federal forces’ arrival in late November, heavy shelling leveled homes and businesses and sent plumes of dust and smoke rising above near-deserted streets.

Since then the town has been heavily patrolled by soldiers whose abuses fuel a steady flow of civilian casualties.

“We are constantly receiving patients who are injured by the war,” said Dr. Adonai Hans, medical director of Wukro General Hospital.

“If somebody says there is no war in Tigray, that would be a joke for me.”

Ethiopia sent troops into Tigray on November 4 after the region’s once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacks army camps.

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Several weeks later, as federal forces advanced on the regional capital Mekele, Wukro residents realized their town, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north, would be overrun.

Many fled to the surrounding mountains, looking on in horror as shells rained down on the town, some recording the carnage with their cellphones.

What they returned to was even worse: Angry Eritreans who spent days looting homes, banks, and factories and shooting dead scores of young men suspected of sympathizing with the TPLF “junta”, according to religious and medical officials.

By early December, scores of young men were dead in Wukro, including 81 now buried at the back of an Orthodox church.

“We have seen the bodies with our own eyes. We have buried them,” said priest Gebrehana Hailemariam.

“They were killed in the town and brought to us.”

None of the death tolls provided could be independently verified.

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– Hospital shelled –

During the first wave of killings, Wukro residents had almost no access to medical care.

Damage from shelling and looting destroyed 75 percent of the hospital’s facilities and equipment, forcing it to close for a month, said Dr. Adonai, the medical director.

These days, the hospital is open and running, albeit at limited capacity.

Patients include rape survivors — some of whom wait weeks or months before seeking medical care — and freshly-wounded civilians who give an idea of just how close fighting continues to be.

– ‘This is our home’ –

Ethiopia’s military did not respond to requests for comment, though Abiy’s government has previously rejected allegations that soldiers have killed civilians in Tigray.

Both Addis Ababa and Asmara deny Eritrean soldiers are in the region at all, despite contrary accounts from residents, aid workers, diplomats, and members of Tigray’s Abiy-appointed interim government.

The pro-TPLF network Dimtsi Weyane recently aired a 13-minute video highlighting the scars of conflict in Wukro, with a narrator lamenting that the town, once an “earthly paradise”, now “looks like Syria and Yemen.”

Residents, for their part, said what they want most is for soldiers to leave so they can rebuild.

“They shouldn’t stay here even for a single night,” said Nebiyu, the building materials vendor.

“This is our home. It’s where we live. Otherwise, we would leave.”

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