DEBARK, Ethiopia (AP) — As they bring war to other parts of Ethiopia, resurgent Tigray fighters face growing allegations that they are retaliating for the abuses their people suffered back home.
In interviews with The Associated Press, more than a dozen witnesses offered the most widespread descriptions yet of Tigray forces striking communities and a religious site with artillery, killing civilians, looting health centers and schools and sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in the past two months.
In the town of Nefas Mewucha in the Amhara region, a hospital’s medical equipment was smashed. The fighters looted medicines and other supplies, leaving more than a dozen patients to die.
“It is a lie that they are not targeting civilians and infrastructures,” hospital manager Birhanu Mulu told the AP. He said his team had to transfer some 400 patients elsewhere for care. “Everyone can come and witness the destruction that they caused.”
The war that began last November was confined at first to Ethiopia’s sealed-off northern Tigray region. Accounts of atrocities often emerged long after they occurred: Tigrayans described gang-rapes, massacres and forced starvation by federal forces and their allies from Amhara and neighboring Eritrea.
Thousands of people died, though the opaque nature of the war -- most communications and transport links have been severed -- means no one knows the real toll.
The Tigray forces retook much of their home region in a stunning turn in June, and now the fighting has spilled into Amhara. Angered by the attacks on their communities and families, the fighters are being accused of targeting civilians from the other side.
The United States, which for months has been outspoken about the abuses against Tigrayans, this week turned sharp criticism on the Tigray forces.
“In Amhara now, we now know that the (Tigray forces have) ... looted the warehouses, they’ve looted trucks and they have caused a great deal of destruction in all the villages they have visited,” the head of the U.S. Agency for Economic Development, Sean Jones, told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation.
He called the Tigray fighters “very aggressive.” USAID, which feeds millions throughout Ethiopia, has seen Tigray forces looting and emptying some of its warehouses, he said.
While the U.S., United Nations and others urge all sides to stop the fighting and sit down to talks, those on the ground believe there’s no peace to come. Many Ethiopians outside Tigray support the federal government’s war effort, and as Tigray forces advance, families heed recruiting drives and send loved ones for military training. Ethiopia’s government says “millions” have answered the call.
“Our children are living in terror. We are here to stop this,” said Mekdess Muluneh Asayehegn, a new Amhara militia recruit. Propping a gun on a full plastic sack, she lay on the ground and practiced sighting.
But the consequences of the call to war are already coming home.
“As we came here, there were lots of dead bodies (of defense forces and civilians) along the way,” said Khadija Firdu, who fled the advancing Tigray forces to a muddy camp for displaced people in Debark. “Even as we entered Debark, we stepped on a dead body. We thought it was the trunk of a tree. It was dark. We came here crying.”
It is not clear how many people in Amhara have been killed; claims by the warring sides cannot be verified immediately. Each has accused the other of lying or carrying out atrocities against supporters.
Shaken, the survivors are left to count bodies.
In the town of Debre Tabor, Getasew Anteneh said he watched as Tigray forces shelled and destroyed a home, killing six people.
Getasew helped carry away the dead. “I believe it was a deliberate revenge attack, and civilians are suffering.”
In recent interviews with the AP, the spokesman for the Tigray forces Getachew Reda said they are avoiding civilian casualties. “They shouldn’t be scared,” he said last month. “Wherever we go in Amhara, people are extending a very warm welcome.”
He did not respond to the AP about the new witness accounts, but tweeted in response to USAID that “we cannot vouch for every unacceptable behavior of off-grid fighters in such matters.”
The Tigray forces say their offensive is an attempt to break the months-long blockade of their region of some 6 million people, as an estimated 400,000 face famine conditions in the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade. The situation “is set to worsen dramatically,” the U.N. said Thursday.
The fighters also say they are pressuring Ethiopia’s government to stop the war and the ethnic targeting that has seen thousands of Tigrayans detained, evicted or harassed while the prime minister, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has used words like “cancer” and “weeds” to describe the Tigray fighters.
Ethnic Amhara, more than half a million now displaced, say innocent people have been killed as Tigray forces move in.
“I’ve witnessed with my own eyes when the (Tigray forces) killed one person during our journey,” said Mesfin Tadesse, who fled his home in Kobo town in July. “His sister was pleading with them when they killed him for no reason.”
Zewditu Tikuye, who also fled Kobo, said her 57-year-old husband was killed by Tigray fighters when he tried to stay behind to protect their home and cows. “He wasn’t armed,” she said. Now she shelters with her six children in a small house with 10 other people.
Others seek shelter in schools, sleeping in classrooms as newcomers drenched from the rainy season arrive. They squat in muddy clearings, waiting for plastic plates of the spongy flatbread injera to be handed out for the latest meal.
And as earlier in Tigray, people in Amhara now watch in horror as the war damages religious sites in one of the world’s most ancient Christian civilizations.
On Monday, the fourth-century Checheho monastery was hit by artillery fire and partially collapsed.
“This is very brutal,” said Mergeta Abraraw Meles, who works there as a cashier. He believes it was intentionally targeted by the Tigray forces. They had come peacefully, he said, but then lashed out after facing battlefield losses.
In the rubble of the monastery was a young boy, dead.
Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya contributed.
This version corrects the name of the hospital manager.