Shedding Light On A Clifftop Massacre In Ethiopia

For the first time, we've located the precise spot of a recent mass killing of civilians in Tigray based on videos that surfaced online this month.

Video Transcript

- Ethiopia's northern Tigray region is plunging further into a bloody months-long conflict-- over territory that's home to millions of people. And as it drags on, more evidence of war crimes is starting to surface.

Together with investigators from BBC Africa Eye and Bellingcat, Newsy examined a series of videos that first showed up in early March. In them, soldiers are seen executing a group of unarmed people. By listening to and locating these videos, we can gain a better understanding of where exactly this took place and who might be responsible. Here's how.

In early November, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, attacked government army bases throughout the region, after months of growing tension. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded by launching an offensive. In less than a month, the Ethiopian government and its allies took control of Mekelle, Tigray's regional capital, and Prime Minister Ahmed declared the main operation of the conflict over.

But the TPLF said they weren't giving up. Fights with the government and its allies on one side and the TPLF on the other are ongoing throughout Tigray. And there are mounting claims that war crimes are being committed, while the humanitarian situation is quickly worsening.

With internet intermittent and tightly controlled by the government, the evidence for these war crimes can be challenging to come by. But in early March, a series of videos appeared on social media. What they show is graphic. A group of unarmed people are led to a cliff's edge and shot by armed soldiers.


In one of the clips, bodies litter the cliff side as the soldiers fire at them to ensure that they're dead.


There's no discernible information about where this occurred, but using various open source tools we can figure out where it happened, giving some context as to who might be behind this massacre in the process.

To find out where this incident took place, we have to use visual clues captured in the video. Some of the most recognizable features include the cliff's ridgeline, the mountain geography in the background, and the shadows.

First, the shadows. The length and direction of these tells us that the sun was very low in the sky, either because it was rising or setting. This would mean that the ridgeline, here, would have to be facing either north-to-south or south-to-north.

Next, the landscape. From what we can see in the videos, the terrain is distinct enough that we can tell it's most likely a plateau-like location, given the flat lines followed by the steep drop-offs.

Various posts on social media claimed that the incident took place near a town called Mahbere Dego, just south of Aksum. The terrain surrounding the city match up with what we see in the video. And by searching around the area, we can find some terrain that starts to match up.

The mountains in the background are a little bit more tricky. While Google Earth renders geography quite well, it's difficult to really make out what we're looking at in a region like this.

Using another tool, PeakVisor, we can better make out the mountains in the background. With it, we can match up two mountains in the distant background, as well as a plateau, seen here across the valley, captured in a few frames in one of these videos.

Put it all together. And we can pinpoint a very close approximation of where this incident took place-- about two miles south of Mahbere Dego and 10 miles south of Aksum.

Listening to what is being said in the videos can give us some context on who was involved. While Eritrean soldiers were accused of committing massacres in Aksum in late November, we can tell that these are likely not Eritrean soldiers because they're speaking Amharic, not Tigrinya or Arabic, the primary languages of Eritrea.

There's also this.


- The word "Woyane" is sometimes used as a derisive way to describe people believed to be rebels or affiliated with the TPLF.

For Tigrayans, because of the word's history, it has more of a respected meeting. We spoke with the International Crisis Group's William Davidson, who had this to say.

WILLIAM DAVIDSON: So it was a rallying cry for the Tigrayan struggle, which was also along the lines of demanding autonomy, or at least against marginalization by the central state. It looks very much like they are accusing those people in the video of being members of the TPLF. The fact that these people are suspected of being Woyane, or they are being attacked as such, is almost sort of seen as justification for the violence that's being exacted against them.

- There's another video that can give us even more context on who may be responsible.

This video, which appeared online around the same time as the others we've looked at, shows a large group of soldiers surrounding 25 people in civilian clothing sitting on the ground. Using the same technique we did with the previous videos, we can geolocate it to ridgeline a little over a kilometer northeast from where the other videos were filmed.

There's at least one clue in this video that gives us an idea of who the soldiers are here. There's this patch on one of the soldiers arms which resembles patches worn by other members of Ethiopia's military.

Since this video was filmed in a different location than the others, it's hard to definitively say whether these soldiers and victims are the same as those seen in the first set of videos. But there's at least one individual who seems to be present in both this video and the other set of videos.

This person, wearing a red shirt and white shawl over their head, matches another individual seen being walked at gunpoint to the cliff edge in one video. And then, in another video, their body is seen lying next to the cliff's edge.

The massacre captured on this video is just one of many in this conflict over Tigray. This and other massacres are enough to have sparked an investigation from the United Nations, though, and new evidence could bring even broader international attention to this human rights crisis.