In early December, Ethiopian state television broadcast something unexpected: a fiery exchange between civilians in Shire, in the northern Tigray region, and Ethiopian soldiers, who had recently arrived in the area, The Guardian reported.
To the surprise of viewers used to wartime propaganda, the Tigrayan elders spoke in vivid detail of the horrors that had befallen the town since the outbreak of war between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s longstanding ruling party, which was ousted from the state capital of Mekelle in late November.
Residents had been “slaughtered like chicken”, the elders said, their corpses abandoned to be “eaten by hyenas”. They also spoke of rampant looting and vandalism: “All government assets have been destroyed and looted,” said one.
Perhaps most revealing, however, was the implication that those responsible for the carnage were not Ethiopian federal troops, but outsiders. “You need to solve this problem immediately,” said an elder addressing the generals and newly appointed Tigray president, Mulu Nega. “How can institutions that should serve the government of the day be allowed to be destroyed and looted by hooligans who do not have Ethiopian values in them?”
Thousands are thought to have been killed, civilians among them, and nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan since Ethiopia’s Tigray war began on 4 November. Pitched battles involving tanks and fighter jets – as well as militia from Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south – have flattened villages and emptied towns.
But according to eyewitnesses, aid workers and diplomats, the fighting has also involved many thousands of soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, suggesting that what the Ethiopian government calls a “law enforcement operation” bears the hallmarks of a regional conflict.
Abiy and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, share a common enemy in the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s federal government for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
Earlier this month the former president of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, accused Eritrean forces of mass looting. Before that he alleged Tigrayan forces were fending off Eritrean divisions on several fronts. The TPLF has claimed responsibility for one of three missile strikes on Eritrea since the war began, arguing it had acted in self-defence since the airport in Asmara, the capital, which was hit by at least two rockets in the strike, had been used to launch attacks.