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Massacre reported amid escalating conflict in Ethiopia

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John Burger - published on 11/13/20 - updated on 11/16/20

Catholic agency expresses "grave concern" over situation, while a news blackout continues.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of civilians in northern Ethiopia have been massacred in the midst of a conflict verging on civil war.

Amnesty International on Thursday said it could confirm that the civilians — day laborers who had nothing to do with the escalating conflict — were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town in the South West Zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on the night of November 9. 

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab examined and digitally verified gruesome photographs and videos of bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers, the organization said in a statement. The lab confirmed that the images were recent and, using satellite imagery, geolocated them to Mai-Kadra.

“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day laborers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive. This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell as communication in Tigray remains shut down,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

The incident happened less than a week after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military operation in the region. “Soon after Tigray’s internet and phone links went down, Mr. Abiy announced that he was deploying the military and imposing a state of emergency in the region, effectively isolating it from the rest of Ethiopia,” the New York Times reported.

Amnesty International said Thursday that it has not yet been able to confirm who was responsible for the deaths in Mai-Kadra, but has spoken to witnesses who said forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s ruling party, were responsible, apparently after they suffered defeat from the federal Ethiopian Defense Forces.

On the Brink

CNN explained that tensions in the region began in August when Abiy’s government delayed scheduled elections because they said the risk of COVID-19 was too high. “Officials in Tigray held their own election in September anyway, with more than two million people turning up to vote,” the broadcaster said. 

“In retaliation, the federal government withheld funding from the [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] leadership in Mekelle, promising to send it directly to local leaders instead. It set off a tit-for-tat series of recriminations and rhetoric between the regional and the federal government that has been steadily building,” according to CNN.

CNN said that on Tuesday state-affiliated broadcaster Fana TV reported that Ethiopia’s federal army had killed 550 enemy fighters, though the identity and affiliation of the alleged fighters is unclear.

Since the escalation of fighting between government and regional forces in Tigray, at least 11,000 people have fled the region and entered neighboring Sudan, according to the UN’s refugee agency, said CNN

The Times quoted analysts and diplomats warning that Abiy’s attempt to consolidate his power constituted a “high-stakes gamble that, if it goes wrong, risks plunging Ethiopia — an emerging regional powerhouse and the fulcrum of the Horn of Africa — into a period of uncertainty and violent tumult with potentially catastrophic outcomes.”

Humanitarian Response

Tigray is 96% Christian — mostly Orthodox — with a very small community of Catholics. Among the humanitarian agencies working in Ethiopia is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. In a statement provided to Aleteia Thursday evening, its president, Msgr. Peter I Vaccari, said the agency’s “grave concerns over the situation” continue to grow.

“We join our prayers to those expressed recently by Pope Francis and other international bodies, and we share the concerns expressed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, OCHA’s concern for the most vulnerable, and the concerns of UNHCR that have pointed to how the current deterioration of conditions has provoked a new refugee crisis,” Msgr. Vaccari said.

In August, the Pope invited all Ethiopians “to prayer and to the fraternal respect for dialogue and the peaceful resolution of discord.”

Also on the ground are representatives of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Church’s overseas aid and development agency.

“CRS continues to have staff, local partners and food commodities in Tigray and is hopeful to continue distributions to those most in need,” John Shumlansky, CRS Ethiopia Country Representative, told Aleteia. “We also have food at the port in Djibouti and it’s on its way to Ethiopia. The food we have in other parts of Ethiopia near Tigray could also be diverted to Tigray if needed.”

Shumlansky said that CRS’ long-standing partnership with the Catholic Church in Tigray will “enable us to support other needs in the area as long as they have access across the region. In addition to food, we also have active health, water, desert locust and COVID-19 response interventions implemented through our local partners.”

CNEWA’s Msgr. Vaccari said the agency’s Addis Ababa-based office is monitoring the situation carefully, “as we are particularly concerned that ethnic-based conflict in the country undermines the country’s ability to confront the COVID pandemic, which is spiking.”

The agency learned that the conflict has postponed the resumption of school in the country, which was scheduled for last Monday. 

“While the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is a tiny community — fewer than 1% of all Ethiopians are Catholics — the Church runs the second largest school system in the country,” Vaccari said. “Our schools are more than places of learning, but safe havens offering children and their families nutritious meals and resources and opportunities otherwise unavailable to the poorest of the poor.”

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