EXCLUSIVE: The Ethiopian border town left in ruins as ceasefire takes hold

There is almost no one left in the once bustling city of Abla on the border of Ethiopia’s northern Tigre and Afar regions. Its streets are empty, handed over to an army of stray dogs and baboons who clean uninterruptedly between abandoned houses.

Last week, The New Humanitarian became the first international media outlet to visit Abla, as rebels from the Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) withdrew from the city and other areas in the Afar region in late April. Since March, there has been a delicate truce between the federal government and its war allies, who have been battling the TPLF for 19 months.

The TPLF entered Afar in late December, taking control of several districts, including Abla, in what they described as an effort to secure an aid corridor to Tigre, where 5.2 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, including 450,000. malnourished children are included.

Almost all houses and shops in Abla – which had a pre-war population of several thousand – have been burned to the ground with looting, their doors hanging open, and the walls with both pro-Afar and pro-TPLF graffiti. One house had the words “Tigre won”, while the word “Afar” was written in white letters on several others.

The streets are littered with pieces of broken furniture, piles of old clothes and scorched fires. The hospital was torn down, its floors littered with untidy medical records, medicine packets and other rubbish. In one ward, the word “gunpowder” was written in several places in Tigrinya, the main language of the Tigre. There was a similar scene in the police station as well.

What happened in Abla?

There are competing claims about what happened in Abla when the TPLF took over. some Tigris workers and media report has claimed that the Tigreyan residents were massacred by local Afar security forces and militias, while the Afar claims that the TPLF was responsible for the destruction. The city has a mixed population.

The New Humanitarian spoke to more than 20 current and displaced residents of Abla. No one said there had been a massacre, although two Tigrayan residents said that several tigresses were killed in the city to protest the looting of their properties by the local Afar before the TPLF came under control.

Several residents – both Afar and Tigreyan – described how the Afar militia, police and security forces gathered the city’s Tigreyan population at various sites in the city as the TPLF approached, and the sound of fighting was heard from the surrounding mountains. Tigreyan was then taken to a detention center in the Afar capital of Semera – a UN official and a lawyer – according to two Abla residents – who said the site was guarded by regional Afar troops. About 9,500 tigresses of Abla are currently being kept there.

“The militia said, ‘We’re going to take you to the police station for your own safety, to save you from death’,” a Tigrayan from Abla told The New Humanitarian over the phone from the detention center in Semera. “After that, they asked us to board the lorries. He said, ‘It is an order. We never realized we were coming to Semera. We were forcefully taken away.”

He said one person died when the trucks refused to board and “about 50 youths” jumped from the vehicles on the way to Semera, resulting in one death. They believe they then fled to Tigre.

The detained Tigreyan described how the local Afar – armed with guns – had looted the property of Tigreyan residents over the course of several days, beginning on 19 December, as fighting intensified around the city .

“I saw the robbers, they were away, we know them,” he said. “They came from rural areas and the city. They simply collected property in the street and carried it away in cars. ,

He said he saw the bodies of three of his Tigris neighbors lying in the street. “He had bullets in his head,” he said. “I don’t know who killed them” [specifically], but it was the Afar militia. When we reached the police station, my friends told me that they saw more than 10 bodies on the road. Another was hit by a mortar or heavy machine gun. ,

The accounts of the looting were echoed by a second Baghayan of Abla, who was being held at the same detention site in Semera. “Every shop and all houses were looted,” he said. “Everyone was carrying a gun to rob. We were left with only clothes on the back.”

Two Tigreyan residents of Abla described foggy conditions at the detention site in Semera, where temperatures regularly exceed 40 °C. Aid agencies have delivered food, but one of the men said there was no medicine available other than paracetamol.

Both said that about 70 people were killed in the detention center, and that it was possible to go only by paying hefty bribes to the Afar soldiers who protected them.

TPLF takes charge

Most of the ethnic Afar residents of Abla, interviewed by The New Humanitarian, said that the Tigreyan rebel forces killed many people before they even entered the city. It is not clear how many people were killed in shelling or gunfire inside the city during the fighting.

Afar also said that TPLF forces launched their own campaign of looting and ransacking after capturing the city, destroying homes, stealing vehicles and trampling government buildings.

Imam Yusef, an Afar resident, was one of a handful who remained in Abla during the entire fighting and subsequent rebel occupation. He sought refuge in the countryside while fighting for the city, before returning a few days later.

“When we came back, the TPLFs were looting,” he said while sitting on a broken footpath among the ruins of the city. “There is nothing left, including food and household appliances. I am a farmer, and they took the grain kept in my house. They looted it all.”

Mubarak Noor, an Afar teenager who also stopped the rebel occupation in Abla, said: “[The Tigray forces] Did what you can see. They looted everything as they entered: blankets, food, wheat, vehicles. They even killed some people here. I have seen them shoot a person.”

Another Afar resident of Abla, Mohamed Idris, said that several people were killed by Tigreyan rebel forces as they fired from the slopes of the mountain above the city.

“I saw five people I know, including two Tigers, who were killed by heavy machine gun fire,” he said. “Their bodies were torn in pieces; I saw this with my own eyes. Many Afar and Tigreyan were killed when they opened fire on the city.”

The nearby town of Irebati, a short drive from Abla, was also captured by the TPLF after entering the Afar region. When The New Humanitarian visited last week, its main government office complex was littered with broken computers and desk chairs, and the main building’s exterior wall was decorated with the slogan: “Tigre will be victorious.”

a delicate ceasefire

As the TPLF left Abla and other parts of Afar, fighting decreased throughout Ethiopia. On March 24, the federal government announced a “humanitarian ceasefire”. The Tigre rebels responded by saying that they would observe an “end of hostilities”.

However, the situation remains tense. Afar fighters have set up ad-hoc posts close to the front lines, and UN officials – who asked not to be named – said their team had recently been shot by local militia while driving near Abla.

There has been a fair amount of rattling from both sides since the ceasefire came into force, with reports of renewed conflict between the TPLF and Eritrean troops in the northern Tigre; But for the most part it appears to be holding. This has been bolstered by a series of high-level talks between military commanders of the two sides, mediated by the African Union. This led to the withdrawal of the TPLF from Afar in late April. Since then, restrictions on aid entering the tigre have been eased.

From June 2021 this year to April 1 this year, virtually no aid reached Tigre, while about 1,000 trucks have arrived in the region’s capital, Mekele, in the past two months. All passed through Abla – a major choke point – before entering the rebel-held area. Long lines of vehicles form outside Semera, queuing for customs clearance.

However, banking services, road links and communications are still closed, and many more trucks need to enter the Tigre to meet the needs of the region. The United States has warned that 700,000 people could face famine, and Mekele’s chief Ayder Hospital has been forced to close.

“There is no electricity, medical supplies or oxygen,” a doctor at the hospital told The New Humanitarian by phone, adding that all patients except emergency cases have been sent home and no new ones are being admitted. Used to be. “We don’t know what will happen to them,” said the doctor. “If they’re serious, they’ll die.”

Last week, the petrol station next to the World Food Program warehouses in Semera was packed with truck drivers who were supplying Tigre’s for a long drive. A driver, who was smoking a cigarette in the forecourt, said the situation was bad in Mekele.

“There are a lot of beggars, and everything is expensive,” he said. “There’s no beer, water or soft drinks to buy.”

Yet foreign diplomats in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, hope the resumption of aid will boost confidence and pave the way for proper dialogue. One, speaking to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity, said both sides are serious about “giving peace a chance” after months of fighting.

obstacles to peace

Many issues remain to be resolved. Most glaring is the fate of the western tigre. It is occupied by regular and irregular Amhara forces – accused by rights groups and the US of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s Tigreyan population.

Any concessions from the federal government on the western Tigre would be deeply unpopular among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, whose eponymous home region was the site of heavy fighting last year.

Last month, amid unrest in the region, Amhara security forces launched crackdowns against militia groups protesting the ceasefire – even though they had been instrumental in dispersing the TPLF as it advanced towards Addis Ababa in November. At least 4,000 people have been arrested so far.

Meanwhile, Afar’s 300,000 residents, displaced by the conflict, face an uncertain future. Mohamed Hussein, the head of the area’s aid office, said there was not enough money to rebuild, and the local government was struggling to get humanitarian supplies to those who need them most.

“We are deploying the resources we have as a field,” Mohamed said. “But right now it’s beyond our ability to meet every need.”

Some ethnic Afars have begun to return to Abla. In a small camp of huts made of sticks and plastic sheets just outside the city of Irebati on a dry riverbank, Kulsuma Faya said her family had been on the road for several months.

Hours before I spoke to The New Humanitarian, one of the kids in the camp — a one-year-old girl named Medina — had died of an infection.

“We are angry because we have not received any help so far – we have no food, no water,” Kulsuma said. “One of the children has just died. Men are burying her now.”

“The main thing we need is to return home,” she said. “But we don’t know if we can. Everything is destroyed there.”

Edited by Obi Anadike.

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