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After sudden defeat, captured Ethiopian soldiers are marched to prison

The swift defeat of the Ethiopian forces was a stunning reversal in a civil war that has led to the displacement of nearly 2 million people in the Tigray region, widespread hunger and reports that civilians were subjected to atrocities and sexual violence.

By: New York Times |
July 3, 2021 1:40:34 pm
Captured Ethiopian government soldiers are marched along a street in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region on Friday, July 2, 2021. (New York Times)

Written by Declan Walsh

Thousands of Ethiopian prisoners of war were paraded through the regional capital of Tigray on Friday as jubilant crowds lined the streets to jeer the captives and cheer the Tigrayan forces who only days earlier had routed one of Africa’s most powerful armies.

Many of the soldiers bowed their heads and cast their eyes downward. Some had to be carried on stretchers, and others wore bandages freshly stained with blood.

The swift defeat of the Ethiopian forces was a stunning reversal in a civil war that has led to the displacement of nearly 2 million people in the Tigray region, widespread hunger and reports that civilians were subjected to atrocities and sexual violence.

The parade of prisoners served as a pointed rebuke to Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who had proclaimed in a speech Tuesday in the national capital, Addis Ababa, that reports of his troops’ defeat were “a lie.” He had declared a unilateral cease-fire, he insisted, for humanitarian reasons.

Abiy had actually declared victory last year, only about a month after he initiated the military operation in Tigray in November — but the fighting had continued for seven more months.

Flanked by Tigrayan fighters, the columns of defeated Ethiopian soldiers had been marching for four days from the quickly established battlefield camps where they had been held since the fighting ended this week. They flooded the streets of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and were taken to a large prison on the northern edge of the city.

A 14-year-old dashed out into the street to run alongside the column, shouting her admiration for the leader of the Tigrayan forces, calling him a “lion.”

“All these soldiers tried to kill us,” the girl, Mearge Gebroemedhin, said a few moments later, referring to the Ethiopian government forces. “But the Tigrayan soldiers showed their mercy. I am proud of our soldiers.”

While some in the crowd jeered the soldiers, the onlookers focused much of their anger on Abiy.

Nearly eight months before, Abiy had sent his forces to Mekelle to wrest power from the region’s leaders, declaring the move was necessary because the Tigrayans had held local elections without permission from the federal government, and had tried to capture an Ethiopian military base.

Now the victorious Tigrayan leaders are back in Mekelle, reoccupying their former offices.

Ever since Ethiopia announced a unilateral cease-fire Monday and pulled its troops out of Mekelle, Tigray has experienced electricity, telecommunications and internet blackouts. The consequences will exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation, according to the United Nations.

International aid agencies warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe and said it was unclear if the rebel victory would allow international assistance to start reaching those most in need in the Tigray region, which is bordered by Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west.

The U.N. said that at least 350,000 people in the conflict-ravaged region had entered a state of famine. The U.S. Agency for International Development put its estimate for those facing famine conditions at 900,000.

On Thursday, a bridge was destroyed that provided vital access over the Tekeze River to the town of Shire in central Tigray, where the U.N. estimates there are between 400,000 and 600,000 internally displaced people living in dire conditions.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the bridge had been destroyed by troops belonging to the Amhara Special Forces and the army of Eritrea, which had fought as allies with the Ethiopian troops.

“The bridge’s destruction will have an impact,” said Claire Nevill, a spokesperson for the World Food Program.

Redwan Hussein, an Ethiopian government spokesperson, said on Friday that two bridges connecting the Tigray region had been destroyed, but denied that the government or allied forces were responsible. He blamed the Tigrayans.

Analysts say that Abiy, who has served as Ethiopia’s prime minister since 2018 and who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea and instituting domestic democratic reforms, now faces tremendous political challenges.

The alliance Ethiopia forged with Eritrea and fighters in the Amhara region could fracture as Ethiopian troops continue to pull back from direct engagement, and Tigray fighters go on the offensive.

“The Amhara support for him will eventually dwindle,” said Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor of governance and geopolitics at the European University Institute. “The one thing that was holding things together in the Amhara region was the anti-Tigray sentiment. Once the Tigray matter is out of the game, the glue that held his support together is no longer there.”

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