Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic imagery of injury and death.
Dawit was watching television at a relative’s one-room apartment in Axum, a historic city in Ethiopia’s war-torn, northern Tigray region, in early March when a news bulletin flashed up on the screen.
Graphic, unverified footage had surfaced of a mass killing near Dawit’s hometown of Mahibere Dego, in a mountainous area of central Tigray. In the shaky video Ethiopian soldiers appeared to round up a group of young, unarmed men on a wind-swept, dusty ledge before shooting them at point-blank range – picking them up by an arm or a leg and flinging or kicking their bodies off a rocky hillside like ragdolls.
The soldiers can be heard in the footage urging one another not to waste bullets, to use the minimum amount needed to kill and to make sure none of the group were left alive. They also appear to cheer each other on, praising the killings as heroic and hurling insults at the men in their captivity.
Dawit said he believes one of the men in the video, broadcast on a diaspora television station Tigrai Media House (TMH), was his younger brother, Alula. CNN has changed the names of both brothers for Dawit’s safety.
The mass killing near Mahibere Dego is one of several to have been reported over the course of Ethiopia’s five-month-old conflict during which thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, raped and abused. But with independent access to journalists severely restricted until recently and telephone and internet services often blocked, it has been challenging to verify accounts of atrocities in Tigray. Amid the effective communications blackout, few videos have emerged from the fighting and those that have are difficult to authenticate.
Through a forensic frame-by-frame investigation of the video footage – corroborated by analysis from Amnesty International’s digital verification and modeling experts – as well as interviews with 10 family members and local residents, CNN has established that men wearing Ethiopian army uniforms executed a group of at least 11 unarmed men before disposing of their bodies near Mahibere Dego.
Dawit said he last saw his 23-year-old brother – in the same clothes he is seen wearing in the video – at their mother’s house in Mahibere Dego on January 15. The video is not timestamped and CNN does not have the original, raw footage to examine the file’s metadata but it is likely the video was filmed that same day.
Dawit was out in the fields looking after his cattle when he said Ethiopian soldiers arrived in the town and went door-to-door dragging young men, including his brother, from their homes.
The troops shot at him, Dawit said, and he ran into the bush to escape, breaking his leg as he scrambled down a rocky path. Later, he said he could hear gunfire in the distance, and then silence.
Until he watched the video, he said he had no idea what had happened to his brother. But even after watching the footage countless times, Dawit said he is still holding out hope Alula is alive.
CNN is not able to independently verify that Alula is pictured in the footage, and the man that Dawit identifies as his brother is not identifiable among the dead.
“Since we didn’t see his body with our own eyes and bury our brother ourselves, it’s hard for us to believe he’s dead. It feels like he’s still alive, we can’t accept his death,” Dawit said.
“We will always remember him.”