Days after the United States announced financial sanctions and visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, eyewitnesses told CNN that hundreds of young men were rounded up from displaced peoples camps in Shire, a town in Tigray, late Monday evening.
Witnesses speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity described how Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers invaded at least two IDP centers where they beat and harassed Tigrayans displaced by a conflict that is believed to have killed thousands of civilians since November 2020. The soldiers then took hundreds of people away, the witnesses said
Four military vehicles first encircled the Adi Wenfito and Tsehay camps, witnesses said, before soldiers began rounding up young men, forcing them onto buses and taking them to a location believed to be on the outskirts of Shire. As the soldiers broke into an abandoned school housing the refugees, witnesses said they shouted, “we’ll see if America will save you now!”
“They forced open the door, the men didn’t even get a chance to put their shoes on. The soldiers had their guns locked, [ready to shoot],” one witness said.
One woman said two of her sons – aged 19 and 24 – were dragged from their home at around 9:30 p.m. that night. “They didn’t say why they were taking them, they just rounded them up, beat them and took them away,” she told CNN, adding that she was too afraid of what would be done to her sons to ask any questions.
Several of the men who were rounded up were released late afternoon on Tuesday, after they identified themselves as aid workers. They told CNN hundreds of young men continue to be detained at the Guna distribution center, an aid and foodstuff storage facility which has now been converted into a military camp.
One man described hours of beatings by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers. “Many of us are young but there are people there who are much older who won’t be able to withstand the beatings much longer,” he said.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel denied the reports and dismissed previous CNN reporting, saying, “For how long will you continue to believe at face value any and all ‘witness statements’ … We have heard so many planted or false stories.”
US President Joe Biden said in a statement late Wednesday that he is “deeply concerned by the escalating violence” in Ethiopia and condemned “large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray.”
Robert Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, said Thursday that if the conflict does not “reverse course,” Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate “further action” from the US.
“It cannot be business as usual in the face of the violence and atrocities in Tigray,” Godec said during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing.
Godec stopped short of calling the conflict and humanitarian abuses in the region “war crimes,” but said the State Department is conducting a review to determine if the actions in Tigray should be designated as such.
The UN also condemned Thursday what it described as arbitrary and brutal arrests and called for the immediate release of those detained.
“International humanitarian and human rights law strictly prohibit the arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of any person,” said Dr. Catherine Sozi, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia, in a statement. “Serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be promptly investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice.”
Elisabeth Haslund, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that works with displaced people, told CNN, “we have also received very disturbing reports that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers entered IDP sites taking a number of youths into several vehicles. The reports of how many vary from a few hundred up to 700 youths.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a statement on Wednesday that corroborated the eyewitnesses accounts given to CNN. “On Monday night, scores of people were forcibly taken by military from camps where internally displaced people are seeking refuge in Shire,” MSF East Africa tweeted.
200 days of violence
The conflict in Tigray has now raged for over 200 days pitting Tigray’s regional leaders, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), against the Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrean soldiers and Amhara ethnic militia. From the start of the conflict last year civilians have been targeted by Ethiopian government forces and allied Eritrean and militia forces.
This latest incident, however, is a significant escalation in what is described by humanitarian workers and witnesses in Shire as an ongoing, extrajudicial campaign targeting young men perceived to be of “fighting age.”
Aid agencies estimate the town of Shire has tripled in size, hosting up to 800,000 Tigrayans forced out of their homes in the far west of the region in actions by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara ethnic militia forces described by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “ethnic cleansing.”
Humanitarian workers told CNN Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers have been blocking a key aid route to Shire for months, restricting supplies even as displaced persons continue to flow into the town.
One aid worker told CNN tens of vehicles carrying aid to Shire were turned back on Saturday alone. A CNN team in the region in April was able to capture on camera Eritrean soldiers obstructing aid along this route.
CNN has reached out to the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office and the Eritrean Minister for Information for comment but has not received a response.
The United States late Sunday evening announced “far reaching” financial sanctions and visa restrictions against Ethiopian, Eritrean, Amhara and TPLF officials it finds to be “complicit” in abuses or obstructing the resolution of the crisis. A State Department spokesperson told CNN the sanctions would be enforced as a “unilateral action” by the US. CNN has sought comment from the State Department on the latest reports from Shire.
In a statement the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the US sanctions. Many witnesses see this latest uptick in violence as a statement of defiance in the face of growing international censure.
In videos sent to CNN on Tuesday morning, which were secretly filmed, desperate parents can be seen gathering in the compound of the local UNHCR office. In one video Ethiopian soldiers can be seen addressing the parents inside the compound.
CNN was able to geolocate the videos to a location in the center of Shire by examining the metadata in the raw files and matching key landmarks in the footage to the surroundings, such as the Kholafaa e Rashedeen mosque. The metadata also revealed the date and time the videos were filmed – May 25, 2021 at around 7:45am local time – which fits with the direction of the sunlight and the lengths of the shadows in the video, a CNN analysis shows. One of the videos also features an UNHCR logo supporting the accounts.
The audio in the video is indistinct but witnesses say parents were told: “We could kill you right here and the UN would do nothing to help but take pictures of you.”
This story has been updated.
Reporting contributed by DJ Judd.