The Axum Civilian Massacre of November 2020: Innocent blood on Concerned Leaders and Commanders’ Hands
M. J. 18.01.2021
Eyewitness accounts are emerging with respect to the various reports of the Axum city November 2020 massacre of around 750 innocent people. There was/is no clarity about the killing due to the total communication blockage in the region. Diaspora Tigrayans who were in Axum for celebrating Axum Tsion (St Marry’s) annual religious event (locally and nationally called Hidar-Tsion) and others who were in Axum at the relevant time , as well as some media have begun sharing their harrowing experiences of and information on the massacre. These sources have confirmed the following concrete facts:
(1) In the afternoon of 28 November, the Eritrean army entered the city and held key military positions in there. The same evening, they clash with Tigray militia in one of the mountains surrounding the city called Mi-Koho . The fight subsided after a short while.
(2) Thereafter, the Eritrean army have begun indiscriminate shooting of civilians in the city which went on and on the whole evening. Hundreds of unarmed children, adult men and women have been killed.
(3) The next morning, 29 November 2020, a reinforcement of an Eritrean contingent began to travel to Axum from Adwa (and possibly from other directions), a city 25 kilometres away from Axum. This contingent marched towards Axum, in the first place, by bombarding the city of Axum with heavy artillery followed by killing any civilian they find in the outskirts of the city, including in the sacred village called Aba Mentelen and surrounding area; hundreds of farmers, day labourers, commuters and others have been massacred around Axum airport and the entry side of the city.
(4) On same date (29 November) the advancing Eritrean army from Adwa and other locations to Axum has begun house-to-house killing in a style of on-the-spot execution of everyone they happen to open their doors, with a focus on children and the youth irrespective of female-male distinction. The dead include city dwellers, Axum University students and lecturers, priests, women and the elderly. Most importantly, people who escaped conflict from Western Tigray such as Humora and Shire were caught and killed in Axum.
(5) On that date, the Eritrean soldiers nocked a door of one family, a young female member of the family opened the door; she was shot on the spot; her brother emerged from his room after the blast that killed his sister and was killed immediately. The old mum came out from the house, the soldiers locked the compound door form outside and left her with her two children’s bodies.
(6) The Eritrean soldiers ordered city residents not to collect and bury the dead from 28 until 30 November; all bodies swollen, went bad and were not identifiable. One witness said that the main streets of the city were full of dead bodies.
(7) The 30 November 2020 was the annual St Mary’s day of Axum. The city was in darkness with full of hundreds of dead bodies in its streets. However, the Abiy regime sent military and civilians officials from Addis with a tv camera crew to document and air the religious event although there was none. These was led by an army General. Following the visit of this group, Ethiopian television and other state-outlets announced that St Mary’s event was carried peacefully and colourfully while hundreds of Axum civilians were killed and laid on the streets of the city for days including on St Mary’s day.
(8) Concerned residents and visitors of the city begged the general who came to visit the Church and the city for propaganda purposes to allow them collect and bury the dead. After he spoke with his comrades via military radio, he gave them a go ahead to do so. One witness confirmed that he participated in the collection of more than 300 bodies using a local means of transport called Carusa (which is a single or two donkeys/horses pull a wheeled vehicle ) and buried them in masse in a single graveyard at Arbaete Ensesa church located towards the old side of the city. Others have done the same, the total victims are several hundreds.
(9) The dead were shot at their chest, forehead, and other critical parts of their bodies mostly in close range shooting; some were executed from the back of their head while praying at St Mary’s church facing the church and kneeling on the ground.
(10) Shooting, killing and raping of young and old continued during the evening and the day, including in response to resisting to Eritrean looting private property at home or at work.
(11) House-to-house and business-to-business looting (and vandalising) of private property ranging from used mattresses to that of private and business vehicles was widespread way before the killing began and continued until the witnesses left Axum a few weeks ago.
(12) Ethiopian army members were visible in the city although not all the time; although the witnesses have not seen or heard their involvement in actual killing and looting, they were doing nothing to protect them from killing, looting and other forms of abuse.
This is shocking by all standards. But there are many more Axums’ in Tigray that require proper attention so that the magnitude and nature of the atrocities that are committed and continue to be committed against innocent Tigrayan civilians are fully understood and exposed. The Eritrean army has committed heinous crimes under the radar and with the full knowledge of Ethiopian leaders and commanders.
To say the least, such barbaric act of mass murder is a war crime. If one assumes the Tigray conflict is a civil war between the Tigray forces on the one hand and the Ethiopian army and his Amhara militia on the other, both sides must respect, at a minimum, Common Article 3 requirements to the Geneva Conventions 1949 and the obligations enshrined in Additional Protocol II of 1977 to the Conventions from the start of the conflict on 4 November 2020.
Common Article 3 states that:
In the case of armed conflict not of an international character
occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party
to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities… shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
What the Eritrean army did in Axum and other places is an overt violation of this minimum requirement of humanity.
However, the full involvement of Eritrea and the alleged participation of Somalian forces and Emirates drones in the conflict imply that there is an international element to the war. If so, all the Geneva Conventions and the first Additional Protocol to the Conventions (and customary rules) apply to the foreign forces whether or not they are parties to them. Articles 50, 51, 130 and 147 of the FOUR Geneva Conventions respectively prohibit and condemn grave breaches to the Conventions. Furthermore, Additional Protocol 1 strongly and comprehensively prohibits grave breaches of war in Articles 11 (4), 85 and 86.
The Conventions’ definition of grave breaches includes ‘ wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body’, committed against persons or property protected by the Conventions. Civilians are without a doubt protected by many of the Geneva Conventions, including the fourth Convention named after civilians.
As a result of this, the International Criminal Court Statute and others have criminalised civilian killings as serious or grave breach. The Geneva Conventions to which Ethiopia and Eritrea are parties impose universal duty on all countries to prosecute or extradite anyone who has committed such crimes whether or not they have connections with victims, place of crime or the person who have committed the crime. Hence, there is no place to hide in the world for those who carry out such atrocities once political power is lost for whatever reason.
Most reports of crimes in Tigray point at Eritrean soldiers; the murders, rapes, looting, burning and property vandalism were largely committed by Isaias soldiers. There are reports of widespread rape and sexual violence by the Ethiopian army too in places such as Mekele.
The Eritrean regime and its political, military and security apparatus shall be the primary target of accountability for the mass killing and the economic destruction they have caused and are still causing. Ethiopian leaders are also accountable for not protecting Tigrayan civilians or for condoning the crimes committed by Eritrean troops. There are reports that some members of the Ethiopian army were heartbroken by the atrocities they have witnessed there. The General of the Northern Command has shown some regret which made him a target of a concerted but indirect attack by the Eritrean elite.
Nevertheless, the Ethiopian state has failed to protect its citizens from harm and attack either by foreign powers or its own forces which takes the issue beyond the laws of war. Of course, the mere fact that the war was coordinated with foreign powers meant that the crimes are likely to be jointly planned and deliberately executed by the two leaders and their associates. This is very clear with respect to conducting military operations and the targeting and indiscriminate shelling of cities, towns and villages as a tactic of war by both armies. It is not straight-forward when it comes to the cold-blooded murders and looting of private property.
Taking all these into account, and in order to hold the leaders, commanders and executioners of the Axum and other grave breaches or serious crimes of war in Tigray to account:
a. Detailed and credible evidence must be collected, including: (i) names, age, sex and addresses of victims and (ii) eyewitness, photo, video and satellite imagery proofs.
b. Witnesses shall be protected as Tigray and Tigrayans are under occupation of, and extreme suppression from, an exceptionally dangerous politicians, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea in particular. Media and personality of other outlets must therefore be careful when they engage in with potential witnesses.
c. The crimes should, nevertheless, be shared and communicated to all concerned – foreign governments, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations and the media.
d. All forms of atrocity committed against civilians whether in Tigray or Metekel or Welega or in the South should be condemned and investigated. Yet the Tigray war is waged, and the crimes committed by foreign and internal forces, and appears to be more than war crimes when read in conjunction with the use of starvation as a means of warfare and the on-going ethnic cleansing and abuse against Tigrayans across Ethiopia. It is therefore crucial that all these crimes are documented, communicated and exposed internationally. And
e. A serious work is required to collate evidence and establish the criminal enterprise involving the Eritrean and Ethiopian regimes. How is it possible that all these deliberate atrocities and destruction are happening without the will of the Ethiopian side?
To end, there is no doubt that justice will be served and those who hold blood on their hands will be held accountable.