Skip to main content

The Canadian government announced in June that it is spending about $600,000 to help fund a joint investigation into the reported atrocities in Tigray.AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Two refugee camps in northern Ethiopia, sheltering 20,000 people who had escaped a dictatorship next door, were targeted for waves of killings, sexual assaults and other horrific abuses by two of the clashing forces in the war that erupted last year, a new report says.

Over a period of seven weeks, the refugees were brutally and repeatedly attacked – first by Eritrean troops, then by Tigrayan militias and finally by Eritrean soldiers again, according to the report by Human Rights Watch, released on Thursday.

The attacks amounted to war crimes, the report said. The two camps were left in ruins, with their buildings torched and destroyed. Many refugees were coerced into returning to Eritrea, and at least 7,600 of the refugees are still missing, the report said.

The report is the latest evidence of systematic killings and other abuses in the Tigray region, where war is still raging today after Ethiopia and Eritrea sent military forces into the region in November, 2020, in an attempt to quell the rebellious local government. Massacres, gang rapes, large-scale pillaging and the deliberate destruction of farmland and hospitals in Tigray have all been widely reported since the war began.

The Canadian government announced in June that it is spending about $600,000 to help fund a joint investigation into the reported atrocities in Tigray. It said the investigation must be “transparent and impartial.”

The investigation – conducted by the United Nations human-rights office and the Ethiopian human-rights commission – is due to publish its report on Nov. 1, after interviewing more than 200 people. But the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, disclosed this week that their investigators were unable to visit eastern and central Tigray, where some of the worst alleged atrocities have occurred, including a widely reported massacre of hundreds of people in the holy city of Axum.

The UN human-rights office said the investigation was “unable to access some locations due to rapidly evolving security concerns and other difficulties.” It is unclear whether the investigators were able to visit the Eritrean refugee camps or interview the refugees.

The Eritrean refugees are among the most vulnerable people in Tigray. For years, they have fled across the border from neighbouring Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive states, where people are routinely conscripted into lengthy terms of mandatory military or government service, sometimes stretching for decades, often under conditions that have been compared to slavery.

More than 50,000 of the refugees were housed at four camps in Tigray. The newest camp, Hitsats, was captured by Eritrean forces on Nov. 19. The killings began soon after.

In the first five days of the occupation, at least 31 people – including four humanitarian workers – were killed by Eritrean troops who looted shops and conducted house-to-house searches in the camp and the adjacent town, according to Human Rights Watch. “The actual number is most likely significantly higher,” it said.

The report was based on interviews with dozens of refugees and aid workers, along with analysis of satellite images of the destruction in the camps.

On Nov. 23, Tigrayan militia fighters entered Hitsats camp and clashed with Eritrean soldiers, leaving a further nine refugees dead and 17 severely injured, the report said. Dozens of people in Hitsats town were also killed.

Eritrean troops later detained many of the refugees and removed them in military vehicles. Many were reportedly forced to return to Eritrea, the country they had fled.

In early December, when Eritrean forces withdrew from the camp, hundreds of refugees fled to escape the returning Tigrayan militias. Some of the refugees were detained and sexually assaulted by the Tigrayan fighters, the report said.

Based on interviews with witnesses, the report estimated that at least two dozen people were killed between Dec. 5 and Dec. 8 by Tigrayan fighters and civilians who wielded knives, machetes and grenades.

In early January, the camp was recaptured by Eritrean soldiers who fired mortars during their assault. The soldiers ordered the thousands of remaining refugees to leave the camp. Then they spread fuel over the camp and set it on fire for three days, destroying almost everything left behind, the report said.

Eritrean soldiers also detained and killed refugees at another camp, Shimelba, the report said.

“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters,” said a statement by Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe,” she said.

The report quoted a 27-year-old refugee woman who, along with her 17-year-old sister, was raped by Tigrayan militia fighters when they fled Hitsats camp.

“I am a double victim,” she said. “Both in Eritrea and now here, I am not protected.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.