Accounts of atrocities by Somali soldiers in Ethiopia’s Tigray war are casting a spotlight on an emerging military alliance that has reshaped the Horn of Africa, weakening Western influence in a strategically important region.
The Globe and Mail has obtained eyewitness reports of massacres by Somali troops embedded with Eritrean forces in Tigray in the early months of the war. The new evidence raises disturbing questions about a covert military alliance between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia that has inflicted death and destruction on the rebellious Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.
Officially, the three governments have denied any alliance, and Somalia has denied that its troops were deployed in Tigray. But The Globe’s investigation has provided, for the first time, extensive details of civilian killings committed by Somali soldiers allied with Eritrean forces in the region.
Gebretsadik, a 52-year-old farmer from the village of Zebangedena in northwestern Tigray, said the dusty roads of his village were strewn with the bodies of decapitated clergymen in December, 2020, a few weeks after the beginning of the war.
Some of the priests and monks were people he recognized. Somali soldiers, working alongside Eritrean forces who had captured the village, had targeted churches and killed the clergymen, he said.
“They slaughtered them like chickens,” he told The Globe.
The Somali and Eritrean troops stayed in the village until late February, according to Gebretsadik, who often fled to the bushes and mountains around the village to escape attacks during that time.
The Globe talked to dozens of survivors who had witnessed atrocities in six Tigrayan villages where Somali troops had been stationed between early December, 2020, and late February, 2021. The Globe is not publishing their full names or their current locations because their lives could be in danger.
The survivors said the Somali troops were wearing Eritrean military uniforms, but they were clearly identifiable as Somali because of their language and their physical appearance. Unlike the Eritreans, they could not speak any Tigrinya, the language spoken in Tigray and much of Eritrea. The witnesses said they also heard the Eritrean troops referring to them as Somalis.
Last year, United Nations and U.S. officials said they had received information that Somali troops were present in Tigray, but few details were known. Somali parents held several protests in Mogadishu and other places in Somalia last year, complaining that their sons had been ordered to fight in Tigray after being originally sent to Eritrea for military training. Hundreds of Somali soldiers were reportedly killed in the fighting.
Up to 10,000 Somali troops were deployed in Tigray, according to current and former Ethiopian officials who spoke to The Globe. The Globe is not identifying the individuals because they face the threat of reprisals for their comments.
Until now, few details were known about the activities of the Somalis in Tigray. But the survivors told The Globe that the Somali troops had massacred hundreds of civilians in villages controlled by the Eritrean military, often beheading them. No Ethiopian troops were present in the villages, they said.
“They showed no mercy,” said Berket, a 32-year-old farmer in the Tigrayan village of Mai Harmaz. “The Eritreans interrogate you before they kill you. But the Somali troops were full of contempt for that.”
One of his neighbours, a 76-year-old priest, was among those killed by the Somali troops, he said.
Kibrom, a 37-year-old man who fled the village of Hamlo in January, said the beheadings by Somali troops became an “everyday reality” in his village.
“The churches were inhabited by the troops,” he said. “They burned the holy books and sacred objects. Churches became the most unsafe places. Villagers stopped going to churches because the Somali troops would kill anyone they found in churches.”
According to former Ethiopian officials, most of the Somali troops crossed the border from Eritrea into western Tigray in the early weeks of the war. They said the Somali troops, under the command of the Eritrean army, had already been stationed in trenches near the border before the war began.
“They undoubtedly have participated in the war,” said Gebremeskel Kassa, who was chief of staff in the interim administration in Tigray that the Ethiopian government appointed after seizing control of the region in the early months of the war. He later fled abroad, fearing for his safety when Ethiopian officials criticized him for Tigrayan military gains in the region.
Mr. Gebremeskel said he knew about the Somali deployment from his travels in Tigray and his private meetings with top Ethiopian officials and military generals.
“All of us who were top officials had knowledge of that,” he told The Globe. “The Somali troops took training in the Eritrean camp of Sawa as a result of a military deal between the three governments before the war started.”
When the deployment became politically controversial in Somalia, especially after the protests by the parents and questions by parliamentarians, the Somali soldiers were sent back to Eritrea, he said. They completed their withdrawal by March, the officials said.
The unofficial military alliance among Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, which is believed to date back to secret agreements after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia in 2018, is a further blow to the declining influence of Western governments in the Horn of Africa.
Eritrea had already been long isolated on the international stage, but Ethiopia and Somalia had close relations with the United States and other Western governments in the past. Ethiopia’s relations with the West have deteriorated since the Tigray war began, largely as a result of Western pressure to halt the war.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, the authoritarian ruler of his country for nearly three decades, is a key player in the three-country alliance. “He sees this as an opportunity to reshape the whole of the Horn of Africa in his direction,” said Martin Plaut, a British-based Eritrea expert and commentator.
“Getting these Somali troops involved was just the first instalment of this much longer, much more important relationship that he was trying to build in which he would be the king, with allies both in Somalia and Ethiopia,” Mr. Plaut told The Globe.
“He has pursued his ambition of destroying the Tigrayans since the 1970s. To achieve his ends, he would like to establish a transnational relationship in the Horn that allows the individual states to exist, but to support each other, while crushing local movements.”
With a report by Geoffrey York in Johannesburg
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