Following three months of conflict, eyewitness reports out of northern Ethiopia have confirmed rumors that soldiers from an Ethiopian-Eritrean coalition rounded up and massacred at least 800 people outside the nation's most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum.
A deacon of the Church of St. Mary said that the soldiers, mostly Eritrean, burst into the church on November 28 and began dragging civilians outside to kill them. Many of the individuals had sought asylum in the church from the ongoing fights between Tigrayan fighters and the Ethiopian-Eritrean coalition.
The Church of St. Mary is the most holy site for Ethiopian Christians, who believe it contains the Ark of the Covenant that was built during Moses's time.
The deacon said he continues to bury bodies each day. He said he believes the Eritrean soldiers massacred those at the church as revenge for the 20-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but that the Ethiopian forces did nothing to intervene.
Visiting university lecturer Getu Mak described the massacre as he witnessed it from his hotel room.
"[Soldiers] started to kill people who were moving from church to home or home to home, simply because they were on the street," said Mak. "It was a horrible act to see. On every corner, almost, there was a body. People were crying in every home."
Armed conflict recently ignited in northern Tigray Region after years of rising tensions in the nation. Leaders from the Tigrayan ethnic group overthrew Ethiopia's Marxist dictator in 1991 and ruled until 2018, when current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected.
Ahmed , who comes from the majority Oromo ethnic group in southern Ethiopia, purged the government of Tigrayan leaders, leading to tensions that boiled over in November when Ahmed launched military strikes against Tigray, saying they had attacked Ethiopian forces. Ahmed's administration cut access to the internet and phone lines and declared a state of emergency.
Ahmed's government said on Thursday that "rape, plunder, callous and intentional mass killings" could happen in a conflict where "many are illegally armed," but blamed Tigray forces for leaving the region "vulnerable" and did not mention Eritrean soldiers.
No journalists have been allowed into the region, but officials estimate at least 2 million people have been displaced and are without food or medical care.
🔦 Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.