News Highlights Extra No. 10: Conflict in the Horn

EEPA is sending extra news highlights on the conflict in the Horn of Africa: previous highlights extra and EEPA’s situation reports on the Horn crisis.

Further reports of heritage sites destroyed in Tigray region
As reported by various media, the 6th century Debre Damo Monastery in the Tigray has been bombed and looted during the four months of clashes in the north of Ethiopia. 12 buildings were destroyed and one monk was killed. This is the latest report of destruction of cultural heritage in the region. As reported by international sources, several religious and historical sites have been damaged and looted, such as the mosque of Negash and the Church of St Mary of Zion in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aksum. Experts raise the attention on deliberate activities of “cultural cleansing”, which include thefts and looting of ancient artefacts and ransacked manuscripts from the Debre Damo Monastery by Eritrean troops. An expert on Ethiopic texts and manuscripts interviewed by The Times, Alessandro Bausi, stressed that the targeting of important cultural sites and the destruction or looting of “irreplaceable” artifacts in Ethiopia’s Tigray region was reported to him from multiple sources.

Sexual violence and child casualties
As reported by various media, the testimonies trickling in of survivors of sexual violence are increasing. Devex reports on the consequences of rape for refugees fleeing Ethiopia. In Sudan, many are requesting abortions for pregnancies caused by rape, but are facing obstacles, leading to a rise in illegal abortions. Human rights group Yikono states that rape is used as a weapon of war. According to the latest report from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, only in last two months of conflict, at least 108 cases of rape have been reported in Mekelle, Ayder, Adigrat and Wukro hospitals. The report also notes that children have sustained injuries as a result of the war. The Commission stated that: “Information obtained by Ayder Hospital also shows that one of the causes for the children’s injuries are land mines and hand grenades left lying on the ground”.  The report was then removed from the official Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s website for unknown reasons. Although information on gender-based violence and violence towards children is hindered by the communications block and lack of access to Tigray, the United Nations (UN) are outlining a picture of the severe psychological and physical consequences on conflict victims. UNICEF stated “children are in acute need of protection and assistance”. In January, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, raised the attention on sexual violence in Tigray. Allegations include reports of family members forced to rape and to be raped, women forced to have sex with soldiers as well as sexual assault against women and girls in Tigray’s refugee camps have been reported.

Media repression and lack of humanitarian access in Tigray
Freedom of press is deteriorating in Ethiopia, as journalists have been arrested, threatened and harassed. Al Jazeera is covering the issue and stated that journalists claim that “the government is employing a coordinated strategy to oppress and undermine journalists through social media, state media and the Ethiopian diaspora”. However Al Jazeera was not able to verify these claims. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for investigation into these incidents. The United Nations (UN) humanitarian workers and international aid agencies have been denied full access to Tigray by the Ethiopian government. International aid workers are not allowed to move sufficient goods or personnel into and around Tigray. According to Human Rights Watch, there is evidence that Ethiopian forces indiscriminately shelled urban areas in the Tigray region at the beginning of the war, in November 2020, in violation of the laws of war. Attacks were reported and confirmed with satellite images on schools, hospitals, homes and markets, causing civilian casualties and property damage.  

Reports of increased fighting in Tigray
Sources report an increase in fighting in Tigray recently. Fighting near Adigrat is intensifying. People in Mekelle report increased military activity, including trench-digging and arial activity. Civilians in Mekelle fear renewed conflict. Civilian casualties were reported in bombings near Samre and Gijet. Fighting near Wajirat and Shire was also reported. The Sudanese military states that Eritrean troops are gathering at the Eritrean border with Tigray. According to a report,  Eritrean soldiers carry between  10.000 – 20.000 birr, an amount the rough equivalent of 200 – 400 euro, with them, amidst reports Ethiopia is paying Eritrean troops; the amounts are substantial given the low payments for Eritrean soldiers. Eritrean soldiers have increased their presence and opened up a camp in Wukro, and are reported to have killed 18 youth during protests in Wukro. Other reports have come in of 30 youth killed in protests in Adwa and Shire. 

International responses to the conflict
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, has called on the United Nations (UN) Security Council to take actions on Tigray. President Kagame underlines how the number of deaths reported is too high to let Ethiopia and the African Union deal with the situation alone. President Kagame stated the UN Security Council should intervene because of the internationalization of the conflict in Tigray, due to the presence of Eritrean troops, serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and other International Humanitarian Laws, including acts that could constitute ethnic cleansing, and weakening of regional stability as Ethiopia retreats from its peacekeeping obligations. The British Minister for Africa has also called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops. Furthermore, on February the 11th, the European Parliament debated  on “The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia” together with the Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, during the plenary session. The European Union (EU) calls for the end of hostilities and full humanitarian access. The EU is also concerned about serious human rights abuses and violations, and the role of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray. Martijn Van Helvert, Dutch Member of the Parliament, has asked the Dutch Foreign Minister whether she will support unhindered humanitarian access and the immediate unconditional withdrawal of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Furthermore, Sudan recalled its Ambassador to Ethiopia for consultations amidst tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan.