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EXCLUSIVE: The Ethiopian border town left in ruins as a ceasefire takes hold

‘The main thing we need is to return home, but we don't know if we can. Everything there is destroyed.’

Abala’s hospital has been looted and trashed, its floors strewn with medical records and discarded drugs. Fred Harter/TNH
Abala’s hospital has been looted and trashed, its floors strewn with medical records and discarded drugs.

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There’s almost no one left in Abala, a once-bustling town on the border of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray and Afar regions. Its streets are empty, given over to stray dogs and troops of baboons that scavenge undisturbed among the abandoned houses.

Last week, The New Humanitarian became the first international media outlet to visit Abala since rebels from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) withdrew from the town and other territories in the Afar region in late April. Since March, a fragile ceasefire has been in place between the federal government and its war allies, who for 19 months have been battling the TPLF. 

The TPLF entered Afar in late December, taking control of several districts, including Abala, in what they described as an attempt to secure an aid corridor to Tigray, where 5.2 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 450,000 malnourished children.

Nearly all the homes and shops in Abala – which had a pre-war population of several thousand – have been gutted by looting, their doors hanging open, and the walls daubed with both pro-Afar and pro-TPLF graffiti. One house bore the words “Tigray has won” while the word “Afar” was scrawled on several others in white letters.

On the streets are broken bits of furniture, heaps of old clothes, and scorch marks from fires. The hospital had been trashed, its floors thick with discarded medical records, packets of medicine, and other rubbish. In one of the wards, the word “gunpowder” had been written in several places in Tigrinya, the main language of Tigray. The scene was similar at the police station.

What happened in Abala?

There are competing claims as to what happened in Abala when the TPLF took over. Some Tigrayan activists and media reports have claimed that Tigrayan residents were massacred by local Afar security forces and militia, whereas the Afar claim the TPLF was responsible for the destruction. The town has a mixed population.

The New Humanitarian spoke to over 20 current and displaced residents of Abala. None said a massacre had taken place, although two Tigrayan residents said that several Tigrayans were murdered in the town for resisting the looting of their properties by local Afar before the TPLF took control.

Several residents – both Afar and Tigrayan – described how Afar militia, police, and security forces gathered the town’s Tigrayan population at various sites within the town as the TPLF approached, and as the sound of fighting rang out from the surrounding mountains. The Tigrayans were then transported to a detention centre in Semera, Afar’s capital, according to two Abala residents, and a UN official and a lawyer, who said the site is guarded by regional Afar soldiers. Some 9,500 Tigrayans from Abala are currently being held there.

A map shows 3 main regions Amhara,Tigary,Afar in Northern Ethiopia.

“The militia said, ‘We are taking you to the police station for your own safety, to save you from death’,” one Tigrayan from Abala told The New Humanitarian over the phone from the detention centre in Semera. “After that, they told us to get onto lorries. ‘This is an order,’ they said. We never realised we were coming to Semera. We were taken forcefully.”

He added that one person was killed for refusing to board the trucks, and that “around 50 youths” jumped from the vehicles on the way to Semera, resulting in one death. He believes they then fled to Tigray.

The detained Tigrayan described how local Afar – armed with guns – had looted the property of Tigrayan residents over the course of several days, starting on 19 December, as the fighting around the town intensified. 

“I saw the looters, they were Afar, we know them,” he said. “They came from the rural areas and the town. They just collected the property in the street and carried it away in the cars.”

He added that he saw the bodies of three of his Tigrayan neighbours lying in the street. “They had bullets in their heads,” he said. “I don’t know which person killed them [specifically], but it was the Afar militia. After we arrived at the police station, my friends told me they saw more than 10 bodies in the road. Another was killed by a mortar or heavy machine gun.”

The looting accounts were echoed by a second Tigrayan from Abala who was being held at the same detention site in Semera. “Every shop and all the houses were looted,” he said. “Everyone was carrying a gun to loot. We were left with only the clothes on our backs.”

The two Tigrayan residents from Abala described bleak conditions at the detention site in Semera, where temperatures regularly soar past 40 degrees celsius. Aid agencies have delivered food, but one of the men said there was no medication available except paracetamol.

Both said around 70 people had died in the detention centre, and that it is only possible to leave by paying hefty bribes to the Afar soldiers guarding them. 

TPLF takes over

Most of the ethnic Afar residents of Abala interviewed by The New Humanitarian said Tigrayan rebel forces shelled the town before they entered it, killing several people. It is not clear how many people were killed by shelling or in shootings that occurred inside the town while the battle was taking place.

The Afar also said TPLF forces carried out their own campaign of looting and vandalism after they captured the town, gutting homes, stealing vehicles, and trashing government buildings.

Imam Yousef, an Afar resident, was one of a handful of people who stayed in Abala throughout the fighting and the subsequent rebel occupation. He sought shelter in the countryside during the battle for the town, before returning a few days later.

“When we came back, the TPLF were looting,” he said, sitting on a broken pavement amid the ruins of the town. “Nothing remains, including food and household equipment. I am a farmer, and they took the grain I stored in my home. They looted all of this.”

Mubarak Nur, an Afar teenager who also stuck out the rebel occupation in Abala, said: “[The Tigray forces] did what you can see. They looted everything when they entered: blankets, food, wheat, vehicles. They also killed some people here. I saw them shoot one person.”

Another Afar resident from Abala, Mohammed Idriss, said several people were killed by Tigrayan rebel forces as they fired from the mountain escarpment that towers over the town.

“I saw five people I know, including two Tigrayans, killed by heavy machine gun fire,” he said. “Their bodies were divided into pieces; I saw this with my own eyes. Many Afar and Tigrayans were killed when they fired into the town.”

Abala was fought over by Afar forces and Tigray rebels in December 2021, and is now largely abandoned.
Fred Harter/TNH
Abala was fought over by Afar forces and Tigray rebels in December 2021, and is now largely abandoned.

The nearby town of Erebti, a short drive from Abala, was also occupied by the TPLF after they entered the Afar region. The compound of its main government office was littered with broken computers and desk chairs when The New Humanitarian visited last week, and the outer wall of the main building was adorned with the slogan: “Tigray shall be victorious.”

A fragile ceasefire

Since the TPLF left Abala and other parts of Afar, there has been a lull in fighting across Ethiopia. On 24 March, the federal government declared a “humanitarian ceasefire”. The Tigray rebels responded by saying they would observe a “cessation of hostilities”.

The situation, however, remains tense. Afar fighters have set up ad hoc checkpoints close to the front line, and the UN official – who asked not to be named – said their team was shot at recently by local militia while driving near Abala.

There has been a fair amount of sabre-rattling from both sides since the truce came into force, as well as reports of renewed clashes between the TPLF and Eritrean troops in northern Tigray; but for the most part it appears to be holding. It has been bolstered by a series of high-level talks between military commanders from both sides, mediated by the African Union. This led to the TPLF’s withdrawal from Afar in late April. Since then, restrictions on aid entering Tigray have eased.

Between June 2021 and up to 1 April this year, virtually no aid reached Tigray, whereas roughly 1,000 trucks have arrived in Mekelle, the region’s capital, in the last two months. All passed through Abala – a key choke point – before entering rebel-held territory. The vehicles form long lines outside Semera as they queue for customs clearance.

Banking services, road links, and communications are still cut, however, and many more trucks need to enter Tigray to meet the region’s needs. The United States has warned that 700,000 people could face famine, and Mekelle’s main Ayder Hospital has been forced to close.

“There is no power, medical supplies, or oxygen,” a doctor at the hospital told The New Humanitarian by phone, adding that all patients, except emergency cases, have been sent home and no new ones are being admitted. “We don't know what will happen to them,” the doctor said. “If they are critical, they will die.”

Last week, the petrol station next to the World Food Programme’s warehouses in Semera was full of truck drivers stocking up on supplies for the long drive to Tigray. One driver, who was smoking a cigarette in the forecourt, described witnessing poor conditions in Mekelle.

“There are a lot of beggars, and everything is expensive,” he said. “There is no beer, water, or soft drinks to buy.”

Yet foreign diplomats in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, are hopeful the resumption of aid will build confidence and pave the way for proper negotiations. One, speaking to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity, said both sides appear serious about “giving peace a chance” after months of fighting.

Hurdles to peace

Many issues are yet to be resolved. The most glaring is the fate of western Tigray. It is under the occupation of regular and irregular Amhara forces – accused by rights groups and the US of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the area's Tigrayan population.

Any concessions from the federal government over western Tigray would be deeply unpopular among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second biggest ethnic group, whose eponymous home region was the site of heavy fighting last year. 

Last month, amid bubbling discontent in the region, Amhara security forces launched a crackdown against militia groups opposed to the ceasefire – even though they had played a key role in repelling the TPLF as it advanced towards Addis Ababa in November. So far, at least 4,000 people have been arrested.

Meanwhile, the 300,000 residents of Afar displaced by the conflict face an uncertain future. Mohammed Hussein, the head of the region’s aid office, said there aren’t enough funds to rebuild, and the local government is struggling to get humanitarian supplies to those who need them most.

“We are deploying the resources we have as a region,” said Mohammed. “But right now it is beyond our capacity to address each and every need.”

Some ethnic Afar are starting to return to Abala. At a small camp of huts made from sticks and plastic sheets pitched by a dry riverbed just outside the town of Erebti, Kulsuma Faya said her family had been on the road for several months. 

A few hours before she spoke to The New Humanitarian, one of the children from the camp – a one-year-old girl called Madina – had died from an infection.

“We are angry because we didn’t receive any help so far – we have no food, no water,” said Kulsuma. “One of the children just died. The men are burying her now.”

“The main thing we need is to return home,” she added. “But we don't know if we can. Everything there is destroyed.”

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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