NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethnic Amharas killed. Ethnic Tigrayans arrested, in hiding or cut off from the world. Ethiopia’s deadly conflict is spilling beyond the country’s northern Tigray region and turning identity into a mortal threat.
A report that scores, perhaps hundreds, of civilians were “hacked to death” in the streets of a single town on Monday night has sent already dangerous tensions soaring. Amnesty International confirmed the killings via images and witnesses, and the United Nations warned of possible war crimes. Most of the dead were ethnic Amharas, according to a man who helped clear the bodies away and looked at identity cards.
“The killing reflects the ongoing ethnic divisions in the country,” Amnesty researcher Fisseha Tekle said.
While the Amnesty report late Thursday said the group had not confirmed who carried out the killings, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed blames the massacre on forces loyal to the Tigray region’s government, which his administration regards as illegal after a months-long falling-out. The federal government seeks to arrest and replace its leaders.
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, also accuses the regional government of “unceasing hate and fear propaganda.” On Friday, speaking in the Tigrinya language, he urged its forces to surrender “in the next two to three days.”
The allegations, combined with the severing of communications with the Tigray region and growing reports of targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, are raising alarm as Abiy rejects calls for dialogue and de-escalation and the United Nations says more than 14,000 “exhausted and scared” refugees have fled the Tigray region to Sudan.
The U.N. office on genocide prevention condemned reports of ”targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or religion” in Ethiopia, including hate speech and incitement to violence. It warned that ethnic violence “has reached an alarming level over the past two years,” and the new rhetoric sets a “dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
The news of Monday’s massacre of ethnic Amharas in Mai-Kadra town in the Tigray region followed federal government statements blaming the conflict that erupted Nov. 4 on the ruling “clique” of the Tigray regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and counterclaims by the TPLF.
The Tigray region’s communication and transport links remain almost completely cut off, making it difficult to verify each side’s allegations. The federal government warns journalists about reporting events “properly.”
“At least two journalists have been arrested in connection to their work, including coverage of Tigray, and continue to be detained without formal charges,” Muthoki Mumo with the Committee to Protect Journalists told The Associated Press, calling the arrests “outrageous.”
Ethnic Tigrayans report being questioned and threatened. The African Union, based in Ethiopia, fired its ethnic Tigrayan head of security, according to a memo dated Wednesday and seen by the AP.
“I received no letter… they just told me not to show up for work as of Nov. 6,” a lecturer at the Federal Defense Engineering College told the AP. “It’s not just me, several dozens of others have faced the same situation.” Other ethnic Tigrayans said they are being blocked from boarding flights.
Fears have spread in the Ethiopian diaspora.
In the United States, activist Meaza Gidey wearily recounted her last contact with a relative in Mekele, the Tigray regional capital.
“He was hearing very heavy sounds of bombs, and after that I wasn’t able to hear from him,” she said of their Nov. 4 conversation, which ended with him telling her he was OK. “I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”
Gidey has scaled back calls to family members in Addis Ababa, fearing that the government is listening in. Despite the political and ideological differences, “a bullet is not a solution,” she said.
From his home in Belgium, university researcher Mekonnen Gebreslasie Gebrehiwot described his attempts to speak with family members in the capital, Addis Ababa.
“They don’t want to pick their phones up,” he said. “I try to talk to them about the situation, they think their phones are being monitored. They say, ‘We are fine, we are fine, call us later,’” and then message him separately, saying they are scared.
“I’m really afraid this might lead to ethnic attacks on Tigrayans,” said Mekonnen, who leads an association of ethnic Tigrayans. “It’s really frightening, and everywhere in the country they’re asking people to go out demonstrating for the heinous attacks that have been done by the TPLF. For me, it’s a sign of what’s coming.”
Ethiopian writer Teodrose Fikremariam, whose family fled to the U.S. during the bloodshed of the Derg regime decades ago, saw the Amnesty International report and quickly posted a plea.
“What the report did not assign is blame,” he wrote. And yet, “This report has quickly been seized by those who support Abiy Ahmed and those who support the TPLF alike to spin narratives that favor their agendas; the conflict is being fought on social media as much as it is fought in Tigray.”
The airwaves, he said, “are filled with selective outrage that is biased through the prism of ethnic affiliation.”
While critical of the TPLF, he said in a message to the AP that “all efforts must be undertaken by the Ethiopian government to ensure that the battle with TPLF is not construed as a battle against the people as a whole.”
The international community is now highlighting the threat of ethnic targeting in its pleas for an end to Ethiopia’s conflict.
“The demonization of ethnic groups is a vicious and lethal cycle from which Ethiopia must be spared,” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned the situation could “spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction.”
Some fellow Africans have expressed alarm after watching in amazement two years ago as Ethiopia underwent sweeping political reforms that won Abiy the Nobel. Observers have said for months those reforms are slipping.
Tanzanian opposition leader Zitto Kabwe pointed to Ethiopia’s past. “The mistake Abiy Ahmed Ali is making on Tigray is the same mistake Mengistu and the Derg made in November 1974 to prosecute the war in Eritrea,” he tweeted. “Federal govt enjoy a short-lived triumph but that may be the beginning of the end of Ethiopia as we know it – BALKANIZATION.”
Associated Press writer Haleluya Hadero in Atlanta contributed.