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Peace deal ending Ethiopia’s Tigray war but allays fears of further atrocities

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NAIROBI — A three-month-old peace deal in Ethiopia has revived humanitarian aid and restored telephone connections and electricity to the northern region of Tigray, but many families there are still frightened by the continued presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, who being blamed for a spate of atrocities during the Two Years’ War.

Despite widespread reports of a withdrawal by the Eritreans, who have supported Ethiopian government forces, residents of three Tigrayan towns said in interviews they had only seen Eritrean soldiers until Tuesday. Others said relatives in the countryside had told them the soldiers had not left there either.

“We have no peace when we live in fear,” said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Over the weekend, a garish convoy of hundreds of vehicles carrying Eritrean soldiers headed north through Tigray, leading some residents to hope that the soldiers would finally withdraw. Soldiers honked and waved Eritrean flags, according to a video shared with The Washington Post, and there were taunting messages on the sides of the trucks. “We are fierce for our enemies,” read one.

A video obtained by The Washington Post shows Eritrean troops driving through Tigray in a honking convoy. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

It remains unclear whether the Eritrean soldiers retreated or simply repositioned. The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea have made no public statements and journalists’ access to the region remains severely restricted, making it difficult to establish the status of the Eritreans, who entered the war in the early days to defend embattled Ethiopian troops who had been overwhelmed by the capture of their bases by Tigrayan rebels.

Tigrayan forces and the central government of Ethiopia signed a peace deal in South Africa on Nov. 2, ending a conflict that has displaced more than 2 million people, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and threatened the integrity of Africa’s second most populous nation threatened. The cessation of fighting has improved the lives of millions of people and paved the way for thousands of trucks carrying food and other relief supplies to reach the starving region.

But the deal sidestepped the thorniest of issues and made no reference to — or even mention of — Eritrea, whose soldiers quickly gained a reputation for brutality. Tigrayan residents accused them of systematic gang rapes, sexual slavery, industrial-scale looting and frequent massacres of civilians – allegations supported by independent human rights groups and investigations by journalists.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not respond to requests for comment on how many Eritrean soldiers were present in Tigray and how long they would stay, or did not comment on reports of atrocities. Ethiopia’s national security adviser, Redwan Hussein, and the prime minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Tigrayan residents, shocked by multiple reports of an Eritrea withdrawal over the past month, provided The Post with photos and videos taken in their towns over the past two weeks showing Eritrean soldiers in their camouflage uniforms and signature plastic sandals . The pictures and videos, verified by The Post, show Eritrean soldiers strolling through the town of Axum in northern Tigray. Witnesses also spoke of Eritrean soldiers near Adigrat and in other towns.

A video obtained by The Washington Post shows Eritrean soldiers in Axum in northern Tigray, months after a peace deal was signed. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, residents in the cities of Axum, Adwa and Sheraro said some Eritrean soldiers were still present.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Saturday that he had spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and that “the continued withdrawal of Eritrean troops is a critical step in securing hope and peace.”

Ethiopia urgently needs money to rebuild its economy. It has a $907 million financing pact with the World Bank, but is also pursuing debt restructuring and wants the suspension of a preferential trade deal with the US lifted. “In order to have international funding and funding flow, Eritrea must withdraw,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

In the Tigray region, doctors at hospitals in three cities last week said women are still coming in to report being raped by Eritrean soldiers. Residents said in interviews that the Eritreans also routinely looted food, animals and any remaining phones or equipment from the impoverished population.

In Adwa, two residents said Eritrean soldiers rounded up a group of young men from the market in mid-January. They have not been seen since then. Residents said relatives called on the Ethiopian military for news. Colonel Getnet Adane, an Ethiopian military spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment.

When the conflict broke out, Eritrea and Ethiopia both denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray for months. The intervention eventually became clear, but the number of soldiers sent to Ethiopia has never been disclosed.

In Eritrea, residents reported unprecedented levels of forced military conscription last year. In November, a resident of the capital, Asmara, reported counting more than a dozen homes on five streets that had been closed off by the government. Evictions have become a common punishment when a family member runs away from compulsory military service or when a family refuses to inform relatives who have done so.

Yet the peace deal between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels has already brought relief to doctors who had seen patients die from lack of basic medicines during the months when aid was blocked, and to the families of fighters and civilians who survived.

The Tigrayan armed forces handed over an estimated two-thirds of their heavy weapons to the government this month, the diplomat said. In addition to the resumption of humanitarian aid, life has improved as electricity has been restored to major cities and two local banks are allowing small cash withdrawals for the first time since November 2020. Telephone connections have been restored in the major cities.

Flights between Mekelle in Tigray and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have also resumed, though passengers say there are restrictions on who can board.

A woman who waited at the airport for two days said she witnessed four families lavishly reunited, then the returning member suddenly collapsed when they realized someone was missing or noticed that the traditional gauzy Ethiopian white scarf, the netela, was worn in mourning fashion. Traditionally, families do not like to share news of a death over the phone, preferring to postpone it until it can be told in person.

If relatives are further away, it may take even longer for the news to get through. A health worker who lives abroad said he had spoken to his family on the phone three times since the peace deal was signed.

Each time he asked to speak to his father, who was a priest and farmer, and was told he was at the church. In fact, his father had passed away in November after being ill for two weeks when the local hospitals had no medicine to treat him.

Eventually, his family managed to connect with other Ethiopian expatriates in the city where he lived. Two knocked on his door. When he opened it and saw their formal attire, he knew his father was dead.

“I just wanted to hold his hands and show my love for him. That’s what hurts my heart,” he said. “I didn’t put dirt on his coffin.”

Le reported from Washington.

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