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Ethiopia’s military crackdown in Tigray prompts accusations of ethnic cleansing

Allegations of ethnic cleansing that began last fall amid a military crackdown in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region now threaten to engulf the surrounding areas and permanently tarnish the reputation of the country’s nobel prize-winning prime minister. Thousands are dead, tens of thousands have been displaced, and the Ethiopian government is on the defensive. Coletta Wanjohi reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now two looks at the brutal conflict in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region.

    Allegations of ethnic cleansing began last fall amid a military crackdown and threaten to engulf the surrounding region and permanently tarnish the reputation of the country's Nobel Prize-winning prime minister. Thousands are dead. Tens of thousands have been displaced. The Ethiopian government is on the defensive.

    But it has also decided to slightly open the door to outside observers.

    Special correspondent Coletta Wanjohi is one of a handful of correspondents who has been allowed into Tigray and its capital, Mekelle.

    This report is based on what she saw and what the government of Ethiopia wanted the outside world to see.

    And a caution to viewers: Images and accounts in these reports may disturb some viewers.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Scars of war aren't hard to find in the heart of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. This is one of the schools here, converted into temporary shelter for the internally displaced.

    Kindhafi Abay, who is Tigrayan, walked for more than four days with her children to get here, hopping onto any truck willing to take them away. For four months now, this classroom, which they share with five other families, is what they have been forced to call home.

  • Kindhafi Abay (through translator):

    I fled here with five of my children. Others fled to Sudan. This is troubling me a lot. Since we arrived here, we have had so many problems.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    People like Kindhafi are trying to outrun a conflict spreading through Ethiopia's north. The region's powerful political party, representing the Tigrayan ethnic group, used to lead the Ethiopian government.

    But they clashed with current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The Tigray party retrenched in their home region, defying Abiy by holding regional elections. In response, Ethiopian government troops arrived in the north, aided by neighboring Eritrea.

    Fighting here has led to accusations that the government and Eritrean troops are committing human rights abuses against civilians. After months of denials, Ethiopia's prime minister has admitted troops from neighboring Eritrea have entered Tigray.

  • Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (through translator):

    The reason they show their presence is because they have a national security concern. We also informed the Eritrean government they are being accused of wrongdoings, looting and other things.

    The Eritrean government strongly denounced these allegations and said it will take strong measures on any of its soldiers who are found guilty of these accusations.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    The decision by the Ethiopian government to allow us and other foreign journalists cover the conflict in Tigray follows months of international pressure.

    Aid agencies were blocked from delivering humanitarian aid by the government for four months to nearly three million people still on the brink of starvation.

    Humanitarian worker Abadi Tesfay says many in the camps are in desperate need of more support.

  • Abadi Tesfay:

    Besides the support that we get on food, on nutrition or on hygiene, the most important need for these people is to get psychosocial support, because they are really in deep, in deep sad.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    The toll on the people of Tigray is a heavy one. Nevertheless, the government is keen to stress that its soldiers have paid a heavy price too.

    At its northern headquarters, government military officers tell of the attack last November 4 that started the war. Soldiers loyal to the Tigray political party attacked the barracks where much of the country's equipment and other military assets are kept.

  • Zeneb Bogalch (through translator):

    When they attacked us, we fought back with what we had, but they had already taken the weapons and they had control of the armory. We didn't have enough weapons.

    Many died from our side. There were many women soldiers who died, our friends. They didn't even bury those who died respectfully. It was tragic.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    In another part of the city, we were taken to meet wounded soldiers.

    Shambel Basha claims he was attacked by some of his colleagues who turned against the government four months ago.

  • Shambel Basha (through translator):

    Some of us had no affiliation to any political party. They chopped off my arm with an axe. I'm lucky to be alive.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    This military hospital in Mekelle is yet to return to full operations. The government says it was looted. The United Nations human rights body says it has received reports of sexual gender-based violence, rape, extrajudicial killings, among other crimes allegedly committed in the period of fighting.

    Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told Parliament any soldier found guilty of raping women and looting communities in the Tigray region will be held accountable. His government has insisted, though, that its own state-appointed Ethiopia Human Rights Commission conducts investigations jointly with the United Nations.

    The government here says it has given U.N. agencies and international organizations full access to all parts of the region to offer much-needed humanitarian assistance, but they should move around at their own risk.

    Aid agencies say movement around the region is still tough, partly because of insecurity and many security checks by government soldiers along the way. There is evidence of more humanitarian aid arriving here.

  • Nick Bechert:

    This is now our third cargo plane of supplies coming from the United States. So, those planes have delivered nutritional supplementary food for children. And that is what is on this plane behind me.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    But distribution of much needed assistance to some areas remains a challenge, mainly because of insecurity.

    The government says there is sporadic fighting in the region. Hundreds of thousands more have been unable to flee to the safety of such camps, and, altogether, millions of people in this part of Ethiopia are facing the very real threat of starvation.

    And although being in these camps may feel safer, they don't feel like home for many here, like Kindhafi.

  • Kindhafi Abay (through translator):

    I'm just alive because of the assistance from the residents of this city. But, above all, I want my own home, peace and my own home.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    The faith that one day the guns will go silent in this region and she will be reunited with her children who fled to Sudan keeps Kindhafi's hopes alive.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Coletta Wanjohi in Mekelle, Northern Ethiopia.

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