How conflict between Tigrayan, Ethiopian forces is destabilizing the region

The U.S. State Department is now allowing non-essential workers and family members to leave Ethiopia as rebel forces from the Northern Tigray region approach the capital. The two sides and their allies have been fighting for exactly one year, and as Nick Schifrin reports, the conflict is on the brink of an all-out civil war that threatens to tear apart the country.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. State Department is now allowing nonessential workers and family members to leave Ethiopia, as rebel forces from the northern Tigray region approach to capital. The two sides and their allies have been fighting for exactly one year.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, the conflict is on the brink of all-out civil war that threatens to tear apart the country.

  • And a caution:

    Images and accounts in this story may disturb some viewers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the one-year anniversary of the conflict, Ethiopian soldiers and officials lit candles for those they called martyred heroes. And while some protected flames from the wind, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed fanned the flames of war.

  • Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian Prime Minister (through translator):

    We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and uphold the glory of Ethiopia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Government airstrikes target civilian infrastructure in Tigray's capital, Mekelle. And the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is acute; 400,000 face famine. Five million need aid to survive.

    But a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development told "PBS NewsHour" the Ethiopian government and its allies have blocked all aid for two weeks by barring these trucks from entering Tigray.

    And now Tigrayan forces are advancing south. Analysts warn, the country's fate is at stake. The crisis began exactly one year ago, when Tigrayan forces who used to run the country attacked a federal outpost. Federal forces and their allies from neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region waged a scorched-earth campaign and occupied parts of Tigray.

    But, in late June, Tigrayan forces pushed federal Ethiopian soldiers out and kept going from Tigray into neighboring Amhara and afar, and now toward the capital, Addis Ababa. They captured two key towns and allied themselves with a small militia from the Oromo ethnic group, to which Abiy also belongs.

    Throughout, it's been a year of what the U.N. calls unprecedented brutality.

    Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, Africa Director, United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights: There are reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by all parties to the conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maarit Kohonen Sheriff the Africa Director for the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Which yesterday released the first official account of the war's horrors, a joint investigation with the Ethiopian government.

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:

    The joint investigative team was looking into executions, summary arbitrary killings, into arbitrary detentions, into violence against women, gang rape, multiple sexual violence against boys, the destruction, the looting of property, livelihoods, the destruction of medical centers, and the fact that humanitarian aid has not reached those in need.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That list of atrocities, according to our reporting, was committed almost entirely by Ethiopian Defense Forces and their allies.

    Do you acknowledge that?

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:


    In the period of the specific investigation report between November and June, the majority of the violations were indeed committed by the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the Eritrean National Defense Forces, as well as the Amhara regional forces, and their allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But since then, the report details Tigrayan forces advancing and killing hundreds of civilians, sometimes with axes and machetes.

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:

    We have indeed documented several of those incidents where Tigrayan forces have caused tremendous suffering, whether it's to Amharans or other ethnic groups in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.N. says its investigators were intimidated, harassed, and blocked from visiting the sites of massacres. One was expelled by the Ethiopian government.

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:

    The intimidation of the team was unacceptable. It was by regional authorities, by — sometimes even by the civilian population, because you would have seen the incitement on social media.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But because U.N. investigators teamed up with Ethiopian officials, Tigrayan officials called the report — quote — "an affront to the notion of impartiality."

    Are you withholding some criticism of the Ethiopian government in order to keep working with them?

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:

    Absolutely not. We are impartial to the parties. We don't get involved in the political conflict. But we're not neutral to the suffering of the victims.

    The intention of this report is precisely to put a legal obligation on the duty-bearers, that being the government and the authorities of, Ethiopia to take the steps for legal criminal investigations to establish accountability.

    But, to be honest, without the joint investigation, we would not have been able to access the victims.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The world is calling for an immediate cease-fire. Today, U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman is in Addis.

    But international pressure isn't working. The Ethiopian military's second highest officer, General Bacha Debele:

  • Lt. General Bacha Debele, Ethiopian National Defense Force (through translator):

    We don't need to heed the advice of foreigners about how to deal with this conflict. This is our war against those who attempt to enslave us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But there are fears the Ethiopian military cannot protect the capital. And the U.N. warns the stability of Ethiopia and the wider region is at stake.

  • Maarit Kohonen Sheriff:

    Ethiopia borders are on countries that already have very unstable situations.

    So, the conflict, as it is escalating, can seriously destabilize the entire Horn of Africa. The ones who have any territorial control in this country need to step up for the love of the people, for the love of the country, because, otherwise, there will be no Ethiopia anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tonight, there's real fear the capital could be overrun. The Tigrayan rebel army is advancing, and there's little to stop them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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