“We thought he was dead”: Tigrayans speak of torture in detention
Many Tigrayans have been forcibly disappeared in recent months. Now some who have been released tell their stories.
Tigrayans recently released from a military camp in the Afar region of Ethiopia say they faced torture and inhumane conditions. After the Tigray Defence Forces, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), retook the regional capital Mekelle in late-June, hundreds if not thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were arbitrarily detained by Ethiopian authorities across the country and transferred to undisclosed locations. Many were said to have been sent to Awash Arba, a military camp located in the northern Afar region, which borders Tigray to the east.
Ethiopia’s nearly year-long civil war has devastated the Tigray region. Thousands have been killed. There are reports of famine as the region remains under a government-imposed siege. And there have been widespread allegations of gruesome sexual violence, torture, and mass executions of Tigrayans, which observers say amounts to ethnic cleansing. The TPLF has also been accused of revenge killings and carrying out ethnically motivated massacres as their forces push through the neighbouring Amhara and Afar states.
Human rights abuses have long been reported at Awash Arba, which is also used as an army training facility. Witnesses held at the camp say that hundreds of Tigrayan civilians are being detained there, facing routine beatings and torture, with limited access to food and water. According to Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, arbitrary roundups have resumed over the last two weeks.
“These enforced disappearances deny people access to lawyers, and make people more vulnerable to mistreatment including torture, and other abuses,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told African Arguments. “Disconnecting detainees from their families also causes mental suffering, and in Ethiopia it also cuts detainees off from key supplies that relatives normally provide them with.”
“The government needs to account for all the Tigrayans’ forcibly disappeared, and release those being held without credible evidence of a crime,” she added.
Now, some of these Tigrayans detained at Awash Arba have been released and are telling their stories.
“They are making it into some kind of business”
Eyob*, 32, a father-of-two he was detained by police on the streets of Addis Ababa in September as he spoke Tigrinya on the phone. He was held at a police station for two days before being transferred to Awash Arba, where he stayed for a week. “It was very hard there. They tortured a lot of people,” Eyob told African Arguments. “There was not enough food or water. It was very hard.”
Eyob and other released Tigrayans say they were provided with at most one cup of water a day and fed just one or two pieces of bread for each meal, and sometimes not even that. They describe being kept with dozens of other Tigrayans in “large halls” with thin “blanket-like” mattresses to sleep on. Eyob, however, says those in his room were not even given blankets and were forced to sleep on the ground. Some were allowed outside their rooms once a day for fresh air, but others said they weren’t allowed outside at all.
Throughout the day, various Tigrayans would be called for interrogations with the soldiers. Eyob said soldiers punched and slapped him, leaving him in pain for several days, but claimed he was relatively lucky. “My interrogations were quite simple because they couldn’t get information on me,” he explained. “They take your phone and go through all of your social media, looking for any mention of Tigray. But they didn’t find anything on me. [The interrogations] lasted only 15-20 minutes. But others would be taken for more than an hour.”
Some people “came back bleeding or had their legs and hands broken,” said Eyob. “Several times the guys didn’t come back at all. I don’t know if they were taken somewhere else – or maybe something worse.”
After a week, Eyob was able to pay the Ethiopian soldiers 15,000 birr ($318) to get released. He says others were paying up to 200,000 birr ($4,238) and that some of his fellow inmates, all from Addis Ababa, had already been in Awash Arba for five months. “They are making it into some kind of business,” he said.
“I’m not scared anymore”
Gebre*, 31, moved to Addis Ababa five months ago, leaving his wife and ten-month-old child in Mekelle, after his tourism business collapsed amid the pandemic and the war. “I came here just to survive,” he said.
He was detained in mid-August while speaking Tigrinya at a cafeteria. At the police station, his hair was cut before he was put on a bus that drove for ten hours. “We didn’t know we were going to Awash Arba,” he told African Arguments. “We only found out after a few days of being there because the other prisoners told us.”
Gebre said that the detainees were only permitted to shower with a jerry can once every ten days and were only allowed access to a toilet at 6am and 6pm each day. “Everyone in there was getting very sick,” he said. “There were a lot of people suffering from malaria and stomach problems.”
Gebre says he was called for interrogations four times as soldiers accused him of delivering messages for the TPLF. “They hit me on my back and on my legs with sticks,” he said. “Sometimes they smashed and hit my face. I was really wounded. But after several weeks I started to feel better. Now my injuries are mostly healed and I’m just dealing with the psychological injury.”
“I saw one guy who [the soldiers] beat so badly,” Gebre recounted. “I think he was fighting with them and refusing to cooperate. There were three soldiers beating him and afterwards he was injured so badly that I don’t think it’s possible he survived after that.”
Gebre says women and girls were held in a separate hall and that there were rumours they were being raped. He told African Arguments how the detained Tigrayans were terrified and did not know what their fate would be. “We were really scared because we believed that the soldiers were going to take us out at some point and shoot us…Every day I am thanking God that I was released.”
Gebre says that after a month, soldiers called out 25 names including his, and took them on a bus to a town in Afar and released them. “They told us that they will be watching us and following us wherever we go,” he said.
“I’m not scared anymore,” Gebre told African Arguments. “Of course, I don’t speak Tigrinya on the streets and I don’t trust anyone; I won’t give them an excuse to take me again. I am feeling worried even speaking to you because maybe someone can hear me or they put something on my phone to listen to me. But I don’t hide when I see the police anymore. After that experience, I don’t think they can do worse to me.”
“I have to be strong for my family,” he continued. “I cannot allow myself to be depressed because I must be ready to reunite with them when this is over.” Both Gebre and Eyob have not been able to communicate with their families since the TPLF retook Tigray.
“We thought he was dead”
Hayelom*, 42, was caught up in the mass roundups soon after the war erupted in November 2020 and interrogated for a week. He was detained again after the TPLF took Mekelle and transferred to Awash Arba, where he spent about two months.
“I was in a room with about 50 others and I never saw the light of day the entire time I was there; they never let us outside,” the father-of-three told African Arguments. “They were just torturing us for no reason.”
Hayelom says he was interrogated three times and that inmates were beaten with “heavy plastic sticks” and made to crawl on their stomachs along sharp gravel for about an hour. “If you got tired and you couldn’t do it anymore, the soldiers would start beating you,” he said, explaining how he sustained scratches and bruises along the length of his body and couldn’t move for a day afterwards.
The worst injury he experienced, however, was when soldiers beat his legs, which he injured in a car accident three years ago. “The soldiers beat my legs so badly that they broke them again,” he said. Hayelom continues to need a cane to walk. He also suffers from diabetes and said there was only one pharmacist who would provide pain killers.
“The whole time we were thinking we were going to die here,” Hayelom added. “Every morning when they opened the doors we thought this would be our last day. We assumed we were going to be killed. I felt so sad and heartbroken that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my family.”
Hayelom was eventually released, along with a group of 36 others who were becoming dangerously ill, some of whom were suffering from diabetes, HIV, and high blood pressure. Like the others who spoke to African Arguments, Hayelom is relieved he did not suffer an even worse fate in the camp.
“There was a man who tried to escape from the camp,” Hayelom recalled. “When they caught him, they locked him in a very small room for three days without giving him food or water. And they were beating him every day and every night for three days. As soon as he was let out, he looked like someone else. He was drastically changed and his legs were broken. He was beaten so badly that he couldn’t even speak. We thought he was dead and the soldiers were just bringing his body out.”
African Arguments reached out to the Ethiopian government for comment on allegations of torture and abuse at Awash Arba, but the spokesperson did not respond.
*names changed to protect interviewees’ identities