'No more sacred places': Heritage sites under siege in Tigray conflict


Negash, Ethiopia: Hajj Siraj Mohammed has spent five decades managing the famed al-Nejashi Mosque in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region, welcoming worshippers even during periods of conflict and famine.

But when war broke out last year in Tigray, he witnessed something he once thought impossible: The mosque itself, part of one of the oldest Muslim settlements in Africa, had become a target.

In late November Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers marched on the town of Negash, where the mosque is located, heading south towards the regional capital Mekele.

Cowering in a washroom, Siraj listened in horror as shells crashed into the mosque's dome and meeting hall, leaving the compound strewn with dust and rubble.

"Not only us, but Muslims all over the world are shocked that this happened," the frail 78-year-old told AFP.

It is now six months since fighting kicked off in Tigray, and the world is broadly aware of the massacres, gang rapes, and other forms of human suffering it has wrought.

However as the war grinds on with no end in sight, experts are also sounding the alarm about the fate of the region's revered places of worship, including monasteries and rock-hewn churches.

"I sometimes feel bad to talk about heritage because the stories we hear about what's happening to the people are much worse," said Alula Tesfay Asfha, a Tigray native and scholar of cultural heritage and urban planning at the Japan's University of Tsukuba.

"But collectively, as part of public history, heritage is very important."

Full damage unknown

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the once-dominant regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

His government blames the TPLF for starting the war by attacking army camps and has accused it of putting both civilians and heritage sites at risk.

In January state media asserted that pro-TPLF fighters had dug trenches near the al-Nejashi Mosque, drawing it into active conflict.

But when AFP reached the site in early March, residents said pro-TPLF fighters had fled the area long before pro-government soldiers arrived.

They also said Eritrean soldiers had looted the mosque compound.

There are fears that other heritage sites in Tigray have suffered similar -- or even worse -- damage.

Both Alula and Wolbert Smidt, a Tigray-focused ethnohistorian at the University of Jena in Germany, said they had received reports of gunfire and shelling at the sixth-century monastery of Debre Damo, north of the Tigray city of Adigrat.

More than 20 scholars voiced concern for the monastery in a January open letter calling for "the salvation of the cultural heritage of Tigray."

"It is beyond any doubt that the conflict is causing heavy damage... but since most communication lines remain cut off and the information coming from the region is minimal, it is difficult to assess the real scope of the losses," the letter said.

Shattered norms

Elsewhere in Tigray, religious sites have been turned into gruesome crime scenes.

In the town of Dengolat, hundreds of residents hid in a centuries-old Orthodox church as Eritrean soldiers allegedly gunned down more than 160 civilians in late November, survivors told AFP.

At around the same time, Eritrean soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians in the ancient Tigray city of Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, including Orthodox Christians gathering for a major festival, according to Human Rights Watch.

This kind of violence shatters a long-held norm in Ethiopia, where even in wartime churches are viewed as "a sort of parallel world" in which "protection is absolute," Smidt said.

"But now the message seems to be, as traditional believers often understand it according to my reports: We are not attacking leaders, we are attacking the society. There are no more sacred places, no more places of refuge, no options to avoid the war."

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, says the military objective in Tigray is simply to detain and disarm TPLF leaders.

Eritrea has denied involvement in atrocities.

'Another layer of history'

Other sites reportedly caught up in fighting are less prominent, but scholars still see their destruction as significant.

An attack on the Ligat Kirkos church, near the border with Eritrea, was likely part of an attempt by Eritrean soldiers to eradicate Tigrayan developments in territory the two countries have long contested, Alula said.

If confirmed, the scale of the damage to heritage sites would be unprecedented, said historian and Ethiopia expert Eloi Ficquet.

Proper recovery will require not just repairing physical sites, but also somehow mending ties between the state and the population, he said.

"If reconstruction is only material, a reconstruction only aimed at tourists, it would be disrespectful of the very nature of this heritage," he said.

Alula, the Tigray academic in Japan, says he draws some hope from the notion that heritage sites, and the power they possess, can never be fully eliminated.

"Even if you destroy them, you are just adding another layer of history on top of them," he said.

"Future generations will be able to tell the story of what happened during this time, and maybe they can learn from these problems in a way that leads to peace."

He added: "At this point, though, it's very hard."

Six months on and no end in sight

It has been six months since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray for a military campaign he vowed would be swift and targeted.

But violence rumbles on, and reports continue to emerge of massacres, rape and widespread hunger.

How did we get here?

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Ethiopia's northernmost region in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party that had dominated national politics for three decades.

He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.

It also followed months of tensions, including Tigray's holding of unauthorised elections.

The TPLF initially denied firing the first shots and said Abiy was seeking an excuse to invade the region.

How bad is the fighting?

After a few weeks of air strikes and heavy fighting, federal forces took control of the regional capital Mekele in late November.

Abiy declared victory and his government downplayed the TPLF's ability to mount an insurgency.

But the fighting has not ended.

Addressing diplomats in Mekele in March, General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, head of a command post in Tigray, described a "dirty war" with no fronts that was causing suffering for "defenceless victims".

Abiy said earlier this month that Ethiopia's military is fighting "on eight fronts" in hotspots including Tigray, where pro-TPLF fighters have adopted "guerrilla" tactics.

The UN's latest humanitarian update for Tigray, published Tuesday, describes "active hostilities reported in the central, eastern and northwestern parts of the region."

"Fighting is still going on and it appears that it is even intensifying in some parts, which makes me believe that apparently there cannot be a military solution to this conflict," Janez Lenarcic, the EU commissioner for crisis management, told AFP.

Who is involved?

Ethiopia's military leaned on forces from the country's Amhara region, south of Tigray, to secure western and southern Tigray after pro-TPLF troops fled.

The government in Amhara has made no secret of its plans to annex those territories, which it accuses the TPLF of illegally incorporating when it came to power in the early 1990s.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told Congress that "ethnic cleansing" is unfolding in western Tigray, with Amharas driving out Tigrayans -- something Amhara and federal officials deny.

Abiy has also received support from Eritrea's army, which is accused of some of the conflict's worst atrocities, including mass rapes and massacres that have left hundreds dead.

Both countries denied Eritrea's role until late March when Abiy finally acknowledged it before lawmakers.

He then said the Eritreans would withdraw, but so far that has not happened despite multiple appeals from abroad.

TPLF leaders, meanwhile, remain on the run and say their forces are gathering momentum and recruiting from disaffected Tigrayans.

Continued access restrictions for the media make such claims difficult to independently verify.

How is the world responding?

Last week the UN Security Council unanimously approved its first statement on the conflict, expressing "deep concern" over widespread rights violations and calling for a scaled-up humanitarian response.

It came after multiple meetings going back to November that had failed to yield any kind of concrete outcome.

In the US, Trump-era Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once praised Eritrea for its "restraint" but his successor Blinken has repeatedly demanded that the Eritreans leave.

The Biden administration has also appointed a special envoy to the Horn of Africa, veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman.

The European Union announced in December it was postponing nearly 90 million euros ($109 million) in budget support payments to Ethiopia.

Lenarcic told AFP that funding would not resume without unfettered humanitarian access and an "independent, credible" investigation of rights abuses committed during the conflict.

The African Union, for its part, has been relatively quiet since calling for a cessation of hostilities in November.

Abiy has rejected appeals from high-level AU envoys for talks with Tigrayan leaders, sticking to his line that the conflict is a limited "law and order" operation.

What is the humanitarian situation?

Fighting in Tigray disrupted the harvest in a region that was already food insecure.

The Abiy-appointed interim government estimates that some 4.5 million people now need food assistance.

"Further deterioration is expected as the conflict continues and disrupts the next planting season," the UN said Tuesday.

Briefing the UN Security Council on April 16, Mark Lowcock, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said he had received reports of 150 people "dying from hunger" in one part of southern Tigray.

That figure could not be verified, and Ethiopia responded by saying no one had died from hunger during the war.

Government documents reviewed by AFP this week said Eritrean troops were blocking and looting food aid in Tigray.

Timeline of the conflict

Here is a timeline of the ongoing crisis in Africa's second most populous country:

Troops enter

Fighting begins on November 4 2020, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordering a military response to what he calls a "traitorous" attack on federal army camps in Tigray.

He blames the attack on the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated national politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.

The TPLF denies responsibility and says the reported attack is a pretext for an "invasion".

Two days later, with fighting intensifying, Abiy sacks the head of the military, whose top brass includes many battle-hardened Tigrayans.

On November 9 Ethiopia carries out more air strikes in Tigray with Abiy saying the operation will be all over "soon".

Fleeing to Sudan

Tens of thousands of refugees flee into neighbouring Sudan as the African Union follows the United Nations in demanding an end to the fighting.

As the refugee flow swells tensions mount between the two countries, part of whose frontier is disputed.

'War crimes'

After 10 days' fighting, the UN warns of possible war crimes in Tigray.

Neighbouring Eritrea -- with which Abiy has signed a peace deal in 2018 that helped win him a Nobel prize -- is reported to be sending troops into Tigray to help Abiy.

Capital falls

Two weeks later, having rejected peace talks, Abiy says government tanks are advancing on Tigray's capital Mekele.

The city comes under heavy shelling on November 28 before Abiy announces that military operations in Tigray are "completed".

'Ethnic cleansing'

In February 2021 Amnesty International says Eritrean soldiers killed "hundreds of civilians" in November in the holy city of Axum in Tigray.

The following month AFP documents another massacre by the troops in Dengolat.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later urges Eritrea to withdraw and describes violence in western Tigray as "ethnic cleansing".

He also calls for special forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, to be ordered out of disputed areas they have taken.

Atrocities admitted

For months Ethiopia and Eritrea flatly deny the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict.

But on March 23 Abiy admits that Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray.

He also suggests they may have been involved in atrocities against civilians.

The next day the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says Eritrean soldiers massacred over 100 civilians in Axum in November, in what may amount to crimes against humanity.

The findings by the government-affiliated but independent body corroborate separate investigations by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.


After admitting Eritrea's role, Abiy flies to its capital Asmara to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

During the visit Abiy says Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces back over the border.

Just over a week later Ethiopia says Eritrean troops have "started to evacuate" Tigray but on April 15 the UN says there is no evidence of withdrawal.

'Humanitarian disaster'

Blinken urges Eritea to pull out "immediately and completely" and warns they are contributing to a "growing humanitarian disaster".

As international outraget mounts, AFP obtains government documents showing that Eritrean troops are looting and blocking food aid to the region.

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