The first shells landed before dawn, crashing through tin-roofed mud homes and sending Jano Admasi’s neighbours fleeing for the cacti-dotted hills around her village in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Jano, a soft-spoken woman in her sixties, tried to escape as well, running with her eldest son, 46-year-old Miskana, along a dirt road leading out of the village.
But on the way, she says, they encountered Ethiopian government soldiers who turned them around, forcing them into a nearby house with two other terrified families.
What happened next, described by three eyewitnesses but denied by the Ethiopian government, casts doubt on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim that his military offensive in Tigray has been prosecuted with special care for civilian lives.
In an apparent rage, the soldiers accused Miskana and two other men in the group of aiding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose leaders are the target of the military operations ordered last month.
“They asked us who we were, and we said we are just farmers and elderly women,” Jano told AFP. “They came back again and said ‘Get out’, and separated the men from the women.”
The soldiers made the men including Miskana sit down and, before Jano fully realised what was happening, shot them dead with Kalashnikov rifles.
A 15-year-old boy who leapt in front of a bullet in a futile bid to save his father was also killed.
The killings — which took place on November 14, 10 days after Abiy announced the offensive — represent just one incident of civilian suffering in Bisober, a farming village home to roughly 2,000 people in southern Tigray.
In the three days it took federal forces to wrest control of the village from the TPLF, 27 civilians died, according to local officials and residents: 21 from shelling and six in extrajudicial killings.
The government has tightly restricted access to the region, making it difficult to assess the toll of a conflict the UN warns is “spiralling out of control”.
But AFP recently obtained exclusive access to southern Tigray, where residents of multiple towns and villages accused both government and pro-TPLF combatants of, at best, putting civilians in harm’s way — and, at worst, actively targeting them.
Survivors told AFP they dreaded how many civilians could have died across Tigray.
“If in just this one area you have this much destruction,” said Bisober resident Getachew Abera, “then imagine what might have happened generally.”
The military did not respond to a request for comment.
Ethiopia’s democratisation minister Zadig Abraha told AFP that any claims that Ethiopian soldiers killed civilians were “false”.
– Village warfare –
In retrospect, Bisober residents say, the first sign of the conflict came seven months ago, when members of the Tigray Special Forces took over the village’s elementary school, which had been emptied because of the coronavirus pandemic.
By early November, when the first shots were fired, some 250 pro-TPLF troops were encamped there, digging trenches behind classrooms and storing weapons in what was once the principal’s office.
The Tigrayan fighters’ decision to base themselves in the centre of Bisober helps explain the carnage that ensued, said Getachew Nega, the village administrator.
“The TPLF lost hope and they came and put heavy weapons and other weapons in this village. They shouldn’t have done this,” Getachew said.
Once the fighting started, Tigrayan combatants broke into abandoned homes from which they fired on Ethiopian soldiers, witnesses said, inviting massive damage.
Across Bisober, shelling from both sides tore open the walls of concrete homes and destroyed mud homes altogether, leaving only metal roofs behind.
“The conflict was a sudden act. Both parties had their missions, and we were caught in between,” said Said Idriss, a member of a newly-formed command post trying to restore order in the area.
“They could have asked the people to leave earlier.”
– ‘Like spilt water’ –
Today Bisober is relatively calm, with many residents labouring in nearby sorghum fields, trying to salvage this year’s harvest.
Security is provided by special forces from the neighbouring Afar region, who use rags to clean their guns while lazing under acacia trees in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the village.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces reportedly seized the regional capital Mekele, but the TPLF has vowed to fight on and the UN has recently reported persistent clashes throughout the region.
Human rights organisations are calling for thorough, independent investigations of the violence — though Abiy is resisting the idea.
Government spokesman Redwan Hussein told a press conference last week that outside investigators would be allowed in only “when the Ethiopian government feels that it failed to investigate” on its own.
Ethiopia “doesn’t need a babysitter,” he added.
Jano, for her part, has little time for such debates.
She can’t shake the memory of watching soldiers shoot her son in front of her, and of waiting in the street with his body for two full days, unsure what to do.
“We didn’t cry. We were too terrified. We were trembling with fear,” she said.
Instead of worrying about whether the perpetrators will be held to account, she said she is focused on trying to rebuild her life and care for Miskana’s three children.
“I already lost my son and he’s not coming back,” she said.
“It’s like spilt water, you cannot get it back.”