Residents reported that Ethiopian government soldiers entered homes and killed numerous civilians in a town located in the Amhara region last month. The violence occurred following conflicts with a local militia.
The recent deaths in Merawi seem to be among the most lethal incidents in Amhara since a revolt by Fano, a militarized Amhara organization, broke out last year due to a controversial proposal to disarm local troops.
The Fano joined forces with the federal military of Ethiopia during the two-year civil war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which concluded in November 2022. However, the government began to view the Fano and other regional forces as a challenge to its power.
The government of Ethiopia has prohibited journalists from visiting the Amhara region, which is currently facing a rise in crime. In addition, the government has also restricted internet access. The Guardian conducted phone interviews with individuals in Merawi, who all requested anonymity due to concerns about potential consequences.
According to witnesses, the violence began on January 29th after a prolonged battle between federal forces and Fano militia members. After the militia withdrew, soldiers reportedly entered homes and attacked civilians, accusing them of being combatants.
A witness reported spending the day hiding at home while gunfire continuously echoed throughout the town. The witness also stated that civilian areas were struck by artillery.
The following day, he ventured outdoors and witnessed a disturbing sight: “at least 34 corpses” scattered along the street. The townspeople had gathered them together. He observed that some of them had been shot in the head, resulting in their faces being “completely obliterated,” according to his account.
A second eyewitness, an Eastern Orthodox clergyman who came to Merawi on January 30th, reported seeing approximately 50 corpses scattered along the main road in the city. According to the priest, it appeared that many of the victims had been killed in a manner resembling execution, with gunshot wounds to their heads.
According to the priest, his brother was fatally shot multiple times at his front door by soldiers who also stole his money and phone during the violent incident.
One person reported that he was aware of 45 individuals who had been murdered, including his own brother who was found with bullets in his head. He stated that the killings took place over a span of two days and involved soldiers forcibly entering homes and breaking down doors.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the oldest civil society organization in the country, reported that over 80 civilians have been killed. In a statement released on Tuesday, they urged for additional investigations to be conducted. The council did not specify the perpetrators of the killings, but urged the government to take legal action against those responsible.
The American envoy to Ethiopia, Ervin Massinga, requested a thorough inquiry, expressing the US government’s profound worries over the allegations.
Ethiopia’s parliament has prolonged a state of emergency enacted in August in order to suppress the turmoil. Daniel Bekele, leader of the state’s government-appointed organization for human rights, expressed serious apprehension regarding the extension of the emergency. He pointed out the increasing number of civilian deaths, detentions before trial, and urgent humanitarian requirements.
Daniel told the Guardian that his organisation had not yet completed its investigation into the Merawi killings, and that it had documented a range of abuses in Amhara since August. These included the shelling of civilian areas, ethnically motivated arrests and killings. In November, Human Rights Watch said: “The authorities have resorted to past repressive tactics to limit access to real-time information and independent scrutiny.”
On Tuesday, Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, urged “extremists in the Amhara region” and rebels in the neighboring Oromia state to abandon violence and engage in peaceful political activism. He also stated that thousands of individuals who were detained during the state of emergency have undergone rehabilitation and have been freed.
In April 2023, Abiy’s administration declared a strategy to incorporate regional forces into the national military and police, causing conflicts. In August, Fano militia members, who have significant backing in Amhara, temporarily seized control of multiple towns and airports in the area, leading to intense street fights and large-scale demonstrations.
Afterward, they have withdrawn to the hilly rural areas, engaging in a guerrilla strategy of surprise attacks and frequently looting police stations in urban areas for arms. The United States and the United Kingdom discourage any travel to Amhara, which houses many of Ethiopia’s popular tourist destinations.
However, despite opposition from certain invited individuals, a western diplomat reports that the government is committed to hosting a peace and security summit in April in Bahir Dar, the regional capital. Bahir Dar is located only 18 miles north of Merawi. Originally scheduled for October, the summit was delayed due to unforeseen circumstances.
Humanitarian aid workers report that the unstable conditions are hindering the distribution of food to those in need in the area. According to the federal ombudsman, there have been numerous cases of starvation and death due to a severe drought and the lingering effects of the Tigray conflict, which has spread to Amhara. Additional deaths from starvation have also been documented in Tigray.
The Amhara forces in the region, including the Fano group, have been accused of carrying out a violent campaign to ethnically cleanse western Tigray since November 2020. This area is being claimed by the forces as their own and they have attempted to annex it during the conflict against the TPLF.
Efforts to obtain a statement from the government of Ethiopia were unsuccessful.