AKSUM CHURCH MASSACRE AND ATTACKS ON CULTURAL HERITAGE IN ETHIOPIA
A deacon of the St. Mary of Zion church in the town of Aksum, northern Tigray region, reported to the Associated Press that approximately 800 people were killed near the church around 28 November. St. Mary of Zion is especially holy to adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as it is supposed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.
The deacon attributed the killings to Eritrean armed forces operating in Tigray. Soldiers reportedly forced their way into the church, dragged out worshippers and shot at those who tried to flee. The deacon said that “we could hear gunfire all over” and that bodies were scattered around Aksum. Although reports of the massacre were previously shared on social media, the ongoing communications blackout in Tigray had inhibited verification.
Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments deny Eritrea’s involvement in the ongoing Tigray conflict, despite the fact that reports of rape, killings, looting and other abuses perpetrated by Eritrean forces continue to surface.
The massacre in Aksum is among a number of recent attacks on or around Tigray’s ancient cultural and religious heritage. The town of Aksum is a UNESCO World Heritage site with ancient ruins of global significance. Other locations in Tigray that have been reportedly targeted and damaged during the armed conflict include the al-Nejashi mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, and the Debre Damo monastery, home to ancient manuscripts and the oldest original-style church in Ethiopia, dating back to the sixth century. The deliberate destruction of protected cultural heritage is a war crime under international law.
The ongoing conflict in Tigray has also resulted in the ethnic targeting of Tigrayans both inside and outside Ethiopia. On 22 February a group of 15 ethnic Tigrayan soldiers due to return from serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan requested asylum in Juba, fearing that they would be persecuted upon their return to Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, widespread civilian displacement and ongoing fighting in rural areas of Tigray leaves the population at risk of further atrocities. With 4.5 million people in need of emergency food assistance, the latest situation report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described the response to the crisis in Tigray as “drastically inadequate compared to the sheer magnitude of needs across the region.”
All attacks on civilians and cultural heritage in Ethiopia must be independently investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation. Parties to the conflict must facilitate humanitarian access to all areas of Tigray and uphold its responsibility to protect all its populations, regardless of ethnicity.
Extract from Atrocity Alert, a weekly publication by the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.