Exclusively for Ethiopia Insight, the man who played a leading role in detailing Eritrean crimes tells his story of the backlash.
I joined the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as a senior advisor for human rights investigation and monitoring on 5 February 2021, and later oversaw the Tigray branch of the EHRC.
Prior to joining the commission, I was an associate professor of law at Mekelle University, and before that I taught law at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom and the University of Hargeisa in Somaliland.
I was in my hometown of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, when civil war broke out in early November 2020 between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray regional government.
While there, I witnessed or was told of atrocities such as the shelling of residential buildings, Ethiopian forces killing civilians, looting, rape, mass arrests of Tigrayans, and starvation crimes.
The experience shook me to my core, and I resolved to do something for my fellow Tigrayans.
I was left with two choices: join the armed struggle against the invading armies or expose those crimes of the federal government and its allies from Amhara region and Eritrea.
When an opportunity arose to work for the EHRC, I went with the second option.
My name was on the list of candidates for EHRC commissioners, but friends, colleagues, and relatives advised me to withdraw my candidacy.
Joining the EHRC as a commissioner would have been politically toxic for my family and could have put them in danger. This is because the commission is widely despised in Tigray, as many Tigrayans regard it as biased in favor of the federal government.
As a result, I withdrew my nomination as a commissioner but agreed to work as a senior advisor. I did so with the expectation of benefitting my people, since I would be responsible for documenting and reporting atrocities committed in Tigray.
But, as I will explain below, because of the EHRC’s report on the Axum massacre and other investigations I was involved in, I was drawn into a difficult political saga.
Tigray has been almost completely cut off from the rest of the world since the beginning of the war. There is a communications blackout and many federal services have been shut down, including electricity, while very few journalists have been able to enter the region.
Because of this, information about the 28-29 November 2020 massacre in Axum—one of many massacres in Tigray, during which Eritrean soldiers reportedly killed hundreds of Tigrayan civilians—was not made public right away.
Information began to leak out slowly, but determining what happened, how many people were killed, and who was responsible was difficult at the time.
Amnesty International was eventually able to publish a remote investigation and reveal the extent of the massacre. Its findings also exposed multiple other war crimes committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in their offensive to take control of Axum.
Given that it was impossible to conduct an investigation on the ground, the Abiy regime and its cronies criticized Amnesty’s methodology while peddling disinformation—most laughably, a video of testimonies clearly labelled as a re-enactment was used to discredit the victims’ stories by claiming that “Priest Woldemariam” was in fact a man living in Boston.
After the reports emerged, I contacted federally appointed officials from Tigray’s interim administration on numerous occasions seeking permission to visit Axum and verify what had happened there, but was turned down each time.
Then, on 25 February 2021, I met with Commissioner Girmay Kahsay, who was head of the Security Bureau in the interim administration. I explained to him why I was going to Axum and how long my mission would take.
Girmay’s response was that security clearance for me to Axum would be impossible because all roads leading from Adigrat to Axum were under the control of Eritrean soldiers, and the interim administration had no direct contact with Eritrean forces.
This was the first confirmation I received from a top official regarding the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.
We debated the issues for hours, but he refused to budge. After a tiresome argument, Girmay made a concession. He allowed my team to travel to Adigrat, but warned me that Eritrean or Ethiopian forces would kill us if we ventured outside of the city.
I recognized an opportunity and agreed to his terms. But I knew in my heart of hearts that I would not return from Adigrat before reaching Axum.
Because I knew little about Axum, I put together a small team of people who are familiar with the city and who have connections there.
To prevent anything from getting in the way of the mission, I intended to keep it a secret. I kept my true strategy from the team and others.
The team and I began our journey to Adigrat on 26 February 2021. Once we left Mekelle, I informed them that we had to go to Axum by any means necessary. I can still picture the terror in their eyes upon learning the true nature of our mission.
“If we are taken by Ethiopian or Eritrean forces, we will have no documents to show them. This is very dangerous!” said one of them. Others nodded their heads in agreement.
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But I would not back down. I said there is no turning back and, even if we pay the ultimate price, we must bring to light the crimes committed against our people. Fortunately, they were convinced by my speech.
The checkpoints on the road from Adigrat to Axum were all controlled by Eritrean forces. We lied to them at each one, saying that we were sent to Axum to see if it would be possible to deliver humanitarian aid there.
We didn’t speak to them in Tigrigna, and instead always spoke in Amharic. We feared that if the Eritrean soldiers learned that we were Tigrayans, they would arrest us or, in the worst-case scenario, execute us.
Upon our arrival in Axum, it was shocking to see that all of the shops were closed and the city almost deserted.
Our team wasted no time and began conversing with everyone I had managed to reach before leaving Mekelle. The locals were initially reluctant to talk when I introduced myself as a representative of the EHRC and said that I came to look into reports of a massacre in the city.
The extent of Tigrayans’ mistrust of the EHRC was so deep that it made me question my safety. At first, we struggled for hours to speak with survivors and witnesses.
Only after two members from the St. Mary of Zion Church volunteered to assist us in locating witnesses and survivors did we finally make progress.
These two people are highly respected in their communities. Their presence with us relieved the tension, and witnesses flocked to speak with us.
Amnesty’s report on Axum was written after conducting phone interviews with residents. As such, we were the first investigators to reach Axum in person.
This was momentous for me, but also intimidating.
We gathered a significant amount of evidence in a short period of time and were able to pull together the identity of hundreds of victims in a matter of days. Additionally, we received images and videos from relatives, medics, and locals.
However, the investigation mission was dogged by controversy from the start.
On 1 March 2021, while our team was still in Axum gathering evidence, Tigray Media House (TMH), a privately owned media outlet based in the U.S., revealed our covert mission to Axum.
I have no idea how the media obtained this information. To my horror, the journalist misrepresented the investigation’s goal and mentioned my name.
The story stated, “The head of the EHRC Tigray Branch, Mr. Asmelash, is leading a team of investigators in Axum. He was threatening witnesses for testifying to Amnesty International, and he asked to see victim graveyards [to determine] if there was a massacre in Axum.”
“Abiy Ahmed sent the team he was leading in Axum to disprove Amnesty’s report,” the TMH report continued.
This was a shocking and untrue allegation.
For the record, I never threatened witnesses and was not sent by anybody to disprove Amnesty’s report. In reality, even the EHRC chief commissioner, Daniel Bekele, was unaware of my visit to Axum.
In fact, the disturbing details in the Amnesty report were what motivated me to travel to gather evidence. I was set on discovering the truth, particularly given how the Prime Minister and his allies criticized Amnesty’s report.
Above all, by exposing the mission, TMH put my life at risk. The Eritrean and Ethiopian armies controlled Axum at the time, and I arrived undercover to look into crimes perpetrated by both forces.
We used several techniques to conceal our identities and those of our witnesses while conducting interviews. For instance, to avoid being noticed, we continually changed locations.
However, the TMH report ruined everything, as tens of thousands of people heard the unfounded allegations levied against me.
As word spread, family members in and outside of Mekelle began calling me—as the communications blackout was eased after the interim administration took over. Throughout the night, I answered call after call. I couldn’t sleep the entire night.
I was frightened that Eritrean or Ethiopian soldiers would find my hotel and execute me if they saw the report. Such fears were not unfounded given that others who were exposed in a similar manner were previously slain.
All of the warring factions have attacked people perceived to be on the opposing side.
For example, members of the interim government were reportedly assassinated. However, it is still unknown who murdered them. The federal government accuses the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), while the TPLF government claims federal authorities killed them.
I messaged EHRC colleagues saying that I needed to cancel the mission for my own safety. That was when the chief commissioner learned for the first time that I was in Axum investigating the massacre
Although the TPLF government was pushed out of Axum at the time, several low-profile but armed local militias and cadres were present there, something I noticed the day before TMH revealed my presence in Axum.
One of them, Gere (name changed for his safety), met me at St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum. When I received his phone call, I assumed he wanted to provide me with evidence. However, he warned me to leave Axum immediately or face the consequences.
I knew he wasn’t by himself. Men were watching us from a few meters away. I was already in a hostile environment and TMH’s false report put even more strain on me.
I knew the next day that everyone in Axum had heard the news. I was restless because I was worried about what might happen to us.
The goal was to leave Axum and return to Mekelle in the early morning of 2 March. However, I saw a movement of troops in and around the city and there were checkpoints everywhere. Because of this, I decided that the time wasn’t right for us to depart.
Given that my team was composed of junior investigators and their presence was not revealed, I concluded that the other members would be safe if they left the city on that day. But they refused to abandon me.
So, we stayed in Axum and hid in several spots there. On 5 March, we managed to escape from Axum.
After fleeing Axum, I didn’t feel comfortable in Mekelle.
I was in grave danger and working on high-risk issues. There was an active war throughout Tigray and innocent civilians were executed by the warring parties for alleged involvement with the opposing party.
To make matters worse, the federal government made a fresh bid to undermine my credibility through its media outlets.
On 9 March 2021, the Ethiopian Herald, one of the country’s largest government-owned newspapers, released a piece titled, “Axum Massacre never occurred nor substantiated.”
The publication incorrectly stated that “The investigation team led by Asmelash (Ph.D.) met with the deputy administrator of Axum’s St. Mary of Zion Church following Amnesty International’s report on the alleged incident in Axum. According to him, the church representatives failed to show the burial grounds of the ‘victims’ to the investigation team claiming that they buried the bodies in different places and at churches in Axum. The investigators’ desire to meet families of the ‘dead’ was also unfulfilled.”
Many ethnic Tigrayans, believing I had given a damning interview to a government propaganda outlet, began sending me threatening messages. However, they did not know that the federal government had launched a coordinated attack on me.
The goal was clear: the government wanted to divert attention and did not want the evidence our team had gathered to be made public. By publishing a false article, I truly believe that the government intended to have me killed by TPLF elements.
I was determined to face the consequences, regardless of whether it would cost my life. I traveled to Addis Abeba alone, carrying all of the evidence we had gathered in Axum.
On 14 March 2021, I submitted the first draft of my report.
Complications emerged because, prior to 24 March, the federal government consistently denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, while the preliminary report accused Eritrean soldiers of brutally murdering hundreds of civilians on 28 and 29 November 2021.
The federal government did not want the report made public for fear of upsetting its Eritrean allies. As a backup plan, I instructed some confidants to leak the report to the media if it was not released and if something happened to me.
The report was finally released on 24 March—the same day Abiy was forced to admit the presence of Eritrean troops—after many twists, turns, and personal fights. For example, the EHRC removed many sentences from the first draft and added things with which I disagreed.
Most notably, I was unable to identify what had triggered the attack. However, the chief commissioner claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for an earlier attack on Eritrean soldiers by local youth and Tigray forces.
I simply couldn’t deduce the precise triggering factor from the interviews and group discussions. When I asked the locals, some said they didn’t know what caused the massacre. Some did speculate that it was done in retaliation, while others claimed the attack was spontaneous. There were also claims that the attack was meant to exterminate all Tigrayans.
Given my determination to see the report released, I received some insults from colleagues at the EHRC. I was called “Junta” (a name given to TPLF) and other ethnic slurs were hurled at me.
But I didn’t really mind—I was willing to pay the ultimate price.
Although the report drew widespread attention from the international community, it also drew criticism for its misleading headline, which read, “Eritrean troops killed more than 100 civilians in Tigray: Rights group.”
Many Tigrayan civilians, politicians, and survivors condemned the report. As a result, some Tigrayans harassed and threatened me.
They were correct in claiming that the headline misrepresented the scope of the atrocities and the number of victims.
However, the truth is that the number of victims documented in the first draft I submitted was in the hundreds. The wording was changed from “hundreds” to “more than a hundred” by a person at the commission who despises Tigrayans.
When I had the opportunity to speak with VOA Amharic, I stated unequivocally that “hundreds” were massacred.
A few days later, the government issued another statement that contradicted my findings. My integrity was once again called into question.
Amnesty International came to my defense and chastised the government for its inaccurate report. The EHRC, on the other hand, has not issued a similar statement.
Through no fault of my own, I was made to bear the brunt of the criticism.
Aside from the psychological toll, the Axum report has harmed my relationships with many people on both sides of the aisle.
I was attacked by both sides simply for doing my job as a human rights defender and exposing one of the most heinous crimes committed in Tigray.
When the government falsely accused me, I expected some sort of public statement from the EHRC condemning the federal government’s tactic of publicly humiliating human rights defenders. I was deeply disappointed when the commission failed to come to my defense.
The Axum massacre has been covered widely. However, the story of individual victims and survivors has not yet been told in full detail.
Given the federal government’s refusal to allow the UN Human Rights Council, the AU Commission of Inquiry, or international rights groups to conduct investigations in Tigray, we may never know exactly what happened in Axum.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Axum Zion Orthodox Church in Axum; 15 August, 2019; Artush Foto.
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