In Ethiopia’s Civil War, Thousands of Jailed Tigrayans Endured Squalor and Disease

In a packed Ethiopian prison last November, charity worker Tesfaye Weldemaryam cried out in delirium for two weeks. To make space for Tesfaye to lie down, said a cellmate, other prisoners huddled together in the darkness, their legs aching from constant standing.

Tesfaye, 36, was one of nearly 3,000 ethnic Tigrayans who were crammed into 18 squalid cells in the southern town of Mizan Teferi. Across Ethiopia, Reuters has identified at least a dozen other locations where thousands more Tigrayans have been held without trial as the government battles a 19-month-old insurgency that began in the northern Tigray region.

The United Nations estimates that more than 15,000 Tigrayan civilians were arrested between November and February alone, when emergency laws were in force. Reuters reporting, including interviews with 17 current and former detainees and a review of satellite imagery, indicates that the total number of arrests is at least 3,000 higher than the U.N. estimate. A senior Tigrayan opposition figure, Hailu Kebede, told Reuters he estimates the figure is in the tens of thousands.

The reporting also reveals that some 9,000 Tigrayans are still in detention, contradicting government assertions that most have now been released.

They were crowded into makeshift facilities, including an old cinema, university campuses, a former chicken factory, an industrial park, a construction site and an unfinished prison that was intended to hold convicted criminals, the news agency’s reporting demonstrates. The detainees included women and children.

Most facilities were crowded and dirty, said current and former detainees of a dozen different centers, lawyers and family members. Beatings were common. Some sick prisoners were denied medical treatment for weeks, these people said, while others were forced to bribe guards to get medicines. Reuters confirmed many aspects of the accounts of jail conditions with priests, medical workers, local officials and through satellite imagery. Some of the people interviewed declined to be identified for fear of retribution.

At least 17 Tigrayan detainees have died, Reuters reporting shows. Tesfaye is one of them. By the time he received treatment for malaria and meningitis in December he was too ill to respond, said a medic who cared for Tesfaye in hospital.

Reuters sent detailed questions about the number of prisoners, conditions, and deaths to the federal police, the justice ministry, the prime minister’s office and other national and regional government officials. The justice ministry referred questions to the police, which did not respond. Nor did the others.

The detentions of Tigrayans came in waves. The first began in November 2020 after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a guerilla movement turned political party, seized military bases in Tigray. The second started in July 2021, when Tigrayan forces forced Ethiopia’s army to withdraw from Tigray. The most recent came last November after Tigrayan forces invaded two neighboring regions and advanced towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The findings from this first detailed account of the detentions show that the treatment of Tigrayan civilian detainees has fallen far short of international norms. They also raise questions over the government’s use of emergency powers during its war with the TPLF, according to some international observers. Some analysts say the arrests have tarnished the image of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose commitment to democracy when he came to power in 2018 won him international praise and offered a break with decades of iron-fisted rule by the TPLF.

Tigrayans make up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 120 million – one of more than 90 ethnicities and nationalities. But for nearly three decades, until 2018, the TPLF dominated a government that also detained tens of thousands of people without charge.

Last November, as TPLF forces neared the capital, Abiy declared a state of emergency, allowing suspects to be held without trial. Emergency rule stayed in force until mid-February.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said most of the detentions appeared to be ordinary Tigrayans. In November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission expressed concern that people were being arrested because of their ethnicity.

Many Tigrayans say they were held by police after speaking their native language or showing an identity card with a Tigrayan name, as Reuters previously reported. In a town called Abala in Afar region, which borders Tigray, three residents said the Tigrayan population was arrested en masse and loaded onto trucks. Two witnesses put the number of people arrested at around 12,000. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the figure.

Ethiopia’s government and police insist they only target suspected supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Hailu, the foreign affairs head of opposition party Salsay Weyane Tigray, accused the government of “rounding up Tigrayans solely based on their ethnicity,” a view shared by the TPLF.

Malaria and squalor

Tesfaye was an office worker for Catholic charity the Salesians of Don Bosco in Addis Ababa before his arrest on Nov. 5, his family said. Around a dozen Tigrayan employees of the charity were detained at work that day, two of those held said. No reason was given, and Tesfaye’s colleagues were released a few months later without charge. The charity declined to comment for this article.

Ten days after his arrest, Tesfaye was a passenger on a snaking convoy of between 60-80 large buses that ferried prisoners from an overcrowded five-block jail in Addis Ababa to an unfinished prison in the town of Mizan Teferi, 560 km to the southwest. It took nearly the whole night to get there, said five prisoners who traveled with Tesfaye.

The prison in Mizan Teferi had freshly painted yellow walls and newly mown grass – and a watchtower and barbed wire perimeter. It stood empty, waiting for its first transfer of convicted criminals, said the prison’s acting head Getnet Befekadu. Instead, it received busloads of Tigrayans, former prisoners said.

The interior wasn’t yet finished; there was no plumbing, so river water was treated with purification tablets. Water was so scarce, detainees said, they were often frantic with thirst. Prisoners were given two 15-minute bathroom breaks a day, but often the queues were so long or prisoners so sick that inmates would soil themselves while waiting.

The jail’s 18 cells, each about 5 meters by 6 meters, were packed: One prisoner told Reuters there were 183 men in his windowless cell; another said there were 176 in his. A guard at Mizan Teferi told Reuters each cell was originally designed to hold between 70 and 80 people.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment sets a minimum standard of four square meters per prisoner in a multiple-occupancy cell. The cells at Mizan Teferi held more than 20 people per four square meters.

Getnet, the acting head, said the facility housed 2,900 prisoners and that two additional office rooms were eventually used for prisoners with tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Prisoners were tormented by lice, pests and disease, inmates said. Getnet said authorities did their best to care for inmates, providing “conducive conditions.” He didn’t elaborate.

A Tigrayan public employee, who was arrested on Nov. 4, described life in the jail. “It was very crowded; we could not sleep on our backs. We slept head to toe like sardines. We had no mattress, no blanket,” he said.

Tesfaye was desperately ill in jail for two weeks, a fellow prisoner said. When staff finally took him – feverish and unconscious – to Mizan Tepi University Teaching Hospital, he could not be saved from the malaria and meningitis that sickened him, said Dr Gizaw Wodajo, the hospital’s medical director.

Reuters identified at least four people who died after falling sick in Mizan Teferi. Getnet, the acting head of the prison, referred Reuters to the hospital for information on deaths.

A former detainee, a medical worker who was freed in late January, said each time prisoners perished their cellmates would cry out. “We usually heard cries at night. We heard them shouting, ‘my brother, my brother’.” In the morning, word of who had died would spread when prisoners were allowed out of their cells to collect water.

Malaria is endemic in the area where the prison lies, Gizaw said. But to his knowledge, the facility hadn’t been sprayed with insecticide to kill the mosquitoes that spread the disease. Nor did inmates have mosquito nets. Prison authorities didn’t comment.

Hagos Belay, a bank security guard, was admitted to hospital on Dec. 25. Two weeks later, he died of malaria and meningitis – diseases that can be treated with drugs if caught early. Prisoners said there were no medicines for many sick inmates. Gizaw said local officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross did eventually find money to pay for treatment for some prisoners. The Red Cross declined to comment, saying their global access to prisoners depends on their confidentiality. Getnet said that prisoners were given all assistance possible.

A third prisoner, 17-year-old Anwar Siraj, died before he reached the hospital, said Gizaw, adding that the cause of death was unclear. Anwar wasn’t Tigrayan but Oromo, said a fellow prisoner. Oromos were also caught up in the government crackdown after an Oromo rebel group announced an alliance with the TPLF last August.

A fourth man, 24-year-old Gebregziabher Gebremeskel, died within weeks of his release from Mizan Teferi. A relative described him as a quiet young man who used to sell mobile phones on the streets of the capital. Gebregziabher became ill with malaria while he was in jail, but did not receive medical treatment, the relative said.

Reuters spoke to a doctor who cared for Gebregziabher at a hospital in Addis Ababa. The doctor said the young man was seriously ill with cerebral malaria when he arrived at the hospital two weeks after his release from jail. He died 10 days later. The doctor, who asked not to be named, said Gebregziabher must have been infected in prison since the disease isn’t present in the capital and takes between a week and a month to incubate.

The doctor said he treated three other prisoners from Mizan Teferi for the same disease. All three told the doctor the only way to get hold of medicines in the jail was by paying for them.

Imad Abdulfetah, a director at the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, told Reuters the commission repeatedly tried and failed to get access to the prison in Mizan Teferi. Asked about this, Getnet did not respond.

Makeshift prisons

Mizan Teferi was not the only facility where prisoners died. Nor was it the only facility that was ill-prepared to receive crowds of Tigrayan detainees.

For around eight months, Tigrayans were held at an agricultural facility at Wachemo University, in the town of Shone, 220 km south of the capital. A spokesman for Shone district, Alemayehu Bakera, told Reuters there were 1,200 Tigrayans at the campus. He denied they were detained, describing the facility as “more of a shelter for them to stay.”

All the Tigrayans were migrants who’d been repatriated from Saudi Arabia in 2021, Alemayehu said, under a bilateral agreement between the countries. Saudi Arabia did not respond to requests for comment about the detentions. The Tigrayans held at the university were transferred from Shone to Addis Ababa in early April and released, according to Alemayehu.

A former detainee at Wachemo University told Reuters the facility had enough food and water, and people could move around freely. But prisoners had to buy their own medicines, often pooling money to do so.

At least two prisoners died there this year – a man and a woman – said four people with direct knowledge. These sources included a university official and Melak Mihret Aba Teklemichael, head of nearby St. George’s Church, where they were buried.

Alemayehu, the Shone district spokesman said, “We don’t know about reports of death.”

A lawyer who was working to try to free detainees told Reuters that, based on his conversations with people in the facility, 100 women and 10 babies were among those held there. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm the lawyer’s figures. Melak, the church head, said several women had given birth at the facility.

Thousands of Tigrayans from Abala, the town on the border between the Tigray and Afar regions, were rounded up by an Afar regional force in December, loaded onto trucks and driven to Soloda College in the nearby town of Semera, witnesses said.

A source briefed on the matter said 7,000 to 12,000 people are still detained at the college. The Red Cross tweeted last month that it provided aid to 9,000 displaced people in Semera. It declined to give further details when contacted by Reuters. Two prisoners confirmed to Reuters that they received aid from the agency.

Jean Bosco Ngomoni from the UN refugee agency’s Semera office, told Reuters that “limited service provision coupled with overpopulation do not allow decent living conditions.”

The men were beaten when they were first detained, three prisoners said. Men and women are separated by a fence, and many families are living under tarpaulin in the yard.

One prisoner told Reuters that 63 detainees at the college had died, including 11 infants. He shared with Reuters a list of those who had perished, compiled by inmates. In interviews, other prisoners confirmed three of the names.

Where names were missing on the list, the inmates entered whatever other details they had – such as “worked at the mill,” or “twin infants.”

A priest at nearby Afar Semera St. John’s church said he had participated in burials of seven or eight people from the camp. Reuters could not determine if those deaths were included in the list.

Satellite pictures of the facility appear to show its compound crowded with blue and white plastic rectangles consistent with prisoners’ descriptions of living under plastic tarpaulins.

The Afar regional government didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Maximum security

Many Tigrayans who were arrested in Addis Ababa were held for days or weeks in the capital’s Aba Samuel maximum security prison before being bussed south to other facilities.

One Tigrayan inmate estimated there were around 1,500 Tigrayan civilians there when he was held in the early days of November.

The numbers then grew, said four other prisoners.

One of them, a 28-year-old man, said he was held with 36 other Tigrayans in a 70-square-meter cell – twice the number of prisoners allowed under the Council of Europe’s minimum standard. He said the number of detainees had reached about 3,100 at the facility when he arrived on Nov. 27. He shared hand-written notes with Reuters tabulating the numbers, which he said he recorded based on conversations with other prisoners.

A week after he arrived, he said, 140 more Tigrayans arrived from a detention facility in the town of Awash Arba, in the Afar region, so thin they “looked like famine victims.” By that time they had already been held in Awash Arba for five months, he said.

Beatings from guards were frequent, this man said. When his cellmates thought guards might come, they piled on any extra clothes to try to cushion the blows.

He shared a video with Reuters that showed a crowded courtyard in Aba Samuel in January. Satellite imagery provided by Maxar Technologies and reviewed by Reuters matched the prison’s layout, stairwell configuration, a drain and markings on the concrete floor.

He and another man – interviewed separately – both said they witnessed an incident in which a guard beat prisoners with a piece of scaffolding so hard that it broke in half.

Another former prisoner, a businessman, provided pictures of himself before imprisonment looking fit and healthy and thin and haggard after release. Food was scarce – sometimes one piece of bread per day – he said.

Two other prisoners held there in January told Reuters that later Oromo prisoners were also detained in Aba Samuel.

Elsewhere in the capital, other Tigrayans were held at packed police stations or makeshift sites for months. One lawyer who visited six detention centers said he saw people held in overcrowded police stations, two private storehouses and a former chicken factory, where he said the stench was unbearable.

One 34-year-old said he was held for 38 days at a detention center with a watchtower called Gotera Condominium complex in Addis Ababa – previously used to house drug addicts and the homeless. Numbers fluctuated between 800 and 2,000 people, he and another prisoner said.

Reuters journalists witnessed hundreds of family members lining up outside the facility in December, waiting to take in food to loved ones. By mid-February, the complex was deserted. Street vendors said the prisoners had all been recently released. Reuters spoke to three prisoners who had been held there and said they had been freed.

Across Ethiopia, most Tigrayans were quietly released in January or February, after the Tigrayan forces retreated back into their region. Others were freed in March or April. But thousands remain in detention in Afar.

Following a ceasefire declared in March, the war has reached a stalemate. The military is unable to hold Tigray; Tigrayan forces cannot hold territory they seized outside it. Abiy said this week his government is considering talks with the TPLF.

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