The only roads open in the besieged state of Tigray in northern Ethiopia lead to endless tales of darkness.
Along a path on the outskirts of Abiy Adi, in central Tigray, Araya Gebretekle tells his story, tragic in its simplicity. He had six sons. He sent five of them to harvest millet in the family’s fields. Four never came home.
When Ethiopian soldiers arrived in the village in February, “my sons didn’t flee,” says Araya, wiping his eyes with his white headscarf. “They didn’t expect to be killed while harvesting.” But the soldiers aimed their weapons at his sons, and a female soldier gave the order to shoot. “Finish them, finish them,” she said. The brothers pleaded for their lives. “We’re just farmers,” they said. “Spare one of us to harvest and deal with the animals,” they begged. The soldiers spared the youngest, a 15-year-old, and executed the others, leaving their bodies in the field where they fell.
Three months later, “my wife is staying at home, always crying,” Araya says. “I haven’t left the house until today, and every night I dream of them.” He wipes his eyes again. “There were six sons. I asked the oldest one to be there too, but thank God he refused.” (Ethiopians are referred to by their first names.)
East of Abiy Adi, at Ayder Referral Hospital in the state capital of Mekele, Kesanet Gebremichael wails as nurses change the bandages and clean the wounds on her charred flesh. The 13-year-old was cooking with a cousin in the village of Ahferom, in central Tigray, when her grass-mud home was hit in a mortar attack. “My house was destroyed in the fire,” says her mother, Genet Asmelash. “My child was inside.” The girl, already malnourished, suffered burns on more than 40 percent of her body.
At a women’s shelter in Mekele, a 33-year-old woman recalls being raped by soldiers on two occasions—in her home in Idaga Hamus and as she tried to flee to Mekele with her 12-year-old son. (The names of the rape victims in this story are not being used, to protect their privacy.) The second time, she was pulled from a minibus, drugged, and taken to a military camp, where she was tied to a tree and sexually assaulted over the course of 10 days. She fell in and out of consciousness from the pain, exhaustion, and trauma. At one point, she awoke to a horrifying sight: Her son, along with a woman and her new baby, was dead at her feet. “I saw my son with blood from his neck,” she says. “I saw only his neck was bleeding. He was dead.” With her fists clenched against her face, she howls a visceral cry of pain and sadness, unable to stop weeping. “I didn’t bury him,” she screams between sobs. “I didn’t bury him.”
What started as a political dispute between Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has exploded into a war with genocidal overtones—a grave humanitarian crisis threatening the lives of millions of people and the existence of Ethiopia itself. Some two million people in Tigray, a third of the state’s population, have been displaced. Millions need emergency food assistance, and thousands have been killed. Yet the full extent of the catastrophe is unknown because the federal government has shut down communications and limited access to Tigray.
By mid-May, when the photographs in this story were taken, the situation had become dire. Most routes north and south from Mekele were closed to journalists and humanitarian aid. A road west was lined with burned-out tanks and looted ambulances stripped of engines and wheels. Patches of towering eucalyptus trees gave way to rocky, untilled fields—and checkpoint after checkpoint manned by Ethiopian troops. Soldiers from neighboring Eritrea sauntered casually through villages. Men, women, and children—civilians—were terrified and traumatized, and praying for those who hadn’t yet made it to Mekele or another relatively safe place. Over and over again, people mentioned countless others who were still in hiding. They feared what was to come.
The fault lines of this conflict stretch back decades through multiple regimes, several broken alliances, and one perpetually contentious question: How should Ethiopia’s more than 80 distinct ethnic groups be united into a single, stable country?
“The real political issue in the country is between those who support the unitary state and those who support the multinational federation that guarantees self-rule for the ethnic groups,” says Tsega Etefa, a Colgate University professor born in Ethiopia who has researched ethnic conflict in the region.
For much of the 20th century, political power was centralized. The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, ruled for 44 years until he was overthrown in 1974 by a group of military officers called the Derg. Led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg quickly established an authoritarian regime marked by brutal oppression. The opposition, which sprung up almost immediately, rose from ethnic groups, including the Tigrayans, who chafed under the dictatorial control. In 1975 the TPLF was founded as a militia, and it grew to be an especially effective one.
Mengistu’s attempts to crush the TPLF and other rebel groups resulted in a situation reminiscent of what’s happening today: a bloody counterinsurgency leading to a catastrophic famine. From 1983 to 1985 hundreds of thousands of people died of famine in Ethiopia, many of them in Tigray. The counterinsurgency failed: Aided by Eritrean forces, rebel groups from Amhara and Oromia united under the banner of a TPLF-led alliance called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and toppled Mengistu in 1991.
The EPRDF took control of the country and established a system of ethnic federalism dividing Ethiopia into semiautonomous states demarcated along ethnic lines. The bond between politics and ethnicity was tightened.
In practice, power was still centralized. The TPLF, representing just 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, settled in as the dominant political force in the ruling EPRDF coalition with Meles Zenawi as prime minister. The new government dramatically improved the economy and reduced food insecurity. But, like the regime it had challenged, the EPRDF was repressive—stifling dissent, limiting free speech, and imprisoning and torturing political opponents.
And, like the regime before it, this one was eventually at odds with Eritrea, which had been annexed by Ethiopia in 1962. In 1993 Eritrea declared independence. By 1998 the two former allies were at war over a disputed border, a standoff that lasted 20 years.
Federalism didn’t ease internal tensions either. In 2014 protests erupted in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state, over the government’s plan to seize land to expand Addis Ababa, the national capital. Ethnic Oromos had long felt marginalized and persecuted; the annexation of their state’s territory was tinder to their grievances. The protests spread elsewhere, including to Amhara, where the boiling point was a land dispute with Tigray. After a brutal crackdown and increasing clashes between government forces and ethnic militias, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who had replaced Meles after his death in 2012, resigned. Abiy, ethnically Oromo, took office in 2018.
At first, Abiy appeared to be taking Ethiopia in a new direction. He released political prisoners, removed restrictions on the press, and made peace with Eritrea, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But he also prosecuted Tigrayans and purged them from government, and he reorganized the ruling coalition into a single political party, the Prosperity Party, a move that signaled a return to authoritarian rule.
Ascendant for nearly 30 years, the TPLF was sidelined nationally after refusing to join Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which it saw as an attempt to weaken the ethnic federation it had created. But the TPLF was still potent in Tigray, controlling the regional government and as many as 250,000 troops. When elections were postponed in 2020 because of the pandemic, the TPLF held Tigray’s regional election anyway, claiming it would be unconstitutional to extend terms of office. The federal government retaliated by declaring the regional government unlawful and threatening to redirect funding.
On November 3, 2020, the TPLF commandeered a federal military base in what it said was a preemptive strike. The next day, the Ethiopian government launched an extensive military offensive and cut off power and communications in Tigray. Eritrean forces invaded Tigray from the north while militias from Amhara poured in from the south. Both held long-standing grudges against the TPLF: The Eritreans blame the party for their suffering during the war with Ethiopia, while Amharas claim the Tigrayans had used the establishment of ethnic federalism to annex some of their most valuable land.
It quickly became clear that the TPLF wasn’t the only target. Reports of atrocities against civilian Tigrayans are rampant—including rapes, massacres, the indiscriminate bombardment of residential areas, and the flagrant looting of hospitals and health clinics. “The great majority of soldiers actually feel dirty and ashamed and humiliated by participating in gang rape or massacres,” says Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation. “So why do they do it? Well, they do it because they’re told to. When they do it on this scale, it is because there is an order.”
All sides, including the TPLF, have been accused of war crimes, but witnesses blame Eritreans for some of the worst abuses. The woman who was tied to a tree for 10 days says that the soldiers who raped her and murdered her son were Eritreans wearing Ethiopian uniforms: “I could identify them by the cuts in their faces, and they wore plastic shoes,” which Eritrean soldiers are known for. They spoke Tigrinya; Ethiopian troops speak Amharic.
Adiam Bahare, 19, watched Eritrean soldiers kill three of her relatives in May Kinetal, in central Tigray. “They gathered them along with other men from a nearby village and shot them execution style,” she says. “I was at home, and I heard the gunshots and saw them falling one by one.” She picked up a relative’s child and fled to nearby caves in the hilly region. Eventually she made her way to the Maiweini Primary School in Mekele, which had been transformed into a shelter for displaced people.
Medical centers often aren’t able to treat the wounded adequately because facilities have been stripped bare. “There were two types of looting here,” says Adissu Hailu, head of the general hospital in Abiy Adi. “First the Eritrean troops took what they can. Then this hospital was serving as a military base.” He says the soldiers sold everything, including the refrigerators. When the soldiers left, the hospital was able to reopen, but the staff didn’t have any medical equipment, not even microscopes. Still, the hospital was overwhelmed with patients.
Meanwhile, people are starving.
“A total of 5.2 million people, a staggering 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance,” says Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in East Africa. Fifty percent of mothers and nearly a quarter of the children whom WFP has been able to screen are malnourished. Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers wield hunger as a weapon, blocking and diverting the distribution of humanitarian aid, looting provisions and livestock, and preventing farmers from tending their fields.
Abeba Gebru, pregnant with her sixth child, hid from the violence in a cave where she had only roasted beans to eat. Her baby was born malnourished and Abeba could not produce enough milk to breastfeed. “I was much worried about her,” she says. “I tried to squeeze my breast to get some.” She and her daughter are being treated at a clinic in Abiy Adi.
The war began during harvest season. In May it was time to plant. In a village on the road between Mekele and Abiy Adi, Kiros Tadros, a father of seven, was back in his fields. Climate change had already made the past few years difficult: “It’s like doomsday—all of this war followed the frozen rains and the locusts.
“Our land as well as the mountains overlooking our houses were invaded by Eritrean soldiers,” he says. “They came to each household and demanded we provide them food, give them our livestock. They also demanded that we do not plow and that we give them information on the whereabouts of the militia.”
The United Nations has called for an investigation of war crimes, and the United States has cut economic and security aid to Ethiopia, banned travel to the U.S. by officials or combatants involved in the violence or in blocking humanitarian aid, and sanctioned the head of Eritrea’s military.
But Tigrayans have mounted the most effective countermeasures. The TPLF is flush with recruits galvanized by the violence against their communities. Twenty percent of the Ethiopian army, and a large proportion of the officers and technical staff, were Tigrayan; now they’re fighting for the TPLF. Battle-hardened commanders, including Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former chief of staff for Ethiopia’s military, have come out of retirement. In June they began retaking large swaths of Tigray, later marching more than 6,000 captured Ethiopian soldiers through the streets of Mekele.
After responding to the defeats with a face-saving unilateral cease-fire, Abiy exhorted “all capable Ethiopians” to join militias and defend Ethiopia against the TPLF, which he described as “traitors that bit the hands that fed them and turned their backs on the Ethiopia that breastfed them.” There are reports of Tigrayans being detained and disappeared and their businesses being closed in cities across Ethiopia.
Still, the TPLF is on the offensive. “You don’t win wars by mobilizing half a million peasants with small arms,” says de Waal, especially against a force “that has basically defeated your regular army and captured all its equipment.” The fighting has spread east into Afar, south into Amhara, and west within Tigray to open a supply line to Sudan.
Abiy faces an insurgency in his home state of Oromia. There’s conflict between the Afar and Somali people, between the Amhara and the Oromo, and between the Gumuz and the Amhara and Oromo.
External forces threaten Ethiopia as well. Sudan seized the disputed territory of Al Fashaga, leading to the eviction of Ethiopian farmers and clashes between the two countries. The fertile borderland, called the Mazega by Ethiopians, is leverage in the ongoing wrangling over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The massive hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile has raised tensions with Sudan and Egypt, and those two countries have signed a military cooperation agreement.
The future of Ethiopia is increasingly tenuous. A 47-year-old woman from Inda Silase in Tigray knows what’s at stake for her. She was raped in front of her children by soldiers who told her the Tigrayan race must be eliminated.
Recent TPLF victories can’t erase her pain—or that of all the others caught up in this churn of war. At Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, hundreds of women have been treated for rape. “But the numbers are not telling the reality on the ground,” says Mussie Tesfay Atsbaha, the hospital’s chief administrator. “If one person has come, another 20 are dead somewhere.
“I never saw hell before, but now I have.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Lynsey Addario is the author of the memoir It’s What I Do. Staff writer Rachel Hartigan is writing a book about the search for Amelia Earhart.
This story appears in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
This story originally published digitally in June, 2021, and has since been updated with more detailed text and captions.
Editor's Note: This article previously misstated former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's ethnicity. He is from the Wolayta ethnic group.