Bodies of rebel fighters dot the roads and fields leading to Chenna, a village in the mountains of northern Ethiopia that this month saw one of the most gruesome reported incidents in the country’s 10-month-old war.
Last week, the government accused Tigray People’s Liberation Front rebels of massacring as many as 200 civilians in Chenna, including women and children.
Medics put the death toll at 125, but told reporters that the number could climb.
The rebels rejected the allegations, while accusing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of sending “priests, women and children” into battle as cannon fodder.
Chenna is in Ethiopia’s Amhara region south of Tigray, where fighting broke out in November last year between pro-government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Despite Abiy vowing a swift victory, fighting has spread in the past few months into Amhara and Afar, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and killing an untold number of civilians.
The violence in Chenna unfolded early this month, and the village — a rambling collection of mud homes — is now mostly empty, its residents driven away by the stench of death.
“We haven’t buried all the people. We have been burying our people who have been massacred. We were doing that for four days straight,” Amhara militia fighter Yalew Kasse told reporters on Tuesday.
Stones and leaves have been placed over a freshly dug mass grave outside the village’s Orthodox Christian church.
Militia fighters said that the graves of still more civilians could be found elsewhere, sometimes right outside their homes.
“They annihilated one whole family — a mother, a father, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl,” Yalew said.
Mebratu Adane, a spokesman for a local militia, said most of the bodies that have not been buried were those of rebels.
“The villagers couldn’t stand the smell of the bodies so they fled,” he said.
The fighting in Amhara has amplified global concern about the war in northern Ethiopia, which has killed many thousands of people and pushed hundreds of thousands into what the UN has called famine-like conditions.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday said that the widening war “risks spilling over to the whole Horn of Africa.”
“Even with the changing dynamics in the conflict, there has been one constant: multiple and severe reports of alleged gross violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all parties,” Bachelet said.
Outside efforts to broker talks have made no visible headway, meaning more intense fighting is likely in the offing.
In Dabat, a town southeast of Chenna, Ethiopian soldiers on Tuesday conducted weapons and fitness drills while preparing to push farther north.
“We’ll beat the junta,” the soldiers sang as they marched through the streets of Dabat once the drills were over, using a pejorative term to refer to the rebels.
“We are planning to go to the north and destroy the junta, and we are well-prepared,” said Colonel Eshetu, who gave only his first name. “We have been training for more than three weeks. Our soldiers are more than capable of destroying the Tigray rebel force.”
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