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War Crimes Are Suspected In Northern Ethiopia's Conflict Zone

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The war in Ethiopia started as a power struggle between the new government and the country's former rulers. The effort to capture those former leaders turned into a civil war that has now pulled in neighboring Eritrea.

NPR's Eyder Peralta traveled to the front lines of the conflict to document what some experts say are war crimes. A warning - this story contains graphic descriptions.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The families insist that we should see where their loved ones were buried, so we walk past a glass bottle factory, the insides gutted by soldiers. The mangled aluminum siding is buffeted by the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALUMINUM SIDING SHAKING)

PERALTA: This part of Ethiopia has been at the center of the war. The Ethiopians, backed by Eritrean forces, have gone to battle with the Tigray People's Liberation Front. The Ethiopians accused them of treason after they attacked the army's Northern Command.

Hagos is a teacher at the nearby village. Like others in this story, he only gave us his first name because he fears retaliation. He says Eritrean soldiers went house to house collecting people to help them loot the factory. Then a couple of days later, they heard automatic gunfire.

HAGOS: And they shoot them, 19, including my father.

PERALTA: Ugh, sorry.

HAGOS: Most of them are teenagers.

PERALTA: Nineteen people including his father, he says. We keep climbing, and as we reach the top of the hill, the family members stop. Zeru, who lost three sons, holds his stomach. This hurts so much, he says.

ZERU: (Crying, speaking Tigrinya).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: The graves are just dents in the earth, no markings. Dozens of bullet casings are strewn between the shrubs.

Lendima, who is 70, lost her son. She says after they heard the gunfire, they spent the next 20 days trying to convince Eritrean soldiers to let them come and bury their loved ones.

LENDIMA: (Speaking Tigrinya).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: But they all tell her, just sit down. Stay wherever you are. Don't go out. We will keep killing, even starting from 7 years old.

PERALTA: When they finally saw the bodies, they saw that their hands had been tied behind their backs. Some had been eaten by wild animals. Her son was just doing as the soldiers told them to do, she says. At the time, there wasn't even fighting.

LENDIMA: (Crying, speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: She waited for him to come home. He meant the world to her, she says. But he was killed, and he wasn't even given a proper burial.

Across Tigray, we heard these stories over and over. We saw homes burnt, factories stripped to the bone, cellphone stations, schools and health facilities destroyed. We spoke to dozens of people who said the killings and destruction happened in the wake of the actual fighting.

DAPO AKANDE: All the things that you are describing to me sound like intentional targeting of civilians and intentional targeting of civilian objects without any military justification.

PERALTA: That is professor Dapo Akande, who teaches public international law at Oxford. He says international law affords civilians broad protection. But what tends to happen in civil wars is that warring sides tend to make whole populations the enemy. In Tigray, the TPLF is ethnically aligned, so it's almost easier to paint all Tigrayans as combatants.

AKANDE: But that's never the case. It's never the case that it's the people as a whole. Now, of course, people may be supporting those who are fighting. But there will be an armed force, an armed group that is fighting. And what international law requires is that, you know, you distinguish the armed group that's fighting from the people as a whole.

PERALTA: What he says is worrying about the situation in Ethiopia is that civilians, their homes, their property, are not collateral damage but are instead being directly targeted by armed forces.

AKANDE: And if these allegations are accurate, these are precisely the kinds of things that we would be describing as war crimes as a matter of international law.

PERALTA: The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Back in the field, we drive to a small town called Hawzen. We drive past burnt-out tanks and the looted main street and stop at a small homestead with a few stone houses. We hear artillery fire in the distance. But the whole extended family comes out to meet us, and their stories pour out of them.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He lost his father and his brother. And she lost the husband. And she lost her son and also two brothers.

PERALTA: Berhane Tesfaye and Merhin Gebremeskel, the elders of the family, sit in a corner. Merhin says she saw soldiers throw her son to the ground. She throws herself down, like this, she says, her face pressed against the dirt.

MERHIN GEBREMESKEL: (Speaking Tigrinya).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: When she immediately entered the house, there was, like, three bullets. When she came out, her son was just killed.

PERALTA: Berhane says Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers asked about the whereabouts of the rebel TPLF, or the TDF, as they call themselves now.

BERHANE TESFAYE: (Speaking Tigrinya).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: And they don't know where the TDF is. So they told them, if the TDF fires on us, we'll come and kill all of you.

PERALTA: We can hear more artillery fire, so we leave. We drive past a grain store. And residents tell us soldiers have stolen two deliveries of food aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL GATE OPENING)

PERALTA: We stop at what used to be a luxury lodge. It's in tatters. The glass is pockmarked with bullet holes. Eritrean soldiers, one of the workers tells us, stole everything. And what they couldn't take, they destroyed. We walk past the lobby and onto an open field. The rusty, jagged mountains of Tigray are in the distance. Two rebel soldiers are patrolling, and they motion for us to come see something.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: There is a body buried here.

PERALTA: A civilian, they say. I turn to Tekle, one of the soldiers.

Where does this end?

TEKLE: (Through interpreter) This up to Christ - but what we could do is we'll fight to the end.

PERALTA: We stop in the middle of the field in front of yet another dent in the earth, in front of yet one more unmarked grave. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "MEMORY PALACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.