Witnesses: Eritrean soldiers loot, kill in Ethiopia's Tigray

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Zenebu, who arrived home in Colorado after weeks trapped in Tigray, Ethiopia, where she had gone to visit her mother, poses for a photo Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Huge unknowns persist in Ethiopia's deadly conflict, but details of the involvement of neighboring Eritrea, one of the worlds most secretive countries, are emerging with witness accounts by survivors and others such as Zenebu. While fighting in support of Ethiopian forces, Eritrean soldiers have been accused of killing civilians, targeting refugees and even acting as local authorities. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

NAIROBI – The Eritrean soldiers' pockets clinked with stolen jewelry. Warily, Zenebu watched them try on dresses and other clothing looted from homes in a town in Ethiopia's embattled Tigray region.

“They were focused on trying to take everything of value,” even diapers, said Zenebu, who arrived home in Colorado this month after weeks trapped in Tigray, where she had gone to visit her mother. On the road, she said, trucks were full of boxes addressed to places in Eritrea for the looted goods to be delivered.

Heartbreakingly worse, she said, Eritrean soldiers went house-to-house seeking out and killing Tigrayan men and boys, some as young as 7, then didn't allow their burials. “They would kill you for trying, or even crying,” Zenebu told The Associated Press, using only her first name because relatives remain in Tigray.

Huge unknowns persist in the deadly conflict, but details of the involvement of neighboring Eritrea, one of the world’s most secretive countries, are emerging with witness accounts by survivors and others. Estimated in the thousands, the Eritrean soldiers have fought on the side of Ethiopian forces. They are accused of targeting thousands of vulnerable refugees from their own country, raping and intimidating locals — and now, some worry, refusing to go home.

Eritrea and Ethiopia recently made peace under Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts. But Eritrea remains an enemy of the Tigray leaders who dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly 30 years and are now fugitives since fighting began between Ethiopian and Tigray forces in November, the result of growing tensions over power.

Ethiopia’s government denies the Eritreans are in Tigray, a stance contradicted by an Ethiopian military commander who confirmed their presence last month. The U.S. has called Eritrea's involvement a “grave development," citing credible reports, and the departing U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia on Monday called for an independent investigation. Eritrean officials don't respond to questions.

Despite the denials, the Eritrean soldiers aren't hiding. They have even attended meetings in which humanitarian workers negotiated access with Ethiopian authorities.

Now millions of Tigray residents, still largely cut off from the world, live in fear of the soldiers, who inspire memories of the countries' two-decade border war. The recent peace revived cultural and family ties with Tigray, but Eritrea soon closed border crossings.