LONDON, 2 April 2021 – Investigative reporters with the BBC’s Africa Eye have blamed members of the Ethiopian military for the extrajudicial killings of at least 15 in early March 2021.
The team has identified the precise spot in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region where the massacre occurred.
In early March 2021, five videos posted on social media showed armed men in uniforms leading a group of at least 15 unarmed men to the edge of a cliff.
The videos then show the armed men taking the men to the edge of the cliff, shooting some at point-blank range, and pushing dead bodies over the cliff.
The massacre took place close to the town of Mahbere Dego in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the BBC has confirmed, acknowledging the outcome as a product of cooperation with analysts from media outlets Bellingcat and Newsy.
A resident of Mahbere Dego, who spoke with the BBC via phone, said the Ethiopian army took away 73 men from the town and surrounding area in January 2021, including three of his relatives.
The resident said none of the men “disappeared” had been heard from since.
The resident of a neighboring village told the BBC that his brother was among those killed in the massacre.
“They killed them at the cliff,” the BBC cites the resident as saying.
Africa Eye analysed geographical features seen in the videos to compare with satellite imagery of the area.
Investigative journalists used the direction and the length of the shadows of the men to try to determine the likely time of the day.
The BBC explains that “a ridgeline in the video footage was then overlaid on a topographical map of the location to confirm it was an exact match. A dry riverbed, band of vegetation, and pattern of trees further confirmed the match”.
Members of the Ethiopian military who perpetrated the massacre are part of federal forces deployed since last November 4 to fight soldiers loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The BBC’s Africa Eye “was not able to confirm the identities of the armed men seen in the video footage, but the details of their uniforms – including the camouflage pattern and arm badge in the colour of the Ethiopian flag – appear to match those worn by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF)”, writes the BBC.
Other features of the ENDF uniforms also closely matched comparisons, including the style and cut of the pockets and the berets worn by the armed men.
Eritrean soldiers have been involved in some of the atrocities committed in Tigray but do not appear to have had a role in this particular massacre.
The soldiers in the videos are speaking in Amharic and what one of the voices on the videos says leaves no doubt that the soldiers meant to execute the unarmed men.
“We should not free these people. Not even one of them should be spared,” a voice off-camera can be heard saying in the videos.
“We have to get this on video, how these people die,” another voice can be heard saying.
The videos show the armed men firing bullets from close range into the bodies as they insult and mock the dead.
“I wish we could pour gas over them and burn them,” says a voice off-camera in one clip.
“It would have been great if there was gas to burn these people,” replies a second voice. “Burn their bodies like the Indians do.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali accused the TPLF, which was the ruling party in the region at the time, of attacking a military base, killing at least 50 soldiers, and looting weapons.
Ousted leaders of the TPLF are on the run but have vowed “extended resistance”.
The exact identity of the victims of the massacre has not been established although their killers suggest in the videos that they believe them to be members of the TPLF.
In the videos, the victims can be heard speaking Tigrinya, which is the language of the Tigray region.
“This is the end of woyane,” says a voice of one of the armed men, using a slang term for the TPLF.
“We don’t show mercy,” the killers can be heard saying.
The Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, Laetitia Bader, told the BBC that she believes that the incident “requires further investigation because what we are seeing here in these videos could amount to war crimes”.
Thousands of people have been killed in Tigray since the fighting began and nearly three million have been impacted, with over 100,000 fleeing into refugee camps in neighboring Sudan.