'Horrible': Witnesses recall massacre in Ethiopian holy city

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An elderly woman who fled to the city of Axum in the Tigray region of Ethiopia to seek safety sits with her head bandaged after being wounded during an attack on the city, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. She later died of her wounds. As Ethiopias Tigray region slowly resumes telephone service after three months of conflict, witnesses gave The Associated Press a detailed account of what might be its deadliest massacre, at the sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum. (AP Photo)

NAIROBI – Bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the streets for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city. At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew. But they were forbidden from burying their dead by the invading Eritrean soldiers.

Those memories haunt a deacon at the country’s most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum, where local faithful believe the ancient Ark of the Covenant is housed. As Ethiopia’s Tigray region slowly resumes telephone service after three months of conflict, the deacon and other witnesses gave The Associated Press a detailed account of what might be its deadliest massacre.

For weeks, rumors circulated that something ghastly had occurred at the Church of St. Mary of Zion in late November, with estimates of several hundred people killed. But with Tigray cut off from the world and journalists blocked from entering, little could be verified as Ethiopian and allied fighters pursued the Tigray region’s fugitive leaders.

The deacon, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Axum, said he helped count the bodies — or what was left after hyenas fed. He gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials in mass graves.

He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city, and that thousands in Axum have died in all. The killing continues: On the day he spoke to the AP last week he said he had buried three people.

“If we go to the rural areas, the situation is much worse,” the deacon said.

The atrocities of the Tigray conflict have occurred in the shadows. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, announced the fighting as the world focused on the U.S. election. He accused Tigray’s regional forces, whose leaders dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades before he took office, of attacking the Ethiopian military. Tigray’s leaders called it self-defense after months of tensions.

While the world clamors for access to Tigray to investigate suspected atrocities on all sides and deliver aid to millions of hungry people, the prime minister has rejected outside “interference.” He declared victory in late November and said no civilians had been killed. His government denies the presence of thousands of soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray leaders.