A ragtag group of local Tigrayan recruits scored a string of victories on the battlefield against Ethiopia’s military, which is one of the most powerful in the world. The final week of an eight-month civil war was witnessed by journalists from the New York Times.
The town of Samre, Ethiopia, is a popular tourist destination. There was a puff of smoke in the sky where an Ethiopian military cargo plane that had been passing over the village minutes earlier had been struck by a missile, and the Tigrayan fighters whooped and whistled as they pointed excitedly to it.
As the stricken aircraft broke apart and hurtled toward the ground, the smoke turned to flames. Later, in a stony field littered with smoking wreckage, villagers combed through twisted metal and charred remains of bodies. For the Tigrayan fighters, it was a portent of things to come.
“We’re going to win soon,” said Azeb Desalgne, a 20-year-old with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder as she spoke.
It was a breath of fresh air when the plane was shot down on June 22 in northern Ethiopia, signalling that the conflict in the Tigray region was about to take a seismic turn. An Ethiopian guerrilla army had been fighting for eight months to drive out the Tigrayan government, in a civil war marked by atrocities and starvation, when they were defeated. The tide of the battle appeared to be turning in their favour.
After years of simmering animosity between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders, members of a small ethnic minority who had dominated Ethiopia for much of the previous three decades, erupted into open warfare in November, the country was plunged into chaos.
It has been nearly two years since the fighting was largely hidden from public view, obscured by communications blackouts, and overshadowed by international outrage at the escalation of the humanitarian catastrophe. In a pivotal week, I went behind the lines with a photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly, and witnessed a cascade of Tigrayan victories that culminated in their retaking the region’s capital, and which changed the course of the war forever.
It was demonstrated how a ragtag Tigrayan force defeated one of the most powerful armies in Africa, not only by using force of arms, but also by riding the wave of popular rage. Even prior to the war, the people of Tigray were divided, with many people distrusting the ruling Tigrayan party, which they perceived as tired, authoritarian, and corrupt.
Massacres, ethnic cleansing, and widespread sexual violence have united Tigrayans against Mr. Abiy’s government, attracting a large number of highly motivated young recruits to a cause that is now gaining widespread support in the country.
In the distance, several thousand young men and women, many of them dressed in jeans and sneakers, marched past, heading to a training camp for new recruits, according to Hailemariam Berhane, one of the commanders. “Everyone is coming here,” says the narrator.
Mr. Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and who has staked his reputation on the Tigray campaign, has downplayed the significance of his defeat in the election. The president of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, insisted on Tuesday that his military’s withdrawal from Tigray was planned, the latest phase of a fight that the government was on course to win. Mr. Abiy gave a self-assured speech to Parliament, the kind that once dazzled admiring Westerners.
Tigray, on the other hand, has been slipping through his fingers when viewed from the ground.
The Tigrayan fighters have captured a large area of territory in the past three weeks, recaptured the regional capital of Mekelle, and imprisoned at least 6,600 Ethiopian soldiers, while claiming to have killed approximately three times as many.
Over the past few days, Tigrayan leaders have expanded the offensive to include new areas of the region, vowing to cease operations only when all outside forces have been expelled from their territory, which includes Ethiopians, allied troops from the neighbouring country of Eritrea, and ethnic militias from Ethiopia’s neighbouring Amhara region.
“If it means going to hell and back, we will,” Getachew Reda, a senior Tigrayan leader, declared.
There were no responses to questions posed by this article to press officers for Mr. Abiy and the Ethiopian military.
It was the 22nd of June when we arrived in Mekelle, a day after Ethiopian national elections, which had been heralded as a watershed moment in the country’s democratic transition.
While there was no voting in Tigray, the Ethiopian military had just launched a massive offensive against the Tigrayan resistance, which is now known as the Tigray Defense Forces, according to commanders on both sides of the conflict.
On that particular day, an Ethiopian airstrike had struck a crowded village market, killing dozens of people. We stood by and watched as the first casualties were transported to Mekelle’s main hospital.
The brutal murder of three aid workers from Doctors Without Borders was carried out by unidentified assailants a few days later.
Throughout the countryside, the war was progressing at a breakneck pace. Ethiopian military positions began to crumble one by one like dominoes. We arrived at a camp near Mekelle, about 30 miles south of the capital, hours after the Tigrayans shot down a military cargo plane carrying supplies. There were several thousand newly captured Ethiopian soldiers in the camp.
The prisoners, who were gathered behind a barbed wire fence, erupted in applause when we stepped out of our vehicle, believing, as we later learned, that we were Red Cross workers.
One or two were wounded, others were barefoot (their boots and guns had been confiscated, according to them), and many begged for help from the Tigrayan authorities. “We have a lot of seriously wounded soldiers here,” Meseret Asratu, 29, a platoon commander, explained.
The battlefield, which was a little further down the road, was where others had died. It was afternoon sun when the bodies of Ethiopian soldiers were scattered across a rocky field, where they had lain undisturbed since a battle four days earlier.
In among the empty ammunition boxes and abandoned uniforms, there were a few personal items that hinted at young lives that had been cut short: dog-eared photos of loved ones, but also university certificates, chemistry textbooks, and sanitary pads, a reminder that women fight on both sides of the conflict.
Stragglers were still being apprehended at the time of writing. The following day, Tigrayan fighters marched five newly captured prisoners up a hill, where they collapsed to the ground, exhausted from their ordeal.
Dawit Toba, a gloomy 20-year-old from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, claimed he had surrendered without firing a shot during the siege. The war in Tigray was nothing like he had anticipated. According to him, “we were told there would be fighting.” “However, when we arrived, there was looting, robbery, and attacks on women.”
“This war was completely unnecessary,” he continued. “Mistakes have been made,” says the author.
As we were driving away, we came across a figure sprawled on the side of the road — an Ethiopian soldier who had been stripped of his uniform and had several bullet wounds in his leg. He made a soft grunting sound.
The wounded soldier appeared to have been dumped there, though it was not clear who was responsible for this act of vandalism. We drove him back to the prisoner camp, where Ethiopian medics provided some basic care on the ground outside a school, before we returned him to his cell. Nobody knew whether or not he would make it.
The sound of artillery could be heard in the distance. The Tigrayan offensive was continuing to the north, with captured heavy weapons being used against the Ethiopian troops who had brought them into the country. A platoon of fighters made their way through the crowd, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher with them. Teklay Tsegay, a twenty-year-old student, stood by and watched them pass.
Mr. Teklay worked as a mechanic in Adigrat, which is 70 miles north of the city. Then, in February of this year, Eritrean soldiers opened fire on his aunt’s home, killing her 5-year-old daughter, according to him. Mr. Teklay slipped out of Adigrat the following day in order to join the resistance movement.
In his own words, “I never imagined myself as a soldier.” “However, here I am.”
This year, as the Tigrayan people quietly raised an armed guerrilla force, they drew on their previous experience fighting a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s, when they fought under the banner of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
As in the case of the Viet Cong or the rebels in Angola and Mozambique, Tigrayan intellectuals used Marxist ideology to rally peasant fighters to their cause in the following years.
However, this time around, the Tigrayan fighters are well-educated and come from urban areas rather than rural areas. And it was their outrage at atrocities, rather than their commitment to Marxism, that drew them to the cause.
Instructors gave speeches about Tigrayan culture and identity while standing under trees at the recruitment camp, and they also taught new recruits how to fire an AK-47 rifle.
According to colleagues and friends, the wave of recruits has included doctors, university professors, white-collar professionals, and Tigrayans from the diaspora, who have come from the United States and Europe. Even in Mekelle, which was under the control of the government, recruitment became increasingly brazen.
A T.D.F. poster appeared on a wall near St. Gabriel’s Church, which is the city’s largest church, a few weeks ago. In it, it was written, “Those who refuse to join are on par with the walking dead.” Ethiopian soldiers arrived a few hours later and demolished the structure.
A senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, 61, was visiting Mekelle when fighting erupted in November. I came across him near the town of Samre, with a pistol holstered in a leather satchel on his hip.
“I became a member of the resistance,” said the academic, who once assisted the United Nations in brokering a peace agreement in Darfur. “I felt I had no choice but to go through with it.”
Mr. Abiy’s approach to the conflict was so alienating that it even alienated some Ethiopian commanders.
Colonel Hussein Mohamed, a tall man with a gold-toothed smile, commanded the 11th Infantry Division in Tigray from late June until late July. He was now a prisoner, being held with other Ethiopian officers in a farmhouse that was heavily guarded.
Of the 3,700 troops under his command, Colonel Hussein estimated that at least half were likely dead, and he did so voluntarily, confirming his previous statements. In his words, “the course of this war is political madness,” he said of the conflict.
According to him, Mr. Abiy’s military alliance with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s long-time adversary, had always raised serious concerns in his mind: “They ransack properties, they rape women, and they commit atrocities.” “This marriage has caused dissatisfaction throughout the army.”
Ethiopian soldiers, on the other hand, have been accused of many of the same crimes. Colonel Hussein and I met in a stone-walled room with a tin roof, as rain splashed against the windows outside. She had a cloudy expression on her face when the room’s owner, Tsehaye Berhe, walked in with a tray of coffee cups.
“Take it!” she exclaimed, pointing at the Ethiopian officer in the room. “I’m not here to serve you.”
Ms. Tsehaye returned a few moments later to express her regret. “Please accept my apologies for being emotional,” she said. “However, your soldiers set fire to my home and stole my crops.”
Colonel Hussein only gave a quiet nod.
Ethiopian forces withdrew from Mekelle on June 28, but there were signs that something was afoot even before they did. The internet had gone down, and when I arrived at the regional headquarters, where Mr. Abiy had set up an interim government, I found deserted corridors and locked offices, indicating that the internet had gone down. In the parking lot, federal police officers were cramming backpacks into the back of a bus.
Smoke billowed from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces headquarters in Mekelle, which turned out to be a pyre of burning documents piled high by detainees accused of supporting the T.D.F., according to the evidence.
Ethiopian intelligence officers had tortured one of them, Yohannes Haftom, with a cattle prod a few weeks earlier. According to Mr. Yohannes, they threatened him with a burning bush. “We’re going to bury you alive.”
On June 28, however, after he complied with their orders to transport their confidential documents to a burn pit, the Ethiopians released Mr. Yohannes from captivity. Days of raucous celebration followed, as the first T.D.F. fighters marched into Mekelle just hours after they were first seen.
A large number of people gathered on the streets, where young fighters paraded on vehicles like beauty queens or leaned from speeding tuktuks, spraying gunfire into the air. Nightclubs and cafes were packed, and an elderly woman bowed her head at the feet of a newly arrived fighter, praising God in her heart.
In a triumphant display of triumphalism, fighters paraded thousands of Ethiopian prisoners through the city centre on the fourth day, in an apparent jab at Ethiopia’s leader. As dejected soldiers marched past, people chanted, “Abiy is a thief!” and other such phrases.
Following that, the celebrations made their way to the home of Mr. Getachew, the Tigrayan leader and TDF spokesman, who had descended from his mountain base at the time of the festivities.
In between sips of whiskey, Mr. Getachew juggled calls on his satellite phone, which was rattling in the background due to the presence of a generator. Mr. Abiy had once been a political ally, and even a friend, according to Mr. Abiy. At this point, Ethiopia’s leader has cut off power and phone lines to Mekelle and issued an arrest warrant for the Ethiopian leader.
The guests, buoyed by their victory, were eager to discuss the next phase of their campaign in Tigray. One of them brought out a cake decorated with the Tigrayan flag, which Mr. Getachew cut with the help of a senior commander to thunderous applause.
He had been a staunch defender of the Ethiopian state for the majority of his professional life. However, he asserted that the war had rendered that position untenable. He was now considering holding a referendum on Tigrayan independence.
“With the exception of a miracle, there is nothing that can save the Ethiopian state as we know it,” he said. “And I’m not one to put my faith in people.”