NAIROBI, Kenya — The family was startled awake by a loud bang in the middle of the night on the gate of their home on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Police officers barged in without a warrant, ransacking the living room and looking under the beds. They seized three members of the family, among them a 76-year-old, one-legged amputee yanked from bed while his sons begged to go in his place.
“They showed him no mercy even after he cried, ‘I am disabled and diabetic,’” said the man’s nephew, Kirubel, who would give only his first name for fear of reprisals.
The family is among hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Ethiopians belonging to the Tigrayan ethnic group who have been rounded up and detained in the capital and beyond in recent weeks.
routed the Ethiopian army in Tigray, swept south, recently captured two strategic towns and threatened to advance toward the capital.
On Nov. 2, the government declared a state of emergency, and the resulting roundups have swept up anyone of Tigrayan descent, many of whom had no ties to the rebels or even affinity for them. They were not just young men and women, but also mothers with children and the elderly, according to human rights advocates and interviews with nearly a dozen family members and friends of detainees.
They have been seized off the streets, in their homes and even in workplaces — including banks, schools and shopping centers — and taken to overcrowded cells in police stations and detention facilities.
Tigrayans have been targeted by the police based on a mix of hints: their surnames, details listed on identification cards and drivers licenses, even the way they speakAmharic, the national language of Ethiopia.
said Tuesday through a spokeswoman. “Its provisions are extremely broad, with vague prohibitions going as far as encompassing ‘indirect moral’ support for what the government has labeled ‘terrorist groups.’”
The ethnically motivated detentions come amid a significant rise in online hate speech, which is only adding fuel to the civil war tearing apart Africa’s second-most populous nation. Reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual assault by all sides in the conflict have undermined the vision of Ethiopian unity that Mr. Abiy, the prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, promised when he rose to power more than three years ago.
The war between Ethiopian federal forces and their allies and Tigrayan rebel fighters has left thousands of people dead, at least 400,000 living in famine-like conditions and millions displaced. It risks engulfing the whole of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.
Mr. Abiy’s determination to prosecute the war seems to have been only hardened by economic threats from the Biden administration, which has imposed sanctions on his military allies in neighboring Eritrea and suspended Ethiopia from duty-free access to the U.S. market.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is traveling to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal this week, has expressed worry that Ethiopia could “implode.”
defend the capital “with our blood” even as African and Western envoys sought to broker a cease-fire.
Police officials have defended the arrests, saying they were seizing supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the country’s former dominant party, which Ethiopia now classifies as a terrorist organization.
Activists, however, say the state of emergency provisions are so nebulous that they give security officials unfettered latitude. The provisions allow for the search of any person’s home or their arrest without a warrant “upon reasonable suspicion” that they cooperate with terrorist groups.
Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said “the state of emergency is legitimizing and legalizing unlawful practices” and creating “a real climate of fear.”
Many ethnic Tigrayans say they now fear leaving home. Almost all those who agreed to be interviewed declined to be identified by name for fear that they might be arrested or face retaliation.
began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.
Rebels turned the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. Now the fighting is rapidly moving south.
Tigrayan forces close in. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.
No end in sight. President Biden has threatened to impose sanctions on the country to coax the sides to the negotiating table, but the war’s current trajectory could cause the collapse of Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, security officers have demanded that landlords identify Tigrayan tenants. In one secondary school, a teacher said four Tigrayan teachers had been taken into custody as they ate lunch after officers arrived with a letter from the intelligence service containing their names.
A merchant in Addis Ababa, 38, was picked up by security officers after he opened his mobile phone accessories shop. A nearby shop owner phoned that news to the seized merchant’s wife, who said she left their two children with a neighbor and rushed to the shop — only to find it closed and her husband gone.
After a three-day search, the wife said, she found her husband in a crowded Addis Ababa detention facility with no proper bedding or food.
In Addis Ababa, rights groups say, police stations are so full of detainees that the authorities have moved the overflow to heavily guarded makeshift facilities, among them youth recreation centers, warehouses and one major prison. With no access to lawyers, some relatives of detainees say they will not approach these facilities, fearful they could be arrested too.
whistle-blower, have long accused Facebook of failing to moderate hateful incitement speech. With pressure mounting, Facebook this month deleted a post by Mr. Abiy urging citizens to “bury” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Twitter also disabled its Trends section in Ethiopia, citing “the risks of coordination that could incite violence or cause harm.”
Timnit Gebru, an Ethiopian-born American computer scientist who spotted and reported some of the posts on Facebook, said the measures were insufficient and amounted to “a game of whack-a-mole.”
For now, many Tigrayans worry that it’s only a matter of time before they are seized. One businessman, who paid a $400 bribe for his release, said officers had told him they would come for him again.
It’s a fate Kirubel said he worried about as his disabled uncle and cousins remained detained.
“My children worry that I will not come back when I leave the house,” he said. “Everyone is afraid.”
Employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
GIJET, Ethiopia — The convoy sped down from the mountain, slipping and sliding on roads greasy from a recent shower of hailstones. As it descended toward the regional capital of Tigray, curling through rocky hills and remote hamlets, people clustered along the route in celebration.
Women stood ululating outside stone farmhouses, and fighters perched atop a ridge fired their weapons into the air as the vehicles curled around the detritus of battle: burned-out tanks, overturned trucks and a mucky field where on June 23 an Ethiopian military cargo plane, shot down by the Tigrayans, had smashed into the ground.
The leader of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, was going home.
Two days earlier, his scrappy guerrilla force had retaken the regional capital, Mekelle, hours after Ethiopian troops suddenly abandoned the city. Now Mr. Debretsion, a former deputy prime minister of Ethiopia, was leaving the mountains where he had been ensconced for eight months leading a war to re-establish his rule over the region.
“I didn’t expect to make it back alive,” Mr. Debretsion said on Thursday night in an interview, his first since the fall of Mekelle. “But this isn’t personal. The most important thing is that my people are free — free from the invaders. They were living in hell, and now they can breathe again.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation there. The civil war has led to the displacement of nearly two million people, and to widespread hunger and reports that civilians were subjected to atrocities and sexual violence.
Mr. Debretsion, who is believed to be in his late 50s, claimed to have crippled Ethiopia’s powerful army, defeating seven of its 12 divisions and killing at least 18,000 soldiers. He also detailed plans to expand the war across Tigray, in defiance of international calls for a cease-fire, until his fighters have expelled from the region every outside force, including Eritrean soldiers and ethnic Amhara militias.
“They have taken the land by force,” Mr. Debretsion said. “So we will take it back by force.”
Tigray Defense Forces mounted a spectacle that seemed intended to humiliate Ethiopia’s leader. The fighters marched at least 6,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war through downtown Mekelle past residents chanting, “Abiy is a thief!” A woman holding a large photograph of Mr. Debretsion led the procession.
The Tigrayan leader fought his first war in the 1980s as the head of a guerrilla radio station for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a rebel group leading the resistance against a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia.
The rebels swept to power in 1991, with the Tigrayan leadership at the head of a governing coalition that dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy became prime minister in 2018.
In power, the Tigrayan leadership stabilized Ethiopia and achieved soaring economic growth for nearly a decade. But progress came at the cost of basic civil rights. Critics were imprisoned or exiled, torture was commonplace in detention centers and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front won successive elections with a reported 100 percent of the vote.
By then, Mr. Debretsion had a reputation as a low-key technocrat. He served as communications minister and headed Ethiopia’s power utility, where he oversaw construction of a $4.5 million hydroelectric dam that, when completed, will be Africa’s largest.
But as popular protests against the Tigrayan leadership’s rule roiled Ethiopia from 2015, and as the police killed hundreds of protesters, Mr. Debretsion rose in prominence inside the party. Analysts say he was seen as a younger and more moderate figure than those steeped in Tigrayan nationalism who had dominated the party for decades.
The eruption of war changed everything.
Mr. Abiy said he had no choice but to launch military action, after months of escalating political tensions, when Tigrayan forces attacked a military base on Nov. 4.
Mr. Debretsion challenged that account, saying that Ethiopian troops had been massing on Tigray’s borders for days in preparation for an assault. He had advance knowledge of those plans, Mr. Debretsion said, because ethnic Tigrayans accounted for more than 40 percent of senior Ethiopian military officers, and many defected in the early days of the fight.
At first, Tigrayan forces were caught off guard by a barrage of drone strikes against artillery and supply lines that he said were conducted by the United Arab Emirates, an ally of both Mr. Abiy and the leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki.
An Emirates spokesman did not respond to questions about the alleged drone strikes. Mr. Debretsion said they had changed the course of the war.
“Without the drones,” he said, “the fight would have been different.”
The Tigrayans, buoyed by a huge influx of new recruits, mounted their dramatic comeback just before Ethiopia’s election on June 21.
With the vote canceled in Tigray, Ethiopian forces attacked the T.D.F. at its stronghold in the Tembien mountains, west of Mekelle. The Tigrayans struck back hard, and within days several Ethiopian bases had been overrun and thousands of Ethiopian soldiers were captured.
Mr. Debretsion said he would free most of the Ethiopian prisoners who were marched through Mekelle on Friday, but would continue to detain the Ethiopian officers.
He called on the international community to ensure accountability for the spree of atrocities reportedly committed in Tigray in recent months — massacres, rape, the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Some Tigrayans had also been accused of atrocities during the conflict. But Mr. Debretsion rejected a United Nations-led investigation that is being conducted alongside a rights body linked to the Ethiopian government.
“It’s very clear they are partial,” he said.
He warned that if Mr. Abiy tried to mass forces in regions bordering Tigray again, he would quickly send fighters to intercept them.
In recent days, some Tigrayan leaders have suggested that troops could march on Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, to oust Mr. Afwerki, who harbors a decades-old enmity with them.
Mr. Debretsion sounded a more cautious note. Tigrayan troops would fight to push Eritrean troops over the border, he said, but not necessarily go farther.
“We have to be realistic,” Mr. Debretsion said. “Yes, we would like to remove Isaias. But at the end of the day, Eritreans have to remove him.”
The euphoric mood that gripped Mekelle this past week, with some fighters rushing to be with families and others celebrating in the city’s restaurants and nightclubs, is also a challenge for Mr. Debretsion.
The mood might be deflated in the coming weeks, as shortages of food and fuel hit Mekelle, now isolated on all sides.
Aid groups say that more vulnerable Tigrayans may starve if Mr. Abiy’s government does not allow vital aid deliveries.
Even if the conflict ends soon, Mr. Debretsion said, Tigray’s future as part of Ethiopia is in doubt.“The trust has broken completely,” he said. “If they don’t want us, why should we stay?”
Still, he added, nothing has been decided: “It depends on the politics at the center.”
Famine is now knocking on the door of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a civil war that erupted last year has drastically cut the food supply and prevented relief workers from helping the hungry, the top U.N. humanitarian official has warned.
In a confidential note to the United Nations Security Council, the official, Mark Lowcock, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said sections of Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people, are now one step from famine — in part because the government has obstructed aid shipments.
The note, seen by The New York Times, was submitted Tuesday under a Security Council resolution requiring such notification when conflicts cause famine and widespread food insecurity.
“These circumstances now arise in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia,” Mr. Lowcock said in the note. While below-average rain, locusts and the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to food scarcity, he said, “the scale of the food crisis Tigray faces today is a clear result of the conflict and the behavior of the parties.”
since last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea ordered their military forces into the region to crush Mr. Abiy’s political rivals and strengthen his control.
What Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, predicted would be a short operation has instead become a quagmire that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities in Tigray that amount to war crimes.
While the United Nations and international relief organizations have achieved some cooperation from the Ethiopian authorities in gaining access to deprived areas of Tigray, Mr. Lowcock said in his note, such cooperation has deteriorated in recent months. “Humanitarian operations are being attacked, obstructed or delayed in delivering lifesaving assistance,” he wrote, and at least eight aid workers have been killed.
“As a result of impediments and the effect of restrictions, not nearly enough support is being provided,” he wrote. He urged Security Council members “to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring.”
His warning was echoed by Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the main U.S. government provider of humanitarian assistance to needy countries. Ms. Power, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that one of the aid workers killed had worked for the agency she now runs.
took the unusual step of penalizing Ethiopia over growing American exasperation with Mr. Abiy’s actions in Tigray. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced visa restrictions on officials linked to the conflict, preventing their travel to the United States.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, calling the restrictions “extremely regrettable” and suggesting they would “seriously undermine this longstanding and important bilateral relationship.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — Growing American frustration over the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia spilled over into an open confrontation on Monday when Ethiopian officials lashed out at Washington over new restrictions including aid cuts and a ban on some Ethiopians traveling to the United States.
The restrictions, announced by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Sunday, amount to an unusual step against a key African ally, and a pointed rebuke to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose troops and allies have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities that could amount to war crimes.
Despite “significant diplomatic engagement,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement, “the parties to the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”
American visa restrictions will apply to all actors in the Tigray conflict, Mr. Blinken said, including current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, ethnic Amhara militias and Tigrayan rebels.
a statement on Monday, Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry reacted with an expression of regret and what appeared to be thinly veiled threats. It accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs and trying to overshadow national elections scheduled for June 21.
And it said that Ethiopia could be “forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”
gave $923 million, according to USAID, although the vast majority of that money was for humanitarian purposes — health care, food aid, education and democracy support — that will not be hit by the new measures.
The United States had already suspended $23 million in security aid to Ethiopia. Officials say the new measures will preclude any American arms sales to Ethiopia, although much of the country’s weapons come from Russia.
Still, there could be other impacts. Western diplomats say the United States could block international funding to Ethiopia from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — integral to Mr. Abiy’s economic plans.
dispatched by President Biden in March, and Jeffrey Feltman, the recently appointed Horn of Africa envoy.
American officials worry that the growing chaos in Tigray could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region, or jeopardize efforts to mediate a high-stakes dispute with Egypt over the massive hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile.
The growing humanitarian crisis, including the threat of a famine within months, is also driving the sense of urgency.
Those responsible for the Tigray crisis “should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community,” Mr. Blinken said. “We call on other governments to join is taking these measures.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.
A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace.
Then the stories start spilling out.
Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds — people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew.
Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar. Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.
Of a nightlong battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.
obtained by The New York Times.
A spokesman for the Ahmara regional government told Bloomberg this week that it was pressing to officially incorporate western Tigray into Amhara.
an investigation was approved by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In testimony to Congress last week,the United States secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, called the situation in Tigray unacceptable and reiterated calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw immediately.
“They need to come out,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Mulu, the interim leader of Tigray, cuts a lonely figure in Mekelle. An ethnic Tigrayan installed by Mr. Abiy nine days into the war, he lives and works from a suite at the Axum Hotel where he is trying to trying to restart Tigray’s war-battered bureaucracy.
Unlike Mr. Abiy, Mr. Mulu does not deny the Eritrean presence in Tigray. And in an interview he said he had initiated his own investigation into reported atrocities.
“It’s not acceptable that people should die like this,” he said. “But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it.”
Tigray’s health services, once among the best in Ethiopia, have been ravaged. On Monday, Doctors Without Borders said that dozens of clinics across the region had been destroyed and plundered by soldiers, often deliberately.
quit his job over the reports of atrocities in Tigray, accusing Mr. Abiy of leading Ethiopia “down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration.”
Inside Tigray, soldiers detained Ethiopian translators and reporters working for four international outlets, including TheTimes, last month. The men were released without charge days later, but by then most foreign reporters had been forced to leave Tigray.
In such a fraught environment, even massacres are contested.
Mr. Abiy’s officials frequently cite a massacre in Mai Kadra, a town in western Tigray, on Nov. 9, as an example of T.P.L.F. war crimes. Witnesses cited in an Amnesty International report blamed the deaths on Tigrayan fighters.
with a reputation for brutality, and insisted that the majority of victims were Tigrayans.
Solomon Haileselassie, 28, said he watched the slaughter from his hiding place in a garbage dump. “I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes,” he said.
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said the group had received credible new evidence of Tigrayan deaths, but stood by the finding that the majority of victims were Amharas.
Restricted access and the “high politicization of violence” make it hard to establish the truth about much of anything in Tigray, Mr. Fisseha added.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.