Jubilant capital of Tigray greets insurgents after Ethiopian forces retreat.

A column of triumphant fighters paraded into the city just after dawn on Tuesday, led by a woman in camouflage who brandished a Kalashnikov and the flag of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, while people poured onto the streets to welcome them – cheering, weeping with relief and chanting “Victory is ours!”

It had been eight months since the government of Ethiopia mounted an offensive in the country’s Tigray region, unleashing civil war, atrocities and famine in Africa’s second most populous country, and creating what is now one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than 1.7 million people have been displaced, and as many as 900,000 are suffering from famine, according to US officials.

But on Monday, Ethiopian troops suddenly withdrew from Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray, as well as other towns in the region, ahead of advancing Tigrayan fighters. The fall of Mekelle signalled a turning point in a war that has plunged Ethiopia into chaos and threatened to destabilise the wider Horn of Africa region.

It was also a stunning blow to the authority of the country’s leader, Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and a year later gambled his power and reputation on what he said would be a brief, decisive campaign to bring the restive Tigray region under control.

When he took office just three years ago, Abiy promised to unite his fractured country. Now he is left reeling from a seismic military loss to Tigrayan leaders he has derided as a “criminal clique”. With Tigrayan forces on the offensive and ethnic conflicts flaring in other parts of Ethiopia, the very fabric binding his ancient country lies in tatters.

A girls hands out food to Tigray Defence Forces fighters in Mekelle. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times

A girls hands out food to Tigray Defence Forces fighters in Mekelle. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times

From the outset, the war threatened to upend countries in the Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbour to the north, joined forces with Abiy’s government and sent troops into Tigray; Tigrayan refugees streamed into Sudan, to the west; Ethiopia drew down its peacekeeping forces in Somalia, to the east; and ethnic Amhara militias from within Ethiopia attacked Tigray from the south.

Wider conflict

The spectre of a wider conflict grew significantly on Tuesday, as Tigrayan leaders threatened to take the war against the invading forces into neighbouring Eritrea and the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

“We want to degrade as many enemy capabilities as possible,” Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigrayan leadership, said that even if that requires going all the way to the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

The Ethiopian government has said it withdrew its forces voluntarily, for humanitarian reasons, as part of a unilateral ceasefire declared on Monday, but the military had steadily lost ground in recent days to fighters from Tigray, now calling themselves the Tigray Defence Forces.

Getachew accused the Ethiopian troops, on their retreat, of robbing banks, looting and cutting off electricity and telecommunications. He said that Tigrayan leaders would consider a ceasefire and negotiate with Abiy’s government only if services were restored and Tigrayan territory returned.

“You cannot cut off electricity and services and expect to make peace,” he said. “You cannot expect to make peace while you are robbing our banks.”

As Tigrayan fighters filed through Mekelle on Tuesday, jubilant young men jogging alongside them shouted, “The Woyane have won!” using a term for revolutionaries.

The massacres, ethnic cleansing, mass rape and famine that have accompanied the war have not only shredded Abiy’s reputation as a peacemaker – he won the Nobel for ending Ethiopia’s long conflict with Eritrea – but also sowed the seeds of this week’s setbacks by uniting Tigrayans against a government they blame for their pain.

Rights abuses

The worst atrocities have been blamed on the Eritrean and ethnic Amhara forces, although there have been human rights abuses on both sides. The violence has driven masses of people from their homes in Tigray – some of whom see glimmers of a possible return in the Tigrayan advance – and an unknown number have died, either killed by fighters or perished as they fled on foot.

People silhouetted against the Tigrayan flag celebrate the departure of Ethiopian troops in Mekelle. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times

People silhouetted against the Tigrayan flag celebrate the departure of Ethiopian troops in Mekelle. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times

The United Nations and humanitarian groups say nearly the entire population of the region is in dire need of aid. Ethiopian troops have both looted emergency food aid and blocked relief workers from reaching hard-hit areas.

As the atrocities mounted, support for Ethiopia’s central government in Addis Ababa inexorably drained in Tigray, and the ranks of the Tigray Defence Forces swelled with new recruits. Now, for fighters and civilians alike in Mekelle, the message is clear: after eight months of fighting their own government, they need to be rid of it – perhaps even strike out on their own.

“Tigray should be an independent country,” Andinet Negessa, a rebel commander, said as his fighters chewed bread and drank water proferred by women who embraced and kissed them.

The war is far from over, and most of Tigray remains in the hands of the Tigrayans’ enemies – Eritreans to the north and Amhara militias to the west. The notion of independence for Tigray – a largely highland, landlocked region wedged between hostile forces – seems fanciful.

But on Tuesday, even after Ethiopia’s government cut mobile phone networks and electricity to Mekelle, its residents exulted in a rare moment of joy. Outside a yard where, a day earlier, relief workers had been distributing sacks of donated wheat to hungry townspeople, people hoisted aloft a fighter in stonewashed jeans and a leather grenade belt.

The fighter, Guesh Girmy – a 51-year-old former police commander – soaked up the adulation, kissing his rifle and then blowing kisses into the crowd. Several men responded with raised fists.

“Abiy lives for his stomach,” they chanted. “Tigrayans live for their country.”

Miscalculations

The rebel capture of Mekelle followed a string of insurgent victories in the surrounding countryside over the past 10 days. But they were also propelled by Abiy’s own miscalculations.

Until the war erupted in November, Tigrayans were divided over the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was engaged in an explosive feud with Abiy. But once the war started and the human rights abuses mounted, many Tigrayans united against a government in Addis Ababa that they now saw as an existential threat.

In interviews, recruits said they were driven to join the TDF by the suffering they witnessed – relatives who had been slaughtered, priests gunned down in churches, sisters and mothers sexually assaulted. In Mekelle, meanwhile, the government’s grip had steadily weakened in recent months, government officials said.

Police officers defected to the rebels, vanishing with weapons, vehicles or even prisoners sprung free from jail. Young doctors from the city’s Ayder Hospital, which has treated civilians blown up in Ethiopian air strikes, or gang raped by Eritrean soldiers, slipped over to the rebel side.

A centre treating sexual assault survivors at the Ayder Hospital has had 585 patients since December, said its director, Mihira Redae. About 1,500 more patients had been registered at four centres across Tigray, she added.

“It’s not just violence against individual women,” she said. “It’s against the Tigrayan people.”

On the edge of Mekelle on Tuesday, young men looted deserted Ethiopian military camps, collecting abandoned Ethiopian uniforms that they tied to the back of trucks and rickshaws and dragged through the streets. A fire smouldered next to the command headquarters, near the city airport, where piles of military documents had been burned. A handful of surviving documents showed lists of soldiers and officers.

Across the road, near the airport runway, the body of an elderly man lay dumped on the edge of a dirt track. A bullet hole pocked his hip. Residents who found him said they did not know how he had died, but that several residents had vanished into military custody during what they called the Ethiopian occupation. – New York Times

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