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Hundreds Of Civilians Killed With Machetes And Axes In Ethiopian Town

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The war between Ethiopia's government and a rebel regional government has been fought largely with planes and missiles. But a massacre where hundreds of civilians were killed with machetes and axes has drawn special attention because it points to the bitter ethnic divide threatening to rip Ethiopia apart. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports about what happened in Mai-Kadra, a small town near the Sudanese border, and what it might say about the future of Ethiopia. And just a warning - this report contains graphic descriptions of violence.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: After the war started last month in northern Ethiopia, more than 60,000 refugees fled to Sudan. They ended up at camps like this one. Most of them escaped with nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Almost everywhere you walk, you find refugees who escaped from the massacre in Mai-Kadra. Letekiros Abadi sits underneath a tent. She uses a stick to poke at an empty coffee cup.

LETEKIROS ABADI: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Her mom, who is blind, holds her hand, and Letekiros begins to speak. She says that on November 9, at about 3:00 a.m., men started rampaging through Mai-Kadra.

L ABADI: (Through interpreter) The militants didn't care for blind people or children. They were killing everyone with knives.

PERALTA: She saw them when she opened the door to her house. They were human, she says in disbelief. They were young men like the ones here at this camp. She says the militants threatened ethnic Tigrayans like her.

L ABADI: (Through interpreter) There were bodies scattered everywhere.

PERALTA: They lost everything that day, she says. The militias accused them of opposing the government and looted their homes. Back in Mai-Kadra, they had a good life. But now they've ended up here in this desolate camp, sleeping on the floor. Letekiros looks at her empty coffee cup again.

L ABADI: (Through interpreter) We can't even get coffee or water to wash ourselves.

PERALTA: Tears streaming down her face, her life has lost all of meaning.

L ABADI: (Through interpreter) I've thought about killing myself because my kids said maybe it would have been better if they killed us back home.

PERALTA: Her mom, Keberezgi, squeezes her hand. Even before Letekiros was born, her mom made a similar trip in the '70s. With her eldest son on her back, she crossed to Sudan, fleeing another war in Ethiopia.

KEBEREZGI ABADI: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Things got better back then, she says. God willing, things will get better now.

The war in Ethiopia is between the government and the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a rebellious regional government that also has its own military. Both sides have bombed each other, and government troops have moved methodically, taking over the rebel capital. But just days after this war started, a video emerged from Mai-Kadra, a small town not far from the Sudanese border. It showed Ethiopians carrying dozens of bodies to a burial site and women crying over their dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

PERALTA: Other pictures, authenticated by Amnesty International, show bodies with huge gashes, meaning people weren't just killed by bullets or bombs; instead, they were slashed to death with machetes and axes. Alex de Waal of Tufts' World Peace Foundation has studied Ethiopia extensively. He says this was farmers turning on each other, and the incident has been used to deepen ethnic hatred.

ALEX DE WAAL: It is consolidating a narrative of ethnic polarization that can only lead to people simply not being able to live together.

PERALTA: De Waal says this massacre points to the underlying dynamics fueling this war. It's an animosity between the two most influential ethnicities in the country - the Amharas, who align with the government, and the Tigrayans, who align with the rebel TPLF. The government almost immediately said it was TPLF militias that specifically killed Amhara civilians. But we spoke to dozens of ethnic Tigrayan refugees, like the family at the top of the story, who say they were targeted by government-aligned militias. We were able to corroborate some of their testimonies of looting using images from the satellite company Maxar. Our reporting finds this was Ethiopians on both sides of this war turning on each other because of ethnic hatred.

FISSEHA TEKLE: This is happening almost every week in different parts of the country. And what happened in Mai-Kadra is not an exception.

PERALTA: That is Fisseha Tekle, the Amnesty International researcher who first reported this massacre. He says for the past two years, Ethiopians across the country have been organizing along ethnic lines and killing each other. What happened in Mai-Kadra, he says, was a kind of brutal eruption of that dynamic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The refugee camps in Sudan are mostly populated by ethnic Tigrayans. But at one called Village 8, I find a group of men speaking Amharic. As they play with rocks on the dirt, we start to talk to one young man. But my producer and I notice something is wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let him speak.

PERALTA: From far, a guy is motioning him to stay quiet. The young man is obviously scared.

The thing is, he doesn't...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's intimidating him.

PERALTA: I know he doesn't feel safe. And if he doesn't feel safe, he doesn't have to talk. Tell him that.

We leave to diffuse the tension. In another Amhara refugee, Abraham Ismama guides us to an abandoned house where we find two men on the floor, shielding their eyes from the sun. One of them has gashes on his head, the other on his abdomen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's saying those two were sleeping, and the Tigray kicked them...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Hit them with - this one is an axe. This one is a knife.

PERALTA: They say on the night of November 9 in Mai-Kadra, militias aligned with the rebels, not the government, knocked on their doors. They checked IDs, he says, and killed only Amharas. Ahmed Yassin, who's 29, says, unfortunately, the troubles of Mai-Kadra have followed them to these camps in Sudan. He says they are being harassed by Tigrayans who threatened to slash their necks.

AHMED YASSIN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They do these signs. It's like, we're going to kill you, right? He said, we can't even sleep. We get nightmares.

PERALTA: A Sudanese soldier at the camp, who was not authorized to speak to the press, says they've had to break up fights at this camp all the time. By now, dozens of Amhara refugees have surrounded the house. They say they can't live in this camp anymore, not with their Tigrayan neighbors, who they say constantly belittle them for supporting Ethiopia's prime minister.

Ahmed points at a woman holding a baby.

YASSIN: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: That baby doesn't know who the prime minister is, he says. He doesn't know what being Amhara or Tigray is. And yet, he says, he's here suffering.

Days after my visit, the U.N. refugee office says the Amharas were sent to another camp to keep them separate from the Tigrayans. Even outside Ethiopia, they just couldn't live together.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.

(SOUNDBITE OF KELSEY LU SONG, "EMPATHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.