‘They just vanished’: Tigrayans disappear for months in secret Ethiopian detention camps
Thousands of Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained since the civil war began a year ago. One Tigrayan political party estimates 20,000 to 30,000 have been held at detention centres outside the main war zones
Source: The Globe and Mail
November 8, 2021
Medhanye, a 31-year-old Ethiopian of Tigrayan ethnicity, was watching a soccer match with his friends at a café in Addis Ababa when the police suddenly arrived. After demanding their identity cards, which show their ethnicity, the police separated 11 Tigrayans and took them to a site where hundreds of others were being held.
At dawn the next morning, they were forced onto three buses and driven to a secret detention camp in the Afar region. “They did not explain our crime,” Medhanye said.
For the next 93 days, he said he was imprisoned – and often tortured – at the camp with hundreds of other Tigrayans, until he finally managed to pay a bribe for his release last month.
Disappearances, ethnic profiling and mass arrests of Tigrayans have become increasingly common this year, especially after territorial gains by Tigrayan rebel forces in the escalating civil war, according to human rights groups and other independent sources.
Over the past week, as rebels advance closer to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the cycle of detention is being repeated. Federal police in the capital are rounding up hundreds of Tigrayans on the streets or in house-to-house searches and taking them to unknown locations, numerous media reports say.
Under a newly proclaimed state of emergency, the Ethiopian police are empowered to arrest anyone suspected of “collaborating with terrorist groups” and to detain them for the duration of the state of emergency, even without an arrest warrant.
“The sweeping nature of this state of emergency is a blueprint for escalating human rights violations, including arbitrary detention,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday. Amnesty also warned of a “significant rise” in social-media posts that incite violence against Tigrayans and use ethnic slurs against them. Ethiopian government officials have denounced Tigrayan leaders as “cancer,” “weeds” and “rats.”
By most estimates, thousands of Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained since the war began in the Tigray region a year ago. One Tigrayan political party, Salsay Weyane, estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 Tigrayans have been held at several detention centres outside the main war zones.
The Globe and Mail interviewed 15 people whose family members and friends disappeared after they were detained by Ethiopia’s federal police over the past several months. The Globe also talked to people who had been released from detention camps after paying bribes. And with the use of smuggled phones, The Globe talked to detainees who are still inside the secret camps.
Using satellite images, based on maps and information from the detainees, The Globe has identified the location of three of the biggest detention centres. Two of the camps, Awash Arba and Awash Sebat, are in the Afar region. The third one, Gelan warehouse, is in the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s Biggest Detention Camps
The accounts by the detainees and their families all confirm that there is a pattern of torture and abuse at the detention camps. The Globe has withheld the full names of the interviewed people to protect them from possible retribution.
At the Awash Sebat detention camp, Medhanye said he was tortured often. “The harshest was on Aug. 6,” he told The Globe. “They forced us to squat barefoot in a very hot pavement inside the camp. As we squatted barefoot, they were whipping us in the back. There were teens as young as 12 between us, screaming in pain. That day they tortured me until I lost consciousness.”
After three months in detention, Medhanye was released last month when his friends and family raised enough money to pay a bribe of 100,000 birr (about $2,600) to the camp authorities. But those who cannot afford to pay are still in the camps, often undergoing torture and the threat of execution, he said.
In the capital city, the districts of Hayahulet, Teklehaimanot and Kaliti are largely inhabited by ethnic Tigrayans. Witnesses told The Globe how police officers target Tigrayans in those districts and round them up.
Tsion, an office worker in the capital, said the police had detained her friend Genet, a 27-year-old Tigrayan housewife in the city, about four months ago.
“Me and her family have not heard about her for months,” she said. “We don’t have information about where she was taken after she was detained in Addis.”
Kiflay, 26 and Haftom, 22, were walking home from their workplace in Addis Ababa on the evening of July 1 when they were detained by security officers who checked their ethnicity on their identity cards. The two brothers, ethnically Tigryans, had moved to the capital six years ago and had been working as carpenters since then. The brothers were held in the district’s police station for a day. But the following day they disappeared.
For almost four months, their 31-year-old cousin Merhawi has been searching for them. “I don’t know if they are alive,” he told The Globe. “They never appeared in court. They just vanished from the police station. The officers refused to tell me their whereabouts. I tried all means and even paid a bribe to the officers to get information, all with no success.”
Using a smuggled phone, The Globe talked to a 23-year-old Tigrayan detainee at Awash Arba camp. He had worked as a day labourer at construction sites in Addis Ababa until he was arrested almost five months ago. He estimates that there are about 900 Tigrayan detainees at the camp. “They beat us every day,” he said. “They harass and threaten to execute us. It is so difficult, I have no words to describe the suffering. We are all low-profile Tigrayans with no military or political background or social media engagement. We have never appeared in court.”
Some detainees, released after paying bribes, said they sometimes heard gunshots at Awash Sebat camp and feared that people were being executed.
Ashenafi, a Tigrayan man who spent three weeks in the Awash Sebat camp until he paid a bribe of 81,000 birr (about $2,100) for his release, said he saw five young detainees being taken to a room where gunshots were later heard on a night in early August. “Their heads were shaved,” he said. “I could see the officers brutally beating them outdoors. They were bleeding. Then the officers took them to a dark room. At night I heard shootings coming from that dark room. I don’t know what exactly happened to the five young men. But from that day on, the room was empty, and officers were no longer around to keep it.”
Other witnesses described several shootings at night at the camp, including that day’s incident.
Human Rights Watch, in a report in August, said the Ethiopian authorities had arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared a growing number of ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa – including journalists – after the rebels captured the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, in late June.
The report documented the same pattern that the detainees had described: Tigrayans were stopped and arrested on the streets, in cafés and in their homes and workplaces; their ethnicity was checked; they were taken to police stations and later transferred secretly to unidentified locations.
“Lawyers and families discovered, often weeks later and sometimes only informally, that some detainees were being held in the Afar region, over 200 kilometres from Addis Ababa,” the report said.
The Globe contacted Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to seek comment on the allegations in this article. She did not reply.