MEKELLE, Ethiopia — Eight months after Ethiopia’s Army attacked the northern region of Tigray, the civil war has taken a major turn: Tigrayan fighters, now on the offensive, began consolidating control of the regional capital on Tuesday.
The Ethiopian military has occupied the Tigray region since November, after invading in cooperation with Eritrean and militia forces to wrest control from the regional government. The Tigrayan forces, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, spent months regrouping and recruiting new fighters, and then in the past week began a rolling counterattack back toward the capital, Mekelle.
New York Times journalists in Mekelle saw thousands of residents take to the streets on Monday night, waving flags and shooting off fireworks after hearing that Tigrayan forces had advanced to the city.
The Tigrayans’ rapid advance was a significant setback for the government of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who declared when he sent his forces into the restive region last year that the operation would be over in a matter of weeks.
Sisay Hagos, a 36-year-old who was celebrating in Mekelle, said: “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”
Soldiers belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were seen leaving Mekelle in vehicles throughout Monday, some of them with looted materials, according to international and aid workers. A senior interim official who had been installed in Tigray by the national government confirmed that Tigrayan forces had entered the city and seized control of the airport and telecommunications network. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
Ethiopia’s government said on Monday that it had called a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray. It was not immediately clear whether Tigrayan forces had accepted the truce. Although it is difficult to know what is happening on the ground, two international aid officials who had spoken with workers in towns in northern Tigray said that Eritrean forces had also pulled back on Tuesday.
They said employees had reported seeing celebrations in Shire, a town where thousands have been displaced from Western Tigray, which the authorities in the Amhara region annexed earlier in the conflict. The aid officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Tigrayan rebel forces said they were “following in the footsteps of the fleeing remnants” to bring back full control of the region.
Refugees and international observers have accused the invading forces of wide-ranging atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, and of pushing the region to the brink of famine.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the cease-fire had been declared for “humanitarian” reasons. In a statement, it pointed to “an invasion of desert locusts, the Covid-19 pandemic, mass displacement and the interruption of farming activities due to the eight-month conflict” as the rationale. It did not mention its military losses.
It was the first time the Ethiopian government had acknowledged that humanitarian workers face challenges to reach all areas in the region to deliver aid and food.
That recognition from the government signaled a shift in its position after months of denying that there was any problem regarding food delivery in Tigray, despite numerous warnings from the United Nations and others.
Early this month, the United Nations said that at least 350,000 people in the conflict-ravaged region had entered a state of famine, while the U.S. Agency for International Development put its estimate this week for those facing famine conditions at 900,000.
International humanitarian groups and aid officials woke on Tuesday wondering what the terms of the cease-fire would mean practically on the ground. So far, there has been no formal reaction by the Eritrean government, whose troops have played a major role in the conflict and have been blamed for human rights abuses including rape, extrajudicial killings and other atrocities.
Electricity and phone lines across the region remained down on Tuesday, a situation that had many wondering whether Tigray would remain cut off.
The war in Tigray has become a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions of people, with charges of atrocities committed mostly by the invading forces.
In addition to the tens of thousands of people killed, about 1.7 million people have been driven from their homes, and more than five million people, the great majority of Tigray’s population, urgently need assistance, United Nations and local officials say.
The United Nations declared this month that parts of Tigray were in the throes of a famine — the world’s worst since 250,000 Somalis died in 2011. U.S. officials said on June 10 that about 350,000 Tigrayans were afflicted by the famine, and American officials say that the figure has doubled since then and is likely to continue rising.
While civilians risk starvation, there have been reports of soldiers looting food aid and preventing relief groups from reaching hard-hit areas.
Many of the worst human rights abuses in Tigray — including horrific sexual violence, ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate killing of refugees and other civilians — have been blamed on Eritrean soldiers and the militias allied with the Ethiopian military.
International watchdogs consistently rank Eritrea as one of the most repressive nations in the world — for years, it has essentially been a one-man regime, ruled with ruthless force by Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea drafts all young people into the military, with no limit on how long they might be required to serve. It has no elections, independent news media, opposition parties or civil society groups.
Across Ethiopia, there have been reports that the government has detained without charge thousands of ethnic Tigrayans, mostly soldiers and police officers, but also civilians.
The war began with Tigrayan forces clearly on the defensive, fighting the armies of two countries — Ethiopia and Eritrea — and allied militias. Yet the Tigrayan rebels have managed to regroup and mount a broad counteroffensive, retaking several cities.
The turnabout is less surprising than it appears.
The party in control of Tigray’s regional government, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, ostensibly controlled only that government when the fighting began. But it also commanded regional security forces estimated to number at least in the tens of thousands.
In addition, the invasion by the Ethiopian government and human rights abuses have driven large numbers of recruits into the group’s arms.
At the same time, ethnic clashes have erupted in other parts of Ethiopia, tying down some of the country’s military forces.
The T.P.L.F. also has a long martial history. Soon after a military junta took control of Ethiopia in the mid-1970s, the force became the most important armed rebel group, ultimately leading the alliance that overthrew the government in 1991.
The Tigrayan bloc dominated the government for the next 27 years, and its members became deeply embedded in the military. The heavy Tigrayan presence in Ethiopia’s military has undercut Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s offensive, as military units have at times turned on one another.
Pro-T.P.L.F. fighters have regrouped this spring as the Tigray Defense Forces, according to the International Crisis Group.
Over the past week, escalating violence and troop movements in Tigray made clear that the Tigrayan forces were on the counterattack. Heavy weapons were part of the fighting on both sides, and key towns changed hands, United Nations security documents show. And on Wednesday, Tigrayan rebels downed an Ethiopian Air Force C-130 cargo plane as it approached Mekelle, the regional capital.
Ethiopian forces were said to have abandoned a number of strategic positions around Adigrat, Abiy Adiy and in several locations in southern Tigray. The rebels say they have captured several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and are holding them as prisoners of war.
Not long ago, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s 44-year-old prime minister and Nobel laureate, was seen in much of the world as a shining hope for his country and its region. Now, foreign diplomats and analysts wonder how they could have been so wrong about him.
After coming to power in 2018, Mr. Abiy embarked on a whirlwind of ambitious reforms: freeing political prisoners, welcoming exiles home from abroad and, most impressively, striking a landmark peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, in a matter of months. He allowed once-banned opposition parties and appointed women to half the positions in his cabinet.
His flurry of reforms was a sharp rebuke to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a party of rebels turned rulers who had dominated Ethiopia since 1991 in an authoritarian system that achieved impressive economic growth at the cost of basic civil rights.
The West, eager for a glittering success story in Africa, was wowed, and within 18 months Mr. Abiy, a onetime intelligence officer, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But since then Mr. Abiy’s halo has been shattered, and nations that once hailed him now see him as a pariah.
In moving swiftly, he unleashed pent-up frustrations among ethnic groups that had been marginalized — most notably his own group, the Oromo, who account for one-third of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. When mass protests erupted in the fall of 2019, he reverted to the old playbook: arrests, repression and police brutality.
The civil war raging since November in the northern Tigray region has become a byword for atrocities. Mr. Abiy’s forces and their allies have been accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing, and causing a famine.
Long-delayed parliamentary elections were once billed as a chance to turn the page on decades of autocratic rule. Instead, the vote, held last week, has highlighted Ethiopia’s divisions. Results have not been announced, but Mr. Abiy’s party is expected to win easily.
There was no voting in 102 of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies because of war, civil unrest and logistical failures. Senior opposition leaders are in jail, and their parties boycotted the election in Oromia, a sprawling region of about 40 million people.
“These elections are a distraction,” said Abadir M. Ibrahim, an adjunct law professor at Addis Ababa University. “The state is on a cliff edge, and it’s not clear if it can pull back.”
Since the war in Tigray began in November, almost two million people have been displaced from their homes, moving to towns elsewhere in Ethiopia and across the border into Sudan.
Since Nov. 7, more than 63,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in eastern Sudan, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many arrived in border towns like Hamdayet carrying few belongings and were eventually moved to refugee camps dotted across the eastern Sudanese states of Gedaref and Kassala. Most fleeing across the border were men, while children made up more than a third of the asylum seekers.
In the eight months since the war began, the refugee camps in Sudan have become evermore permanent, with round “tukul” huts made of mud and grass, makeshift schools, and tea and coffee shops sprouting up. Yet even as they are safe from the violence at home, Ethiopian refugees in Sudan are contending with a change in weather conditions. After months of enduring scorching heat, the long rains in Sudan, which last from May to October, have caused floods and damaged shelters and latrines, according to the United Nations.
“The wind and rain destroyed what we had,” Meresiet Gebrewahid, who lives in the one of the camps, said in a telephone interview. Ms. Meresiet lives in the regional Tigray capital, Mekelle, and was visiting family in the agricultural town of Humera near Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea when the war began.
“It’s not been easy,” she said. “I miss home.”
As the war has intensified, displaced people have also sought protection in major towns in northern Tigray, like Shire and Adwa, each of which is hosting hundreds of thousands of people. Tens of thousands have also been displaced in the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.
Besides food insecurity and malnutrition, humanitarian organizations remain concerned about overcrowding, poor hygiene and coronavirus outbreaks in the camps. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat displaced people in Shire in late May.
With Tigrayan rebels entering Mekelle on Monday night, refugees like Ms. Meresiet said they hoped it would mark the beginning of their return home.
“The last eight months have been the most difficult, but I am feeling good today,” she said, laughing over the phone. “It’s like my birthday,” she said, adding, “Last night was hopeful for Tigrayans. We need our people to be free.”