In interviews, recruits said they were driven to join the T.D.F. 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 airstrikes, or gang raped by Eritrean soldiers, slipped over to the rebel side.
A center 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 centers 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 smoldered 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.
Reporting was contributed by Simon Marks in Brussels and Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi.