By Mastewal Desalew
After the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June 2021, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) launched an offensive into Amhara and Afar regional states. TPLF mounted offensive on four fronts: Afar front, Mai Tsemri front, the Wolqait front, and the Woldia front (which further splits into the Woldia-Debre Tabor front and the Woldia-Dessie front).
The TPLF was able to rapidly advance in Afar and Woldia fronts. In July and early August, TPLF forces penetrated hundreds of kilometers deep into Afar and Amhara regions. Though not as deep as the previous two fronts, TPLF advanced in the Mai Tsemri front too where its forces crossed into Amhara region and controlled towns and villages. But in the strategic Wolqait front—the area that borders Sudan on the West —TPLF forces were defeated and repelled. Since the TPLF force is encircled in all sides, by Eritrean forces on the north and Ethiopian forces on all other directions, it desperately needs an international outlet via Sudan to bring in supplies and reinforcements. Financial Times1 reported that TPLF has 30,000 ready forces in Sudan waiting to join the fight.
Frustrated by lack of advancement on the west, TPLF decided to push via the Mai Tsemri front South in the direction of Debrak and Dabat towns to Gondar city. An advance on this front could mean that it will potentially control the highways that connect the city of Gondar: to Humera in the north western direction, and to Dabat and Debark in the north. The aim is to isolate the Ethiopian forces that currently occupy the western front from the rest of the country and confront them solo. But to push on the Mai Tsemri front, the TPLF needs to cross one of the most difficult terrains in Africa if not the world—the massifs of the Simien mountains.
It appears that the TPLF generals have learned a direct advance on this front is costly and futile. As a result, they decided to avoid the main highway and bypass the mountains to the east. TPLF forces pass through the lowlands west of the mountains deep into Amhara region. The plan is to launch a surprise attack from the South instead of the north at a location where the western plain meets the mountains. This is where Chenna—one of the places where TPLF forces massacred hundreds of civilians—is located. Thirty-two years ago, TPLF used the same strategy to control the area.
TPLF War Plan Goes Wrong
When TPLF forces moved deep into Amhara region via remote rural areas for a surprise attack, their movement was already known. In the age of smart phones with internet connection, it is difficult to hide the movement of thousands of combatants in a hostile territory. Even the writer of this article had a tip about TPLF’s next moves and warned the public on Facebook 5 days prior to TPLF’s “surprise” attack. Thousands of TPLF forces were dangerously positioned around 70 kilometers far away from the areas controlled by TPLF: they are in a hostile and unknown territory, the terrain is rugged, no reliable road network, and it is the rainy season. During the rainy season, the temperature in the highlands usually approaches freezing point and bridgeless rivers that should be crossed on foot flood. This area is known to be an area where the ‘Fano’ operate.
The word ‘Fano’ was used to describe Ethiopian patriots who fought the Fascist Italian invaders during the Second World War. Recently, it is used to describe those who waged an armed insurgency to topple TPLF when it controlled the federal government. Even though TPLF was pushed out of power by protesters in Amhara and Oromia regions, there was little reported low-key insurgency in Amhara. After TPLF was pushed away from the capital, Fano become an ally of the army.
When TPLF launched the November 3, 2020 attack on Ethiopian national Defense Forces (ENDF), the Fano alongside Amhara regional forces raced to rescue the surrounded ENDF troops on the western front. The Fano gained experience and weaponry in the past 10 months, and it has evolved into a potent fighting force, especially on a terrain it is familiar and climbs on a daily basis.
By the time TPLF launched the “unsurprising” attack on August 30, 2021, Fano was closely monitoring the mountain passes; ENDF had deployed its artillery; Amhara forces were strategically positioned; and reinforcements had already arrived. Besides what it considered were “surprise attacks”, the TPLF also relied on human waves –a military strategy favored and adopted by the TPLF army chief Tsadqan Gebretensae during the Ethio-Eritrea border war of 1998 to 2000– to overwhelm the ENDF and Amhara forces. The fight continued for days, but by September 2, TPLF forces were soundly defeated, which later turned into a rout. The strategies adopted by the TPLF – mounting an unsurprising “surprise attacks” and sending human waves – cost the TPLF thousands of lives, military armaments, and morale.
TPLF sent its commando brigade to reinforce its defeated forces, but it was too little too late. Thousands of TPLF soldiers—including its finest fighting force—and their commanders, including Colonel Kiros Gebrekindan, were killed. General Migbe Haile, the leader of the operation, and TPLF commanders were forced to abandon their plan and retreated north. After September 3, it was a mop up operation; ENDF, Amhara forces and Fano hunted dispersed TPLF soldiers that were trapped in unfamiliar and difficult terrain.
Reprisal Attacks – TPLF Avenged its Defeat by Massacring Civilians
Since the TPLF launched its offensive into Amhara and Afar states, there has been a disturbing pattern of reprisal attacks. When TPLF forces face defeat or resistance, they avenge by indiscriminate massacre of civilians. There are at least five recorded massacres committed by TPLF forces.
Chenna is a rural village in Northern Ethiopia in Amhara regional state. It is located around 80 KM north of Gondar city in Dabat woreda, North Gondar district of the Amhara region near Dabat and Debark towns. From August 30 to September 4, 2021, the area was a scene of the heaviest of all the battles since the TPLF invaded Amhara. TPLF deployed some of its finest forces –including the commando Brigade—in the battle. But the combined force of ENDF, Amhara forces and Fano crushed TPLF forces. Thousands of TPLF soldiers were killed in the battle.2
After TPLF forces faced a crushing defeat at the battle of Chenna, they committed indiscriminate massacre of civilians. At least 200 civilians were massacred on September 3-4, 2021.3 Residents and local authorities told the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that the victims were killed by retreating TPLF forces.4 Besides the massacre, TPLF forces looted crop and livestock of Chenna residents.5 Thousands of people have been displaced from Chenna and other nearby villages. These people survive on food aid, and unless more support is provided to them, the humanitarian crisis will deteriorate further.
Boza is a rural area about 100 KM north of Gondar city. It is located in Debark woreda near Debark town in North Gondar district of Amhara. The area is near Chenna (around 20 KM away). Just like Chenna, it was also the sight of fierce fighting between TPLF and government forces. The battle at Boza and Chenna were a coordinated assault by TPLF to capture the nearby Debark and Dabat towns. Per local officials, retreating TPLF forces massacred at least 128 civilians in Boza on September 3 and 4, 2021.
Galikoma is a small village in Golina Woreda, Fenti Resu district of Afar region. On August 5, 2021, TPLF forces shelled a school and a health center that hosted displaced families. A press release by UNICEF6 states that: “UNICEF is extremely alarmed by the reported killing of over 200 people, including more than 100 children, in attacks on displaced families sheltering at a health facility and a school in Afar region on Thursday, 5 August.”
Agamsa is a rural village in Kobo Robit woreda, North Wollo district of Amhara region. It is located near the town of Kobo. An investigation by the Telegraph7 found that Tigray rebels systematically destroyed farming communities and indiscriminately shelled civilian areas in a series of horrific revenge attacks against Amharas. Between late July and early August, the rebels shelled and used arson to destroy villages in Agamsa. The Telegraph used satellite images to confirm the intentional burning of the villages. Hundreds of civilians are reportedly killed and villages completely destroyed in the attack.
Kobo is a town in North Wollo district of Amhara region. TPLF forces controlled the Town in July 2021 and it is still under TPLF control. On September 10, 2021, TPLF forces massacred civilians in the town. Eye witnesses told the Voice of America (VOA) that more than 600 people have been killed in the massacre8. In a statement, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said: “EHRC is alarmed by reports it is receiving about allegations of deliberate attacks against civilians in Kobo town and surrounding rural towns by TPLF fighters including shelling on civilian areas, house to house search and killings, looting and destruction of civilian infrastructure.”9
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