Mehbrahtom Fetiwe has been living in fear ever since war broke out last November, when government troops entered his hometown of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, replacing the former regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But everything changed for the 32-year-old two weeks ago, when fighters from the Tigrayan Defence Force, which had been fighting a guerrilla war since last year, retook the city, sending federal troops, and an interim government, into retreat. The federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in response, which was welcomed by the United Nations. However, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has now pledged to “defend and repel these attacks”.
Fetiwe though, is hopeful for the first time in months. “We were all living under tension during the eight months the Ethiopian army was here,” Fetiwe told VICE World News over the phone.
Thousands are thought to have died during the civil war, which has sparked widespread reports of atrocities, displaced millions, and triggered fears of a famine, although this has been denied by the government in Addis Ababa. Aid agencies and international media organisations have been severely restricted from accessing Tigray during the conflict, making it difficult to properly ascertain the situation on the ground, while internet and phone access was blocked in the region.
Fetiwe said that federal troops had been “massacring innocent civilians,” in Tigray. The conflict has sparked accusations of atrocities including war crimes. In March, Abiy acknowledged that “atrocities have been committed in Tigray,” but denied that the Ethiopian government was responsible.
“I am so happy now they [have been forced out] by TDF,” Fetiwe said. “Now I feel free and safe. I don’t have to fear for my life.”
Goitom Gebrekidan, another Tigray resident, said that federal troops had been “killing and terrorising residents” in Mekelle. “I was praying every day for this day to come. I do not have words to express my joy. TDF simply liberated us from Abiy’s brutal soldiers.”
“Now my daughters can freely move,” 52-year-old Negisti Hadgu said. “I am so happy the troops of Abiy are kicked from our land. They were raping our girls without mercy and killing our sons. They want to exterminate us.” A lack of access on the ground has made it difficult to verify claims of war crimes made by both sides.
Abiy, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who won a resounding victory in Ethiopia’s recent election, has denied his army, one of the most powerful on the continent, has been defeated in Mekelle; instead claiming that the ceasefire was for humanitarian reasons.
“It is not a defeat,” Abiy said in a recent speech. “We decided to withdraw because we destroyed the enemy’s capacity to pose a big threat. We have other threats to prioritise. The Tigray people were not also on our side. So, we decided to withdraw rather than kill civilians.”
Last week, the TDF paraded thousands of Ethiopian government soldiers through the streets of Mekelle, flanked by cheering crowds The TDF has now claimed to have recaptured most of Tigray. After taking back Shere, another major city in northwest Tigray, the rebel group has said it plans to advance on western Tigrayan territories which are controlled by forces from the neighbouring region, Amhara. Amhara regional president, Agegnehu Engeda stated last week that his troops are prepared to take on the TDF.
On Wednesday, Abiy signalled that the ceasefire will soon come to an end. "The ceasefire could not bear the desired fruits," the prime minister said in a statement. “The federal government, through mobilising the people of Ethiopia, is determined to curb this threat."
VICE World News reached out to Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa for comment but did not receive a response.
As a result of the ongoing conflict, the UN estimates that 350,000 people are facing the spectre of famine, while 500,000 have been displaced from their homes.
William Davison, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group – an organisation that works to resolve conflicts – told VICE World News that the TDF had started to lay the groundwork for the recapture many months ago.
“In the early months, the Tigrayan forces managed to secure themselves in rural areas,” Davison said. “Drone and air campaigns from Ethiopia relaxed in December. [The] TDF also get overwhelming support from the people of Tigray. This allowed them to re-strategise, recruit and succeed in their operation.”
Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of conflict studies at Bjørknes University College in Oslo, warned that the Ethiopian government’s previous wish for a ceasefire was an attempt to buy time to purchase new arms, as well as to recruit and train new soldiers.
“I have no doubt about that,” Tronvoll said. “There are recruitment calls across Ethiopia to join the Ethiopian army...The war will continue. The Ethiopian army might launch a huge offensive at the end of September. But it will not be an easy advance like the one in November last year unless Ethiopia manages to purchase new drones.”
Abiy might feel emboldened to pursue an aggressive counteroffensive after his Prosperity Party was declared the runaway winners of regional and parliamentary elections that several witnesses claimed were marred by irregularities and voter intimidation. Voting was cancelled in 110 of the country’s 547 constituencies. Some polls were closed because of communal clashes, while other regions did not receive ballot papers.
The result means Abiy, in power since 2018, will serve another five years in office.