Editor’s Note: All of the witnesses to this massacre have been given pseudonyms at their request due to fears of retribution.
Abraham began burying the bodies in the morning and didn’t stop until nightfall.
The corpses, some dressed in white church robes drenched in blood, were scattered in arid fields, scrubby farmlands and a dry riverbed. Others had been shot on their doorsteps with their hands bound with belts. Among the dead were priests, old men, women, entire families and a group of more than 20 Sunday school children, some as young as 14, according to eyewitnesses, parents and their teacher.
Abraham recognized some of the children immediately. They were from his town in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Edaga Hamus, and had also fled fighting there two weeks earlier. As clashes raged, Abraham and his family, along with hundreds of other displaced people, escaped to Dengelat, a nearby village in a craggy valley ringed by steep, rust-colored cliffs. They sought shelter at Maryam Dengelat, a historic monastery complex famed for a centuries-old, rock-hewn church.
On November 30, they were joined by scores of religious pilgrims for the Orthodox festival of Tsion Maryam, an annual feast to mark the day Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the country from Jerusalem. The holy day was a welcome respite from weeks of violence, but it would not last.
A group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire on Maryam Dengelat church while hundreds of congregants were celebrating mass, eyewitnesses say. People tried to flee on foot, scrambling up cliff paths to neighboring villages. The troops followed, spraying the mountainside with bullets.
A CNN investigation drawing on interviews with 12 eyewitnesses, more than 20 relatives of the survivors and photographic evidence sheds light on what happened next.
The soldiers went door to door, dragging people from their homes. Mothers were forced to tie up their sons. A pregnant woman was shot, her husband killed. Some of the survivors hid under the bodies of the dead.
The mayhem continued for three days, with soldiers slaughtering local residents, displaced people and pilgrims. Finally, on December 2, the soldiers allowed informal burials to take place, but threatened to kill anyone they saw mourning. Abraham volunteered.
Under their watchful eyes, he held back tears as he sorted through the bodies of children and teenagers, collecting identity cards from pockets and making meticulous notes about their clothing or hairstyle. Some were completely unrecognizable, having been shot in the face, Abraham said.
Then he covered their bodies with earth and thorny tree branches, praying that they wouldn’t be washed away, or carried off by prowling hyenas and circling vultures. Finally he placed their shoes on top of the burial mounds, so he could return with their parents to identify them.
One was Yohannes Yosef, who was just 15.
“Their hands were tied … young children … we saw them everywhere. There was an elderly man who had been killed on the road, an 80-something-year-old man. And the young kids they killed on the street in the open. I’ve never seen a massacre like this and I don’t want to [again],” Abraham said.
“We only survived by the grace of God.”
Abraham said he buried more than 50 people that day, but estimates more than 100 died in the assault.
They’re among thousands of civilians believed to have been killed since November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving a long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea, launched a major military operation against the political party that governs the Tigray region. He accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018, of attacking a government military base and trying to steal weapons. The TPLF denies the claim.
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SOURCE: CNN, Barbara Arvanitidis, Nima Elbagir, Bethlehem Feleke, Eliza Mackintosh, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Katie Polglase