NAIROBI, Kenya — International human rights organizations have warned of a new wave of atrocities in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, as Catholic Church leaders continued to express concerns over the detention of priests, nuns and lay members.
Amnesty International and the U.S-based Human Rights Watch said the regional Amhara security forces and an allied militia known as Fano were responsible for a surge in mass detentions, killings and forced expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans in Western Tigray.
Scores have been put in detention, where they are being tortured, starved and denied medical care. Those attempting to flee the violence are being attacked and killed, according to the organizations.
“The new onslaught of abuses by Amhara forces against Tigrayan civilians remaining in several towns in Western Tigray should ring alarm bells,” Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response, said in a statement Dec. 16. “Without urgent international action to prevent further atrocities, Tigrayans, particularly those in detention, are at grave risk.”
Western Tigray, a disputed administrative territory, has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities — including massacres, indiscriminate shelling and large-scale forced displacement of populations — since the start of the conflict, the organization said.
The U.N said Dec. 2 that 1.2 million people had been displaced in the region since the start of the conflict.
The complex and deadly armed conflict began in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military strikes on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, rulers of the semi-autonomous region. Abiy had accused the TPLF of attacking a national army base in the capital, Mekele.
The war has since spread, with the TPLF uniting with other rebels groups to fight the national army. Abiy has turned to Russia and China to boost his military capability, according to reports.
Catholic leaders are concerned by the continued detention of their members. Five nuns from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and one Ursuline sister were arrested Nov. 30 in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Two deacons working with the Daughters of Charity also were detained.
“They used to be a part of our online prayer group, but they have suddenly disappeared. We later heard they had been arrested and detained not far from the capital. We are worried about their safety,” said an Ethiopian church source who could not be named for security reasons. “These nuns are innocent and harmless.”
Earlier, 17 members of the Salesians — among them priests, religious brothers and employees — were detained. The provincial superior remains in custody. Bishop Tesfasellasie Medhin of Adigrat condemned their arrest in a November statement.
On Dec. 2, the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa expressed sadness at the Ethiopian conflict.
“We urge the conflicting of parties to desist from ethnic profiling, arbitrary arrests and promote a peaceful coexistence,” said Kenyan Bishop John Oballa Owaa, AMECEA board member.
The human rights organizations want Ethiopia to immediately stop attacks on civilians, secure the release of those arbitrarily detained, and provide unimpeded access to Western Tigray for aid agencies and for detention sites visits. They also want the U.N. to establish an independent international mechanism to investigate abuses in the conflict.
On Dec. 15, the International Rescue Committee put Ethiopia second on its emergency watch list of the 20 countries where humanitarian crises may deteriorate most in 2022.