Ethiopia: New Reports Expose Ethnic Cleansing & Illegal Arms Shipments on Commercial Flights

StoryOctober 07, 2021
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Amid the mounting humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government has been using the commercial airline Ethiopia Airlines to shuttle weapons and military vehicles from neighboring country Eritrea since the beginning of their civil war, according to a new CNN investigation. This comes as the United Nations estimates more than 5 million people in the country’s Tigray region are now in need of humanitarian assistance in order to survive, but U.N. officials say Ethiopia’s government is blocking the movement of medicine, food and fuel into Tigray. In response, Ethiopian officials expelled seven senior U.N. officials from Ethiopia last week, giving them just 72 hours to leave the country. We look at the latest developments with Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, and also air her full report documenting ethnic cleansing.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to the mounting humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia amidst civil war and famine. It’s been nearly a year since the Ethiopian government launched an offensive against Tigray separatists, and the United Nations estimates more than 5 million people in the country’s Tigray region are now in need of humanitarian assistance in order to survive. But U.N. officials say Ethiopia’s government is blocking the movement of medicine, food and fuel into Tigray. In response, Ethiopian officials expelled seven senior U.N. officials from Ethiopia last week, giving them just 72 hours to leave the country.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ethiopia, where U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres pushed back on the expulsion and called for Ethiopian officials to grant unhindered aid access. Ethiopia’s U.N. ambassador, Taye Atske Selassie, pushed back in an extraordinary exchange. This is Guterres.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: All efforts should be squarely focused on saving lives and avoiding a massive human tragedy. This makes last Thursday’s announcement by the government of Ethiopia to expel seven senior U.N. officials, most of them humanitarian staff, particularly disturbing.

TAYE ATSKE SELASSIE: Expulsion was not our primary course of action. In multiple occasions, we explained our concern to U.N. officials. On July 8, 2021, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Ethiopia wrote a letter to the U.N. Secretariat explaining in great details the misconducts of the U.N. staff that require corrective measures.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: If there is any written document provided by the Ethiopian government to any U.N. institution about any of the eight members of the U.N. that were expelled, I would like to receive a copy of that document, because I have not had any knowledge of any of them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres having a back-and-forth with Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Nations.

This comes as the Ethiopian prime minister, the Nobel laureate, Abiy Ahmed, was sworn in on Monday for a second term, even as he’s come under fire for his handling of the conflict. On Wednesday, CNN reported Ethiopia’s government has used the country’s flagship commercial airline to shuttle weapons to and from neighboring Eritrea during the civil war. This is part of the investigation by CNN’s Nima Elbagir.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s premier carrier of passenger and freight traffic. But among the regular cargo, evidence of sinister shipments. CNN can reveal, based on documentary evidence and witnesses’ accounts, Ethiopian Airlines has been transporting weapons between Ethiopia and Eritrea since the beginning of the war in Ethiopia that has seen thousands killed. According to aviation experts, this would constitute a violation of aviation law.

Among the evidence are these stills that were taken on board Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET3313 and verified by CNN. It’s the middle of the night. This cargo plane is being loaded by hand, a slow and unorthodox method. But look closer. This isn’t usual cargo. Inside these boxes are mortars. They are being loaded onto this civilian aircraft and transported from Eritrea to Ethiopia. Here is the cargo manifest, corroborating the day and time, November 8th, 2020. The date is significant. It’s just four days into the conflict and months before Eritrea officially admits to being involved.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s part of the new CNN investigation by Nima Elbagir called “Ethiopia used its flagship commercial airline to transport weapons during war in Tigray.” She’s an award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. For more, she’s joining us from London.

Nima, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is explosive, about the explosives that the Ethiopian government was transporting. Can you lay out the significance of this, and also then the response of the Ethiopian government?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, it goes to the heart of the narrative that Ethiopia and Eritrea have been positing right from the beginning of this conflict, that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked Ethiopia in their Northern Command — which they did — but the TPLF have always said they attacked Ethiopia because there was a joint Ethiopian-Eritrean plan to attack them, to finish them, as was put at the time. Now, Ethiopia and Eritrea have always denied that. They say, November 4th, they were blindsided. They needed to launch this law enforcement operation. November 14th, the TPLF rocketed Asmara. And that was when the two former enemies turned allies came together.

What we found, it untangles, it dissolves all of that narrative, because we found, right from the first week of November, that these flights were going back and forth, gunrunning between the two allies. So, even before the TPLF hit Asmara, they were already planning on attacking Tigray, and Eritrea needed this weaponry to be able to come down from the north into Tigray. So this narrative that somehow the Ethiopian government was caught unawares begins to crumble.

Then you also have the reality of how Ethiopian Airlines has built itself up into the name that it is today, which is through its relationships, through its decades-long alliance with the U.S. and with American aviation giant Boeing. So, it is taxpayer-, U.S.-funded, favorable access to U.S. markets worth hundreds of millions of dollars that has built that fleet, that is now being used as an apparatus of war and to conduct — to bring weaponry into a region where, by the U.S. government’s own findings, ethnic cleansing is happening as we speak, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who aren’t familiar with the conflict, who have heard of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, that being resolved, how Tigray fits into all of this?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Tigray was the region from which the senior partners in the coalition that ruled Ethiopia for almost 30 years came from. The TPLF, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, they held the presidency under Meles Zenawi and his successor, before the demonstrations that installed Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed, who himself was a part of the TPLF-led government, -led coalition. So, you can say that what this is, it’s an existential conflict over power, over Abiy Ahmed and his allies in neighboring Eritrea centralizing rule and taking it back from the TPLF, who were elected to govern Tigray even after Abiy Ahmed came into power.

But beyond that, more importantly — and I think often when we have these conversations about how complicated this conflict is, we allow the reality to be obscured. What this is is a targeting of innocent civilians who share the same ethnicity as the former rulers of Ethiopia in Tigray. It is a minority, which has disproportionately ruled Ethiopia, but it is still a minority that has almost 6 million innocent civilians in and around those who are now part of this conflict. And it’s those civilians that the Ethiopian government and its allies in the regional ethnic Amhara forces are targeting and are starving.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Facebook’s involvement. It was raised in the Senate hearings yesterday. But first I want to go to your stunning investigation for CNN documenting ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia, headlined “Men are marched out of prison camps. Then corpses float down the river.” We’re going to play the full report now, courtesy of CNN.

A warning to our listeners and viewers: The report includes graphic descriptions and images.

NIMA ELBAGIR: This is the Setit River, a source of life for the people living along its banks. For weeks, the river has been bringing with it dark secrets from the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Mangled corpses are mysteriously appearing here, downstream in Sudan.

We just got a call that three bodies were found down at the riverfront, so we’re running down to see what we can see.

Gerri rushes down ahead of us. He is Tigrayan but has been living here for years. He’s a key point of contact for Tigrayans driven to Sudan by the conflict. Fishermen usually spot them first and call Gerri. On both sides of the border, Tigrayans keep a grim tally of those believed to have been executed by Ethiopian forces that somehow end up in the river. This is an awful job, but one Tigrayans say is their duty.

We reached the first body on this small island. We must warn you: The images you’re about to see are very disturbing. From the binds still biting into his skin, it’s clear this man suffered a tortured death.

This Tigrayan has been helping to recover the dead. He holds up the body, but the image is too gruesome to show you. His eyes, though, betray the horror in front of him.

They pulled the body out, and the stench was immediate. It clearly had been decomposing along the river for a number of days. And he was tied back with a plastic wire, clearly restrained. And part of the skull was collapsed in. It’s just a horrible, horrible sight.

They move to pick up someone else. Gerri makes notes of the bodies and their markings. He’s trying to piece together this mystery for his people. He doesn’t trust anyone to do it for them. Among the flotsam, another body.

SUDANESE OFFICIAL: [translated] His legs were amputated.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Sudanese authorities take photographs as evidence. This is a crime scene. But the potential perpetrators are far from here, in Ethiopia. The second body is put into the same body bag. They have such few resources but are determined to maintain a certain dignity.

They’re buried near the river in a shallow grave, in hope that one day they will be exhumed and reburied in their homeland. For now, though, there are only two shovels and a pick. Others join in, pushing the earth with their bare hands. Laid to rest on unconsecrated ground, the Christian Tigrayans desperately try to give respect to their dead, marking the grave with a makeshift cross held together with a single face mask.

A new dawn rises. Witnesses and local authorities tell us it brings with it 11 new bodies. For months now, we have been investigating atrocities committed by Ethiopian and allied forces in Tigray. It’s clear to us this marks a new chapter in the ethnic cleansing of the region.

But here in Sudan, there are survivors — the living speaking on behalf of the dead. Escapees, eyewitnesses from the Ethiopian border town of Humera, described to us a renewed campaign of mass incarcerations and executions.

The numbers that they’re telling us are extraordinary. We’re talking about possibly over 10,000 people detained just for being Tigrayan, they say.

We begin to piece together the puzzle. We are here in Sudan, in Wad El Hilou. Upstream in Ethiopia is Humera. Based on descriptions from multiple escaped detainees, Humera and its surroundings have become a mass detention facility.

We were able to pinpoint the locations: Enda Yitbarek, a storage facility; the electric goods warehouse, Nay Kedem Mebrat Hayl, where electric wire is stored; Bet Hintset, the old prison; Enda Goona, the sesame warehouse. The list goes on. Via eyewitness testimony and satellite imagery, we verified the existence of at least seven mass detention facilities in Humera, where torture is rampant, and two outside town, including a military camp, Enda’kuwaja.

These are pictures of Tigrayan victims — husbands, fathers, sons. Many show victims restrained using the same small gauge yellow electrical wire identified by eyewitnesses as having been stored in the electric goods warehouse in Humera.

CNN spoke to multiple eyewitnesses and international and local forensic experts. Most of the victims were tortured, executed, piled on top of each other, most likely in a facility or a mass grave, before ending up in the river. After examining the bodies, experts were able to pinpoint one of the techniques used. Victims had their arms tied back at the elbows in an excruciatingly painful torture position.

In the last few weeks, Tigrayans say the bodies of over 60 victims have floated into Sudan from Ethiopia, evidence of a methodical campaign, one which bears all the hallmarks of genocide as defined by international law. Up in this remote corner of Sudan, this is evidence the world wasn’t meant to see.

Gerri takes us to see the first person he laid to rest. The water will eventually reclaim the body, but this was the best Gerri could do. Already beginning to fall apart, the body couldn’t be moved — an image which still haunts him.

GEBRETENSAE GEBREKRISTOS: [translated] Leaving the body here hurts my heart. But what can I do? To leave your people by the river? Your sister, your brother not laid properly to rest, when you see that, it hurts you. It hurts your heart. But what can you do? This is what we have been condemned to.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Gerri stays vigilant, looking out towards his homeland. As long as this conflict continues, the threat of more executions, more bodies floating downstream, is ever-present. Nima Elbagir, CNN, Wad El Hilou, eastern Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, the award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, Nima Elbagir. That report, just astounding and important. I wanted to end by asking you about the role of social media in the — would you call it “genocide” in Ethiopia and Tigray? — both Twitter, Facebook.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, genocide is a legal ruling, so we can’t make that ruling. But we can and do believe it has all the hallmarks of genocide. There’s no doubt that social media, especially Facebook, has played a huge role in this. It was incredibly chilling to hear that testimony in front of Congress, because it mirrored so much the experience that I have gone through, that other journalists attempting to report on this have gone through, the way that hate has been weaponized, the incitement to violence out there in the open on Facebook and other platforms has been really difficult for all of us. But, thankfully, so money people are persisting in their coverage of this, including you. I really have to thank Democracy Now!, Amy, because you guys, right from the beginning, have been amplifying our work and amplifying the tragedy in Tigray. And it is so important to keep doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima, we want to thank you for being with us, your incredibly brave reporting. Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, speaking to us from London. The most recent CNN investigation, “Ethiopia used its flagship commercial airline” — Ethiopian Airlines — “to transport weapons,” we’ll link to, as well as her previous work.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for two positions: a director of finance and administration and a human resources manager. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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