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What Transpired in the Historic Town of Lalibela During the Month of November?



Disclaimer: This is an English translation of an Amharic report taken from BBC Amharic and is intended solely for information purposes.


BBC Amharic - What transpired in the historic town of Lalibela during the month of November?


Wednesday, December 27, 2023



During Tikimit 2016 EC (October - November 2023) tensions were high in the town of Lalibela in Lasta Woreda.


Local youth have been detained en masse accused of “supporting Fano” and detained in Kombolcha. There is an armed force which has encircled the town. On another side, the ENDF is stationed with heavy weapons.


Starting on Saturday, November 4, 2023 (Tikimit 24, 2016 EC) there was intense fighting between Fano fighters and the ENDF in areas surrounding Lalibela of North Wollo.


During fighting between Fano militants and government security forces which broke out last Hamle (July - August 2023), Lalibela was among the areas where fighting had cooled down. Near the end of the month of Hamle (August 2023), the town had fallen under control of Fano.


However on November 8 and 9, 2023 (Tikimit 28 and 29, 2016 EC) became days of darkness for the historic town of Lalibela. After fighting which lasted days between the two forces, Fano took control of the town on November 8th before making a withdrawal the following day.


Over these two days eye witnesses described “persecution, atrocities and killings”.


On November 8th at around 2 pm, eye witnesses told BBC Fano killed 15 police and militia members.


After Fano took control of the town, police and militias fighting against Fano retreated towards the Abba Libanos Monastery (one of 11 Lalibela historic churches) according to eyewitnesses.


After the gunfire began, the Fano militants entered the town and when the fighting became more intense, instead of leaving the town they entered churches. The women and local residents gave them various clothing to save their lives. The others who wore uniforms were captured and about 8-9 of them were taken to the police station. They then killed them there in the police station.”


This was an account from a local resident who preferred to remain anonymous to protect their identity.


Another resident of Lalibela said among the 10 police and militia members taken to the police station and killed was the Lasta Woreda Police Commander.


Local residents and religious fathers also condemned the killing of the militants that were taken from the church.


After they came, took them from the church and executed them, local residents became very upset.”


The militants being informal and “not having taken proper training, they should not be blamed.”


Residents said when the Fano militants were operating in the area they issued a warning saying, “we will finish each other”.


Fano have repeatedly issued warnings to security forces according to another witness who said the number of security forces killed on November 8th could be up to 15.


BBC previously spoke to Fano leaders regarding killings of government officials and they mentioned having issued warnings, “in the current fighting as long as they are leaders in the military operations we are forced to consider them targets.”


The police members were “collected” in house to house searches and churches before their execution in a police station located centrally in the town.


On Thursday, November 9th, the Fano militants withdrew from the town after which the ENDF retook control of Lalibela and began “reprisal” killings of unarmed civilians according to residents.


Family members of killed victims and eyewitnesses told BBC after the ENDF retook control of the town on November 9th they carried out lootings, arrests, physical beatings and killings against unarmed civilians with no involvement in the fighting.


One mother who said her spouse and child were “executed” by the ENDF, and mentioned refraining from speaking out on media out of fear that other family members could face similar fates.


The mother who chose not to speak out saying in tears, “what good would it do”, cited examples of two people killed for allegedly speaking to media.



“My four year old child keeps asking when her father will return”


Ato Abebe (name changed) made a living as a physical laborer and was among those killed by government security forces in Lalibela.


Ato Abebe’s spouse, a mother of two, asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety.


The spouse told BBC he had left their house to retrieve their four year old child and was detained by the ENDF at the entrance of their home before being executed.


The killed victim was under ENDF captivity along with their neighbor when on November 9th the army took them away after which efforts to inquire the whereabouts of their spouse was unsuccessful.


Our daughter left the house and he was seized as he left to retrieve her. My four year old daughter was crying when they took him away. They also seized and took away our neighbor. Both are day workers. They took both of them away. We tried to follow them wailing and pleasing what they wanted but they were unwilling to listen. Even though we followed them we were unable to find a solution. On Friday we took lunch and asked them to show us where they were at China camp (an ENDF military camp) to which they replied ‘we don't know of anyone like this person, there are no detainees here.’”


They were later able to learn Ato Abebe and his neighbor were “executed” in an unmarked grave in the camp. On the day of their detainment they had their hands tied behind their backs before they were killed and these two people's bodies were later recovered after pleading on Saturday, November 11, 2023 (Hedar 1, 2016 EC) and passed along to family members.


Their burials were redone on this day.


The people knew their story so everyone mourned. They didn't bother to determine whether they were Fano or not, it must've just been their day. We would've expected this (their deaths) if they had any involvement in the matter. We thought they would ask them and return them afterwards, but we never expected they would do this to them.”


The entire town mourned. They mourned particularly because, “they weren't killed while armed, they weren't killed as Fano, but they were killed without due cause.”


Ato Abebe’s spouse said her husband’s work supported their family, and she saw no other way forward than to leave her husband’s life to God.


She said bitterly “our creator who did this to us knows our fate”.


Their four year old child who has been deprived of her father’s embrace asks when her father will return.


More than anything I'm struggling with her. She asks me every morning. She says, ‘why can't the people who took him away bring him back?’ I can't give her an answer, she wouldn't believe me even if I tell her he's at work. She asks all the time, it's difficult to give an answer to your child.”


Another town resident told BBC the ENDF killed four people they knew including two close relatives.


There are unarmed civilians that were executed after being dragged out of their homes, accused of being Fano or supporting Fano. I personally am aware of four such people. The first whose brother was a police member was calling his brother’s phone asking ‘where are you, are you alive’ and they seized his phone and took him and his friend to the camp where they beat them then killed them. And both are close relatives of mine. They (brothers) were dragged out of their homes and executed.”


Another three family members were seized and were only spared after they happened to encounter someone they knew, according to an eyewitness.


Another resident of Lalibela who opted to remain anonymous said the ENDF must have killed between 10 and 15 civilians who had no involvement in the fighting - they became “dinner for the fire”.


One resident who confirmed the killing of the four people said “if anyone was found speaking on a phone, they would be accused of relaying sensitive information and would be killed.”


Though BBC spoke to many eyewitnesses and family members of victims in the preparation of this report, residents of Lalibela said they were too afraid to speak openly, “our phone calls are being intercepted, we are facing persecution accused of passing along information, we are afraid.”


“It was in reprisal”


Hours after the Fano militants withdrew from the town, the ENDF took control and began looting, beatings, and killings according to residents.


They singled out men and took them out of their homes including elderly men, youth and anyone above the age of 10 after which they would have them kneel on the cobblestone, flog them then tell them not to move before leaving. After they were burned in the sun at night they returned to their home. If this is what happens in a holy place, it isn't difficult to imagine the horrific crimes committed in other areas.”


One resident described what happened at the time as ENDF killing unarmed civilians out of revenge.


“...it was revenge, they would accuse those they encountered of supporting Fano. They would drag people they encountered out of their homes and kill them.”

 

Another eyewitness said “the rage could be seen on their faces” and that they were taking out their frustration on the people and that such actions were ongoing.


Another witness described beatings of a religious father and two guards in revenge after police were extracted from a church and executed.


They held the priest down and beat him. When the priest was being beaten the guards ran away scared off by gunfire. The priest's ear was injured and blood continues to flow from it.”


Residents also said various commerce institutions were looted.


They parked vehicles nearby and looted stores, jewelry stores, super markets and boutiques. They bickered amongst each other saying one was a militia, police or ENDF but nobody could provide a response. All in all it was government forces that committed the looting.”


Justice? Accountability?


Family members of the late Ato Abebe (whose name is changed) who was killed by the ENDF “without reason or due cause” said they would like the government to be made aware of what happened.


Residents of Lalibela called for justice and accountability for the crimes committed in the town.


One resident spoke saying:


Accountability is needed. What happened is unprecedented from a party that calls itself a government. I would be pleased if an independent body could investigate the perpetrators and ensure victims receive justice.”


Another resident said justice is only a matter of time:


With the government itself acting as shifta (bandits) and inflicting this level of suffering on us, we want an independent human rights defense body to come and hold accountable forces complicit in these activities. It may take time, however justice is inevitable.”


The BBC spoke to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) regarding the killings and other incidents to which the EHRC said it was “following and investigating” the matter.


The EHRC provided the following response:

The EHRC is reviewing the matter closely. It is conducting investigations and is closely following new developments with government officials.”


BBC’s attempts to contact the government for commentary on the reportee killings in Lalibela were unsuccessful.


“Lalibela is still under fire”


The annual Gena (Orthodox Christmas) celebration on January 8, 2024 (Tahasass 29, 2016 EC) is celebrated particularly grand in Lalibela.


Now would have been the time when the town would be making preparations ahead of the influx of visitors.


However at this time Lalibela is still in mourning according to residents.


One religious leader and native of Lalibela said what transpired on November 8 and 9 was “horrific”. He described the situation as follows:


Everyone was wearing black. People who raised us, lived with us, our brothers, friends and seniors who grew up with us had departed which has made it difficult to move on. The people could have continued eating, drinking and talking with family members. But they killed their children and left.”


Another resident who opted to remain anonymous said it was sad there were people born in this town who were killed accused of supporting the government and others accused of supporting Fano.


It was mourning everywhere. The police and the Fano come from the same area. There was a father who was a militia and whose son was a Fano and died. And it is a mixed feeling. Those who died on both sides are the same. Recently the government carried out a drone strike 15-km away which resulted in casualties and the victims were natives of Lalibela. It is very troublesome. I feel even now Lalibela is in mourning.”


Another resident of Lalibela said:


The injustices are many. If God gives us mercy the losses cannot be reasoned by any measure. The injustices are many. The cruelty is great.”


The resident describes the sorrow of the people as follows:


“...the people of this town can be seen wearing black. It has come to a point they are asked, ‘did they die from illness or did they die from the new illness (war).”


Residents of Lalibela who spoke to BBC expressed their sadness and feeling there was a dark cloud cast over preparations for the Gena holiday.


This would've been the time when those selling bread, those selling kolo, those renting hotels and those who would act as tourist guides would make preparations. But if things continue like this it is concerning whether visitors will come or not.”


The resident added that the roads being closed was “saddening”.


Personally I don't expect I will celebrate the holiday. I am not well inside. I don't expect the celebration will take place in the town. Hotels are still closed too. There are no tourists. Therefore I don't expect the holiday will be celebrated. Firstly, the town has been a battlefield with the ENDF encamped in the middle of town and at the town entrance which for me would create a bad feeling for celebrating the holiday. I believe the people share this feeling.”


Though Lalibela is a “holy religious site” tourists and pilgrims flood into the town during Gena. 


The town’s primary source of income is tourism.


One resident who is close to the church said preparations are underway to celebrate the Gena holiday “we will surely celebrate the holiday as it is a celebration of Eyesus Kristos’ date of birth.”


The Lalibela town administration announced preparations were underway to ensure the holiday is “celebrated prominently” and called on listeners to “celebrate the holiday together”.

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