That’s all the villagers could find, six months after Ethiopian troops rounded up their relatives and shot them at close range, throwing the bodies off a rocky hill deep into Ethiopia’s central Tigray Mountains.
A CNN investigation in April 2021, working with Amnesty International, examined video clips from the January massacre and used geolocation techniques to verify that the video was filmed on a ridge near Mahibere Dego in January 2021. The investigation found at the time that at least 11 unarmed men were executed and 39 others are missing.
CNN received the gruesome footage in March this year from a pro-Tigray media organization, the Tigrai Media House (TMH). TMH told CNN at the time that the video was filmed on a cell phone by an Ethiopian army soldier turned whistleblower involved in the massacre.
An additional, longer video clip of the massacre has now been shared with CNN by TMH, revealing new details about the atrocity and the soldiers behind it.
In the extended video seen by CNN, Fafi trades the phone with another soldier, picks up the gun, and fires. The phone is then traded as others claim to be filmed executing the captives, brazenly documenting their crimes.
This extended footage has all the hallmarks of a trophy video and yet – despite the evidence – the Ethiopian prime minister’s office rejected the findings of CNN’s initial investigation, stating that “the social media posts and claims cannot be considered as evidence ”.
Six months after the attack, two people in Mahibere Dego told CNN that they had recovered the national identity cards of 36 people who were killed, but 37 others are still missing, indicating that the toll of the massacre could have been more than double what was originally reported. .
CNN contacted the Ethiopian government but did not respond.
Ethiopia is under increasing international pressure over a number of reported atrocities in its war-torn region of northern Tigray that could constitute war crimes.
Thousands of civilians have reportedly been killed since early November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a major military operation against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF), sending national troops and militiamen from Ethiopia’s Amhara region. .
CNN has already compiled numerous eyewitness accounts that Ethiopian soldiers and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea were committing massacres, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and other abuses in the region.
Since January, the families of the victims in Mahibere Dego say they have been unable to access the ridge due to the continued presence of Ethiopian troops in the area, leaving them without a means to bury their loved ones.
But last Friday, the soldiers left for nearby Axum, giving residents a long-awaited opportunity to search for remains, according to nine people interviewed by CNN who had visited the site of the massacre.
For several days, family members of the victims filmed church funerals, documented evidence of bullet casings at the site of the massacre, and took photographs of skeletal remains which they sent to CNN. We do not name family members who fear for their safety.
A family member told CNN that even as villagers were picking up the remains of their loved ones, the area was attacked. Violence in Tigray has escalated again in recent weeks after Tigrayan forces launched a new offensive last week.
Even after the Ethiopian soldiers withdrew, the site of the massacre remained under attack.
“Axum’s soldiers started bombarding the area with artillery [fire] around 9-10pm everyone dispersed and ran home, ”the family member said.
But the villagers refused to stay away, he said, waiting a few days to return at night to finish what they had started.
In images too graphic to be published, it is clear that the remains were too decomposed to allow identification of the victims – for some there were only metal belt buckles. Families said they relied instead on clothes and ID cards to identify loved ones.
Villagers told CNN that the continued presence of soldiers in the area was an attempt to hide evidence of the killings.
Images of bullet casings found by villagers as they scoured the area looking for the remains of their loved ones have been shared with CNN. A weapons expert told CNN that these weapons would normally be used in light machine guns and assault rifles like the ones seen in the video of the massacre.
CNN used geolocation to verify that video of the cartridge cases came from the same killing site.
CNN also obtained images taken on June 21 that show bones, charred remains, clothing and ID cards at the site of the attack. Some of the clothes were also seen in the original video clips studied by CNN.
Families brought the remains they could find to Mariam Megdelawit Church, a few miles from the massacre site, for a moving ceremony in which they prayed for justice and to heal their loss on June 21.
A video sent to CNN by family members of the victims shows the bones of the victims carried to the service in large burlap bags and placed together as crowds gathered in a circle around them to mourn and cry.
“The village couldn’t wait any longer, [they were] saying ‘we can only get peace if we bury them’, ”he said.
CNN geotagged the images of the ceremony by matching them to satellite images of the area that showed the same church structure, the same arrangement of vegetation, the color of the ground and the same topography.
Sunlight in the footage indicates that the burials took place around 9 a.m. This corresponds to the times stored in the metadata, which some of the images have kept.
Many of those targeted for extrajudicial killings were young men of fighting age.
One of the young men executed in the massacre was 23-year-old Alula. His brother told CNN he discovered Alula’s ID card among the remains.
CNN first reported on Alula in April when her brothers found out about her plight while watching a TV report on the massacre. At the time, another of Alula’s brothers told CNN it was hard to take.
Although the family claim to have been unable to locate his remains, Alula’s ID card is sufficient, they say, to give them some closure.
CNN’s Oscar Featherstone contributed to this report. An Ethiopian journalist contributed to this story but cannot be named for their safety.