Medhanye, a 31-year-old Ethiopian of Tigray origin, was watching a football match with his friends at a cafe in Addis Ababa when police suddenly arrived. After demanding their identity cards, which show their ethnicity, the police separated 11 Tigrayans and took them to a site where hundreds more were being held.
At dawn the next morning, they were forced to board three buses and taken to a secret detention camp in the Afar region. “They didn’t explain our crime,” Medhanye said.
For the next 93 days, he said he was imprisoned – and often tortured – in the camp along with hundreds of other Tigrayans, until he finally managed to pay a bribe for his release on the month. latest.
Disappearances, ethnic profiling and mass arrests of Tigrayans have become increasingly common this year, especially after Tigray rebel forces’ territorial gains in escalating civil war, according to human rights groups and other independent sources.
Over the past week, as rebels move closer to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the cycle of detention is repeating itself. The federal police force in the capital assembles hundreds of Tigrayans in the streets or during house-to-house searches and takes them to unknown places, according to numerous media reports.
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Under a newly proclaimed state of emergency, Ethiopian police are empowered to arrest anyone suspected of “collaborating with terrorist groups” and detain them for the duration of the state of emergency, even without a warrant. ‘stop. “The radical nature of this state of emergency is a model for the escalation of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention,” Amnesty International said in a statement Friday.
Amnesty also warned of a “significant increase” in social media posts that incite violence against Tigrayans and use ethnic slurs against them. Ethiopian government officials have denounced the Tigrayan leaders as “cancer”, “weeds” and “rats”.
By most estimates, thousands of Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained since the start of the war in the Tigray region a year ago. A Tigrayan political party, Salsay Weyane, estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 Tigrayans have been held in several detention centers outside the main war zones.
The Globe and Mail interviewed 15 people whose family and friends have gone missing after being detained by Ethiopian federal police in recent months. The Globe also spoke to people who had been released from detention camps after paying bribes. And with the use of smuggled phones, The Globe has spoken to inmates who are still inside the secret camps.
Using satellite images, based on maps and information from detainees, The Globe has identified the location of three of the largest detention centers. Two of the large camps, Awash Arba and Awash Sebat, are in the Afar region. The third, the Gelan Warehouse, is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
Accounts from detainees and their families all confirm that there is a pattern of torture and abuse in the detention camps. The Globe withheld the full names of those interviewed to protect them from possible reprisals.
At Awash Sebat detention camp, Medhanye said he was tortured many times. “The hardest part was August 6,” he told The Globe. “They forced us to squat barefoot on a very hot sidewalk inside the camp. While we were squatting with bare feet, they whipped us on the back. There were teenagers as young as 12 between us screaming in pain. That day, they tortured me until I lost consciousness.
After three months in detention, Medhanye was released last month when his friends and family collected enough money to pay a 100,000 birr (about $ 2,600) bribe to the camp authorities. But those who cannot afford to pay are still in the camps, often tortured and threatened with execution, he said.
In the capital, the districts of Hayahulet, Teklehaimanot and Kaliti are largely inhabited by Tigrayans. Witnesses told The Globe how the police are targeting and rounding up Tigrayans in these neighborhoods.
Tsion, an office worker in the capital, said police arrested her friend Genet, a 27-year-old Tigrayan housewife in the city, about four months ago. “I and her family haven’t heard from her in months,” she said. “We have no information on where she was taken after her arrest in Addis. “
Kiflay, 26, and Haftom, 22, were walking home from their workplace in Addis Ababa on the evening of July 1 when they were arrested by security officers who checked their ethnicity on their travel cards. ‘identity. The two brothers, of Tigrayan origin, had moved to the capital six years ago and have worked as carpenters ever since.
The brothers were detained at the district police station for a day. But the next day, they disappeared.
Their 31-year-old cousin Merhawi has been looking for them for almost four months. “I don’t know if they’re alive,” he told The Globe.
“They never appeared in court. They just disappeared from the police station. The officers refused to tell me where they were. I tried all means and even paid a bribe to the agents for information, all to no avail.
Using a smuggled phone, The Globe spoke to a 23-year-old Tigrayan detainee at Awash Arba camp. He had worked as a day laborer on construction sites in Addis Ababa until his arrest nearly five months ago. He estimates that there are around 900 Tigrayan detainees in the camp.
“They beat us every day,” he said. “They harass us and threaten to execute us. It is so difficult, I have no words to describe the suffering. We are all low-key Tigrayans with no military or political background or social media engagement. We never appeared in court.
Some detainees, released after paying bribes, said they sometimes heard gunshots at Awash Sebat camp and feared people would be executed.
Ashenafi, a Tigrayan who spent three weeks in Awash Sebat camp until he paid an 81,000 birr (about $ 2,100) bribe for his release, said he saw five young people. detainees were taken to a room where gunshots were then heard one night in early August.
“Their heads have been shaved,” he said. “I could see the police brutally beating them outside. They were bleeding. Then the officers took them to a dark room. At night I heard gunshots coming from this dark room. I don’t know what exactly happened to the five young men. But from that day on, the room was empty and the officers were no longer there to guard it.
Other witnesses described several shots fired at the camp overnight, including the incident that day.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released in August, said Ethiopian authorities arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared growing numbers of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa – including journalists – after rebels captured the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, end of June.
The report documented the same pattern that the detainees described: Tigrayans were arrested and arrested on the streets, in cafes and in their homes and workplaces; their ethnicity has been verified; they were taken to police stations and then secretly transferred to unidentified locations.
“Lawyers and families discovered, often weeks later and sometimes informally, that some detainees were being held in the Afar region, more than 200 kilometers from Addis Ababa,” the report said.
The Globe has contacted Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, for comment on the allegations in this article. She did not answer.
With a report by Geoffrey York in Johannesburg
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