Unverified graphic video footage of mass murders in Ethiopia surfaces, presenting the first visual evidence of the country’s complicity in war crimes.
In early March, Dawit was watching television in a one-room apartment in Axum, a historic city in Ethiopia’s war-torn northern Tigray region. A news bulletin flashed up on the screen.
Graphic, unverified footage of a mass killing near Dawit’s hometown of Mahibere Dego in central Tigray’s mountainous region had surfaced. Ethiopian soldiers appeared to round up a group of young, unarmed men on a windswept, dusty ledge before shooting them point blank – picking them up by an arm or a leg and flinging or kicking their bodies off a rocky hillside like ragdolls.
The soldiers can be heard pleading with one another not to waste bullets, to use the fewest possible to kill, and to ensure that none of the party survived. Additionally, they seem to encourage one another, celebrating the killings as heroic and hurling insults at the men held captive.
Dawit believes one of the men in the video, which was broadcast on the Tigrai Media House (TMH) diaspora television station, is his younger brother, Alula. CNN has changed both brothers’ surnames for Dawit’s protection.
The mass killing near Mahibere Dego is one of many that have been recorded during Ethiopia’s five-month-old war, which has resulted in the death, rape, and violence of thousands of civilians.
However, with independent journalists heavily limited until recently and telephone and internet networks often blocked, verifying reports of massacres in Tigray has been difficult. Few videos from the fighting have emerged due to the effective communications blackout, and those that have are difficult to authenticate.
CNN established that men dressed in Ethiopian army uniforms executed a group of at least 11 unarmed men before disposing of their bodies near Mahibere Dego through a forensic frame-by-frame examination of the video footage – corroborated by research by Amnesty International’s digital verification and modeling experts – as well as interviews with ten family members and local residents.
Dawit said he last saw his 23-year-old brother – dressed in the same clothes as seen in the video – on January 15 at their mother’s house in Mahibere Dego. While the video is not timestamped and CNN does not have access to the original raw footage, it is possible that the video was taken on the same day.
Dawit was out in the fields tending to his cattle when he said Ethiopian soldiers arrived in town and went door-to-door pulling young men from their homes, including his brother.
Dawit reported that the troops fired at him, and he fled into the forest, breaking his leg as he crawled down a rocky road. He later said that he heard gunshots in the distance, followed by silence.
He claimed that he had no idea what had happened to his brother until he viewed the video. However, Dawit reported that after watching the footage several times, he is still hopeful Alula is still alive.
CNN is unable to independently verify that Alula appears in the video, and the man Dawit describes as his brother is not among the deceased.
“We have trouble believing he is dead because we did not see his body and did not bury him ourselves. We cannot acknowledge his death because it appears as if he is still alive “As Dawit said.
“We will never forget him.”
Dawit and two of his teenage siblings fled Mahibere Dego following the attack, limping 12 miles to their eldest brother’s home in Axum; hundreds of other residents displaced from the town and surrounding area are now sleeping rough on the city’s streets.
Dawit claimed that the only residents remaining in the town are those who are too frail to make the journey – including his own mother. She does not have access to the internet or satellite television, and therefore has not seen the graphic video. Dawit has talked to her on the phone – telecommunications coverage in Mahibere Dego is patchy – but has made no mention of the footage. For the time being, he said, it is more convenient that way.
Ethiopia is under heavy criticism for a slew of human rights abuses in its Tigray area that could amount to war crimes. Since November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a major military operation against Tigray’s ruling group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), sending in national troops and militia fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed.
CNN previously gathered detailed eyewitness testimonies indicating that troops from neighboring Eritrea crossed into Tigray and committed massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual assault, and other abuses.
The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported last week that preliminary information suggests that over 100 people were killed in November in Axum by Eritrean soldiers, confirming earlier claims by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Medecins Sans Frontieres reported in late March that its workers had witnessed Ethiopian soldiers pull several men off public buses and execute them near the Tigray capital of Mekelle.
Mr Abiy announced last week that his government would keep accountable any soldier found guilty of massacres in Tigray, admitting for the first time that Eritrean troops fought alongside Ethiopian forces and would withdraw from border areas. It is unclear if Eritrean forces have withdrawn from Tigray.
On March 22, the Eritrean embassy in the United Kingdom and Ireland responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment, denying reports of Eritrean soldiers’ misconduct and denying that Eritrean troops were in Ethiopia.
For months, both countries denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the war-torn area and maintained that no civilians had been killed, contradicting claims from locals, refugees, relief agencies, diplomats, and Ethiopian civilian officials.
If the soldiers in the Mahibere Dego video are indeed Ethiopian National Defense Forces, this could be the first visual proof of Ethiopia’s war crimes involvement.
Ethiopia’s government and interim government in Tigray did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the video and allegations that its forces kidnapped scores of men in the Mahibere Dego district.
The footage was first broadcast in early March by Tigrai Media House (TMH), a pro-Tigray subscription satellite television and YouTube channel located in the United States, and has since been widely shared on social media.
Stalin Gebreselassie, a Washington, DC-based TMH journalist and presenter, told CNN that he received the graphic footage from a source in Tigray. According to the source, the video was taken on a cell phone by an Ethiopian army soldier who later became a whistleblower about the mass killing.
TMH compensated the whistleblower directly for the video, Gebreselassie said, in order for him to flee Ethiopia and seek asylum. As part of the deal, TMH withheld broadcasting the video until they obtained confirmation that he was safely outside the region.
“I spoke with him for just three minutes. ‘I’m so sorry, brother… I’m really sorry for what I did in Tigray; the Tigrayan people do not deserve this,’ he said to me “Gebreselassie explained his conversation with the whistleblower.
Gebreselassie said that the whistleblower expressed regret for his role in the killing and explained that he was sharing the video with TMH in order to “heal” and “expose what the Ethiopian government was doing to its own citizens.”
CNN was unable to contact the soldier directly and has no details about the extent of the soldier’s role in the atrocities.
Gebreselassie claimed that the footage was sent to him via WhatsApp in five compressed video clips due to persistent internet bandwidth issues in Tigray, but maintains that it was all shot on a single computer by the soldier.
CNN cannot confirm the original computer on which the five videos were shot, who shot them, the date they were shot, or whether they were edited selectively without the raw footage and related metadata.
CNN was still able to geolocate the video to a rugged clifftop three miles south of Mahibere Dego by using Google Earth to classify the landscape, tree line, foliage, and form of the mountains.
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Separately, Amnesty International reported that it checked the location of all five video clips by superimposing the footage on top of satellite imagery of the region.
“Additional spatial verification was needed for the site’s preliminary geolocation. Spatial analysis and reconstruction were then used to establish a connection between the collected footage and the location “Martyna Marciniak, a visual investigator for Amnesty International who created the 3D model, said.
CNN performed shadow analysis using a technique called SunCalc to check the exact time of day the video was taken. The long shadows indicate that the massacre happened in the late afternoon.
Soldiers can be seen wearing uniforms with embroidered Ethiopian national flag patches on the shoulder and black “Ethiopian Army” stitching on the lapel in freeze-frames of the footage.
The uniforms tend to be identical to those worn by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), as shown by photographs and video taken in Tigray by news agency Agence France-Presse.
Additionally, the soldiers can be heard speaking Amharic – Ethiopia’s dominant official language – as they summon the young men to come forward and be screened for weapons.
“This crime is so horrific that it really warranted carefully interrogating the material to ensure that we can stamp it with the assurance that we know where and when it occurred. And we went to great lengths to ensure that happened “According to Sam Dubberley, acting director of Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab.
“The fact that this was done by a suspect (who shot the video) demonstrates a sense of impunity, that they can get away with it. And I believe it is important that the Ethiopian government keeps those responsible for these crimes accountable… for what seem to be extrajudicial killings.”
CNN spoke with ten people who said they had lost loved ones in Mahibere Dego or were acquainted with some of the young men who were taken away by soldiers and are believed to have been killed near the town.
Several residents compiled a list of those who went missing – as many as 39 men – in an effort to spread the word about what happened to them. The names of the men, as well as photographs of 18 of them, were given to CNN directly. CNN has confirmed some of the 18 men’s identities but has not identified whether they are the same men seen in grainy video footage from the cliff.
According to three separate reports, 39 men remain missing from Mahibere Dego. Soldiers can be seen rounding up hundreds of men in one video, while the bodies of at least 11 men are piled on a hillside in another. CNN has been unable to ascertain if the two men are the same.
According to Dawit and other locals, Ethiopian troops were fighting in another nearby town prior to arriving in Mahibere Dego. According to some locals, soldiers were exacting revenge by attacking young men, assuming they were members of the TPLF forces or affiliated local militias.
However, family members and locals believe that the town has never had a militia. Dawit said that neither his brother Alula nor his neighbors, eight of whom were also taken from their homes and are believed to have been killed, were fighters.
Dawit and other residents claimed that based on the landscape and vegetation, they recognized the location depicted in the video. “When I re-watched the video, I realized I recognized the spot, which is not far from our small town and village. Ela is the name of the location “‘He said.
According to Dawit and other locals, the Ethiopian army is still closely guarding Mahibere Dego, where they have built a temporary military base in the local high school. Relatives and locals have been unable to visit the site to locate a mass grave due to a blockade of the area.
Dawit and his siblings remain unable to return to Mahibere Dego nearly three months later. Dawit said that they wish to personally inform their mother about what happened to Alula and to hold a memorial, but it is too risky while the soldiers remain in town.
“Expressing my bitter sorrow is extremely difficult,” Dawit said, adding that his brother was well-loved.
“There are no adequate words to express how I feel about losing my brother in this manner.”