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Eyewitness accounts, video confirm reports of Tigrayan children held in concentration camp

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25.09.2021

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, beginning in November 2020, children who should have been laughing with friends and studying in school were instead locked up, crying, starving and abused in concentration camps, according to multiple eyewitness reports that have been corroborated by satellite imagery and analysis, as well as cell phone video footage smuggled out by an escapee.

Ethiopian federal forces, abetted by special forces, paramilitary groups, militia and police acting under the authority of the Amharan regional government, locked up in multiple locations hundreds of children of all ages — and even pregnant women, infants and toddlers — along with thousands of Tigrayan adults and senior citizens. These people appear to have been held in harsh conditions, systematically starved and beaten because of their ethnicity and with no judicial process or valid legal pretext. That is the definition of a concentration camp. This is a previously unreported part of an ongoing genocidal campaign led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — ironically enough, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — against various ethnic groups, including Tigrayans, Kimant, Gumuz, Ogaden (Somalis), Agew, Irob, Afar and Sidama, as well as Oromo people who fight to exercise the constitutional right to self-administration within a federal system.

The current civil conflict within Ethiopia is too complicated to explain here, and this report concerns just one aspect of it. As often happens in war, accusations and counter-accusations involving alleged war crimes have been made by the warring factions, which are primarily, the Ethiopian federal government forces, the Tigray regional government forces, the Amhara regional government forces and Amhara militia, and the Eritrean government forces. The Ethiopian embassy in Washington has not responded to Salon's questions about the specific and detailed evidence of human rights abuses presented in this report. If an official response arrives subsequent to publication, it will be included here.

This report is based on eyewitness accounts by dozens of people from five ethnic groups, including 11 former prisoners who were interviewed in four different refugee camps in eastern Sudan. Doctors have recounted their treatment of another seven former prisoners, including young children. Satellite imagery from Maxar (a space technology company based in Westminster, Colorado) and Planet Labs (an Earth imaging company based in San Francisco) corroborates these eyewitness reports. So does video footage which one former prisoner shot on his cell phone before he escaped a previously unreported concentration camp in western Tigray, located in the notorious Abbadi warehouse compound in Mai Kadra.

The cell phone footage admittedly does not conform to classic notions of what a concentration camp looks like, as in World War II films.There are no bars, guard towers, German Shepherds, barracks, searchlights or coils of razor wire. In the videos, prisoners can be seen eating popcorn, drinking coffee, teasing each other and making jokes in Tigrigna, the language of the Tigray people.

Dr. Mebrahtom Yehdago, 37, in Tenedba refugee camp, Sudan. (Jonathan Hutson)

"We are seeing a generation of Tigrayan refugee children, many of whom are growing up with a sense of hopelessness," said Dr. Mebrahtom Yehdago, 37, from Humera. He is a Tigrayan doctor and refugee in Tenedba refugee camp in eastern Sudan. "As a doctor, I feel so disturbed, sad, and angry to see these kinds of situations. These children are innocent. These are young children who were imprisoned and abused. How can we get the world to pay attention and do more to help the children?"

Dr. Mebrahtom outlines the cases of former child prisoners in concentration camps whom he has treated: four boys, ages 2, 9, 13 and 15. The two-year-old was imprisoned with his mother in the Mai Kadra concentration camp – which satellite imagery shows is in the Abbadi warehouse compound, a bit north and across the street from the police station, just as eyewitnesses reported. They were imprisoned from Nov. 14 to Nov. 27, 2020, until the mother paid their captors — the Fanu, the Amhara militia and the Amharan Regional Police — a ransom of 50,000 Ethiopian birr (about USD $1,086) for their release.

The toddler presented with physical complications, Dr. Mebrahtom said, including recurrent diarrhea, dehydration, malnutrition and pneumonia, as well as psychological issues. For example, when the boy sees a large group of people, he starts shouting and crying. His mother says he is remembering their hardship in captivity.

Their captors provided no food or water. About twice a week, according to former prisoners who escaped, Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, its French acronym) workers from Abdelrafe would distribute packets of digestive biscuits and fill two large water tanks. MSF repaired one water tank and installed another, without which the prisoners would have had only a few sinks in the bathrooms, where toilets and floors were overflowing with feces. MSF also built a new bathroom. The prisoners in Mai Kadra, like those in other concentration camps in western Tigray, survived by pilfering and roasting sesame seeds stored in the warehouses where they were held captive. This meager sustenance came from bags of seeds that the Amharan forces had looted from Tigrayan farmers and hauled to the warehouses on trailers pulled by tractors. The tractors in Mai Kadra were stolen from the Abbadis, a wealthy Tigrayan family who had owned the warehouse compound.

Satellite imagery shows tractors hooked to trailers near the compound garage. Some prisoners who had Amharan relatives or friends, and who could get money brought to them, paid bribes to Amharan militia guards. In exchange, the guards would allow two or three small boys, around eight years old, to run to the market and return with a kind of flat bread called injera, which the prisoners would distribute.

Former prisoners estimated that the total number of prisoners in Mai Kadra was more than 3,000; some said the number was closer to 8,000. And of that number, eyewitnesses reported that at least 400 were children of all ages. There were more than 10 pregnant women, at least two of whom gave birth in a warehouse (one with severe complications). There were newborns, infants, babies,........

© Salon


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