Shell-shocked survivors describe brutal Tigray rebel advance, as conflict continues
Anyone with a militia ID was a suspect. So were men with marks on their shoulders left by rifle straps, even though it is common for farmers in Ethiopia's Amhara region -- militia fighters or not -- to carry Kalashnikovs.
Before the day was over, the rebels had fatally shot two men in their homes and marched a third to a nearby river where they fired rounds into his back, according to 49-year-old Adisse Wonde, who told AFP he buried all three.
"They want to suppress and rule us. Their deed is ethnic cleansing," Adisse said of the rebels who hail from Ethiopia's northernmost region of Tigray.
The alleged killings earlier this month in the village of Hara are just one example of gruesome abuses described by witnesses of Ethiopia's widening war.
Long confined to Tigray, the conflict has recently spread to two neighbouring regions, Afar and Amhara, with heavy weapons fire killing an untold number of civilians and displacing hundreds of thousands more.
The rebels, known as the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), have dismissed allegations they have committed atrocities as "groundless" pro-government propaganda.
Yet newly displaced civilians in Amhara tell a different story.
They blame TPLF fighters for killings, widespread looting and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by violence since November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, then the region's ruling party.
The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps and promised a swift victory.
Instead, though, Tigray became engulfed in a grinding war marked by massacres and mass rapes.
In late June, the TPLF stunned the world by retaking the regional capital Mekele, then pushed into Amhara and Afar, vowing to end what it describes as a humanitarian blockade of Tigray and prevent pro-Abiy forces from regrouping.
The TPLF advance forced Muchayu Degin, a 55-year-old mother of seven in the northern Amhara town of Kobo, to hide in her home for a week, trembling in fear as artillery booms drew nearer.
Starving and desperate, she finally summoned the courage to flee on foot with her family, walking 15 hours south on roads strewn with bullet-riddled bodies.
Eventually she reached the city of Woldiya, then found transportation further south to the city of Dessie, a fast-booming hub for the newly displaced.
Like thousands of other survivors, she now sleeps on a thin mat in an overcrowded classroom at an elementary school, depending on food and other handouts from local residents.
It has been a month since she fled, and she still hasn't managed to reach the nieces and nephews she left behind in Kobo.
"There is no network there," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "We don't know who is alive or not."
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated but independent body, said this week it was deploying a new mission to investigate reports of attacks on civilians in Amhara, including a recent shelling incident that killed five members of the same family, the youngest victim just four months old.
The TPLF backs investigations but says they must be independent and UN-led.
Meanwhile, the fighting drags on, with a recent internal EU document seen by AFP identifying four different fronts in Amhara.
Aid workers warn the hostilities will only worsen the humanitarian consequences of a conflict that, according to the United Nations, has already driven hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine-like conditions.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is now providing food to more than 136,000 people "impacted by conflict" in Amhara and Afar, its boss Samantha Power said this week, while calling on the TPLF to withdraw from the two regions and negotiate.
So far, though, neither side seems much in the mood for talks.
In Dessie, local officials continue to champion a military solution to the war while accusing the US and other world powers of downplaying -- or even outright ignoring -- TPLF abuses.
"The foreign forces are also fighting against us, including America and other foreign countries who are supporting this war from behind in an inappropriate manner," said Seid Mohammed Hussien, administrator of South Wollo zone, of which Dessie is the largest city.
"All Ethiopians clearly know this."
Far from spurring calls for peace among the general population, tales of civilian suffering are inspiring Dessie residents to take up arms.
"People are being displaced from their homes, including children and elderly people. When you see this, it motivates you to go and fight," Mohammed Kedir told AFP after completing a 20-day training course to join the Amhara security forces -- during which he learned how to dig a trench, use a grenade and assemble and disassemble a rifle.
At a graduation ceremony this week, Mohammed and his fellow recruits sang patriotic songs and danced in a circle, some of them hoisting Kalashnikovs with miniature Ethiopian flags jammed into the barrels.
"Junta to the back!" they shouted at one point, using a pejorative term for the TPLF. "Amhara to the front!"
Recruit Tesfaye Abeba told AFP he was eager to avenge what he said were TPLF crimes.
"I have to protect the women and children," he said. "I'm ready to go."
Such words provide some comfort to displaced ethnic Amharas like Yemisarach Bezabeh, who fled her hometown of Mersa and has spent the past few days in Dessie struggling to find rice and flour to feed her three children.
Day and night, she said, her family dreams of returning to their home, assuming it is still standing.
"The children are asking to go home. They are asking to see their grandparents" who remain in Mersa, she said.
"I just want to go back to our land."