Ethiopia: Mai Kadra, Metekel, and the Media Shame That Won’t Be Forgotten

The site of a former mass grave at Shilela Mocha, on the outskirts of Mai Kadra. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

It’s more sinister than you thought. Put the pieces together, and it’s hard to escape the implication that the TPLF always intended to have a bloodbath, possibly one right across the country and in Addis if they had been more successful in battle. The clues are there. And evidence is waiting to be examined. Unfortunately, the top newspapers and TV networks of North America and Europe refuse to look, really look.

In early March, a certain correspondent defended the highly questionable allegations over Axum and told me in a Twitter direct message, “The notion that remote investigations don’t count is utterly bogus.” I know a few academics who would spit up their coffee at this. And his logic presumes that reportage must be either-or. Yes, of course, you might get some valuable answers from behind your desk. But you better believe going there always beats long-distance calls, fuzzy satellite pictures and guessing.

Jemal Countess is a real journalist. He went to where the story is. A freelance photographer and former regional correspondent for Getty Images, he traveled to Mai Kadra in early March and spoke to witnesses and survivors of the horrors there that took place late last year.

An important detail to keep in mind: When Mai Kadra first broke in the Western news, major outlets such as Reuters and the Washington Post reported that the incidents of people “stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death” took place on November 9 — they were following the narrative established by Amnesty International in its first report and by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which visited Mai Kadra, Gondar and other towns in the region to investigate between November 14 to 19 and released findings on November 24.

But the witnesses Jemal Countess spoke to and photographed date the violence and killing back to November 6 and running until November 10.

“Most victims were slashed or hacked,” Countess wrote in his caption copy accompanying his pictures. “Many victims who survived the initial attacks with bladed weapons were shot to death.”

And it’s possible that some isolated murders might have happened well before even that timeline.

One witness, Selemon Abera, 40, told him he thinks the massacre was well planned very far in advance — at least by two weeks. “The wealthy Tigrayans who owned farms didn’t pay their laborers their wages and withheld them because they knew the genocide was coming. There are indications that they knew everything that was planned and that was going to happen… I also know that Tigrayan Special Forces were arriving in Mai Kadra during the days leading up to the massacre.”

Selemon says the initial murders — those of workers who lived in farms — were hidden from local people, with officials and the farm owners using tractors to dump their bodies in ditches or in nearby bush beyond Mai Kadra River and sometimes the fields at Shilela Mocha.

Gashaw Birhanu, 43, knew of the horrors that were coming. Though he’s ethnically Amhara, he was mistaken for Tigrayan by community leaders in Mai Kadra and invited to two closed-door meetings before the fateful attack on the Ethiopian Northern Defense base. According to Gashaw, the Tigrayans at the meeting discussed how they would survive the imminent war, take control of resources in the region — and exterminate the local Amhara.

In the end, Gashaw’s charade didn’t protect him, and he was assaulted by seven men with sticks, managing to escape but losing his front teeth in the attack.

Gashaw Birhanu. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

The implications from all these accounts are obvious. Countess says that several survivors and witnesses shared different bits of information with each other and drew the conclusion themselves that the massacre was planned long before. You can also look back and consider the behavior of the Tigrayan farmers, often retired veterans rewarded for service with land when the TPLF held its tight grip on the country.

“They stopped paying people a week and some change before the killing started,” says Countess. “So basically, they told people to either stay in Mai Kadra or for the day laborers to stay on the farms.” As the days counted down to the massacre, the targets of TPLF wrath couldn’t go anywhere without a pass. “They prohibited any Amhara from leaving Mai Kadra.” Laborers were made to harvest the fields — and then to die.

The preliminary findings of EHRC match some of the statements by the witnesses who spoke to Countess, such as the restriction of movement for Amhara and officials checking their identity cards.

Yet neither Amnesty nor the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in their first reports pegged the violence earlier than November 9, nor did they make what seems an obvious link to the TPLF attacks on outposts of the Northern Defense Command on November 4.

But how, we might ask, did the Tigrayan residents and farmers choose those dates to slaughter their Amhara laborers and neighbors? If they held two local meetings in which killing was discussed, it’s reasonable to infer that these residents knew in advance from TPLF officers when the major push would start.

And why doesn’t the Western media ever ask Debretsion Gebremichael about this?

For that matter, why doesn’t anyone ask Kjetil Tronvoll — “an expert on the TPLF with contacts deep within the party” as Al Jazeera once billed him — if he knew from his sources exactly when the attack on the Northern Defence Command would happen?

And if he knew innocent residents of Mai Kadra would be stabbed and beaten to death? And possibly others?

For if any Westerner deserves one day to be dragged as a witness into a courtroom over possible war crimes — if not as a potential defendant who may well have known what was coming — it is Kjetil Tronvoll, who wrote up what amounted to a TPLF ad for secession months before soldiers were attacked in their beds and who has been cheerleading for the rebels ever since.

“You’re going to find more bodies”

When the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission visited in November, its team “noted that the pungent smell of decaying bodies still lingered in the air.”

By early March, if you couldn’t still smell them, you could find them. About thirty witnesses and survivors accompanied Jemal Countess as he went to view mass graves, pointing out the roughly eight different plots, where 50 people might be buried in one while 60 were likely buried in another. People also took him to the edge of town where they showed him how bodies were buried in a ditch. In some cases, they were unable to remove the corpses for proper burial because they “were in too bad a shape to move,” not only because they were perhaps mutilated, but possibly due to the hot weather speeding up the rate of decomposition.

Initial reports suggested as many as 600 to 700 people were murdered. The death toll has been regularly revised upward, and Countess has put it at 1,300, expecting it to climb higher.

“If the region remains calm,” says Countess, “and you start to get to some of that private property where you had those TPLF retirees who committed those crimes on their farms, you’re going to find more bodies.”

And it will be hard to dispute who’s responsible, given who owned the land where they’re buried. Will we hear denials that oh, the bodies were buried without a farmer’s knowledge, and that he simply didn’t notice the fresh displacement of earth?

More than ever, Ethiopia doesn’t need human rights groups who do long-distance phone calls or interviews at refugee camps with unverified sources — it needs experienced forensics experts who can measure rate of body decomposition, who know how to study buildings strafed by machine gunfire, and who can interview genuine, traumatized witnesses and more questionable ones with a professional’s equal measure of compassion and detachment.

Because Mai Kadra demonstrates all too well the bias going on. By December, the Western media changed its tune after the initial shocking reports. The blame was shifted, and “more than a dozen Tigrayan refugees told the AP it was the other way around: In strikingly similar stories, they said they and others were targeted by federal forces and allied Amhara regional troops.” This story has multiple bylines but one of them is Ana Cara. Remember that name.

Oh, and by then Amnesty also waffled, suggesting it’s “possible that civilians from both ethnicities were targeted in Mai Kadra.”

But there are more than a couple of reasons for why the stories might be so “strikingly similar.”

Consider the experience of Tilahun Baye, 35, who had stayed on the outskirts of town in the farmlands and fled with other laborers for Sudan on November 10. Along the way, his group ran into about 20 to 30 members of the TPLF youth wing, Samri, and TPLF soldiers heading towards Mai Kadra. “They started shooting towards us, killing some of us dead and wounding others. I was among the wounded, but I pretended to be dead.”

Tilahun Baye. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

With the help of other survivors, he managed to finish the 40 kilometres distance to reach Sudan, but he was in for a horrible shock. At the camp were a few of the youths who had attacked them on the road — now they claimed to be civilian refugees.

“When they recognized me, they even accused me of being a killer,” says Tilahun, and they tried to prevent him getting medical treatment. “On November 15, a Sudanese general took me to a medical center, and I returned back to Ethiopia with the help of the Ethiopian Embassy.”

It hasn’t occurred to certain Western reporters they could be interviewing the very perpetrators who hacked and beat people to death, now pretending to be victims. Now blaming the ENDF. Blaming Amhara militia or Fano.

Jemal Countess questioned a regional official showing him around the town and asked the man again when he did follow-up, “Did any Amhara kill anybody? Were there Fano here?’” The answer was an unequivocal no.

But if that seems too easy to accept, Countess argues that a Fano attack simply wouldn’t make sense from a military perspective. “Fano is not going to be with ENDF. And the first people into Mai Kadra were ENDF. So you’ve got three big, major military bases ‘down the street.’ You got a tank platoon at least ‘down the street.’ And so first off if you drive into Mai Kadra, how the hell is Fano getting here? Mai Kadra is kind of remote… Where would Fano come from? What, are they getting buses to come?”

The road to Mai Kadra. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

Amhara survivors also point out how some Tigrayans left the town in advance of the massacre. I wondered if some perhaps wanted to get ahead of any EDNF offensive or if they didn’t want to be part of what would happen.

“I think there’s two sides to that. I think there are decent people, and then there are just people who left because they were just, like, ‘Yeah, we know, we’re leaving…”

Countess reminded me that in the early reports on refugees streaming into the Sudan camps, it was hard not to notice that many were young, healthy men. “And those were the Samri, and actually the Amhara regional government person who was travelling with me, he said it was Samri and adult men who just left after the slaughter. So Samri, which were the youth, and then it was either regional, local police or local militia.”

Of course, the TPLF have infiltrated more than just the refugee camps. As they lose more territory in the real world, capturing the high ground in international opinion has become essential.

Countess says that when he first arrived in Mai Kadra, a female reporter and a male photographer for Reuters were already on site. As he walked into a church courtyard with the Amhara regional official, the man casually informed him, “Yeah, you see those guys, we had to switch out their translator because he was feeding them propaganda. He was a TPLF guy.”

Even the witnesses and survivors talking to the Reuters reporter apparently realized that something was off, noticing how the translator began spinning tales of Fano coming along and committing war crimes.

In the process of all this gaslighting, real victims are being eclipsed. Abrehuley Fontahun, 48, found himself rounded up with 50 other prominent Amhara business leaders and tossed into jail the morning of November 9. He was scheduled to be executed in the afternoon of the next day, and in fact, others among the 50 had already been murdered. But the ENDF was closing in on the town, and his jailers fled.

Abrehuley Fontahun. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

Reporters for big outlets such as The Guardian and analysts for operations such as Human Rights Watch and Crisis Group have blamed the federal government’s restrictions on access. But even when access was granted, these observers don’t revise their narratives.

Any of the major media outlets in New York, London, Frankfurt or Toronto could be using these stories. These horrific details, distilled in captions, along with Countess’s photos of witnesses and survivors, have been available for about a month. His Mai Kadra shots are dated March 5, and you can see them for yourself here.

There is not a major paper or TV network in the West that does not have a Getty Images subscription. But Countess says a casual search tells him only a pitiful three outlets — Der Spiegel, Sowetan and Süddeutsche Zeitung— have availed themselves of using his material.

All the news that’s fit for the gullible

Instead, the Western media has let itself become the errand boy for a sophisticated propaganda machine. The examples are close to farce, but Ethiopians are not laughing. Not in Addis Ababa and not in many diaspora communities across North America and Europe.

Take the case of the mass killings that allegedly took place at Mahibere Dego and were supposedly caught on video by a repentant federal soldier turned whistle-blower. BBC News teamed up with Bellingcat and Newsy, while CNN worked with Amnesty for separate investigations. It sure is interesting how major media operations on both sides of the Atlantic just happened to release their coverage on the very same day.

Unless you are covering something huge, like 9/11 or the U.S. Capitol attack, you simply don’t see international coverage synched up like a chorus. And these weren’t just ordinary story filings, they were both investigative reports. Hmm…

Both teams made huge deals out of their satellite image analysis and geolocation, as if wow, we’re all supposed to be impressed with their toys. Pity that common sense wasn’t part of their arsenal. Because their evidence consists of an arm badge that appears on one uniform (but not on those of the others), the “cut and style of the pockets,” and the fact that these soldiers speak Amharic — ignoring the fact that many Tigrayans in the region are bilingual.

As an Ethiopian diaspora friend emailed me to ask: why would a federal soldier phone-cam a massacre when it would be so clearly incriminating? An analyst pointed out to me something even more obvious: Federal soldiers aren’t allowed to use their cell phones while out in the field on operations. There are several good reasons for this, but how about duh, your phone can act as a handy GPS tracker.

Forgotten, too, is the fact that many Tigrayans from the ENDF who defected wear their old uniforms, while Tigrayans who were in key positions to handle logistics at the Northern Command had easy access to the uniforms. And during the surprise attacks in the night on outposts of Northern Command back in early November, TPLF soldiers made their ENDF counterparts remove their clothing. Even dead bodies were stripped and found naked.

Neither the BBC nor CNN seem to care that the video was supplied by Stalin Gebreselassie, a reporter from Tigrai Media House. This is a guy who once claimed in a broadcast — and he was serious — that a TPLF single bullet took out three tanks and a pickup truck. The clip of this has made the rounds more than once on social media.

CNN went ahead with its story, informing its website readers: “Without the raw footage and associated metadata, CNN cannot confirm the original device the five videos were filmed on, who filmed them, the date they were filmed or whether they were selectively edited.”

I can assure you there was a time where if you tried a stunt like this with such a sorry excuse for lack of factual background — and a lame-ass disclaimer to boot — you would be laughed out of a news bullpen and wouldn’t work for very long.

And on Tuesday, the AP ran another story by Ana Cara, who seems intent on indicting the federal forces with her coverage. This one proclaims that “an ethnicity is erased,” and arguably vies for the CNN investigation for the dumbest accusation so far. In laying out the woes of Tigrayan refugees, Cara writes:

“Now, for the first time, they also bring proof of an official attempt at what is being called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that eliminates all traces of Tigray, as confirmed to The Associated Press by nine refugees from different communities. Written in a language not their own, issued by authorities from another ethnic group, the ID cards are the latest evidence of a systematic drive by the Ethiopian government and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.”

Well, first of all, Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia. It has been since a Tigrayan, Emperor Yohannes IV, relied on it in his communication with regional leaders in the 1800s.

And while Ana Cara’s sources, Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth and others may bleat about “erasing” an ethnicity, there are millions of Ethiopians who deeply resent an ID card system — one the TPLF introduced during their 27 years in power — that amounts to apartheid.

Given that millions, and we do mean millions of Ethiopians are of mixed heritage, it’s asinine to suggest that any federal officials issuing a new ID card could all be of one monolithic bloc of a different ethnic group. Especially if the cards are getting printed up in Addis.

So I’m curious: how does this work? You’re supposedly committing a genocide of Tigrayans, according to TPLF lobbyists, trolls, and those who sincerely care but may not have thought it through, but you remove the very thing on the ID card that identifies them as Tigrayan?

Survivors of Mai Kadra, by the way, easily remember how Tigrayan officials used their ID cards to identify them as Amhara. Turns out what really erases an ethnicity is hacking their members to death and shooting them.

“This belongs to Amhara.” All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

As for the Ana Cara story, the Ethiopian Twitter-verse got on the case, and many noticed that the ‘A’ on examples of the “new” cards is written in a style common among Tigrayans. This, to them, is a tip-off that these are forgeries. The way it was explained to me was with this helpful graphic:

I was told, “The 2nd A is the one more commonly used by Tigrinyna speakers and is closer to the original Ge’ez language. Try to imagine two people from the same country or land mass and speaking the same language but with dialects and linguistics to match.”

While the most ludicrous of accusations by the TPLF get big headlines and top billing on networks, verifiable crimes against other groups are being quickly filed and forgotten… and even when they were first reported, the full horrors have been sanitized.

I recall Twitter blowing up with grotesque photos and outrage over cannibalism allegedly perpetrated in the Metekel massacre against Amhara and Agaw people by Gumuz militia in late December of 2020. I didn’t want to believe it. Ethiopians couldn’t do anything like that, I told myself, they wouldn’t. I waited for “real” news to tell me what was happening.

Only it didn’t. You won’t find it in the brief story by the AP for December 23, 2020. You won’t find it in the New York Times story of January 13. You won’t find it in a France 24 story of early February.

This was strange. Journalism is where “if it bleeds, it leads,” so if anything, reporters should have pounced on the more sickening details. But then Metekel is not Tigray. And the BBC even obliged its website readers by answering the question, “Is the violence linked to the conflict in Tigray?

Lately, nobody seems to give a damn anymore about what happened in the Benishangul-Gumuz attack. Except maybe the survivors and witnesses. And a Getty Images correspondent — who is withholding their identity for security reasons — who traveled days after the slaughter to a displaced persons camp in Chagni to talk to those who saw and endured what happened.

“In Gilgel Belese, we saw a human body cut up like a cabbage that had been eaten by other human beings,” recalled a woman in Chagni who didn’t want to give her name. “How could this be in the 21st-century?… This is how three of our husbands were killed. They were killed barbarically. The attackers ate their bodies, and we found only parts of their bodies. Their organs, like their liver and stomach were not found with their bodies. It is terrifying, and we never want to see that again.”

“We want to go back and collect our properties from Mandura,” Sintayehu Assefa, 41, told the correspondent. “It is difficult to return there permanently. We have seen our neighbors eating our flesh, our bodies, our livers. They slaughtered us and took our bodies and our families’ bodies. I have seen them with my naked eyes eating human flesh. So how can it be possible to live with them? How can we become friends and come again together with them after this?”

And like the Mai Kadra witness statements and photos, the stories and pictures testifying to what happened in the Benishangul-Gumuz region have been available to major media for quite a while. In this case, for months.

Western media should care. One survivor says that soldiers for the Gumuz militia have been regularly shuttling back and forth to Sudan, where they get medical care, rest up and re-supply. They would be unable to do this without Sudanese authorities looking the other way.

The irony is that the crisis merchants, human rights organizations and pundits claimed last year until they bored us silly that the Tigray crisis would engulf the Horn. Now here is one more tip that another nation might be helping to destabilize Ethiopia, but the Chicken Littles are ignoring it.

But then, it’s never really been about keeping Ethiopia stable, has it?

“They prey upon Western ignorance of Africa”

As we talked, Jemal Countess was clearly frustrated. I asked him what was behind that, whether it was the lack of complete detail in Western coverage or maybe the slant and bias…? He took a breath and considered —

Then: “It’s just piss-poor journalism.”

He told me that he’s deeply disappointed with CNN and noted how their reporter, Nima Elbagir, characterized the war as a “conflict for power” and actually used the term, “Amhara-zation.” I had noticed this myself, since it’s straight out of the propaganda manual for the TPLF and for Oromo extremist groups.

“And I’m sitting there,” recalled Countess, “and I’m looking at that document, the TPLF Manifesto that states that the Amhara are your number one enemy, and that came out in 1976, long before any of this even started, and none of that comes into play. They play these games, because they prey upon Western ignorance of Africa, the Western ignorance of the deep history and the complex history of Ethiopia. And they just take it like ‘We got the big guns, people listen to us, we can just throw anything at the wall, and people will eat it up.’…

“People are either very ignorant or paid off. I hate to be crass about it, but I just can’t explain how bad the journalism is, and how one-sided and how lopsided it’s been.”

I had asked him earlier about my drawing a connection between the TPLF’s surprise attack on the Northern Defense Force on November 4 and the first known killings in Mai Kadra on November 6. Even if you ignore the survivors who spoke with him and stubbornly cling to the chronology of believing the violence began on November 9, the dates are too close to ignore. And yet so far, I haven’t found any stories by major Western news operations picking up on this.

“I think that’s what made people not want to touch it,” remarked Countess.

“Seriously?” I asked, because yes, I’m really that naïve.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Social media ran with it, the government of Ethiopia ran with it, the [Ethiopian] embassy ran with it, but in terms of big media outlets, no, because that completely destroys some of their narratives, and if they’re busy protecting the TPLF, then it just kind of puts them on the wrong side of history.”

Humera, March 5, 2021. All photos by Jemal Countess/Getty Images. Used with permission.

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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