The torture marks are easily visible on some, their arms held tightly behind their backs.
On a trip to Wad El Hilou, a Sudanese city near the border with Ethiopia, a CNN team counted three bodies in one day. Witnesses and local authorities in Sudan confirmed that in the days after the team’s departure, another 11 bodies came downstream.
Evidence suggests that the dead are Tigrayers. Witnesses at the scene say the bodies tell a dark story of mass prisons and mass executions across the border in Humera, a city in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
CNN has spoken to dozens of witnesses gathering bodies in Sudan, as well as international and local forensic experts and people trapped and hiding in Humera, to reveal what appears to be a new phase of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopian war.
This new offensive, witnesses told CNN, was what prompted government forces and militia groups holding the northern city of Humera, close to the border with Eritrea and Sudan, to launch a new phase of mass imprisonment of resident Tigrayans.
CNN’s investigations suggest that the ethnic profiling, detention and killing of Tigrayans is characterized by genocide as defined in international law.
‘We are told to take care of the bodies’
In recent weeks, a community of Tigrayans living in the Sudanese city of Wad El Hilou, 65 kilometers downstream from Humera, has taken on the role of excavators and diggers for the corpses drifting down the river known in Sudan as Setit and in Ethiopia as Tekeze.
It is a laborious and unsettling work. The stench from the corpses fills the air as they first pull each corpse from the bottom of the river and then dig new graves for them before performing the burial rituals.
Gebretensae Gebrekristos, known as “Gerri”, is one of the leaders of society; he helps coordinate the grim task with a solemn determination. Overall, society estimates that at least 60 bodies have been found so far. He explained how the group is sure the bodies are Tigrayers from Humera.
“We get calls from people in Humera that witnesses – often escaped prisoners – saw people marching down to the river in one of the facilities and heard gunshots, or that a number of people were taken by soldiers from the detention facilities and never returned. We get word. to make sure their bodies come down the river. “
The bodies first appeared in Sudan in July, when the river was at its highest volume due to the rainy season. Sudanese water engineers told CNN that the speed of its flow would then enable the bodies to drift from Humera to Wad El Hilou in about two to three hours. Wad El Hilou is a natural tip of the river road — and when the corpses arrived, they floated toward the bank.
According to Gerri, his community usually finds the exact number of corpses it has been told to expect.
Sixteen-year-old Natay and 17-year-old Gebrey, whose names have been changed for their safety, are among the Tigrayans who said they were fleeing prison camps in Humera. Now in Wad El Hilou, they confirmed to CNN that they heard reports of men with their hands tied, marched in a single lane towards the Humera River, to the area between St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s Church. The boys both say they heard shots ringing out and the men did not return.
Natay said he remembered feeling paralyzed: “I was so scared and thought they would kill me and throw me [in] also.”
Sudanese authorities in Wad El Hilou have filed police and death reports for every corpse found on their territory, documenting evidence of the extensive torture and “execution-like” gunshot wounds found on many of the bodies, authorities told CNN. Both the local Sudanese authorities and forensic experts say all the corpses retrieved so far were probably dead before they hit the water.
In a statement issued via the US public relations firm Mercury, the Ethiopian government said it was investigating the allegations. “In light of several inconsistencies in the allegations, we are working with the relevant authorities to gather evidence and will prosecute all persons found to have committed crimes to the full extent of the law,” a spokesman said.
“The government is eager to reiterate our desire to secure a peaceful solution to the conflict in Tigray and is actively working to secure a ceasefire.”
‘Everyone was sick’
For so many of the Tigrayans in Sudan, these bodies could have been humans they knew. Many have fled Humera and still have families there.
Temesgen, 24, and Yonas, 25, say they fled together from a warehouse in Humera, called Enda Yitbarek, which they describe as used for a makeshift mass prison camp for thousands of Tigrayans. CNN has changed their names for their safety. They were both imprisoned for well over two weeks.
“I was playing around in my house, so they picked me up and took me because I’m a Tigrayan,” Temesgen remembered. “We did nothing, they just picked me up and detained me.”
Inside the warehouse, people were crammed together on the floor with no rooms or partitions to create privacy, he said.
“They did not give us food and we did not even have access to the toilet,” Yonas said. “Some people toileted inside the warehouse.”
For Temesgen, the real horror was the lack of medical care. “Everyone was sick with the flu and did not get medical attention. They did not send us to the hospital,” he said.
Former inmates described as inmates of all ages on CNN squeezed close together – from mothers with young children to teens to men in their 70s.
Temesgen and Yonas say they escaped while on a rare toilet break, which the guards had allowed, and took the trip to Sudan. They both talked about several prison camps scattered around the city of Humera.
CNN spoke with dozens of other fugitives from these camps, and based on their accounts, it estimates there are up to nine locations where thousands of Tigrays are believed to have been detained.
Tigrayans still inside Humera told CNN they live in constant fear of being detained or killed. They talked about naughty ethnic profiling, whereby residents of Tigrayan ethnicity are targeted and those from other ethnicities are safe, especially those from the Amhara ethnicity; Amhara militia has been fighting alongside Ethiopian government forces in Tigray.
People of mixed ethnicity face an uncertain fate; residents told CNN that an Amhara ID card may be sufficient, but being seen socially with Tigrayans would nonetheless put someone in danger.
Alem, whose name has also been changed for security reasons, is half Tigrayan, but has a non-Tigrayan ID card and has helped Tigrayans hide in his home in Humera while the arrests continue. Relatives abroad have urged him to flee, but he insists it is his duty to stay and help those who are targeted.
Rahel, not her real name, is also a Tigrayan, but has a non-Tigrayan ID card and says she has visited friends and relatives in the prison camps despite questions from guards. She is appalled by the conditions of the detainees.
“They can not move, they do not get enough sanitation, no food, no water and no medicine. If they feel sick and die, no one cares. They are hungry and thirsty. How could they be well? “Thinking it’s their turn the next day, knowing their friends were killed yesterday? The guards don’t care about life,” she said.
People in Humera who spoke to CNN repeatedly mentioned the disappearance of members of the Tigrayan community. Those who were still free assumed they were detained in the camps, but those fleeing the prisons told CNN that people were often called in by guards and would never return. Others talked about rare sightings of corpses dumped in the river.
Across the water in Sudan, Yonas recalled the disappearance of the Enda Yitbarek warehouse.
“They did not torture us, but they often took prisoners at night and they never came back,” Yonas said. “We do not know if they killed them or not, but after they took them, they never came back and their families reported their disappearance.”
Residents of Humera, with whom CNN spoke firmly, believe the bodies arriving at Wad El Hilou are from their town. Several are in regular contact with those who escaped across the border into Sudan, and as the corpses began to arrive, news spread quickly.
A man has been locally identified as Misganawu, a well-known barber in Humera. “He had two nicknames, Totit and Gundi,” Alem recalled. “I knew Totit very well when he worked in Humera in that hairdressing shop. He was born and raised in Humera.”
Signs of torture
Ongoing independent investigations by international and local forensic experts found no evidence that the victims had drowned. The experts, who asked not to be identified due to security concerns, told CNN that the bodies had all been exposed to some form of chemical agent after death, leading to a process that had effectively preserved them before they came in. the water.
The fact that all the bodies were in a similar condition indicated that they had been stored in a similar environment, possibly a storage facility or a mass grave, before being dumped into the river, experts said.
This state of preservation makes it easier to identify the marks on the corpses and what could have caused them, experts said.
Some of those found had their arms tied tightly behind their backs, in accordance with a torture technique called “tabay”. Several had their hands tied with small gauge yellow electrical wire and bone fractures and dislocations further indicate that extra pressure was put on their bodies before death.
Experts say they are in a race against time to preserve evidence if it is necessary for potential war crimes in the future. They also confirmed the signs of torture evident for the group in Sudan that has collected the bodies.
While investigators in Sudan continue to investigate the bodies, Tigrayans and those helping them in Humera face a daily struggle to remain free of arrest and abuse.
And Tigrayans like Gerri, on the other side of the border, mourn and dig shallow graves for the bodies drifting downstream.
Speaking at the first grave by the river he dug, marked with a makeshift wooden cross, Gerri said it hurt him not to be able to give them a proper burial.
“To leave your people by the river? Your sister, your brother, not laid to rest properly? When you see it, it hurts you, it hurts your heart, but what can you do? We have been doomed to do that. . “
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