The floating dead of Ethiopia: ‘Hands tied, they were shot in chest, abdomen and legs’

The River Tekeze, Nahar Satit if one prefers its Arabic name, rises in Ethiopia flowing in a northward direction through the country’s restive Tigray province before turning westward demarcating the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and then flows into Sudan. It is where the Tekeze enters Sudan that bodies started washing up on its banks in the first week of August.

Bodies have an irritating habit of cropping up unexpectedly, at inconvenient times, skewing acknowledged general narratives. And when bodies drift down rivers, it dents the national image, something that the Government of Ethiopia has to contend with, now that the dead have started floating down the River Tekeze.

News Agency Reuters reported on August 3 that according to witnesses, some 30 dead bodies had washed ashore. Reuters quoted a Dr. Tewodros Tefera, a surgeon who escaped from Ethiopia, as saying he buried 10 bodies over the past six days in Sudan and was told by local fishermen and refugees that another 28 had been recovered. His description of the state of the bodies was most shocking: “They were shot in their chest, abdomen, legs… and also had their hands tied.”

There is a civil war in the Tigray province of Ethiopia where for around nine months now, since November 2020, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been locked in battle with the Ethiopian army. Thousands have died in clashes and many more have fled to neighbouring Sudan. Ethiopia has been accused of blockading supplies to Tigray, a region with a population of six million, where international aid workers fear the world’s next hunger crisis is all set to unfold. On July 30, the UN expressed fear that 100,000 children in Tigray are at risk of death from malnutrition.

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Nobel peace prize winner of 2019, denied all allegations that his government is enforcing a blockade of Tigray.

Meanwhile, the relations between Sudan and Ethiopia remain strained as well, the issue being control of the swathe of fertile land at the border called al-Fashaga. When Ethiopia was engaged in fighting the TPLF, Sudan in December 2020 moved its forces to this triangular spit of land at the junction where Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea meet. Sudan forcibly evicted thousands of Ethiopian farmers who had been farming under a land-use pact, prompting Ethiopia to retaliate and border clashes broke out between the two. According to the International Crisis Group, Ethiopia and Sudan have wrangled for decades over the 260-sqkm region that the Ethiopians call Mazega.

It is in this region of al-Fashaga/Mazega that bodies are now floating in from Tigray, bearing marks of sudden and violent death, possible evidence of atrocities taking place up the river. Refugees had always made accusations of widespread ethnic cleansing and massacre of civilians taking place in Tigray and now further evidence to bolster their claims seem to be drifting down the river.

Those who have long memories may also remember another river in another time that carried bodies from one country to another as grisly evidence of one of the worst genocides taking place then. The year was July 1994; the river was Kagera; and over the scenic Rusomo Falls bodies had come, from Rwanda into Tanzania, daily, sometimes 15 and sometimes 50. In 100 days in 1994, 800,000 had been slaughtered in Rwanda; some of the evidence had come floating down the river for the world to see.

The pictures of floating bodies on the River Tekeze, at the Sudan Ethiopia border, created furore when posted on social media. The New York Times reported that Ethiopia’s government denounced the pictures as fakes, orchestrated by Tigrayan sympathisers. According to NYT, Ethiopia accused Tigrayan forces of dumping the bodies of 300 people who had been killed in other parts of the region to generate made-up propaganda of massacre.

But bodies are bodies; it does not matter who dumped them, what matters is that they are not living. What matters is that once again bodies are floating down a river — each bloated; rotting; disintegrating carcass – an accusation that someone somewhere was behind the gruesome deaths. What matters is that from time to time, bodies bereft of life; devoid of identity; deprived of dignity still keep coming, floating down the bend of a river somewhere in the world.

Also read: Tigray’s former rulers back in Mekelle, Ethiopian government declares ceasefire

Also read: In Tigray, food is often a weapon of war as famine looms

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