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In shadow of Tigray war, ethnic massacres roil western Ethiopia

On the night before Orthodox Christmas last month, Ethiopian priest Girmay Getahun donned a white robe and, Bible in hand, walked down the dirt road to his church to prepare for services.

Around midnight, heavily-armed fighters arrived in his village, in Ethiopia’s western Benishangul-Gumuz region, sending Girmay fleeing into the forest to hide for two days.

He returned to a horrifying sight: the corpses of his eight housemates, all day-labourers on teff and peanut farms, who had become the latest victims in a gruesome, perplexing string of attacks.

Hundreds have died and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

Inter-ethnic violence in this lowland area, known as Metekel, predates a brutal three-month-old conflict farther north that has pitted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed against the former ruling party of the Tigray region.

Yet the bloodshed has intensified just as the military is trying to assert control over Tigray — highlighting how Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, does not have the luxury of addressing just one security crisis at a time.

In mid-November, 34 civilians were killed in Metekel when gunmen attacked a bus.

In late December, one day after Abiy visited the area, more than 200 people perished in a pre-dawn massacre, some burned alive as they slept.

And last month more than 80 died in a raid involving knives and arrows.

Even as analysts puzzle over who and what is driving the violence, there are fears it could soon escalate.

Abiy’s government has unveiled plans to form a militia of civilians displaced by past attacks to return to Metekel to “protect” those remaining.

At a displacement camp in the town of Chagni, east of Metekel, Girmay is one of many residents who back this move.

“I don’t fully support the idea of forming a militia, because in my opinion it’s like saying, ‘Kill one another,'” Girmay told AFP as he clutched a wooden cross.

“But if there are no other options and if (the gunmen) are not disarmed, we shall train some recruits from here to protect our lives.”

– ‘We have to defend ourselves’ –

Abiy has so far failed to provide an explanation for the carnage in Metekel. Read more here. 

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