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Impact: An Ethiopian soldier points to bullet holes left after the attack on the base in Dansha

Kenya

The midnight confrontation that helped unleash Ethiopia’s conflict

Dansha, Ethiopia, Nov 28 – It was late on the first Tuesday in November, and Captain Hussen Besheir, an Ethiopian federal soldier, was on duty at a guard post outside the military camp in Dansha.

It was close to midnight when he saw headlights approaching.

Ten armed members of the Tigrayan special forces got out of the vehicle and demanded to see the camp’s commander.

“‘We’re not here for you’,” Hussen recalled them saying. “‘We want to talk to the leaders.’”

Short and flinty, Hussen refused. An argument ensued and gunfire rang out.

They were the first shots in a conflict that has since engulfed northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, killing many hundreds of people and forcing tens of thousands from their homes.

Where it began: The entrance to the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command in Dansha © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

This week AFP visited the Dansha barracks, home to the Fifth Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian military, after gaining rare access to Tigray, where a near-complete communications blackout has been in place since the fighting began.

Shell casings littered the camp’s grounds, and bullet holes were punched in the walls of buildings and sides of military trucks.

A metal sign at the entrance reading, “We need to protect the constitution from anti-development forces and lead our country to renaissance,” was so perforated with gunfire as to be almost illegible.

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– ‘Betrayal’ –

Hussen and others described hours-long rifle and grenade battles against fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), including special forces and militiamen, joined by some federal soldiers also billeted in Dansha who turned against their comrades.

Maps of Ethiopia and the region of Tigray © AFP

Echoing a statement from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Hussen said soldiers “were killed in their pyjamas”, adding, “What happened here is even worse than that.”

“Betrayal alone wouldn’t describe the feeling that I have. These are soldiers who have been eating and drinking with us,” he said of those former federal troops who allegedly turned their guns against them.

The government in Addis Ababa has claimed the attack on Dansha — and a simultaneous assault on another barracks in the regional capital Mekele –- as justification for its military offensive in Tigray since November 4.

A member of the Amhara special forces at the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

It points to an interview on Tigrayan media in which a prominent TPLF supporter, said a pre-emptive strike was “imperative”.

“Should we be waiting for them to launch attacks first? No,” said Sekuture Getachew, in the interview, which Abiy’s office has called a “confession”.

However, a senior TPLF official, Wondimu Asamnew, told AFP, “There was no attack.”

Ethiopian soldiers at the base entrance © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

Instead, the TPLF says, the story was concocted as a pretext to turn on them.

Confrontation between Abiy and the TPLF was a long time coming. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades until anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.

Since then the TPLF has complained of being sidelined and scapegoated for the country’s woes. The rift widened after Ethiopia postponed national elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray went ahead with its own vote, then branded Abiy an illegitimate ruler.

– Ethnic forces –

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Tadilo Tamiru, a sergeant in the government-aligned Amhara special forces, was 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the south with his 170-strong unit, in a small town along the border between the Tigray and Amhara regions, when the fighting began in Dansha.

They were ordered north to join the battle.

Members of the Amhara Special Forces keep guard at the Dansha base © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

“The support we provided the Ethiopian defence forces was very important,” he said, claiming it turned the tide against the TPLF.

Tadilo now stays side-by-side with Hussen, the Amhara special forces informally integrated into the unit, sleeping on mattresses outside the barracks and taking orders from army officers.

Despite being from the neighbouring region, Tadilo said, “As long as the peacekeeping mission is here, we’ll stay here.”

In the hours and days after the fighting in Dansha, Abiy sent troops, tanks and warplanes into Tigray to oust the “criminal clique” of TPLF leaders. On Thursday, he ordered a “final” assault on Mekele, after the TPLF rejected a 72-hour deadline to surrender.

– ‘A lot of shooting’ –

Restrictions on access to the conflict zone make it hard to verify claims from either side, but a visit to Dansha revealed that a battle, limited in scope, took place: while the military barracks was bullet-scarred, the surrounding town was unscathed.

Some shops were boarded up but the town — unlike others in Tigray visited by AFP — was far from abandoned.

Dansha life: A child with a knife clutches a length of sugar cane © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

The main thoroughfare, tree lined and paved, was busy with cattle and vehicles, women roasting coffee on the roadside as a group of boys played pool at a pavement table.

Relieved residents described fearfully listening as gunfire erupted from the barracks.

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“During the first night there was a lot of shooting. And when we woke up in the morning, we could see bullets everywhere,” said Mulye Bayu, a wide-eyed 19-year-old in a floral dress, who runs a roadside cafe.

Afterwards, the town fell silent but with federal forces firmly in control, life has quickly returned to something like normal, albeit without the former ruling party and its officials.

Five men sat at a wooden table in an empty storefront, registering applicants for the newly vacated civil servant jobs.

Time for pool: Children try their skills on a Dansha table © AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS

“The previous administration in Dansha, all of them were from one party (the TPLF),” said one of them, Kibrom Girmay, an ethnic Amhara. “They were assigned to apply all the orders from that party. But when this fighting happened all of them left and now their jobs are empty.”

The immediate task is “peacekeeping” and preventing looting, Kibrom said.

“Then we will start to provide basic services, like health, and helping farmers go back to their fields,” he said.

Kibrom insisted those Tigrayans who remained in the town would not be excluded from the new administration, but he had nothing but contempt for the TPLF itself.

“The TPLF’s plan was to instigate civil war in the country,” he said. “They want to destabilise the country, the Horn of Africa and the rest of the world.”

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