For months, Father Tesfaye* has taken his battered Land Cruiser and shuttled secretly between his home district of Irob and Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, ferrying sick people, medicines and small amounts of desperately needed food.
Eritrean troops block the one good road into Irob, preventing aid agencies from bringing in humanitarian supplies, so the Roman Catholic priest must take a treacherous back route through the mountains to avoid their checkpoints.
“They want to kill me,” says Father Tesfaye. “Several times I was almost shot down.”
The Irob are a small community of about 35,000 people who speak their own language – Saho – and mostly live in the north-eastern pocket of Tigray to which they give their name. It is a remote border area that has long been claimed by Eritrea.
When war broke out in Tigray in November 2020, Eritrea’s military swept into Irob and other parts of the region as an ally of Ethiopia’s federal government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated Ethiopian politics.
In Tigray, Eritrean troops waged a campaign of gang-rape, sexual slavery, enforced starvation, torture and mass killings against the civilian population, including a 2021 massacre of about 50 people in Irob on Ethiopia’s Christmas Day, 7 January.
The murders were in retaliation for attacks by local militia against Eritrean troops, says Father Tesfaye, who helped bury the bodies. “We had to get permission from Eritrean soldiers,” he says. “It was very scary because they were very, very angry. I thought they were going to shoot me but fortunately God stayed their hand.”
It was one of dozens of times Father Tesfaye has negotiated with the troops on behalf of the community. He placated them with livestock, pots of honey and sacks of grain.
A peace deal struck between the TPLF and Ethiopia’s government in November 2022 has ended the fighting in Tigray, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Eritrean troops withdrew from much of the region shortly afterwards, but nine months later they still occupy several areas along the border, including four of Irob’s seven subdistricts. Even though an implementation accord signed shortly after the ceasefire states that “foreign” forces should leave Ethiopian territory.
Father Tesfaye and activists say Eritrean troops continue to loot livestock and kidnap people in Irob and elsewhere. The advocacy group Irob Anina has counted 56 disappearances from Irob and the next-door district of Golomkeda since the ceasefire. There are fears they have been forcibly recruited into Eritrea’s military.
“There has been no improvement for us since the peace,” says Father Tesfaye. “The Eritreans have not moved; they are blockading the road.”
The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is one of the most contested frontiers in the world. Between 1998 and 2000, the TPLF led Ethiopia in a bloody war against Eritrea over the boundary, which was finally demarcated by a UN commission in 2002.
When the recent war broke out in Tigray, Eritrea moved to claim areas that were awarded to it by the UN commission but still occupied by Ethiopia. It also took territory it still claimed sovereignty over but was judged by the commission to be Ethiopia’s, such as Irob.
Activists say Eritrean authorities are handing out Eritrean ID cards in Irob as part of their de-facto annexation of the region. “[The Eritrean soldiers] say this is our land and you are our people,” says a former resident of Irob who visited in June.
With Irob cut off by Eritrea’s continuing occupation, aid groups have been able to deliver only a handful of supplies. The area’s schools and hospitals are closed, and farmers were unable to buy seeds and fertilisers for the recent planting season.
“Nearly everyone I spoke to said, ‘If we cannot cultivate this year, what are we going to eat next year? How are we going to survive?’” says the former resident of Irob. “These are the concerns people share.”
The situation is similar in other border areas of Tigray classified as “hard to reach” by the UN because of Eritrea’s continued presence, say aid workers and diplomats.
“The most serious problem we have is no international aid agencies can pass (the Eritrean roadblocks),” says Father Tesfaye. “The people are under siege, they are blocked from the outside world.”
Irob Anina is calling for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Irob and unhindered humanitarian access. Rita Kahsay, its executive director, says the occupation threatens to wipe out the Irob as a minority ethnic group, since it is fuelling the displacement of the Irob to other parts of Tigray, where they assimilate and stop speaking their own language.
“The war hasn’t stopped for Irob at all,” says Rita. “It’s ongoing and it’s completely forgotten about.”
* Name has been changed