In late November as religious pilgrims gathered for the Orthodox festival of Tsion Maryam – an annual feast to mark the day Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the country from Jerusalem – a group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire on Maryam Dengelat church while hundreds of congregants were celebrating mass.
People tried to flee on foot, scrambling up cliff paths to neighboring villages. The troops followed, spraying the mountainside with bullets.
A new CNN investigation led by senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir sheds light on what happened in the following days based on photographic evidence and interviews with eyewitnesses and more than 20 relatives of the survivors.
Through a network of activists and relatives, CNN tracked down a dozen eyewitnesses to the attack. In countless phone calls – many disconnected and dropped – CNN was given the most detailed account of the deadly massacre to date.
Eyewitnesses said that the festival started much as it had any other year. Footage of the celebrations from 2019 shows priests dressed in white ceremonial robes and crowns, carrying crosses aloft, leading hundreds of people in prayer at Maryam Dengelat church. The faithful sang, danced and ululated in unison.
As prayers concluded in the early hours of November 30, eyewitnesses said they saw troops arriving by foot, followed by more soldiers in trucks. At first, they were peaceful, according to eyewitnesses. They were invited to eat, and rested under the shade of a tree grove.
But, as congregants were celebrating mass around midday, shelling and gunfire erupted, sending people fleeing up mountain paths and into nearby homes.
Eight eyewitnesses said they could tell the troops were Eritrean, based on their uniforms and dialect. Some speculated that soldiers were meting out revenge by targeting young men, assuming they were members of the TPLF forces or allied local militias.
The soldiers went door to door, dragging people from their homes. Mothers were forced to tie up their sons. A pregnant woman was shot, her husband killed. Some of the survivors hid under the bodies of the dead.
The mayhem continued for three days, with soldiers slaughtering local residents, displaced people and pilgrims. Finally, on December 2, the soldiers allowed informal burials to take place, but threatened to kill anyone they saw mourning.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed since November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving a long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea, launched a major military operation against the political party that governs the Tigray region. He accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018, of attacking a government military base and trying to steal weapons. The TPLF denies the claim.
The conflict is the culmination of escalating tensions between the two sides, and the most dire of several recent ethno-nationalist clashes in Africa’s second-most populous country.
The US State Department, in a statement to CNN, called for Eritrean forces to be “withdrawn from Tigray immediately,” citing credible reports of their involvement in “deeply troubling conduct.” In response to CNN’s findings, the spokesperson said “reports of a massacre at Maryam Dengelat are gravely concerning and demand an independent investigation.”
Following CNN’s investigation, Ethiopia on Monday rejected a call from the US to pull regional forces out of the country’s Tigray region, and defended the deployment of some of those troops amid reports of human rights violations.
CNN has reached out for comment to Eritrea, which has yet to respond. On Friday, the government vehemently denied its soldiers had committed atrocities during another massacre in Tigray reported by Amnesty International.