Addis Abeba — Despite the signing of the Pretoria Peace Deal in November 2022, Eritrean forces continue to engage in abductions of civilians and sexual violence in the northeastern part of the Tigray region, particularly in the Irob woreda. Officials have reported that over 28 youths have been abducted in this area in the past ten months.
The Irob people, who speak their own language called Saho, share a border with Eritrea. They are a small ethnic group compared to other ethnic groups in Tigray, with an estimated population density of 41,000. They predominantly live in highland and mountainous areas, and their main occupation is farming.
Eyasu Misgina, the head of the Irob woreda administration, told Addis Standard that the abduction of civilians, especially youths, by Eritrean troops started following the outbreak of war in Tigray in November 2020. Eritrean forces have invaded Irob, consisting of four different kebele, in support of the federal government. The suffering of the Irob people has continued even after the peace agreement was signed between the federal government and Tigray forces.
Eyasu disclosed that over 28 youths have been captured and taken by Eritrean forces, and their families are unaware of their whereabouts. One mother of an abducted youth, who wished to remain anonymous, shared her account with Addis Standard. She stated that her child and other siblings were taken by Eritrean forces in November 2022, shortly after the Pretoria Peace Agreement. She explained that her village is currently under the control of Eritrean forces.
“A number of armed forces came to our home and took my son. They mentioned that they wanted him to help them carry goods. He never returned home, and I don’t know where my son is,” she said.
She added that one of her other siblings was also taken and never returned. She also stated that six youths were taken from their village within a week. The mother emphasized that these abducted individuals are civilians who do not possess any weapons and are not militias. She mentioned that if they had been aware of such abductions, they would have fled like their neighbors. The village is currently under strict rules set by the Eritrean forces, preventing them from moving and working freely.
Two other residents of Irob, who also preferred to remain anonymous, corroborated these claims of human rights violations. They expressed their disappointment in the various ruling governments, including the federal and regional governments, for not addressing the needs of the people. They stated that Eritrean forces detain and abduct youths without reason, while those who flee Irob to other Tigray cities are detained on suspicion of being Eritrean spies.
Another resident also confirmed the human rights violations in Irob. “Ethnic cleansing is being carried out through different tactics, and at least 36 youths have been abducted by Eritrean forces, despite the peace deal,” he said. “The severity of the situation is being ignored, with people suffering from hunger, a lack of medical supplies, and no access to humanitarian aid.”
According to the Irob residents, communication and public services remain cut off in Irob, with the exception of the seat of the wereda administration, Dawhan. The humanitarian corridor is still blocked by Eritrean troops, especially in the four kebeles under Eritrean control: Eindalgeda, Agerlekema, Weratile, and Alitena.
Eyasu has confirmed cases of abduction and sexual violence in the region. He revealed that more than 30 girls and women have been sexually violated, with four cases of abduction officially reported. However, due to security concerns and cultural influences, many more instances may have gone unreported. “The lack of accurate reporting makes it difficult to determine the exact number of girls and women who have experienced sexual violence and slavery,” he stated.
The situation in Irob is deeply troubling, with rampant abductions and sexual violence occurring alongside hunger, which has claimed numerous lives. The majority of the community relies on farming for sustenance, but external forces have hindered their ability to do so. Additionally, there is a severe shortage of humanitarian aid and medicine.
Eyasu disclosed that following a peace agreement, over 65 residents have died from hunger and a lack of medical access, and another 162 individuals are currently at risk. The main road connecting the woreda to the city of Adigrat is completely blocked by Eritrean forces, leaving people with no safe travel options.
Due to restrictions imposed by Eritrean forces, the Irob people have been isolated from their families and relatives residing in different areas under Eritrean control. This lack of mobility and intimidation have prevented them from receiving any humanitarian aid, despite numerous pleas.
In August 2023, the Irob Advocacy Association sent a letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed urgently requesting humanitarian assistance for the people of Irob. The letter emphasizes the dire humanitarian crisis in the region, including issues of starvation, malnutrition, disease, and displacement. The association calls for immediate dialogue with Eritrean authorities to end the occupation and reopen the access road from Adigrat to Irob. This would allow essential humanitarian aid and personnel to reach the affected population, providing emergency food, water, medicine, shelter, and other necessary items.
Furthermore, the association has released a report documenting the atrocities committed against the Irob community since the outbreak of war in the Tigray region. The report highlights numerous atrocities, including summary executions of women and children, killings of civilians, and the destruction and looting of properties, all carried out by Eritrean forces even after the peace agreement was signed.
The situation in other parts of Tigray remains dire, with reports continuing to emerge about the abduction of young people by Eritrean troops. In February 2023, Addis Standard reported that 10 youths were abducted by Eritrean troops from Gure Endagabir, a place near Axum city.