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.'”
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.
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.
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 of Tigrayan ethnicity who turned against their comrades.
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.
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”.
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.
Tadilo Tamiru, a sergeant in the government-aligned Amhara special forces, was 50 kilometres 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 to march north to join the battle.
“The support we provided the Ethiopian defence forces was very important,” he said, claiming it turned the tide against the TPLF.
In the hours and days after the fighting in Dansha, Abiy sent troops, tanks and jets 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.
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.
“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.