After months of fear in a city occupied by Ethiopian soldiers and those from neighbouring Eritrea who pursued the Tigray regional leaders, crowds of Mekele residents rushed to see thousands of Ethiopian government soldiers paraded by their captors.
Scenes of jubilation and determination in the city of Mekele, in video obtained by The Associated Press and smuggled out of Tigray several days later, are a rare look at the dramatic turn in a conflict that has threatened to destabilize one of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries.
They were buoyed by the striking sight of a long parade of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers now held as prisoners, and by the Tigray leaders walking openly in the city again. Residents lining the streets jeered the prisoners, and cheered their leaders.
The Tigray leaders have rejected a unilateral cease-fire that Ethiopia’s government announced as its soldiers retreated from Mekele, and they have vowed to chase “enemies” out of the rest of the Tigray region.
With the retreat of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, that means fighting against forces from the neighbouring Amhara region who seized large parts of western and southern Tigray during the eight-month war.
The Tigray president, Debretsion Gebremichael, has said that that might mean fighting beyond the borders of Tigray in order to ensure no further attacks.
While the Tigray forces now control large areas, the region has remained largely cut off from the world, with transport and communications links severed or blocked.
After months of looting and destruction that witnesses have blamed on Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, the United Nations is still highly concerned about the fate of millions of civilians as food runs short amid famine conditions
Only on Monday, days after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told the U.N. secretary-general that Tigray would be open to “immediate” aid, did the U.N. World Food Program announce that trucks of badly needed supplies had rolled into Mekele. Two weeks had passed since such aid had last arrived.
At a camp for the prisoners, soldiers lay on the ground, some trying to nurse injuries with little care at hand. “This is more than our capacity,” said Yusuf Ibrahim, medical coordinator for the Tigray forces as he called for more international aid.
“They can only do for us when they have something for themselves first. It is difficult for me to say they haven’t helped us, they have helped us as much as they did,” said one prisoner, Menor Arrarso, who said there was nothing to eat or wear.
He showed his wounded hand and said he had walked more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) in that condition.
“They couldn’t provide us with transportation when we came here. Two or three people died right here among us who could have been saved had we gone to our homes and gotten treatment. This is because here there is a lack of treatment.”
Another prisoner, Sewareg Bireda, agreed. Aside from the lack of food, “they don’t give us the necessary additional medicine, like painkillers. Apart from that, they are helping us as much as they can,” she said.
More than 6,000 Ethiopian soldiers and officers had been detained, the Tigray president Gebremichael said.
He said the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) have already been reached and that way the prisoners will be handled will be “transparent”.
“We are committed to keep them well as long as they are with us,” he said. “And after a while, yes, our plan is (for them) to live, they have to be free, wherever they want.”
But if evidence emerges that any prisoner had committed an atrocity in the war, he said, “we will keep them because they have to go to court.”