Report of visit to Afar Region’s Tigray border district of Yallo: Yallo

December 12th 2020 – subsequent to a visit on November 24th 2020

Visiting team:

Valerie Browning, APDA Program Coordinator and Ali Yusuf, driver.

Informants included Ibrahim Deene, district agriculture desk head and Mahamuuda Usmann, district health desk head. District head was in Alamatta regarding Afar displacement in that area.

Trip purpose:

  1. To gain update of the need of and presence of displaced people from the 1st visit
  2. To understand from the government authorities and the community their priority in securing assistance

Information in Summary:

Now almost 6 weeks since the conflict, the district authorities say all those who had come from Tigray have been taken back to their respective areas of residence. For them, the needy are a total of 24,000 Afar people who have come into the Region from where they had been living in Alamatta, Balla, Chercher and surrounds. They are living in the kebeles of Wol’e, Gidda ‘eela, Rakub Dora, Rakrak and Dibina.

Many of these Afar gave what they had to help people suffering giving household property, goats and food. They have taken up to 5 and more Tigrinya people into their houses for shelter, said the government.

The government says it should be noted there are 2 kebeles of Afar people living in Chercher woreda, Tigray Region.

While the DPFSPCO has sent 40 quintal flour; 4 quintal rice and 2 quintal sugar, this was used to send the 310 people who had fled from Tigray back to their homes. Till now, there is no assistance for the Afar people directly affected by the conflict

After now 21 days of the conflict in Tigray, what is evident is that all visited districts were utterly dependent on Tigray for electricity, supplies, market, banking as well as being highly socially linked.

The government prioritized the need for

  1. Food
  2. Household supplies such as sleeping mats, blankets, cooking material, clothes
  3. The means to regain the market to sell goats
  4. Yallo already has considerable malnutrition and the health desk officer said this will now be higher.

Market information:

Yallo weekly market on Tuesdays was selling up to 21 to 24,000 goats per market, animals coming from all surrounding districts, the merchants buying them being from Tigray. For 3 weeks, the market was closed and has now opened selling goats locally. Last Tuesday’s market sold 320 goats. All goat prices have halved: goats that fetched 3,000 ETB now sell for 1,500 to 1,200 ETB; goats selling at 2,000 ETB now sell at 1,000 ETB and goats that were selling at 1,000 ETB sell for 300 to 500 ETB.

Sugar sells at 70.00 ETB/ kilogram; wheat at 1,500.00 ETB for 50 kilograms; teff at 7,500 ETB for a quintal and 5 liters of cooking oil is 550 ETB. Most food goods were coming in from Tigray before.

Visit to Bisso Barri, 45 kms beyond the administration town of Yallo in Afar Region, 12/12/2020

Bisso Barri is a rural village just into Tigray from Afar Region with around 1,700 households accessible by all-weather road but off the main drive from Yallo to Allamatta. Afar call this village Sissa Boori and there is a very strong link with the village to the people in Yallo, Yallo being a large market for all surrounding areas.

Reason for visit: to verify information received on November 24th 2020 regarding a claim to there having been a massacre in that village and a neighboring village of Ullaaga.

People spoken to were returnees who had fled the village, mainly people who had lost property and houses as well as relatives of the dead and the kebele leader, Haiyalum Fanti.

Statements of people:

They all agreed that fighting began at 5 AM on 24/02/2013 with huge rockets coming from the direction of Yallo.  Having re-iterated names, they were uniform in stating 27 people died in Bisso Barri and 4 people in the village of Ullaaga. In Bisso Barri, there were 22 men, 3 women and 2 boys aged 12 years and 15 years, all residents of the village. From Ullaaga, one woman and 3 men died.

In the case of Ullaaga, they said the deaths were from one house and the result of a rocket/ bomb ‘from a distance’, they assumed from Yallo.

In the case of Bisso Barri, the 3 women and 22 men and 2 boys died shot in the back fleeing from the terror bombing that destroyed their houses (see below). There was a separate incident of a man of 75 years dying named Tefay Abarra. His son, Mellis said he was in Sifra, market town in Afar Region at the time. He said he heard on the Wednesday there was some bad conflict in his village and he managed to get back by Friday to find his old father lying on the floor with his throat slit. Their house is slightly beyond the village. His 40-year-old mother by then came back to the house (she had fled) telling him she fled when the military grabbed her husband threatening to kill him – she ran screaming trying to get help for the man because he was weak. She says she cannot say what military did it but she and her son buried the father.

Another man of early thirties, Asmara Alle showed how his ear had been stitched and he had a knife – wound in his scalp. He says he was in the house when the military came and they shouted at him asking why he did not flee. He said he could not leave as his mother is blind and unable to escape, he stayed with her. He says the soldier who injured him was from the government forces.

Afar people coming from Yallo to assist buried the 26 in Bisso Barri in 9 makeshift graves as well as the 4 in Ullaaga.

The community and the kebele leader said they all fled into the hills away from towns returning 5 days after the day of fighting (according to the kebele leader, there are still people to return). They fled as they were by grabbing children and running, leaving their houses and property open. They were fleeing the bomb – blasts coming from the direction of Yallo. In Yallo, it was reported the government army launched rockets and long-distance missiles that ‘made the houses of Yallo shake’. In fact the people of Yallo also fled toward Kalwaan and into the hills.

The community reported one pregnant woman went into labor while fleeing, had her baby in the road and the baby died.

Looting and burning:

Several houses were seen totally or partially burnt: traditional houses that are made of wood and thatched with grass appear all burnt, the remains just ash and rubble. Several shops and drinking places seem to have been targeted, some burnt from the inside, the outside walls still standing as a shell.

Around 5 buildings were ripped apart from the roof as if a rocket hit them, others seem to have been lit. The kebele leader says they have listed all burnt houses and lost property. He says 354 houses in their village were burnt: either by deliberate arson or by bombing.

Shopkeepers reported and showed how their property was rendered useless such a burnt refrigerators and TV in a house not burnt and that they were looted of 100,000 ETB in one case and 120,000 in another case. There were also smaller amounts of money apparently looted along with gold jewelry (typical highland women’s jewelry). One woman spoke of a large amount of clothes looted along with gold and money. Shop items were incinerated.

Again, hay and other crops they had just harvested in the valley were also burnt. The kebele leader said they were still itemizing losses from farms. One woman had 20 sheep near her house and they were incinerated.

The school and the clinic were also burnt.

The village relation with TPLF

The villagers explained that they are in southern Tigray and that, prior to EPDRF government, they were part of ‘Wollo’ or Amhara Region. They said they were ethnically Amharic but speak Tigrinya and Afar as well.

TPLF ‘Lidju Haylu’, local, young people’s army came into their village 3 months ago occupying the school as their camp. The kebele leader says they were causing ‘trouble’ by forcing young boys and even older men to join their military force. They came into their houses as they liked and used their shops and drinking places. On the day of the fighting, they were inside their village.

Scene witnessed:

Bisso Barri is part way down a road decline above and overlooking wide river flat where there is farming, For 3 to 4 kilometers before entering the village, the sides of the road is strewn with the remains of military encampment: thrown water bottles and meat cans; piles of biscuit wrappers, spent metal cartridges at one point of 5 places where rumpled military uniforms are dumped, my fellow travellers from Yallo say that is the uniforms stripped from the dead military and left on the side. At one point, there is the remains of what they say was the TPLF check point.

Only other evidence is burnt out military truck at the back of the village. Village itself is quite densely housed, houses mostly of dirt and cement daubed walls and corrugated iron. There WERE some highland traditional Tukuls but the all appear to be burnt to the ground.

The population are speaking Amharic, Tigrinya and Afar, a couple of Afar people there but remarkably mostly Christian – appearing highland people – dressed accordingly.

Finally to be noted is that these people have seen no assistance aside from that sent to them by surrounding communities and that they have and are helping each other.

Yallo government authorities reported having imprisoned 2 kebele leaders from Tigray whom they say their communities want to kill them for their exposure to the fighting.

Reported by Valerie Browning, Afar Pastoralist Development Association program coordinator.