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Examining Ethiopia's civil war, which has roots that are centuries old


Ethiopia's civil war is entering a second year. It's a complicated conflict with origins that are centuries old. And a dispute over land has spiraled into a brutal conflict within the region.

NPR's Eyder Peralta has traveled near the front lines to report. And a warning - this story does contain graphic descriptions of violence.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In the middle of all the green vegetation, villagers show me a clearing dotted with mounds of dirt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is a burial place. It's, like, a mass grave.


A mass grave. We keep walking. And no matter where we turn, we smell decomposing bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Someone is buried here.

PERALTA: Another mound of dirt. We see them everywhere we walk - under trees, on the side of the road. Out of one mound, there's a skull dragged out by wild animals so all that is left are teeth and bones. So many soldiers died that they were buried in a hurry.

Abera Demas is one of the town's Ethiopian Orthodox priests. He says the town, Chena, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia saw intense fighting. He says rebels from the Tigray People's Liberation Front took over the town, and then a counterattack from the government pushed them out. And just before they retreated, he says, they looted the church and killed indiscriminately.

ABERA DEMAS: (Through interpreter) They don't have any respect, and they are, like, wild.

PERALTA: When we get to the church, we see more graves. They estimate about 200 civilians were killed here. Dozens of villagers stand around the graves, looking at the rocks that keep the bodies safe from hyenas.

Mulu Endale lost her husband. She wipes her tears with her black headdress. She cannot understand why this happened. Her husband wasn't fighting. He didn't even know what this war was about. He was only a farmer, she keeps repeating.

MULU ENDALE: (Through interpreter) He knows nothing. He doesn't know anything, but they killed him and they left.

PERALTA: If you could talk to the men who are leading this war, what would you tell them?

MULU: (Through interpreter) I will explain to them all the pain I am going through.

PERALTA: This conflict started as a power struggle between the former rulers of Ethiopia and the new ones. But ethnic and historical grievances added the fuel, which turned it into a civil war - specifically, ethnic Amharas against ethnic Tigrayans. Their emperors have contested these lands since biblical times. If you talk to the political elites here in the Amhara region, they frame the conflict like this.

DESALAGNE CHANIE: It's about the issue of Amhara's basic existence.

PERALTA: That is Desalagne Chanie, who leads a nationalist movement of ethnic Amharas. In his telling, when Tigrayans seized the government in 1994, they re-drew state boundaries and marginalized the Amharas.

DESALAGNE: People were not allowed to speak Amharic. They were not allowed to express their culture. Their lands were confiscated. Prominent activists and politicians were continuously persecuted. They were killed.

PERALTA: Desalagne claims the TPLF tried to change the ethnic makeup of the region, which he claims is historically Amhara. They did so, he says, to stack the deck against the potential referendum, which would decide the fate of those disputed lands.

DESALAGNE: They have settled almost 60,000 former fighters. So there was no - any viable way to peacefully resolve the issue.

PERALTA: Awet Weldemichael is a professor of history at Queen's University in Canada. He says, yes, the Tigrayan-led coalition government was oppressive. But this narrative that they tried to change the ethnic makeup of Western Tigray is exaggerated.

AWET WELDEMICHAEL: Demographically, Western Tigray was a cosmopolitan sort of melting pot.

PERALTA: Even as this war started, Tigrinya and Amharic and Arabic were spoken side by side. Awet has a simpler explanation for the fighting. These lands are vast and fertile, and everybody wants them.

AWET: We are in what I call domestic irredentism.

PERALTA: Irredentism - when political groups, usually nationalists, fight over land they believe is historically theirs.

AWET: And this is exactly where any responsible federal government or central government would have carefully negotiated a peaceful, amicable resolution.

PERALTA: Instead, the Amharas blockaded roads to Tigray. The TPLF attacked the federal government's northern command. And then Amhara militias and their allies made a move for the fertile lands of western Tigray.

The war spiraled. Human rights groups have accused Amhara militias of ethnic cleansing. Thousands have been killed - millions displaced. And as the war has moved south, to places like the town of Chena, Tigrayan forces are now being accused of many of the same atrocities.

AWET: No party showed restraint or wisdom. All were ready for the fight.

PERALTA: The residents of Chena didn't expect this kind of fight. Desta Tukeu, a deacon at the church, says as the rebels retreated, he hid in the woods with the cows. And he saw his brother-in-law killed.

DESTA TUKEU: (Through interpreter) If this individual has any document related to the government, they tie him like this. His brother-in-law was - they tie him like this and they shoot him with two bullets in the head.

PERALTA: He says when the Tigrayans first took over their town, they thought they wouldn't kill civilians. After all, they had nothing to do with this war. But as the TPLF lost ground to the government, they began shooting. He lost five family members.

You don't have to answer this because I know we're around people, you know, with guns who are fighting. But do you think this war is worth it?

DESTA: (Through interpreter) Yes. We will fight until the end, regardless of the cost.

PERALTA: A war that once seemed foreign, a fight that they did not pick, has suddenly become very much theirs. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUMBLEINE'S "ALICEBAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.