A United Nations report implicates Eritrea of massacres targeting Kunama and Afar communities and the existence of mass graves.

The Kunamas, who live in Eritrea’s most fertile land and suspected of being pro-Ethiopia by Asmara, were subjected to retaliation campaigns after the end of the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war.

The Ethiopian army, which went deep into Eritrean territory after successfully liquidating the invading army, had set up an interim administration for the Kunamas, in Barentu city, in the last months of the war. Nonetheless, the army abruptly abandoned its march and returned to its boundaries following the controversial Algiers agreement on December 2000.

Subsequently, Eritrea’s ruling group, PFDJ, and its army predictably launched a retaliation campaign on the people of Kunama for “not fleeing” and “not resisting” Ethiopia troops advance.

The Afars, who hardly feel allegiance to the Tigrigna-speakers dominated Asmara regime, fared no better. The Afars who inhabit in the area stretching from Massawa to Assab ports, have always been considered as a “weak link” of the Asmaran elites hope of grandiosity.

The Commission, which reviewed hundreds of testimonies and employed a conservative standard of proof concluded that:

“the Kunama and Afar ethnic groups have been specifically targeted by the Government by being subjected to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings”.

Here are excerpts from the 484 pages report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, released yesterday:


The poisoning of Kunamas in 2007

The history of the escalation of the tense relations between the Kunama and the Eritrean authorities is often traced from the period when the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out in 1998. During this time, the Kunama were already portrayed as spies and collaborators of the Ethiopian (Derg) regime. This image was reinforced when the Kunamas, unlike other ethnic groups, did not flee their villages during the 1998 Ethiopian occupation of the Eritrean territory. This conduct of the Kunamas did not only buttress the Government’s theory that they were spies and collaborators of the Ethiopian Government but also added an indictment that they failed to resist Ethiopian occupation.

In 2000, the Eritrean Government’s post-war retaliation campaign against the Kunama for their alleged collaboration with the Ethiopian Government led to deaths and imprisonment, which also forced several thousands to flee to Ethiopia. In addition to the accusation of being collaborators and spies for the Ethiopian Government, the Kunamas have also been accused of financing and providing support to the Kunama resistance movement called the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK). Reports abound that now over 300 Kunamas have been detained in various prisons, tortured and killed during interrogation.

The Commission obtained information that in April 2007, 28 members of the Kunama ethnic group were killed in Mai Duma prison and buried in a mass grave. Twenty-six people were poisoned and two died during interrogation after being subjected to torture and other punishments. A former military intelligence officer explained that the prisoners were made to dig holes allegedly meant for toilets. Then, Major [x] brought 20 litres of poison which was administered on the 26 Kunamas. They were later buried together in the holes that had dug.

A former military intelligence officer also told the Commission that:

“The Government wanted to eliminate Kunamas. In one month, about 350 Kunamas were arrested for no reason. I witnessed it from January 2007 until September 2007. It was very hard for interrogation. We had no questions to ask, there was no reason for them to be in prison. They were put in prison for no reason, they were sent to Mendefera prison without any court judgment. We were only mentioning their names on the paper and then they would stay in prison for 20 years. The plan of the Government was to eliminate Kunamas.”

To date, the number of Kunamas who have been executed by the national security agents for their alleged collaboration with the Ethiopian Government and the DMLEK remains unknown.

Map - Afar region in Eritrea
Map – Afar region in Eritrea

The killing of members of the Afar ethnic group and reports of the existence of mass-graves

During the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Afar people on both sides of the border were caught in the middle. The Commission collected information that the Afar people have been subjected to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance by the Eritrean Government since 2000. These killings have also triggered their displacement from their lands within the country and across borders to Ethiopia and Djibouti. This has posed great difficulty to their livelihoods as they depend on their traditional lands for the sustenance as an indigenous ethnic group.

The Commission obtained information that in 2000, two cousins were killed in Dabu (close to Assab) by Eritrean soldiers. About five days later in Abihte-Koma about 18 Afar civilians were reportedly killed by militaries. Information supplied to the Commission indicates that on one morning, the militaries opened fire on families killing 16 Afar men. This massacre was followed by the looting of personal property including livestock. The information also states that the dead bodies remained unburied for about three days until other Afar people from neighbouring villages later came to bury them in mass graves.

A widow of one of the 16 people who were killed in this incident told the Commission that:

On Sunday morning many soldiers came at about 7 a.m. We did not know we were surrounded. We were loading our camels, making tea and milking our livestock. The soldiers came closer, and without saying anything to us they started shooting. My little daughter of two years old … my older children and my husband were next to me. My husband was shot. We all escaped and the camels fled when they started shooting. We do not know what happened to us, because it happened very quickly. In this incident 16 people died. My husband died immediately, one was wounded and managed to escape. Those wounded were shot at again and again. They were targeting the men while the children and the women were escaping. 16 men were killed and two women escaped but one woman who was pregnant (first pregnancy) died in the course of the flight.

Similar incidents have also been reported. The Commission heard about the rape and killing of four Afar women in the years 2000, 2013 and 2014.

A witness of the rapes and killings told the Commission:

The soldiers raped the women and the girls. And if they refused, they killed them. A lot of women were killed that way. During the last war with Ethiopia, this has increased. They find the women guarding goats or fetching water and food. That is when they rape them. I can tell you about four women who were raped. One was 15 years old; they gorged her eyes out and left her on the street. Another one was sexually violated. They placed big stones on her.”

Based on the testimonies, the Commission was informed that 18 people were killed in the above incidents. The Commission has not only received information of extrajudicial killings but also specific reports on the existence of mass graves in Abihte-Koma, Hayli-Iddi and Harsile. The Commission also obtained information of reports that hundreds of Afar have disappeared and are feared dead as well as reports of the existence of mass graves in other parts of the Afar region.


Daniel Berhane