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Updates On The Conflict In Ethiopia's Tigray Region

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Ethiopia, months of fighting between members of rival ethnic groups have caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Ethiopia's prime minister started a military offensive in the northern part of the country last November. He accused political leaders in the north of orchestrating an attack on an Ethiopian military base. It's been very difficult to reach the northwestern part of that country. Earlier this morning, I spoke with NPR's Eyder Peralta, who managed to get to Tigray, where some of the most intensive fighting has been happening. Thank you for being here, Eyder. I want to hear what you are seeing and hearing, but we do need some context. I think that helps. The fighting first broke out in November. Explain who is doing the fighting and why.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So this was a fight between Ethiopia's new government and the old government. And there was a power struggle, but just three weeks into the conflict, the government claimed victory. And more recently, Ethiopia said that Eritrean troops that had come in at the beginning of the war would withdraw. But the fighting is still going on. This conflict is now fully a guerrilla war. It's a conflict that has become ethnic in nature. And similar things are actually happening across Ethiopia between different armed groups. And the bottom line is that this country, which has struggled for centuries to stay united - it is being torn apart by fighting along ethnic lines.

MARTIN: So you've been traveling through the region. Who have you talked to? What have you seen?

PERALTA: It's a lot of human suffering. We don't know what the death toll is, but it's very likely in the tens of thousands. I've been asking everyone I meet if they have lost someone, and almost without fail, they say, yes, my uncle, my mom, my grandma, my cousin. We visited a town called Goda. The people there told us that Eritrean troops gathered the men from the village to help them loot a factory. They loaded cement and other goods for days, and then the people there said that they were executed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The bodies are buried on a small ravine just where they were killed. And in between the bushes, there's dozens of bullets. What the family members are saying is that after they were killed, the bodies were left here for 20 days, and they had to beg the soldiers to come and let them bury their loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Eyder, that's just very hard to hear, that grief. You have reported on so many conflicts, Eyder. Is there something particular that struck you about this one?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of the hardest reporting assignments I've ever done. I've seen homes burned, businesses stripped to the bone. I mean, troops have taken drywall and light fixtures. I was at the hospital here in Mekele a few days ago when the wards - they're overflowing with people. And I could smell flesh. I saw an old lady who had been shot in the leg. I saw one boy who had survived a bombing, and he was all bandaged. And he looked at me straight in the eye like he wanted to say something, but he can't talk anymore. And then there's the rape. Yesterday, I met a 19-year-old who says she was gang raped by 5 Eritrean soldiers. And I met a 65-year-old woman who told me that she was raped by an Ethiopian soldier. And the thing she kept saying is that she was a religious woman and that maybe this was a curse from God. And I told her, look. This isn't your fault. And she just kept shaking her head. And she said that she can't sleep anymore, that she can't eat anymore. And right now, she says she's just waiting to die.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thank you very much for your reporting.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.