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Residents Dig Mass Graves to Bury Tigray War Victims

 Letay Girmay, 50, says she and other Hawzen residents buried the bodies of many civilians after battles in Hawzen, Ethiopia, on June 6, 2021. (VOA/Yan Boechat)
Letay Girmay, 50, says she and other Hawzen residents buried the bodies of many civilians after battles in Hawzen, Ethiopia, on June 6, 2021. (VOA/Yan Boechat)

On the outskirts of Hawzen, Ethiopia, rocks and dirt cover the bodies of war victims in shallow graves.

Some graves hold dozens of bodies, some only a few. About 200 people are believed to be buried in and around the town after more than seven months of war.

Locals say there are about 20 graves in all, containing bodies that were found in the streets after multiple battles, the most recent of which happened just a few weeks ago.

Photo gallery by Yan Boechat

Hawzen has changed hands about five times in fights between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. Militias and Eritrean soldiers also are among the warring parties.

As sand blows over the field outside her house on the edge of town, Letay Girmay, 50, says she helped bury bodies and hopes they can soon be moved to a churchyard.

Tigray War Victims Buried in Mass Graves
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“The bodies lay … on the ground for seven or eight days,” she said. “And there was no one to help us take them to the church, so a few of us buried them. They smelled bad, rotting and attracting maggots.”

A priest was summoned for a blessing before they covered the bodies.

War-torn town

Inside Hawzen, many buildings are in ruins, and people can be seen funneling water from trucks. Much of the local infrastructure has been destroyed.

Government forces are now in control, manning checkpoints and patrolling the market.

Most of the residents have fled to camps or to the homes of families or friends in safer towns, villages and cities. Nearly 2 million people in the Tigray region are displaced inside Ethiopia and more than 60,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan.

Those remaining in Hawzen are on edge, fearing new battles could break out again at any moment.

“There have been so many bombings,” says a woman selling tomatoes and onions in a market, still open despite the tension. She doesn’t want her name used for security reasons. “Children have died, and houses are destroyed.”

In the market, most sellers lay their wares on tarps on the ground. Vegetables, cooking oil and a little candy is available, but almost no one is buying. The usual shoppers are residents of the town. Many remaining say they only stay because they cannot afford to go anywhere else.

“There is no business at all,” says the woman. “But we sit here all day.”

At an outdoor coffee shop near the market, a 33-year-old man, who also does not want his name used for safety reasons, says he used to own a small grocery store. He sold things like coffee, pasta and sugar. His shop, like so many others, was looted and is now empty, he says. “Now, I have nothing.”

In one of the few restaurants still open, Haftom Gidey, 35, says he was once a waiter in a local hotel. Since the war began, the hotel has been closed and now it is looted and damaged.

But Haftom says poverty is the least of his worries. He also helped bury the dead after bombings and has fled his home several times.

“I’m not afraid,” he insists. “There may be things to fear, but nothing could be worse than what I have already seen.”


The Ethiopian government says it is working to help the people of Tigray recover, distributing aid and prosecuting soldiers accused of sexual violence.

But much of the region is cut off, with roads closed and internet service blocked. The World Food Program says more than 90% of the people in Tigray need emergency food aid. Most health care centers in Tigray are looted and/or damaged, and hundreds of women and girls have reported being raped by Eritrean soldiers, the Amhara regional militias and Ethiopian federal soldiers.

And while the government appears to have captured most of the region, battles continue, with war-wounded arriving at hospitals daily.

In Hawzen, locals say they see no sign of the war abating as they bury their dead themselves.

“The killing continues,” says Letay, as the wind whips up her forest-green head wrap. “Recently we buried another seven bodies near the church.”