HAWZEN, TIGRAY REGION, ETHIOPIA - Shops remained shuttered, some government workers hadn't been paid and the town's main hospital was laid to waste. But the Tigrayan fighters still claimed victory, swaggering through the streets of Hawzen with their guns.
It wouldn't last long.
Hawzen, a rural town in the ethnic Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, is a microcosm of the challenge facing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — and a warning that the war here is unlikely to end soon.
When The Associated Press arrived in May, Tigrayan fighters had recently retaken Hawzen from Ethiopian government troops, laying claim again to land that has switched control multiple times since the war began in November.
To the Ethiopian government, the fighters are terrorists who have defied the authority of Abiy in the federal capital, Addis Ababa.
But almost everyone the AP spoke with in Hawzen supported them and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, the party of the region's ousted and now-fugitive leaders.
"The people elected us, so we are not terrorists," said fighter Nurhussein Abdulmajid, standing confidently in the middle of the road with a gun on his shoulder, as a crowd listened. "He [Abiy] is the one who is the terrorist. A terrorist is someone who massacres people."
The battle for Hawzen is part of a larger war in Tigray between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan rebels that has led to massacres, gang rapes and the flight of more than 2 million of the region's 6 million people.
While the government now holds many urban centers, fierce fighting continues in remote rural towns like Hawzen.
The AP was able to get through an Ethiopian military roadblock and cross the front line to get a rare look at a town held by Tigrayan fighters, who carried light weapons they said they had seized from opponents.
If anything, recent atrocities appear to have increased support for the TPLF.
One 19-year-old said she had been raped by an Ethiopian soldier and was now six months pregnant. After trying and failing to terminate the pregnancy herself, she is now desperately hoping someone in a local hospital will help her.
As soon as possible, she said, she wants to join the rebels.
"I want to go," she said, as she broke down in tears. "You will die if you stay home, and you will die if you go out there. … I would rather die alongside the fighters."
The AP does not name victims of sexual abuse.
The TPLF was on top of a coalition that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades. That changed in 2018, when Abiy rose to power as a reformist. He alienated the TPLF with efforts to make peace with its archenemy, Eritrea, and rid the federal government of corruption.
Tigray's leaders fought back. In 2020, after a national vote was suspended because of the pandemic, the TPLF went ahead with its own elections in the region.
Asserting that Tigrayan fighters had attacked a military base, Abiy sent federal troops into Tigray in November. Government forces are now allied with militias from the rival Amhara ethnic group as well as soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, who are blamed for many atrocities.
Abiy acknowledged recently that the highly mobile Tigrayan guerrillas were stretching the Ethiopian military, springing ambushes from the rugged highlands where they hide.
In April, the International Crisis Group predicted that entrenched resistance on both sides meant "the conflict could evolve into a protracted war."
Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Abiy's office, told reporters on Thursday that "the suffering of Ethiopians who are victims of a situation that is not of their choosing is a source of pain." Efforts to alleviate the suffering of Tigrayans "have been marred by various challenges given the complexity of any armed engagement," she said.
Residents of Hawzen said the town of a few thousand people had seen fighting four times since November. Many spoke disapprovingly of Abiy, saying they no longer trusted him to keep them safe.
As the two sides fight, civilians are suffering heavily. More and more children are caught up in shelling in Hawzen and other nearby areas, with at least 32 admitted to the regional Ayder Hospital in Mekelle for blast injuries from December to April. Thirteen left with limbs amputated, according to official records.
Some of those victims might have had limbs saved if they had received first aid at the nearest health centers. But such facilities are shells right now — systematically looted, vandalized and turned upside down.
Eritrean soldiers set up camp in the Hawzen Primary Hospital, which once boasted of equipment ranging from X-ray machines to baby incubators. Now it is trashed and looted, and heaps of stones litter the compound where fighters had set up defensive positions.
Many Tigrayans from contested towns like Hawzen end up in camps for the internally displaced in Mekelle, mostly women and children.
And so the fight continues.