The church of St Mary of Zion became a place of refuge for Ethiopians in the Tigray region fleeing the country’s civil war.
It came under siege last year amid clashes between government forces and rebel militia, resulting in hundreds of deaths, which have only become public knowledge now. Due to Tigray’s phone lines being cut and a ban on journalists, death toll estimates varied.
As the region begins to reconnect with the outside world, a deacon who says he witnessed the atrocity and its aftermath has given an account of what happened over the final weekend in November 2020.
He says he collected victims’ identity cards and assisted with mass burials. The deacon, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because remains in Axum, says 800 people were murdered.
“If we go to the rural areas, the situation is much worse,” he added.
Among the dead were local worshippers who had rushed to the church to defend its covenant, a wooden chest which is said to have been built to hold the Ten Commandments of Moses.
The atrocities of the Tigray conflict have largely occurred in the shadows due to its isolation from the rest of Africa and the world.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, announced the fighting as the world focused on the US election.
He accused Tigray’s regional forces, whose leaders dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades before he took office, of attacking the Ethiopian military.
Tigray’s leaders called it self-defence after months of tensions.
While the world clamours for access to Tigray to investigate suspected atrocities on all sides and deliver aid to millions of hungry people, the prime minister has rejected outside “interference.”
He declared victory in late November and said no civilians had been killed. His government denies the presence of thousands of soldiers from Eritrea, long an enemy of the Tigray leaders.
The killing continues, according to the deacon. He said he helped bury three people last week.