In interviews, recruits said they were pressured to join TDF by the suffering they witnessed – relatives who had been butchered, priests shot dead in churches, sisters and mothers sexually assaulted.
In Mekelle, meanwhile, the government’s grip had steadily weakened in recent months, government officials said. Police officers defected from the rebels, disappearing with weapons, vehicles or even prisoners released from prison.
Young doctors from the city’s Ayder hospital, which treated civilians who had been victims of Ethiopian airstrikes or gang rapes by Eritrean soldiers, have slipped on the rebels’ side.
A center treating sexual assault survivors at Ayder Hospital has received 585 patients since December, said director Mihira Redae. About 1,500 additional patients have been registered in four centers in Tigray, she added.
“It’s not just about violence against women,” she said. “It is against the Tigrayan people.”
On the outskirts of Mekelle on Tuesday, young men looted deserted Ethiopian military camps, collecting abandoned Ethiopian uniforms that they tied to the backs of trucks and rickshaws and dragged the streets.
A fire was brewing near the command headquarters, near the city airport, where piles of military documents had been burnt. A handful of surviving documents showed lists of soldiers and officers.
Across the road, near the airport runway, the body of an elderly man lay by the side of a dirt road. A bullet hole pierced his hip. Residents who found him said they did not know how he died, but several residents went missing in military custody during what they called the Ethiopian occupation.
Reporting was provided by Simon Marks in Brussels and Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi.