Amid the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, witnesses are now sharing harrowing stories about mass killings in the holy city of Axum, which is believed to be the home of the church that holds the ancient Ark of the Covenant, HuffPost reported.

One of the witnesses, a deacon from the historical Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, said about 800 people were killed in one weekend on the holy grounds and around the city. According to the anonymous church leader, soldiers invaded the church, dragged out worshippers and shot those who fled.

“I escaped by chance with a priest,” the deacon said. “As we entered the street, we could hear gunfire all over.”

As Blavity previously reported, the conflict erupted in November when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls the country’s northern region. In his initial statement three months ago, Abiy said the TPLF attacked a military base with plans of starting a rebellion.

While internet and phone access in the region were cut off for an extended period of time during the war between the two parties, more witnesses have been coming forward with their stories since the restrictions have been lifted.  

Residents of Tigray have blamed the prime minister for carrying out attacks against civilians, an accusation which he denies. Witnesses also point to the neighboring country, Eritrea, which is accused of aiding Ethiopia’s federal government in the ongoing conflict.

The deacon at the Church of St. Mary of Zion said he helped with burials in mass graves after soldiers killed scores of residents in late November. But some bodies were eaten by hyenas before they had a chance to be buried, the church leader added. 

“If we go to the rural areas, the situation is much worse,” he said.

Another witness, who also remained anonymous, said soldiers killed a man at his home near the Zion church.

“How can I tell you? So many dead,” the man said. 

Others said soldiers mocked them when they tried to bury bodies, saying “no one mourned our fighters, so why should we let you mourn?“

Wolbert Smidt, a historian who specializes in the region, said targeting the home of the Ark of the Covenant, a scared item which was built to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, is an attack on the identity of all Orthodox Tigrayans and all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

“Axum itself is regarded as a church in the local tradition, ‘Axum Zion,’“ Smidt said. 

The deacon at St. Mary of Zion said Eritrean soldiers killed children as young as 12 years old, as part of the revenge they’re seeking for the two-decade border war between Ethiopia and their own country.

A 39-year-old witness, who identified himself as Mhretab, said Ethiopian federal police didn’t do anything to stop the Eritrean soldiers.

“I said to them, ’Listen, you’re Ethiopian, they’re destroying Ethiopian cities. How is this possible?‴ Mhretab said, adding that he escaped to the United States a week ago. 

According to AlJazeera, thousands in Tigray are also believed to be starving while the region has been cut off from humanitarian assistance. 

“Eighty percent of the Tigray is unreachable at this particular time,” the president of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, Abera Tola, said, adding that some starvation deaths have already been reported and the numbers could still increase. “The number today could be one, two or three, but you know, after a month it means thousands. After two months it will be tens of thousands.”

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