THE BATTLE, in the end, was mercifully short. The 500,000 inhabitants of Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, were spared a large-scale bloodbath. On November 28th Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, declared victory over Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). A military operation started a few weeks earlier was complete, he said. This came two days after he announced an assault on the city that the army had earlier warned would brook “no mercy”. Shelling of the city began at about ten that morning, according to eyewitnesses. By the evening Tigray’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, and other TPLF leaders had vanished into the mountains. Crowds in the national capital, Addis Ababa, and elsewhere broke into celebration.
But the fighting has not stopped. Only hours after Abiy’s announcement of victory, rockets were fired for the third time from Tigray into Eritrea, a country to its north that has been assisting Ethiopian forces. There have since been reports of sporadic clashes and airstrikes, as well as looting in towns including Mekelle. “We have a plan to retake our towns from the invaders,” Debretsion told The Economist by text message. The International Committee of the Red Cross says hospitals in the regional capital are flooded with injured people. Medical supplies for the wounded and body bags for the dead are running low.
The fog of Ethiopia’s month-long civil war has thickened since it was declared over. Speaking to parliament on November 30th, Abiy claimed that not a single civilian life had been lost during the march into Tigray. The UN and the more than 40,000 refugees who have fled to Sudan reckon otherwise. But an internet and telephone blackout imposed on the region since the start of the conflict means it is impossible to know the true figure. Counter-claims made in recent days by Tigray’s state broadcaster—that TPLF forces have downed a jet and recaptured the town of Axum—are also unverified. And though the federal army is certainly present in Mekelle, no footage of its troops in the city has been broadcast on national television, which suggests their control is still fragile.
Harder to dispute is the federal government’s claim that it has a firm upper hand in the conflict. In the weeks before it fired the first shots on November 4th, the TPLF believed it would easily win a conventional war against the Ethiopian army. The retreat from Mekelle has put paid to that hubris. The TPLF does not seem to have counted on the government’s use of military drones, for instance, which are thought to have been devastatingly effective in destroying much of the arsenal that the TPLF captured at the start of the war. And it seems to have misjudged its ability to fight on several fronts, including against even the small number of Eritreans thought to have attacked along the northern frontier. “The TPLF totally overestimated at least their conventional force,” reckons René Lefort, a researcher who has known some of its leaders for decades.
The question now is whether it can sustain a prolonged guerrilla war. Its leaders certainly have a wealth of experience: in 1991 they overthrew a Marxist dictatorship in Addis Ababa after 17 gruelling years in the bush. For almost three decades after that they called the shots in the federal government, which means they know its vulnerabilities better than almost any outsider. Keeping the army tied up in Tigray may be enough to weaken Abiy’s control elsewhere. His home region of Oromia, for instance, is racked by an armed insurgency of its own.
But many of these veterans of the TPLF’s bush war are now in their 60s and 70s. They also have few allies left in the region. The once porous border with Sudan, a lifeline in the 1970s and 1980s, has been largely sealed off. On November 29th Sudanese security forces seized a large cache of weapons and ammunition on route to Tigray. “What happens when they run out of bullets?” asks a UN diplomat. “How do they expect to bring fuel trucks up long, winding roads without any air cover?”
Much will depend on whether Abiy can win over ordinary Tigrayans. His government promises to rebuild towns and villages battered by war. It also says it is welcoming back refugees. But many of those who fled, the vast majority of whom are Tigrayans, say they fear reprisals if they come back. Most are from western Tigray, which is now run by police and bureaucrats from the neighbouring Amhara region, which claims this territory as its own. Amhara militiamen fought alongside the federal army in battles that reportedly involved some of the war’s worst atrocities. Ethnic militias on both sides appear to have targeted civilians, including at least 600 massacred, allegedly by a youth group of the TPLF, on November 9th. Abiy may have won an important victory. But he still has a bitterly divided country to heal.