Burned-out military vehicles, ammunition boxes and bodies of scores of federal troops were scattered along the dirt road through the Ethiopian village Sheweate Hugum three weeks after fighting subsided.
Beside them lay the leftovers of lives cut short: family photographs, school diplomas and Ethiopian flags.
What happened here in mid-June was one battle in an eight month war between Ethiopia’s military and rebellious forces in the northern region Tigray.
In a conflict largely waged far from the world’s cameras, it shed light on a key turning point.
Reuters spoke to two captured Ethiopian army officers, two leaders of the rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and three residents of Sheweate Hugum for a picture of what happened between June 17 and19.
Fighting broke out when federal troops advanced in the area, according to Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the TPLF. Tigrayan forces counter attacked, he said.
On the other side, Colonel Hussein Mohamed commanded 3 700 soldiers from the army’s 11th division at Sheweate Hugum. He said at least 100 government soldiers died and 900 were captured over three days of fighting in the village.
Reuters interviewed Hussein at a jail in Mekelle, where a journalist saw hundreds of captured soldiers held by the TPLF.
“There were a lot of dead people on both sides,” said Hussein.
Another Ethiopian officer in the cell, who asked not to be named, said heavy losses among government troops around Sheweate Hugum paved the way for Tigrayan forces to retake Mekelle.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts of the fighting at Sheweate Hugum. Both officers were interviewed without the presence of guards and the men said they spoke voluntarily.
Debretsion, speaking via satellite phone, declined to comment on TPLF casualties beyond saying some were killed but that they did not number in the “thousands”.
Reuters did not see TPLF fighter bodies in and around the village.
Sheweate Hugum was largely abandoned when Reuters visited on July 10. Only a few residents remained, holding shawls to their faces to keep out the stench from the bodies.
Two residents said some Tigrayan fighters were buried in local churches. The bishop of Mekelle had no information on casualties.
Tiebei Negash (60) wept as she recalled how she and some neighbours buried her husband, a resident not involved in the conflict and five Ethiopian army soldiers.
She didn’t see the fighters who shot through her front door the night of June 17, killing her husband in his sleep before setting fire to their house, adding they spoke the national Amharic language, not Tigrinya.
She expressed anger at soldiers deployed to Tigrayto support of Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy’s government, but understood they were following orders.
“I feel sorry for them because they died in this land that is not their home,” she said. “They are human beings.”
Fighting first broke out in Tigray in November when government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases across the region – an accusation the group denied.
Government declared victory three weeks later when it took control of Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting and has taken back most of the region, including th capital on June 28.
Ethiopian troops withdrew from most of Tigray in late June and declared a unilateral ceasefire on what government said were humanitarian grounds when the TPLF retook Mekelle.
TPLF leaders derided the truce saying it was intended to cover up federal army losses.
Tesfay Gebregziabher, logistics co-ordinator for around 6 000 Tigrayan fighters who fought at Sheweate Hugum, saw around 350 Ethiopian soldiers retreat to the village school during fighting.
His troops surrounded the building and killed those who didn’t surrender, he said in an interview in Mekelle. Reuters could not independently confirm his version of events.
In the two-room schoolhouse in Sheweate Hugum, Reuters saw more than two dozen bodies in Ethiopian military uniforms, including women, among upturned desks and charred books.