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Ethiopia's civil war may be getting worse

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The civil war in Ethiopia is almost a year old now. Government forces there are on a new offensive. Millions of people have fled their homes, and the United Nations says parts of the country are on the verge of famine. NPR's Eyder Peralta has been traveling through Ethiopia this past week and joins us now from Addis Ababa. Eyder, thanks so much for being with us.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You were just near the front lines in the north of the country. This will be rough to hear, but tell us, please, what you saw and heard.

PERALTA: Yeah, I went to a little town called Chenna, and it's in the mountains in Amhara. And these are huge mountains. And it's not far from the front lines. And it was a town that saw some of the worst fighting in the past month. And what we saw was just more evidence of just what a cruel war this is. We walked about two or three miles, and we saw shallow graves everywhere - on the side of the road, under trees, in ravines. And some of the bodies had been dragged out by animals, so all that was left of them was bones and teeth. And the bodies we couldn't see we could smell. This whole mountain smelled of rotting flesh. And the people in this town say that the rebels stayed for five days. They say that they ate their food, that they killed their animals and that they shot anyone they suspected of being affiliated with the government.

I spoke to Mulin Dala (ph), a woman in her 30s. And she says that the rebels shot and killed her husband in front of her. And she just - she couldn't make sense of it. She kept saying that her husband was only a farmer. Let's listen.

MULIN DALA: (Through interpreter) He knows nothing. He doesn't know anything, but they killed him and they left.

PERALTA: If you could talk to the men who are leading this war, what would you tell them?

DALA: (Through interpreter) I will explain to them all the pain I'm going through.

PERALTA: So she wants them to know her pain.

SIMON: Eyder, this truly sounds like hell. What's the fighting and killing about?

PERALTA: You know, this is the question I've been asking everyone. And among the people who are suffering the most in this conflict, the people who have lost loved ones, I keep hearing that they just don't understand why this is happening. This is a war, they tell me, that is between brothers and sisters, people who look like each other, who marry each other, who share a religion and a history.

But when I talked to the political elites, I hear entrenched bitterness and resentment. This war is about taking back land and imposing their vision of what they think this country should be in the future. And the two main fighters in this conflict, the ethnic Tigrayans and the ethnic Amharas, say that this is an existential fight. The Tigrayans, who are the rebels, say that the government is trying to starve them to annihilation. The Amharas say that they've already been slaughtered when the Tigrayan-led government was in power and, if the tide turns in this war, that they will be destroyed. I think what that tells you is just how far away a peace process feels like in this country.

SIMON: And help us understand how desperate the situation for food is now.

PERALTA: It's terrible. I mean, the U.N. says that things are terrible, that malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women is at levels that the U.N. saw at the beginning of the famine in Somalia in 2011. And more than 250,000 people died during that famine. And the government of Ethiopia, the U.N. says, continues to severely limit the number of aid trucks that are allowed into the rebel-held region. So things are not getting better. And, you know, the rebel-controlled region is still on the verge of famine.

SIMON: NPR's Eyder Peralta, thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.