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Daring AP team crosses front lines to report on Ethiopia’s Tigray rebels and war’s civilian victims

A fighter loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front walks along a street in the town of Hawzen, then under the control of the TRLF, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 7, 2021. While the government now holds many urban centers, fierce fighting continues in remote rural towns like Hawzen. Hours after this photo was made, government troops shelled the town; by the following day the town was back in government hands. (AP Photo / Ben Curtis)

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Since the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia broke out seven months ago, news coverage has necessarily focused on those who fled the region. And AP journalists have delivered that coverage since November. But few journalists could reach areas under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party of Tigray’s ousted and now-fugitive leaders. Access was refused by the Ethiopian military.

Until now.

AP’s Kampala, Uganda, correspondent Rodney Muhumuza and the Nairobi, Kenya-based team of senior producer Khaled Kazziha, photographer Ben Curtis and freelance cameraman Desmond Tiro made it through. While getting to Tigray was a feat in itself, the team spent days negotiating with someone willing to take the team to meet with fighters loyal to the TPLF in Hawzen, a town which had changed hands multiple times during the conflict. Access required passing through numerous dangerous military checkpoints.

Knowing the dangers of staying too long, the team limited themselves to less than an hour in the town. But working quickly they managed to obtain exclusive reporting on the fighters then occupying it, as well as a hospital destroyed and looted by Eritrean forces. Hours after the team left, government troops shelled the town. By the next day, it was back under government control.

In the regional capital Mekele,the AP team interviewed people who had fled Hawzen, including children who had had their limbs amputated. The multiformat story used the town as a microcosm to explain the challenges facing Ethiopian authorities as they battle fighters whose support among Tigray’s civilians appears to be growing — fueled by widespread reports of atrocities.

Getting into Tigray had required persistence — a relentless pursuit of access through days spent convincing Ethiopian officials that whatever stories AP would tell would be balanced,deep and factual. AP explained it had no favoritism. But getting to Hawzen was even more fraught,as roads that were said to be open turned out to be blocked,and officials,even international NGO workers,were reluctant to talk. Keeping focused,looking for openings and having the skill to capitalize on them was critical throughout. Teamwork,efficiency,smart timing and luck made it possible, as well as guidance from AP’s global security team.

The exclusive work in all formats,produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,was used widely,including prominent use by key clients such as Al Jazeera,while the consumer video edit had more than 35,000 hits on YouTube in just three days.

For smart,careful and courageous reporting to become the first outside journalists since the conflict started to interview fighters loyal to the TPLF,Muhumuza,Curtis, Kazziha and Tiro earn AP’s Best of the Week award.

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