‘I didn’t know if my mother was alive’: joy and grief as Tigray reconnects to the world | Global development


When Lemlem read online that phone lines had been restored to parts of Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region last month, she spent the entire night trying to call her elderly mother, who lives in the Tigrayan town of Adwa.

“I tried maybe 20 or 30 times but the call wouldn’t go through,” Lemlem said from her home in Maryland in the US. “When I finally heard her voice, it was so emotional. We were crying together and I was just so happy. For two years, I didn’t know if she was alive.”

Tigray’s 6 million people were plunged into darkness when war broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020, their phone lines, internet, roads and air links severed.

The fighting that followed killed 500,000 people from all causes, including starvation and disease, according to the UN, whose human rights investigators have unearthed evidence of widespread killings and rape. Both UN and US officials say restrictions on aid have pushed hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray to the edge of famine. All sides stand accused of abuses.

Now Tigrayans are reconnecting after Ethiopia’s government restored phone and mobile internet services to parts of the region in late December, implementing a key part of a ceasefire deal signed on 2 November.

But for many, the joy of hearing from loved ones again has been mixed with tragedy. Lemlem said her mother told her that two of her neighbours had died during the conflict. One of them was a diabetic who died because she could not find medication.

“It is very hard to explain the trauma, the pain, of the last two years,” says Lemlem. “It has been devastating. I was so worried about my family.”

Stories like Lemlem’s are far from unique. Kesate Gebrewah, a doctor living as a displaced person in Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, says he recently discovered that one of his closest friends had been killed by Eritrean troops, who fought alongside Ethiopia’s federal military against the Tigray rebels.

“When the phones came back, I was trying to contact him and was asking my friends if they have seen him in the last year,” says Gebrewah. “It was terrible for me, but there is nothing you can do. You accept the news. I was one of the lucky ones. Many people I know have lost four or even five members of their family. When you wake up in the morning in Mekelle, you see grief everywhere. It is a normal thing.”

Yet Gebrewah describes the feeling of being reconnected with the outside world as “euphoric”. “Before the war, we were communicating with friends in Europe, the United States, all over the world,” he says. “When the first lines were disconnected it was a hell for me. It felt like living on a desert island.”

Felicia Anthonio from the internet rights group Access Now describes the severing of Tigray’s communications as “the longest shutdown on record to have happened during an active conflict” and says the blackout has fuelled human rights abuses committed by troops confident that reports of their crimes will not reach the outside world.

Children demonstrate in favour of the peace deal in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, in November, shortly before it was signed. Photograph: AP

“Not being able to speak to your family during an active conflict can be scary,” says Anthonio. “Children in the diaspora or outside the region could not contact their parents or send remittances as a result of the blackout, [while] young people who started small businesses and vibrant initiatives… … were forced to abandon their efforts. Education, healthcare and other essential systems were also hit hard.”

Since the ceasefire, things are slowly returning to normal. Electricity has been restored to several towns and banks are preparing to reopen their Tigray branches, something that would ease the humanitarian crisis by allowing people to access savings. On 28 December, the state-carrier Ethiopian Airlines restarted flights to Tigray, meaning some families could reunite for Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas last weekend.

Dere, a lecturer at Mekelle University, who did not want his full name to be used, was among the first passengers to fly to the region. He was on a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, when the TPLF recaptured most of Tigray from the federal military in June 2021 and was left stranded.

Dere says he shed “tears of joy” after landing in Mekelle, where he was met by friends. “There were celebrations at the airport, everyone was very happy,” he says. “Many people – mothers, fathers, children – were there waiting for their loved ones.”

He spent a few days in Mekelle, before reuniting with his parents and siblings in his northern home town of Adigrat. “Seeing them again was very emotional,” says Dere. “We were all crying when I greeted them on the doorstep. My sister was very surprised to see me.”

On Tuesday Tigrayan athletes, who won several medals for Ethiopia at the World Athletics championships in Oregon last year, flew to Mekelle. Several had highlighted the emotional impact of the blackout by speaking of their anguish at not being able to celebrate their victories with their families. They were greeted at Alula Aba Nega airport by their relatives and Tigray officials. At a press conference in Mekelle, Derartu Tulu, head of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, welcomed the ceasefire “even though it’s a bit late”.

The deal has halted the bloodshed in northern Ethiopia, but there are still major obstacles to a lasting peace. The Tigray rebels were due to disarm within 30 days of the accord but are yet to fully disband their fighting force. Meanwhile, Eritrean troops still occupy parts of the region, despite calls for their withdrawal.

Dere hopes these hurdles will be overcome. “It is difficult to explain what it has been like,” he says. “You are in the same country, but for a long time you cannot go to your home town, you cannot talk to your family, you cannot send money or help relatives who are sick. So after all these things, when you are meeting your family, it is a very good moment.”



Fred Harter – Ethiopia | The Guardian

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée.

CAPTCHA