Real Life Stories: Three Young People Fleeing War-Torn Tigray.

On the 4th of November 2020, a deadly civil war broke out between Ethiopia’s Federal Government and the northern region of Tigray. Over 60,000 Ethiopians have fled to neighbouring Sudan. The war is not easy to explain, nonetheless, I will do my best to highlight the most important aspects to provide a basic understanding.

What is the war about?

In simpler terms, the PM wants a centralised government that holds all power. The TPLF wants to have a say in governing its own affairs alongside the central government. For centuries, Tigrayans have tirelessly fought for the fundamental right to self-rule and self-determination.

Abiy Ahmed – The Prime Minister of Ethiopia

In 2019 Abiy Ahmed was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable work to bring about peace and normalise relations with neighbouring country, Eritrea. Despite the mainstream media coverage, most have failed to dive deeper into the history of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Local and international voices have continuously criticised Ahmed’s domestic record. Was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded as a cover up to something much darker? Was it a collaboration between Isaias Afwerki (PM of Eritrea) and Abiy Ahmed to target Tigray?

Eritrea and Ethiopia

A war between these two countries mainly over the control of the bordering town of Badme broke out between 1998 and 2000 . As many as 100,000 people were killed in this war and up to one million people were driven into exile or internal displacement.

Eritrea has long-established resentment towards the TPLF. Abiy Ahmed is aiming to dismantle the TPLF whilst the people of Tigray still recognise the TPLF as their legitimate government. Since the Nobel Peace prize, the Eritrean-Ethiopian border has not been demarcated and there is no peace between the groups who created the border conflict. Ironically, a war is now waging in Tigray. With Tigray now isolated, and political opportunism at the forefront, full-fledged authoritarianism is not a foreign concept anymore.

Eritrea’s foreign minister is denying involvement in the war. However, there is strong speculation by local administrations in Tigray and Ethiopia, as well as many international governments including the USA backing the accusations that Eritrea is involved.

Real Life Experiences

It is one thing to read articles explaining the politics behind the tension, it is another to be on the ground in Tigray when this nightmare began.

As contact with Tigray is limited, I will be sharing experiences from two Australian Ethiopians and one British Ethiopian who escaped the war on a UN Convoy.

For privacy reasons, the three young people who have shared their experiences will be referred to as the following:

HB: Ethiopian Female living in Australia

AH: Ethiopian Male living in Australia

RK: Ethiopian Female living in the UK

WARNING: the following stories include distressing, disturbing and violent content. Reader discretion advised.

Question 1: How did you cope with making the decision to escape Tigray and leave your family behind?

HB:

It was one of the hardest and most difficult decisions I have genuinely ever had to make in my life. On the 20th of November when I had to leave, I only had a few hours to get my things and say goodbye to the neighbours on my street and my family. Leading up to it, my auntie was asking me if there was a way I could get out, why do you need to stay here and suffer with us?

“I had already accepted the fact that I was never going to leave. I ultimately accepted death”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

When I was told I could leave on a UN convoy within a few hours, I was shocked. For so many days, I had already accepted the fact that I was never going to leave. I ultimately accepted death. I never thought I would see my family or friends again. In those moments, I was going back and forth on what I should do. I know it sounds bizarre – I was in a war zone why would I not leave? However, I kept thinking, why should I get special treatment because I have a foreign passport? Why does this give me a privilege to get a ticket out of here? I cried so much that afternoon with my family. It was my auntie and my family that kept saying “you have to go, you have to fight for us, what is the point if you stay here and die with us?“. I quickly decided to leave. I decided that if I leave, I could scream and shout and put in work to bring an end to what was happening in Tigray. By staying in Tigray, there was nothing I could do to help my people.

My efforts are now helping.

There is not one day that goes by that I don’t question if I should have stayed and if I made the right decision. 

AH:

I love Tigray. I was there before the war. I have seen how beautiful the place is, especially Mekelle. For me, leaving my wife and my family behind was very difficult. I left Tigray earlier, I was in Addis Ababa when the war started. I had the opportunity to go back in a day after Abiy Ahmed declared on national television that the war had supposedly ended. I was there for three days. I did not want those days to end. I had the opportunity to see if my family and wife were ok. I did not know what was going to happen to them after that, I did not know if they were going to be safe.

“I had the opportunity to see if my family and wife were ok. I did not know what was going to happen to them after that, I did not know if they were going to be safe.”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

The day before I left, their phone lines started working again. I was very stressed before that because I did not know how I would contact them once I left. I had to catch a flight that was organised by the Australian Government to get out of a war zone and go back home. I had three and a half days with my family before I had to take my flight. I had no choice. If I did have a choice, I would have wanted to stay there with them.

RK:

I was in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. I had no desire or plans to leave. My family knew this, I was very honest with the fact that I wanted to stay.

I thought about volunteering at Ayder Referral Hospital which is a trauma hospital. I am not a nurse or a doctor, but I knew the work there would be piling up with administrative tasks. That was my aim to help my homeland. Who sits idle during armed conflict? Mekelle, my homeland, was being decimated and I had no plan on leaving.

It was my family members and one uncle in particular that kept pressuring me to go. At one point the rest of my family accepted that I did not want to leave. One of my uncles came home and said he did not accept it. He finally said “we will go to the UN grounds and if a UN bus does not come, I will let you stay and I will not pressure you anymore”. Of course, that was the day a UN bus came. I had to leave.

“Who sits idle during armed conflict? Mekelle, my homeland, was being decimated and I had no plan on leaving.”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

This is not a decision I took lightly. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of leaving my family behind, of having an opportunity that others didn’t. I felt inherently uncomfortable and undeserving of this. Why should a select few get a chance to leave a conflict zone? Whichever angle you look at it from, it is a guilt-ridden decision to make on its own regardless of how you may feel or what your relationship is with your home.

Death is no longer this abstract concept anymore, if you see bombs drop out of a plane, it could be you, and so what if it is you, that does not change anything. Running away from death seemed cowardice and was something I did not want to do. It is something I am deeply regretful of now. Whatever came my way, I think would have been better than this. I would still choose Tigray…even now. 

Question 2: Have you had any contact with your family in Tigray since leaving?

HB:

Map of regions in Tigray for reference

Yes I have. There was a communication blackout in Mekelle – but I eventually reached my aunties and cousins that I was living with. Recently, I was also able to contact family in Adwa. I don’t know if it is worse being able to speak to them, or be in the dark. The things I hear are so heartbreaking. With the humanitarian crisis and what is going on – the food prices have increased. They don’t have much access to money, medicine etc – it is very scarce. Every single day that goes by, Eritrean troops and Ethiopian troops are still there.

They don’t go to bed peacefully because they don’t know if a bomb will drop over their heads while they sleep. When I call them every day, something new comes up – a family members passing, someone being tortured or someone being tied up with a gun to their mouth. The phone lines are being recorded as well so, they are limited to what they can see. They say “dehina” which in English means I am fine, I am ok. Their definition of “ok” means – I was tied up, beaten or robbed. My conversations with my family are limited. Currently they are still experiencing the same issues – no food, no money, hardly any water and very limited assistance.

AH:

Yes, I do speak to them. I speak to my wife regularly. At the moment I do believe that they are listening in on whatever is being said over the phone. Some days I have to call 30-40 times before I can get through. I am told that my phone has been restricted and that I cannot make calls to my wife. Some days I have to use my friends phones.

“They are prisoners in their own city”

I miss my wife; I want to hear her voice and make sure she is ok. It is weird because when I call, a voice says you cannot make this call. It takes me maybe an hour to get onto my wife and then I can only speak for 10 minutes. I have to say everything I want quickly, because it suddenly cuts out and I have to try again for another 40 minutes. Sometimes, I cannot get through for days. I am thinking of changing my number. I think the more you call your family members in Mekelle and talk politics, they seem to restrict your phone. I send money whenever I can, they are surviving with that.

My wife tells me it is quite difficult, the city can get shutdown for 3-4 days at a time. There are so many people that have no family overseas and cannot get any help. I work and I try to send my family as much as I can so they can maintain some sort of normality. It is quite difficult; they are locked in the house. They are prisoners in their own city. I can tell that she is mentally struggling. I try my best to comfort her and say it will be over soon. I am left anxious every time I make these phone calls because I don’t know what will come next.

RK:

Yes I am incredibly lucky. My family are based in Mekelle. I have spoken to them countless times, getting in contact with them is not an issue. Obviously, I don’t ask them questions. I steer away from conversations that are politically charged or in any way could incriminate them. It is a very difficult time and I don’t want to put them in anymore danger than they are already in. I am one of the lucky ones in which I get to speak to my family whenever. 

Question 3: What did you witness on the ground in Tigray?

HB:

The first few days after war was waged, I saw movement of soldiers. A camp was built next to my house. When I was there, we had a communication blackout. No access to phone lines. Same things with banks, they were closed and we couldn’t take money out. There was no electricity. We used candles when we had them, other nights we would be in complete darkness.

We had a brick phone, and would listen at night to the news with the only information we were getting. As days went by, shops were missing items from their shelves. Whatever was left behind, prices dramatically lifted. No one could have bought them. When it came to food, we only ate once a day at lunchtime. We ate injera (flat bread) and shiro (a powder). We would normally mix shiro with water and vegetables to make a stew. However, with the situation we were in, we didn’t have tomatoes or onions. So, we just had shiro and boiling water. There was no electricity, we didn’t have coal – eventually, the mums and aunties couldn’t make any more injera.

As a community, we all had to make sure our neighbours were eating. Neighbours would be sharing food to survive. Everyone was struggling. There were issues with fresh water, the first few days after war was declared, tap water was turned off immediately.  The houses in the city that were double story had water tanks at the top of the building. Luckily, we had a water tank. This only lasted us a few days as we shared with our neighbours who didn’t have access to a water tank.

Whilst I was in Tigray, I was taking care of my cousin who has stage four brain cancer. My cousin was in the largest public hospital in Tigray. Within the first week, I had gone back to the hospital to go see him – I couldn’t get in. High level security were surrounding the hospital. I waited and after four days I was finally allowed in.

“The nurses and doctors were reusing gloves, they were running out of equipment.”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

I was blown away by what I saw. There were so many wounded soldiers. I knew we were in the middle of a war zone, but to see soldiers with gun shots and injuries before my eyes was unbelievable. The nurses and doctors were reusing gloves, they were running out of equipment.

That Saturday when I met with the doctors, they told me I had to take him home because they couldn’t do the surgery he needed. There was a shortage of blood and due to the war, no surgeries were taking place. They tried to write me prescriptions for medication and I set off to the pharmacy. When I arrived, there was barely any medication left. I went around to different pharmacies to find what my cousin needed. It was the same everywhere – all pharmacies were running low on stock.

This is what I witnessed in the first three weeks of the war. It has been over 100 days now. Imagine how bad it has become.

AH:

I left Addis Ababa to go back to Mekelle. I was in Addis Ababa for 6 to 8 weeks while the war was happening. I left the day before the Prime Minister declared on national television that the war was supposedly over. My friend and I decided to go back to Mekelle so he could see his mother and I could see my wife. We found a driver however, there was no normal transport. It was too dangerous; they had not opened the roads yet. With a bit of money, we managed to find someone who would take the risk with us. There were other people like us willing to take this journey, a total of twenty-two people. We paid three times what was required.

We finally made the journey. We had to leave at 9pm when everyone was off the roads, including the police. Once the roads were clear, we took off. We went from Addis Ababa to Woldia, from Woldia to I think Dessie, from Dessie to Alamata. From Addis Ababa all the way to Alamata, we got checked and stopped forty times. They made it very clear that they were looking for Junta, the kids of the TPLF and anyone else that has any sort of connection to the TPLF. It was quite scary. They pulled us over, and searched everything. A kilometre later the same would happen. When we reached Alamata, three hours away from Mekelle, I started to witness the effects of the war.

“The bodies of TPLF soldiers were being disposed of like animals.”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

I started to see decomposed bodies of dead TPLF soldiers. I could tell from the uniforms. I could smell it. I work as a nurse, and I know what a dead body smells like. We could see burnt out cars, tanks, buildings. We could see buildings that had been bombed. We could tell people had abandoned these areas. We then started to see gravesites which were clearly for Ethiopian soldiers because they had small Ethiopian flags on the burial grounds.

The bodies of TPLF soldiers were being disposed of like animals. As they buried their own soldiers, they left the TPLF soldiers out in the open to clearly make a statement. As I was getting closer to Mekelle, we were told this would be the last checkpoint before entering. I saw a man about twenty-five years old, freshly executed, his hair tied back, and he was hit in the head. They left him in the middle of the road. We had to drive around the body.

They stopped us and asked where we were going. I said I am from Australia and want to go see my wife and give them food. As we entered Mekelle, people were surprised to see us coming in. People were pointing at our car because we had food on top of it. I was notified that I had to be home by 6.30pm and if I was not home by then, I would be shot and killed. I got to Mekelle at 6pm. I was about 15-20 minutes from where my wife was. I had to hurry.

I quickly found a driver, and my wife was very surprised to see me. My father-in-law asked if I wanted to see the city and pray. We went to the church and one thing I noticed was that the whole city was closed. It was dark and eerie. It was not the city I left behind months ago. He took me to the church and I saw this woman with her son who was crying hysterically. My father-in-law figured out was wrong – we gave the mother some money to get food for her son. She broke down in tears and said that they had not eaten for two days.

There was no food. People were starving. If anyone could afford to get some food, they would share it with their family and friends. The next day, my wife asked if I wanted to go to the city to visit a family. This family lived next to a church, and they lost their child who was outside playing when a bomb was dropped. A shrapnel fell off and killed this child who was 10 years old. The family were mourning him. I gave my condolences. I couldn’t wrap my head around this. A child was innocently playing outside and lost his life.

When the drones came, people left their houses and ran under buildings that had already been destroyed to hide. This is how they were surviving. I watched a plane hover over me, I was so scared. I was so close to death. I cannot believe I came from Australia and was looking at this jet above me that could kill me at any time. I was lucky, and the plane left my sight.

The city was destroyed. You cannot stand anywhere without being told to move on after a few minutes. I learnt that Abiy Ahmed let out all the prisoners at a local prison. They burnt the prison, the courthouse and the papers so they would not be caught again. My wife informed me that prisoners were roaming the city free. They were killing and raping people.

“The city was not safe, we were not safe, how would we continue as normal?”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

I came to learn that the Ethiopian troops used the back of a car in Mekelle to provide announcements to civilians. I eventually saw a sign on the back of a car – “in two days you have to go back to normal. Open the shops and work. If you do not, we will deal with you.” That night, Abiy Ahmed made an announcement that the war was still going on. The city was not safe, we were not safe, how would we continue as normal? It was obvious that he wanted to show the international world the opposite of what was our reality.

Overall, I mostly witnessed starvation. I saw a UN truck in the city unloading food into this big factory. I don’t think the people were receiving any of it. When I talk to my wife on the phone, no food has been given to civilians. I assume the food that I saw was given to the soldiers.

If you lived in Tigray, you could not leave. I had to sneak in – even with an Australian passport it was hard. In the end, I had to pay several soldiers to get out. 

RK:

I witnessed four airstrikes. Four planes that dropped bombs. I think there were two nights of missiles, and maybe one night of shooting. It is a bit of a blur, but I remember the airstrikes, because there were 4 planes I witnessed.

There was a plane that dropped leaflets in certain parts of Mekelle. The leaflets outlined that the residents of Mekelle should surrender themselves and surrender our government officials in a bid to save themselves.

“We were not able to leave. Where could we go?”

Photo source: photo taken by HB

Food shortages were happening in the first week. In Ethiopia, we eat injera and the grain used for injera is called teff. Similarly, there is a spice we use, berbere, which is heavily used in our food that goes with the flatbread. These things were finished and unavailable to find in the first week of the war in Mekelle. It is a densely populated city, with about half a million residents. It is the capital of the region, if this was happening in the capital in the first week of the war, it was shocking to think what was happening in smaller towns or villages.

Pharmacies had run out of basic pain medication about a week in. My cousin works at a dentist office and one of the dentists worked at Ayder Referral Hospital. He said that they were washing and reusing gloves within two weeks of the war. Things were pretty dire. Petrol had run out. Not many people had the luxury of a car, most people rely heavily on the larger taxis and a bajaj (basically a tuk-tuk). There was no transport in the city. You could not move from one place to another in Mekelle.

For people in densely populated cities during warfare, a common thing to do is escape to smaller villages for safety. The understanding is that they wouldn’t be bombed as much. However, this was contrary to what we were seeing on TV. People were stuck in big cities like Mekelle and Adwa. There was no way to escape. When Abiy Ahmed would appear on TV he advised those in bigger cities like Mekelle, Adwa, Adigrat not to go out. Specifically, not to gather in large groups. He was warning us of the imminent danger we were in because these cities would be major targets. The paradox is that we weren’t able to leave, where could we go?

What can I do to help?

I have listed some resources below. These links were all suggested by HB, RK and AH.

Visit: https://omnatigray.org/ (be sure to follow them on Instagram for helpful information and tools)

Omna Tigray’s Vision: Our vision is to fight injustice, advocate for peace and economic development, and amplify the voices of the people in Tigray, via our sustainable, long-lasting platform.  

Omna Tigray lists current donation opportunities: https://omnatigray.org/donations/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tigrayyouthnetwork/ – a network for young people who are from Tigray to come together and network. Even if you are not from Tigray, there are heaps of informative posts that can further help your understanding.

Tip: If you do further research, ensure to read a wide range of articles. There is a lot of misinformation out there. There is always more to a story. Here are some good articles to start with that were shared with me by people from Tigray:

Non bias article: Five reasons why Ethiopia ended up at war https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/01/five-reasons-why-ethiopia-ended-up-at-war/

Article: The war on Tigray: A multi-pronged assault driven by genocidal undercurrents https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/18/the-war-on-tigray-a-multi-pronged-assault-driven-by-genocidal-undercurrents/

Opinion piece: How Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia-first nationalism led to civil war https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/11/25/how-abiy-ahmeds-ethiopia-first-nationalism-led-to-civil-war/

Video: Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: What does it mean for the east Africa region? https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-55108079

More real-life accounts: Last flight from Tigray – two young women’s escape from the war https://eritreahub.org/last-flight-from-tigray-two-young-womens-escape-from-the-war

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