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A keen observer of Ethiopian society reports from the ground on the devastating state of affairs in Tigray as people attempt to rebuild their lives after the war.
It’s a terrible experience when you’re constantly informed about the consequences of war. Yet being unable to visit friends and family, in my case, waiting four years before returning to Tigray in October 2023, the effects were compounded.
Upon arrival in Mekelle, the relatives who welcomed me at the airport quickly moved on from the novelty of my presence after a small convoy of commercial lorries had entered the town through Qwiha, a big event for a population in dire need of food aid.
“Ah, the food aid is resuming, Gecho [short name of Tigray’s interim leader] has worked hard for it,” one of my relatives said.
But World Food Programme (WFP) food aid to Tigray is resuming too slowly. We observed a WFP convoy—comprising two dozen lorries and closely watched by WFP personnel—passing by in Agulae. Other than this, we saw very few WFP trucks, and the ones we saw mostly contained nothing.
The only “Ethiopian” presence I noticed while in Tigray were federal police officers at Mekelle Airport. Throughout my stay, the only Ethiopian flags I saw were the insignias on their uniforms.
The people explained that those who came to massacre and rape them came under the cover of the Ethiopian flag, so it would be a provocation if anyone were to raise the Ethiopian flag. Many believed that Ethiopia was united against them and that they no longer belonged in the country they once called home.
This is one example of what I observed that shows how drastically peoples’ attitudes, their lives, and the conditions of Tigray have changed since my last visit four years ago.
Mekelle appeared overcrowded. People displaced from Western Tigray are attempting to rent houses or settle down with their families, resulting in a sharp rise in the cost of housing.
There is an atmosphere of hopelessness and despondency for the future. The satellite TV rooms and adjacent streets have become makeshift bingo halls where idle youth gather in numbers during the daytime.
The Messebo cement factory in Mekelle is again operational, being one of the factories that was least damaged during the war. Cement is rarely purchased locally as most construction has stopped. The lorries with cement travel further into Ethiopia, even to the Amhara region, with drivers or trekkers changing on the stabilized frontline.
From my observations of their situation, it appears that war-related internal migration has provoked important shifts in Tigrayan farm labor patterns.
As evidence, on our way to the remote village where my family lives, we talked to a farmer who was harvesting crops on his mother’s land. Some years ago, he had migrated as a farm laborer to Shikhet (Aba’ala in Afar region) but was expelled and forced to return to his village in the highlands. His mother is a widow, who in previous years had daily laborers doing the farm work. Now it is done by her son.
Further, along a rivulet, we saw a teenage girl who had finished washing. We asked if she was afraid to come alone to this remote place. She answered that she knew the risk but came during busy hours while there is a continuous flow of people on the footpath, thus mitigating the risk of being sexually assaulted. And now there is again safety, she said.
Before the war, it was common to see ready-to-sell eucalypt poles along the footpaths in villages, but now we saw none. People store these poles in piles close to their plantation, drying them and eventually straightening them out using rocks. One man was cutting two trees to make poles. He said that the market price for eucalypt poles was too low, yet he intended to bring these poles to the market to see what he could get for them.
We passed a rural school. The main building looked new; the walls had been built before the war started while the iron roof had been made in recent months. The teachers were sitting and talking together despite needing to be in class. My friend told me that due to their low salary, in addition to so many other issues, they are unmotivated to do their jobs.
We saw promising farmlands that had been planted with hybrid wheat seeds donated by the Oromia government. In total, 10,000 quintals of seeds have been donated to Tigrayan farmers. The seeds were given in sacks of twenty-five kilos each to farmers who have good soil and use fertilizer. A quick calculation told us that if all the seeds were distributed, only 40,000 farmers could have sown it.
We walked back after spending two nights in the village. We came across a spring development project. It had been poorly conceived because it redirected the water from a natural spring in a hamlet to a large village down, leaving the upland people bereft of their spring. During the war, there was lawlessness, and some people of the upper area broke the pipe, so their village now again has access to water.
On the way back, we saw a group of Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) soldiers, some dressed in mock military uniforms they had purchased themselves, others in civilian dress, cutting eucalypts from a community plantation.
We made friendly contact and drank suwa, which they had carried with them because the work is heavy. The soldiers explained that they were cutting the trees because they did not get sufficient logistics from the TDF and that there was no budget for supplies. Their only option was to harvest trees to prepare firewood for cooking their food, which they had permission to do from the district administration.
We saw the town’s formal waste dumping site. All the fences around it, the poles, and the corrugated iron had been stolen in the period of lawlessness when the Ethiopian army was controlling the town. People from a neighboring village, it is said, used the opportunity to steal the poles and iron sheets.
Coming closer to the town, we saw dumping sites all along the road. Everybody dumped their waste individually, even dumping it in town, particularly in the sewerage. The municipality had not yet restarted its public services.
Due to the economic difficulties brought on by the war, Tigray’s interim administration is finding it difficult to keep doctors from fleeing the area. General practitioners, surgeons, and specialists have left Mekelle to pursue opportunities in Addis Ababa or overseas.
Along with extreme inflation and a lack of funds, the region’s civil servants are still owed two years’ worth of arrears. Along with the migration of doctors, Tigray is losing competent nurses and teachers to private hospitals and institutions in Addis Ababa.
Particularly in need is the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle, where more than half of the staff has fled and basic surgeries are impossible to perform because of insufficient medical supplies. According to the interim administration, medical equipment has been lost in 71 percent of Tigray’s health infrastructure, with about 30 percent of it having been destroyed or plundered during the conflict.
A friend, en route to a new job in Addis Ababa, said he had to feed his family and thought the climate in the capital had changed from the time Tigrayans were being mass arrested throughout Ethiopia. Everyone now despises Abiy, and whenever he appears on TV people switch to another broadcaster. “I feel safe in this new environment,” he remarked.
Conversely, interpersonal relations are complex, especially when it comes to Tigrayans and Amharas. I came across a couple of old friends who I’d lost contact with over the past four years. The woman is Amhara, and the family survived the war. She is now back at her job in Mekelle, and said that she hadn’t been targeted during the war.
I met Amhara lecturers at the university who had left during the war. After the Pretoria Agreement in November 2022 and reopening of the university, these staff had to return to their workplace in Mekelle. The cohabitation is difficult because the Amhara colleagues do not show compassion or remorse for what has happened in Tigray. My Tigrayan friend told me that relations among colleagues are very tense there.
Another reason for disarray at this level of society is the worldwide disregard for human rights abuses in Tigray committed by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara troops. The facts are reported in databases, but, when revisiting my family, I learned how the town was systematically shelled from a distance by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
Some of the killings that occurred after they eventually occupied the town were narrated in detail, particularly by elders who had stayed back. In this small town, the killings were done mainly by Eritrean soldiers. The victims included men in their houses, people on the street, and one old farmer who had been warned three times by Eritrean soldiers but still came out to find his cattle.
These Eritrean soldiers, after looting, were moved out from the town by the Ethiopian army and assigned to man a seven-kilometer defense line away from the town. Federal police were posted at the edge of the town to prevent the Eritreans from entering because of their notorious habit of looting and killing. This federal police squadron was mainly composed of Tigrayan officers, yet, one after the other, they deserted to join the TDF.
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I got the opportunity to watch the documentary “Speaking the Unspeakable: In the Aftermath of Weaponized Rape in Tigray” with friends. It was produced by a journalist from Tigray with a Norwegian anthropologist. In addition to the killings, victims of sexual assault and manmade starvation receive even less attention globally.
According to a poll of women in Tigray, conducted by the Columbia University biostatistician Kiros Berhane, eight percent of them had experienced sexual assault during the conflict. After being sexually assaulted and raped during the conflict, women find it difficult to seek assistance out of fear of being shunned.
Though the UN Human Rights Council discontinued its monitoring of Ethiopia’s human rights situation, international investigations are still vital. Tigrayans have little faith in the internal legal system, which is run by the same government whose soldiers committed rape and killings there.
In June-July 2023, Harvard University conducted an Ethiopia-wide opinion survey which showed that only two percent of respondents in Tigray supported local war crimes tribunals over hybrid or international alternatives. Notably, I found many people in Tigray shocked by the fact that their own TDF soldiers also committed war crimes during the few months they ventured south. Nobody was able to explain that move south in late 2021.
I visited a dozen families who were mourning their fallen TDF soldiers. Over time, the TDF progressively notified the families about each soldier who died in combat.
During my visit, Tigray was characterized by a grieving atmosphere and, given the many hardships, a sense of collective despair. Numerous people have not received notification yet. Friends told me that they avoid posing the customary courteous inquiries like “How are you? How is your family?” since they already know what the sad response will be.
Many soldiers went to war to defend Tigray against a planned genocide. The case of TDF fighter Hailekiros illustrates this. During the first war period, Eritrean soldiers looted the family homestead. They even broke the clay benches that are common in Tigrayan houses to check if the family would have hidden their money or jewelry inside it.
When his father came back from taking cover in the mountains, he intercepted the soldiers looting his house, started to quarrel with them, and asked them to return his goods. He followed them to the road where their vehicles were standing to try and recover what they had stolen. The Eritrean soldiers said that they were going to shoot him. He begged for his life and one soldier gave him permission to return to his looted homestead.
Hailekiros himself was an undergraduate student at Weldia University. The Tigrayan students had been treated very badly by Amhara lecturers and students. Mobs raided dorms and snatched the course notes and textbooks of Tigrayan students then burned them.
In view of what happened at Weldia University and what happened to his family home, Hailekiros decided to join the TDF struggle. He was later killed in action. I went to the family house to offer my condolences and was invited in to share a meal with them.
While people utilize the ceremonies of mourning to laud their sons and daughters, or to provide an objective explanation for their decision to join the TDF, the conversation is often loaded with tragic stories.
Frequently, these tales center on the conscription issue, and on officials who embezzled funds intended for the TDF. Others describe young people who fled to Mekelle and even Addis Ababa to avoid being conscripted. Wealthy traders also moved from rural places to Mekelle after the war, out of fear of reprisal for the usury profits they had made during war and blockade.
Recently, Alex de Waal noted that 51,700 TDF soldiers died in the war. Given the figure originates from the TDF leadership, friends in Tigray speculated that the TDF might have understated the number of soldiers lost in combat due to rumors of an upcoming war, this time with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed against Eritrea.
Many Tigrayans I talked to expressed their desire to avoid another war, while some speculated that Tigray would be forced into one if all of Ethiopia’s regions participated in a mobilization. It is noteworthy that Tigray has kept apart from violent conflicts, including those in Amhara over the past year. For the barely surviving communities in Tigray, another war would be disastrous.
Others claim that 51,700 TDF military deaths is a reasonable estimate. One friend mentioned that they estimated 100-200 TDF soldiers were killed per small town, and 800-1000 per rural woreda. Add this up and you get 52,000.
According to an injured TDF soldier, in most engagements their losses were small. “When six or ten soldiers were killed in a battle, the commanders were severely criticized by their troops,” he said. However, during their withdrawal from Debre Berhan back to Tigray in 2021 and in the areas of Shire, Sheraro, and Aksum in late 2022, they suffered significant losses, indicating that the total number of deaths declared might be accurate.
On the other hand, in 2022, the Ethiopian Ministry of Defense estimated that 260,000 Ethiopian soldiers lost their lives in the Tigray war. Now, this seems a serious underestimate, and the real figure may be twice as high.
I visited a battlefield near Mekelle that the Ethiopian soldiers had labeled “Bermuda”, meaning a place from which one does not come back. Witnesses mentioned the awful sight of thousands of dead bodies all over the place, sent in wave by wave until the place was taken after three days. The human wave technique was used by the Ethiopian army throughout the war according to Tigrayan witnesses.
I observed enormous difficulties in Tigray. Overall, people have different approaches to mourning, coping, and moving forward, depending on their attitude toward life.
Farmers work their land and innovate, managing their land themselves since government services are virtually non-existent. In the cities, actual earnings have dropped dramatically and there is a severe unemployment problem.
There is widespread sadness over the deaths of friends and family. People are afraid of being dragged into a new war with Eritrea.
The towns are congested with internally displaced people. Public services are still ineffective. Young farmers and city people dream of moving domestically or abroad. A more distant ambition is an independent Tigray.
Everyone talks about their problems, creating a depressing mood. The UN and NGOs do not seem to have the resources to deal with the urgency of the situation.
In thirty years, I have never seen Tigray like this.
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Main Image: Crops are harvested a month too early due to drought; Central Tigray; 24 October 2023
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
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