Father Angel Olaran has been in Spain since the outbreak of the conflict in the Ethiopian region where he has lived for almost three decades: “we don’t know what we are going to find”.

DVD 1031 (07-12-20) Angel Olaran, missionary, posing at the African Museum in Madrid Photo: Olmo Calvo

On October 29, Angel Olaran (Hernani, 1938) left the city of Wukro (Ethiopia) to board a plane for Spain. The problems in his suitcase were the poor harvest due to the lack of rain and the threat of a plague of locusts. A few days after landing, the Basque missionary never imagined that his worries would change radically. What was a trip of a few weeks to visit family and friends, to have glaucoma surgery and to attend a commitment in Alicante linked to the third sector, has turned into an anxious stay due to the anxiety of returning as soon as possible to a country in conflict.

On November 4, the Ethiopian Prime Minister and 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Abiy Ahmed, declared war on the government of Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia where the priest of the Missionaries of Africa order – also known as the White Fathers – has been living for 28 years. Until now, the cut of the Internet connection and the information blockade imposed by the federal government since the beginning of the military offensive, prevented Olaran from knowing for sure how the priests and collaborators with whom he works in the Saint Mary’s Mission, where he develops a recognized educational work and support to the most vulnerable groups, were doing. Nor did he know the real dimension of the military attacks.

“All this is like a bad dream,” says Olaran. It is a cold December morning in Madrid and Abba Melaku, as he is known (“Abba” means father and “Melaku”, his angel), receives EL PAÍS in the African Museum, a place full of historical objects that another order of missionaries, the Comboni Missionaries, opened to the public in 1985. Although he seems energetic and at ease in a space that brings him a little closer to Africa, he does not hide his anguish at being so far from “his home”. “I feel a great burden on my back,” he confesses.

Concern over the trickle of information
More than a month has passed since the start of the armed conflict and Olaran has received the first news thanks to the fact that he has been able to contact several collaborators who are in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, 50 kilometers from Wukro, where the Government has begun to restore telephone communication and electricity supply. “Mekele has been under heavy shelling for several days. A Red Cross convoy has come in, but they are holding on to the food they have had for a month because bank accounts are still blocked and there is a lot of inflation in food prices. Wukro has also been bombed and electricity poles are lying on the ground. There is a population hidden in the mountains and they estimate hundreds of dead”, the missionary laments. “In the mission they are fine. They tell me that there must be many people waiting for help and food. However, there is starting to be looting and they have stolen four cars with which we were taking care of the surrounding villages”, he adds.

The serenity that Olaran transmits when he talks about the unexpected Ethiopian civil war contrasts with the reports of civilian deaths and the harshness of what the media and organizations that have had access to testimonies of those affected by the military actions have been telling. A few days ago, The New York Times interviewed displaced Tigrayans near the border with Sudan who testified to having suffered campaigns of murder, rape and looting by ethnic militias allied with the Government -according to the UN, more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into the neighboring country and, in total, they estimate that there are almost one million displaced people-.

“Angel is very tough, a tremendously strong person. You can see he is very sad, but he is already in a mode of thinking about solutions rather than problems,” says Pablo Llanes, president of Holystic ProAfrica, one of the NGOs that has been collaborating with Olaran for years, on the other end of the phone. “He is a man who gives you a lot of peace. He is not shocked by anything. After all the problems he has seen in Africa…,” adds María Pueyo Olaran, one of the nieces with whom he maintains a close relationship.

Urgency to return
Although Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed proclaimed victory on November 28th after arriving with his troops in Mekele, the end of the conflict seems distant since the TPLF leader and the guerrilla junta have fled to the mountains to rearm. Returning to Wukro, besides being dangerous, is not easy. The missionary does not yet have a return ticket, but he plans to return by the end of December. “Ethiopia is my home and I want to return as soon as possible. It seems that the airport of Mekele will open soon, although, as a precaution, some people advise me to stay a few days outside Tigray. The White Fathers have the community of Kombolcha, 400 kilometers from the region and maybe I will go there first, but I am not sure yet”, Olaran explains.

“We don’t know what we will encounter or what will happen from now on. However, I have no doubt that everything is going to work out,” he opines firmly. “My hope is that when the African Union starts to mediate and international pressure kicks in, an understanding will be reached between the warring parties,” he reflects.

My hope is that when the African Union begins to mediate and international pressure takes effect, an understanding will be reached.

When the missionary arrived in Wukro, after 20 years of cooperation in Tanzania living with the Wanyamwezi tribe (‘children of the moon’ in Swahilli), he had the task of helping Father José Luis Bandrés to build a secondary and vocational school. And they did. But Olaran’s humanitarian work has gone far beyond that. Thanks to the selfless collaboration of many people, they have developed programs and projects to support thousands of orphaned children, as well as elderly people in extreme poverty, prostitutes or HIV patients, among other vulnerable groups. They also support the local administration in the development and repair of infrastructures with activities such as reforestation, the construction of small reservoirs or rehabilitating torrents.

Now he does not know how he will continue to develop the work that has filled him for almost a third of his life or if they will have to turn to fixing all the disasters of the war. “With the downturn in the intensity of hostilities, basic needs begin to flourish: lack of food and water, vandalism, going back to work…. And we hope that with the lack of food and water, diseases such as cholera will not appear”, he emphasizes.

Although the Basque missionary has a large team of collaborators and volunteers, he knows that another companion of the White Fathers will not come after him, and he is in a hurry to return to help, which is what has moved him since he decided to dedicate himself body and soul to this task at the age of 33. At 82 years of age, he still has a long way to go, but he knows where he will spend the end of his days: “My roots are Basque and I do not renounce them, but my blood is in Ethiopia. My idea is to die there”.