The Ethiopia visit to Girmay Berhe Assemahegn was not as expected. The Norwegian-Ethiopian thought he was just going to his mother’s funeral. Instead, he ended up in the middle of the war – with bomb shelling near where he lived.

By Jan Speed (26.01.2021)

(Rough translation from a Norwagian magazine, Bistandsaktuelt.)

Girmay Berhe Assemahegn, a daily social consultant at the Church’s City Mission, traveled to the capital of Tigray Province, Mekelle, on October 24 last year. The goal was to attend his mother’s funeral.

But even before he arrived in the city, the tension had risen sharply. Relations between the regional government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed were tense. 

Abiy had stated that TPLF leadership in Tigray was acting illegally and should be arrested. The TPLF had conducted elections in the province contrary to what the government and parliament of Addis Ababa had decided. In addition, TPLF soldiers had attacked a national military base and seized large quantities of weapons.

Bombed the city for two days
Girmay says that the violence suddenly escalated in the week after he arrived at his mother’s home in Mekele. We had expected that there would be war, but not on such a large scale as it was. The first thing I noticed about the war in Mekele was that the air force was attacking. They did so on both 4 and 5 November, Girmay tells Bistandsaktuelt.

We talked to him while he was participating in a demonstration outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo last week.

The Norwegian-Ethiopian saw no military targets that were bombed. However, a church 500 meters from their house was hit. Federal authorities claimed it was not a war, but just an action against the regional leadership. But what we saw and heard about acts of war was more extensive than that. Many civilians were affected, says Girmay.

All telephone and internet connections in Tigray and out of the province had been cut off in advance by the central government. The power supply was also turned off. However, Girmay could afford to rent his own power generator and could watch satellite TV. In the first weeks, the regional television station and several other channels continued to broadcast in Ethiopia and abroad.

We heard that Eritrean forces had attacked the border town of Humera with bombers. Most of those who fled to Sudan were from the city of Humera, says Girmay. He thinks it is depressing that Prime Minister Abiy allied with Eritrea, a country that Ethiopia was previously at war with and which has long had a very undemocratic regime. The biggest disagreements historically had been between Eritrea and Tigray. Tigray soldiers played a major role in the war against Eritrea.

The dictator’s revenge on Tigray

This was the revenge of the dictator in Eritrea, he believes. It was not until early December that government forces occupied Mekele. The TPLF leadership, who had only stayed in the regional capital just days before, fled into the mountain areas to continue the resistance from there. When Abiy declared victory after securing control of Mekele, the telephone connection to the city was re-established. I myself witnessed how Ethiopian soldiers searched every house in our neighborhood. They took gold from women. They said that all Tigray women have gold and that it belongs to Ethiopia. They beat people, Girmay says.

Telephone joy
Four hours after the telephone connection was reopened, he received a phone call from the Norwegian embassy in Addis Ababa. I was very happy. I am a Norwegian citizen and it was great that someone cared about me and called me. My family and my colleagues from the Church’s City Mission had obviously called the embassy and told them that a colleague was missing, says Girmay.

His family in Norway had been very worried. It is well known that there are great contradictions among Ethiopians in Norway, with regard to the political leadership and the country’s future. According to Girmay, some of his opponents wrote on twitter and Facebook that he had traveled illegally through Sudan to get into Tigray to support the TPLF. If the Ethiopian authorities had received information about this and thought it was true, it could have created major problems for him. That was a lie. Unfortunately, tensions between Ethiopians in this country are getting worse and worse, says Girmay Berhe Assemahegn.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs informs Bistandsaktuelt that they were aware that 11 Norwegian citizens were in Tigray during the conflict. These are the Norwegian citizens that the embassy received inquiries about or was in contact with.

War wrecks and checkpoints

The Norwegian embassy said that they could not help me with transport. So I was looking for someone who could take me to Addis. Luckily I managed to get on the first bus that left the city. The ticket cost much more than usual. At the same time, the journey also took longer. Usually these modern buses take a day from Mekele to Addis Ababa, but it took us two days.

It was a journey through a war-torn landscape. Broken tanks lay on the side of the road as proof that the fighting had been fierce. There were checkpoints every 20 kilometers, with federal forces and armed units from the Amhara region. I counted 52 checkpoints on the road.

Passengers were ordered off the bus
He says that passengers who only had ID cards from Tigray were ordered off of the bus. They were not allowed to travel further with us, but I had a Norwegian passport and they let me pass, he says. When I came to Addis Ababa, I got help from the Norwegian embassy to get out of the country. I was in the country legally and had entered legally.

At the airport in Addis, there were several checkpoints where the authorities were looking for people from Tigray. A woman from the embassy accompanied Girmay and made sure he got on the plane to Norway. A friend, also he with Norwegian citizenship, got out two days before me. I returned to Norway on January 2. That was a relief.

In an email to Bistandsaktuelt, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that “through the embassy in Addis Ababa, the Foreign Service tried to provide consular assistance to all Norwegian citizens who were known to be in Tigray. Due to the loss of the mobile network, it was difficult to contact people in The embassy which is continuously cooperating with other countries, including EU countries, and the UN, on how best to offer consular assistance. “