Mekelle in May 2021: View from a broken window in Ayder Hospital

Tigray’s TPLF rebels and Ethiopia’s government have made peace. And now? Impressions from Mekelle, the capital of the region.

MEKELLE taz | War is destruction. It destroys life. All energy and all time is spent on war. Tigray’s deadliest war has caused massive damage to the people. Many people are dead, many have had to leave their homes and have been living in improvised camps and abandoned school buildings for the past two years, where they depend on their relatives, the people of Mekelle, and the rare help from USAID to survive.

These people once had an income; they were farm owners, traders, cattle ranchers, agricultural workers. Their homes, their property, their crops, their money was looted by Eritrea’s army and the Fano militia from Amhara.

Mama Tsega came from Humera in Western Tigray two years ago when heavy artillery bombed the town. She fled on a tractor and on foot. “I saw mothers, children and young people die under the shelling, we walked over the bodies of my relatives and neighbors,” the 62-year-old says, crying.

“It took us over a month to reach Mekelle. A blessed city! The people of Mekelle have a good heart. In the beginning, they came so often and brought us food, clothes, shoes, mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils and everything. We are still alive because of the people in Mekelle. They still share their food with us even though they have too little themselves. I am so grateful! I am still grieving for the dead and for my relatives whom I last saw two years ago. I don’t know where they are now: whether they are alive, whether they are dead, whether they are in detention being tortured by the devils? I have no idea.”

The old woman continues to cry. “If the so-called peace is real – I can’t wait to see my relatives again, my house, my hometown.”

“Abiy has the blood of our children on his hands”

The effect of war is cruel. Mama Silas still mourns the deaths of at least 19 children who died when a jet dropped bombs on a kindergarten on Aug. 26. She lived with her 12-year-old grandson, Abel. “That cursed day,” recalls mom Silas. “I was in the market and we heard the sound of the jet and people were running around and then there was a loud bang when the bomb fell. When I asked where, they said my neighborhood. I left my things, when I got home I saw a lot of bodies torn to pieces, they were all over the place …”

Mama Silas cries loudly. She has to calm down before she can continue.

“Then I saw my grandson’s clothes.”

She continues to cry, then raises her voice.

“If only I were in his place. My God! If only I had died before him. He was my daughter’s only son. Why did God allow this to happen? They were innocent children with pure hearts. They were just playing. Abiy the devil has the blood of our children on his hands. I don’t think he wants peace with us, he was never a man of peace, he was a butcher, he never gets enough of our blood. I don’t understand why the world didn’t listen to us. Are we not human beings?”

The Nov. 2 peace agreement between the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in Tigray opposed by Ethiopia’s government) and Ethiopia’s federal government has brought relief to many people. But it is also causing heated arguments among Tigrayans. I see them discussing, over tea and at work. Some feel betrayed by the TPLF. Some are waiting to learn more about shocking promises like the TPLF’s “disarmament.” What will become of the people in Tigray then, they ask?

No more airstrikes

But I also see smiles on many faces and read hope in them. There were so many dead: air raids, artillery fire, hunger, lack of medical care, lack of money. So many young men died on the battlefield, they are unforgotten. The uncertainty of survival seems to have diminished somewhat now.

This is because there are no longer air raids every day in Mekelle. For a few days now, children have been playing outside again. “No more jets will come and kill us,” they say, “we can play without being afraid.” One adds, “Yes! We will put on school uniforms and go to school.”

Tigray Army TDF fighters at an unknown location in Tigray Photo by Seb’a Enderta

But as soon as they hear a noise – a car, a motorcycle, even a wheelbarrow – they panic and run into the house. They remember.

Genet recounts how she and her children once ran to safety from a drone attack. “We were having lunch together and we heard the drone,” she recounts. “The oldest was with my parents, but I was home with my three-year-old, Zema, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I hugged my children to me, but I was panicked. I wondered where everyone was and where the drone might strike. Whose turn is it to die today?” Then little Zema told them to run to his friend Micky, he had a big house, the drone wouldn’t hit there. “He doesn’t know what a drone does, but he learned what we always do and how we talk at home to protect ourselves from attacks,” she says. “We went to his friend’s house and stayed there until it was over. I couldn’t stop crying and worrying about my husband and parents.”

“If the peace agreement is real,” Genet continues, “it’s like a rebirth for me and my family. I can’t believe we overcame the death that was lurking at our door. I can’t believe we are going back to living in peace. When I think of the boys who died for us, I break.”

Many families have been separated since the war began: individual relatives went to Addis Ababa or abroad to see a doctor and could not return, or children went to stay with relatives and have not seen their parents since. “My dad will come home, he will bring me cookies and chocolate and clothes,” Semira, whose husband went to Addis Ababa for health reasons, quotes her youngest son, who does not remember his father. “We had a big house and a nice life. Today I have a small house, my sofa and TV and my jewelry I sold, now I sell tea and coffee on the street so my children have food,” she reports. “I worry about my husband. How does he live? I heard Tigrayans were arrested because of their ethnicity. Since I heard about peace, I can’t sleep. I want to see my husband again, I want our life back”.

This week, about half of Mekelle’s residents received food aid, the first time in months. As news of peace made the rounds, some prices dropped. But people are still dying: they are starving, they cannot be fed, they have no money.

Eritrea’s army continues to loot

And outside Mekelle, attacks have continued. Many people are fleeing to Mekelle and rumors of new drone attacks are making the rounds: on Thursday and Friday, the days after the signing, in Adigrat, Wukro-maray and Wukro. This has not been confirmed. Heavy fighting is taking place in Zalambessa and Edaga-arbi. The war there is being waged primarily by the EDF (Eritrean Defense Forces, Eritrea’s army). It wants either to break the peace agreement and conquer new territories, or to do some more looting, raping and atrocities.

In the areas under their control – Adwa and Shire and other small towns – the EDF steal cars, they go into every house and take what they can, they set fire to crops, they bring things across the border into Eritrea. Last Saturday, a war victim from Edaga-arbi told a Mekelle hospital that his town was still being bombed until Friday. Because the EDF and ENDF (Ethiopian National Defence Force, Ethiopia’s army) are fighting together, it is not clear that ENDF is not also committing incursions. There was artillery shelling on Abyi-adi until Nov. 4; there were heavy attacks on Adigrat on Nov. 3, fugitives report.

“How can I trust my enemy?”

A soldier from the TDF (Tigray Defence Forces, the TPLF’s Tigray Regional Army), with wounds on both arms and one leg, says, “I was happy when I heard about the peace agreement. We went to fight to bring peace to our people. We are not anyone’s military. We are the guardians of our people. Peace is above everything. So many heroes have sacrificed their lives and their dreams. In peace we had a life, I took care of my mother and siblings. When the enemy came and killed civilians and raped our sisters and mothers, I joined the fight. Now I am wounded, my sister takes care of me. My family is in the countryside. When there is peace, I will go back to my work.”

Then he continues, “But I have a problem with ‘disarming.’ The enemy must not set foot on our land! The enemy has slaughtered my brothers and raped my sisters. How can I let them in and look them in the eye? We cannot trust each other. I asked questions about the disarmament declaration. I was told it was also about integrating the TDF into the ENDF and militias for security. But how can I serve the country that declared genocide on me and my people? I cannot sit next to someone who wears the Ethiopian uniform. How can I trust my enemy who killed my people?”

The author (real name known to the editors) teaches at Mekelle University, whose staff is maintaining emergency operations without salaries. Translated from English by Dominic Johnson.

Source: Taz De