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. He destroys lives. All energy and time goes to war. Tigray’s deadliest war has massively damaged the people. Many people are dead, many have been forced to leave their homes and have been living in makeshift camps and abandoned school buildings for the last two years, depending on their families, the residents of Mekelle and the rare help of USAID for survival.
These people once had an income, they were farm owners, traders, ranchers, farm laborers. Their homes, their property, their crops, their money were looted by the Eritrean army and the Fano militias from Amhara.
Mama Tsega got out two years ago Humera in western Tigray when heavy artillery bombarded the site. She escaped on a tractor and on foot. “I saw mothers, children and young people dying under shelling, we walked over the bodies of my relatives and neighbors,” says the 62-year-old, crying.
“It took over a month to reach Mekelle. A blessed city! the people inside Mekelle have a good heart. At first they came so often and brought us food, clothes, shoes, mattresses, blankets, cookware and everything. We are still alive because of the people in Mekelle. They still share their food with us even though they don’t have enough themselves. I am so grateful! I still mourn the dead and my relatives, whom I last saw two years ago. I don’t know where they are now: are they alive, are they dead, are they in prison and being tortured by the devils? I have no idea.”
The old woman keeps crying. “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 bombed a kindergarten on August 26. She lived with her 12-year-old grandson, Abel. “That cursed day,” Mama Silas recalls. “I was in the market and we heard the sound of the jet and people running around and then there was a loud bang as the bomb fell. When I asked where, they said: in my area. I left my stuff, when I got home I saw a lot of bodies torn to pieces, lying all over the place…”
Mama Silas cries loudly. She needs 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? They were innocent children with pure hearts. They were just playing. Abiy the devil has our children’s blood 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. Aren’t we human?”
That Peace agreement of November 2nd between the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in Tigray opposed by the Ethiopian government) and Ethiopia’s federal government has relieved many people. But it also causes heated arguments among Tigrayans. I see them arguing, over tea and at work. Some feel betrayed by the TPLF. Some wait to hear more about shocking pledges like “disarming” the TPLF. What will become of the people of 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 shelling, starvation, lack of medical care, lack of money. So many young men died on the battlefield, they are not forgotten. The uncertainty of survival now seems to have diminished somewhat.
This is because there are no longer air raids in Mekelle every day. Children have been playing outside again for a few days. “No more jets will come and kill us,” they say, “we can play without fear.” One added: “Yes! We will put on school uniforms and go to school.”
But as soon as they hear a noise – a car, a motorcycle, even a wheelbarrow – they panic and run inside. You remember.
Genet tells how she and her children once fled to safety from a drone attack. “We had lunch together and we heard the drone,” she says. “The eldest was with my parents, but I was at home with my three-year-old, Zema, and my daughter, who was one-and-a-half. I hugged my kids but I was panicking. I wondered where the others were and where the drone might strike. Who’s turn is to die today?” Then little Zema said they should run to his friend Micky, who has a big house, so the drone wouldn’t hit him. “He doesn’t know what a drone does, but he learned what we always do and how to 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 my parents.”
“If the peace deal is real,” Genet continues, “it will be like a rebirth for me and my family. I can’t believe we conquered the death that lurked at our door. I can’t believe we’re going back to life in peace. When I think of the boys who died for us, I break.”
Many families have been separated since the beginning of the war: Individual relatives went to Addis Ababa or abroad to see a doctor and could not return, or children went to relatives and have not seen their parents since. “My dad will come home, he will bring me biscuits and chocolate and clothes,” quotes Semira, whose husband went to Addis Ababa for health reasons, her youngest son, who does not remember his father. “We had a big house and a nice life. Today I have a small house, I have sold my sofa and TV and my jewelry, now I sell tea and coffee on the street so that my children can eat,” she says. “I worry about my husband. how does he live I heard Tigrayer was arrested because of her ethnicity. Ever 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 residents received food aid for the first time in months. As news of peace spread, some prices fell. But people are still dying: they are starving, they cannot be cared for, they have no money.
Eritrea’s army continues to loot
And outside of Mekelle there have been more attacks. Many people are fleeing to Mekelle and rumors of new drone strikes are making the rounds: on Thursday and Friday, the days after the signing, in Adigrat, Wukro-maray and Wukro. That is not confirmed. Heavy fighting is taking place in Zalambessa and Edaga-arbit. The war there is mainly caused by the EDF (Eritrean Defense ForcesEritrean Army) guided. She either wants to break the peace agreement and conquer new territories, or she wants to plunder, rape and commit 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 burn crops, they bring things across the border into Eritrea. Last Saturday, a war victim from Edaga-arbi reported in a hospital in Mekelle that his city had been bombed until Friday. Because the EDF and ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense ForceEthiopian Army) fighting together, it is not clear whether the ENDF is not also committing assaults. There was artillery shelling on Abyi-adi until November 4th, there were heavy attacks on Adigrat on November 3rd, fugitives report.
“How can I trust my enemy?”
A soldier of TDF (Tigray Defense Forcethe 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 into battle to bring peace to our people. We’re not anybody’s military. We are the keepers of our people. Peace is above all. So many heroes have sacrificed their lives and dreams. In peace we had one life, I took care of my mother and my siblings. When the enemy came and killed civilians and raped our sisters and mothers, I joined the fight. Now I’m wounded, my sister takes care of me. My family is in the country. When there is peace, I 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 slaughtered my brothers and raped my sisters. How can I let them in and look them in the eye? We can’t trust each other. I asked questions about the disarmament declaration. I was told that it was also about the integration of the TDF into the ENDF and about security militias. But how can I serve the country that has declared genocide on me and my people? I can’t sit next to someone wearing the Ethiopian uniform. How can I trust my enemy who killed my people?”
The author (real name known to the editors) teaches at the University of Mekelle, whose unpaid staff maintain emergency operations.Translated from English by Dominic Johnson