Door is only ajar for outside world in Ethiopian state of Tigray

English Translation of a broadcast article on NOS (Netherlands Television), 21 May 2021:

Editor’s note: This article tends to take a pro-Abiy bias; yet they got all kinds of obstacles when reporting.


Elles van Gelder and Sven Torfinn

After more than six months of applications, Africa correspondent Elles van Gelder and cameraman Sven Torfinn were allowed to travel as journalists to Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern state where conflict has been raging since November.

And there we are at last, with our coveted Ethiopian journalist’s pass, at the airport of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, a safe haven in the region. On the way from the airport to the center are many soldiers of the Ethiopian army. But downtown, life feels normal. The coffee shops are full and people are working.

Never before have I reported on a conflict so unfolding behind closed doors. From the beginning of the war, the internet was blocked and there was no telephone communication. Contact with people in Tigray was virtually impossible.

Mobile range

But in Tigray’s capital, it’s now possible to call. And our hotel has been back on the internet since four days. There are young people near the gate with their mobile phones. They’re trying to catch the hotel lobby’s open Wi-Fi network. Many are hoping for a sign of their family in the countryside, after months. That remains difficult because outside of Mekelle there is no mobile range yet.

Although tensions had been rising for some time before the war, they did not think it would get so out of hand here. There are four warring factions in Tigray: the Ethiopian army is backed by troops from neighboring Eritrea and by militias from the neighboring state of Amhara. On the other side are the insurgents of the TPLF, a group that held the most power in Ethiopia for decades and ruled with a hard hand until Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018.

With him, a new, freer wind blowed. Detained opposition members and journalists were released. But ethnic tensions flared in various parts of the country and the relationship between the prime minister and the TPLF soured. After Abiy postponed national elections because of the corona pandemic, he had no legitimacy, according to the TPLF. Then, contrary to national policy, the group organized elections in Tigray.

Girl of 15

In November, TPLF units attacked a federal army base in Tigray. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy says he had no choice but to take a hard stand in Tigray afterwards. Ethiopia’s unity was at stake. He promised a short military operation that would address political leaders. But things turned out differently. According to Unicef, more than a million people are now fleeing internally.

At a hospital in Mekelle we meet a 15-year-old girl who has been seriously injured. A bullet went right through her head, close to her eye socket. According to her father, she was hit as she ran away from Eritrean troops. “They thought she was running from them. She’s a child, she’s innocent.” That she survived is a miracle, but she will never see again.

In the beds next to her are children with broken legs. They fell as they ran away from bombs from the Ethiopian federal army. This room is mainly home to victims of so-called collateral damage from the war. But we speak to a lot of eyewitnesses who say they were directly targeted. It are horrific stories of marauding, murdering and raping soldiers.

Wounded children in the Ayder hospital of Mekelle


UN organisations, NGOs and human rights organisations are now talking about possible crimes against humanity and war crimes. There will be a UN mission in cooperation with the Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights, which will investigate violence by all parties, but on the ground they fear that this will not make much difference and will not achieve results quickly enough. And that lawlessness continues in the meantime.

And above all, there is also a lot of anger about the presence of Eritrean troops. Because while wrongdoing is reported by all parties, the people we speak to are most afraid of the Eritreans. They think Eritrea wants revenge on the Tigrayans because there was once a border war in this area, until Abiy made peace with Eritrea. Abiy previously promised to withdraw Eritrean troops, but they are still there.

We want to move north to get a better view of the conflict. New fights are reported there. And then the beautiful journalist’s pass doesn’t seem to work anymore. At a roadblock, Ethiopian soldiers stop us. The door in Tigray is only ajar and much remains hidden for the time being.


The original report holds also a two minutes film, in Dutch and Tigrinya:

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