A war that shouldn’t be one

English translation of a broadcast article on ARD television (Germany), 10 May 2021: https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/afrika/tigray-107.html

Bewaffnete Kämpfer gehen zu Fuß eine Straße in Tigray entlang. | Norbert Hahn

The war in Tigray is over, Ethiopia’s government says. A journey through the province reveals that Eritrea’s army is still present, rape is common – and hunger is spreading in the countryside.

By Norbert Hahn, ARD-Studio Nairobi, currently in Tigray Region

Almaz Gerezgiher lies in a sickbed  of the University Hospital of Mekelle. She doesn’t want to talk. She looks at the ground, absent. Her father says that the troops from neighbouring Eritrea, allied with the central government, fired artillery at his village. Many were wounded by splinters, not just his daughter. “Her eldest brother died. I came here with her. We couldn’t even bury him.’

Norbert Hahn ARD-Studio Nairobi

They are stories of despair, as the ARD team encounters them in many places of Tigray – they make travelling harder than the numerous army checkpoints along the route. Ethiopian forces and their Eritrean ally mainly control the main transport routes in the east and centre of Tigray. In the rough areas beyond the roads, however, fighting continues. There are fighters of the “Tigray Defence Forces” (TDF) – the military arm of the rebel People’s Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF).

Eritrean troops to be relocated

“The law has been restored, the operation is complete,” said Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti. But this cannot be entirely true: the goal of catching the old guard of the TPLF, which is almost hated in some parts of the country, has not been achieved. On the asphalt road to the west, armoured chains have left fresh traces. Upon arrival in the country’s second largest city, Adigrat, the ARD team seesEritrean troops coming out of combat and being relocated.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reportedly negotiated the withdrawal with Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki back in March. The international community, especially the United States, is pushing for this. After human rights violations from all sides, Eritrean troops in particular have recently been blamed for rapes, shootings and looting. Now, it seems, hunger is also becoming the means of their warfare. There are now “reports of farmers being discouraged by a party to the conflict to order their fields during the rainy season,” according to the UN diplomatic language.

Die Karte zeigt die Region Tigray und die Orte Aksum und Mekele in Äthiopien.

“Do this to make us starve”

Tsehainesh Tsegay says more clearly: “They destroyed our plough.” The 70-year-old stands by the side of the road on her way to Aksum. “They gathered people in a field and said, ‘If you plant, you’re going to see…'” she says. She and her husband Tarekegn Gebru fear for their lives. They will not till the field, they will not harvest anything, they will have nothing to eat, they will not be able to buy anything. They already have to buy food for their cows. Instead, they bring one animal after another to the market – that will soon be over. Tarekegn Gebru says, “They’re just doing this to make us starve.”

Those who do not live in the countryside usually met the war already in November. 800 people worked in the large marble factory “Semayata”. Then the Eritrean army came, explains the guard Riesom Gebremichael. The factory with the Italian machines, which was only two years old, was looted and the rest destroyed with explosive charges. Not an isolated case. 800 workers now without pay – a major blow to a region where about a quarter of people needed help even in better times.

Aksum, the holy city of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, is the scene of one of the recent massacres. In front of a church there is a concrete surface in which more than 80 inlets are recognizable, each numbered, among each some dead – as our companions say. A man talks to the ARD team about the loss of his brother, but only anonymously – the fear of repression is too great. 

Ein Vater sitzt bei seiner verletzten Tochter am Krankenbett  | Norbert Hahn
Almaz Gerezgiher was seriously injured in the attack on her village, according to her father. Photo: Norbert Hahn
Vor einem Gebäude sieht man mehrere Drahtbügel in Zement befestigt. | Norbert Hahn
Wire bars in cement: Under each of them are the dead of the Axum massacre. Photo: Norbert Hahn

Rape of underage girls

At the University Hospital of Mekelle, nurse Mulu Mesfin speaks at the One Stop Center for victims of sexual violence about her work in recent months. About 400 cases of rape in war are in their files, half of them underage girls. “So many cases, even complicated ones,” she says. “The situation of the children in particular is critical. Many are now disabled and can’t walk after the crime.” At the moment, there is help mainly from the people from the city who collect medicine, she says.

Ärzte und Angehörige in einem Krankenhausflur in Äthiopien | Norbert Hahn
Reports of distress and despair: Doctors and relatives at the University Hospital Mekele. Photo: Norbert Hahn

The people of Mekelle also bring food to a school, which is now a camp for internally displaced persons. Here, too, people complain that they are otherwise barely able to get food – even though all aid organisations have access here. It is especially difficult for the children, but also pregnant and breastfeeding women. In this group, half of the women investigated have signs of malnutrition, according to the UN. “We thought whole shiploads would just wait to be distributed when there was finally access,” Dina Mufti of the Foreign Ministry ironically says.

After all, unlike many other refugees, people at school have a roof over their heads. This is important just before the start of the rainy season. Will people be able to return to their villages? Will they ever feel part of an Ethiopian state again? There can only be an answer to this when the war is over – and that can take time.

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