AFP’s photojournalist Yasuyoshi Chiba exhibited 35 prints of original photographs in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. The largest measured over two meters wide. The exhibition titled “Arrivals” has a set of pictures shot in Mekelle City, Tigray’s Capital (June to July 2021), and Um Raquba refugee camp in eastern Sudan bordering Tigray (December 2020). These are the last shoots by foreign media before the Ethiopian government banned all foreign media coverage of the war. These photographs were so powerful and exposed the coordinated state-led misinformation campaign about the Tigray genocide.
Mr. Chiba has worked at AFP for over a decade and is based in Nairobi now as the chief photographer of East Africa since 2017. He won the top prize at the 2020 World Press Photo awards and was recently named The Guardian’s “Agency Photographer of the Year 2021”. He also worked at Japan’s Asahi Shimbun Photography Department. Mr. Chiba has used the GFX100 camera body and GF50mmF3.5 R LM WR lens to capture these important photographs based on the catalog of the images.
The exhibition describes the following on how this historic opportunity to shoot the pictures came about.
He received a one-month journalist visa to cover the Federal government election that was postponed over a year. On June 21, 2021, he was in Mekelle where the Ethiopian troops were stationed. The journalist teams were filming scenes of humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people. On June 23, Chiba has scheduled to return to the capital Addis Ababa however news came in that a market in a nearby village was bombed by an airstrike. The federal government announced that the airstrike did not target civilians, but killed about 70 people. The flights were continuously canceled. Other foreign media reporters who finished election coverage in Addis Ababa also wanted to fly to Mekelle. All the land routes become battlefields. The only other 5 foreign journalists at the time in Mekelle were reporters and photographers from the New York Times in the US and Stern Magazine in Germany. Mekelle’s public schools were used for internally displaced people (IDPs). The head of the largest school said his wife was in the Umrakuba refugee camp in Sudan. Soon, rumors emerged that the Tigray army would soon come and the city would become a battlefield, and there were people who packed up their luggage and headed outside. After sunset on June 28th, cheers rose around the hotel where Mr. Chiba was staying. Previously, people used to rush into the quiet city at night due to the curfew.
Tigrayan soldiers regained the state capital and returned for the first time in eight months. Curiously, the Ethiopian soldiers stationed in various parts of the city disappeared cleanly. And from that day, electricity, telephone, and the Internet were all cut off. On July 2, suddenly, 7,000 Ethiopian soldiers appeared in Mekelle City as prisoners of war. On July 4, Chiba safely arrived at the neighboring capital of Afar and flew back to Addis Ababa.
The Four Arrivals
The exhibition title ‘Arrivals’ focuses on ‘four arrivals’. The arrival of refugees, airstrike victims, triumphant TDF soldiers, and Ethiopia Prisoners of war.
The Arrival of Refugees
The exhibition featured sets of images about the daily life of displaced people. These images include the condition of over 70,000 refugees in Um Raquba camp in Sudan and internally displaced people in Mekelle living in schools and other public facilities.
The Arrival of Airstrike Victims
The massacre of the Togoga market claimed many lives. The market village near Mekelle was bombed and medical personnel and ambulance were denied access to the victims which made the bombardment deadly.
The Arrival of Triumphant TDF Soldiers
After sunset on June 28, 2021, people ran through the road celebrating the return of the Tigrayan soldiers. Rumors of the returning of Tigrayan forces a few days ago suddenly became a reality. On June 29 returned Tigrayan female soldiers continued to be thanked and congratulated by the people. On July 1, women enjoyed a coffee ceremony on the roadside of Mekelle. They stopped and offered popcorn when the veterans passed.
The Arrival of Prisoners of War.
Mr. Chiba said about the photographs relating to the Ethiopian PoW that when he saw thousands of PoW march towards the recreational facility in Mekelle he wished for the families to know that the soldiers are alive and pledge for humanitarian assistance. This was very important as the Ethiopian government was spreading misinformation about the war events. The head of the Ethiopian army currently assigned as Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, Bacha Debele rebuffed on a televised speech Mr. Chiba’s photographs as fake ‘photoshopped’ images. He mocked the pictures looking like the ‘Great Ethiopian Run’, a 5 km event held every year in Addis Ababa where the attendees wear similar colored T-shirts outfits.
Over 7 thousand soldiers arrived in Mekelle collected from several fronts, some of them traveled over 75 kilometers from the battlefields. The PoWs of the Ethiopian army were taken to the rehabilitation center in Mekelle city.
The largest print over 2 meters wide shows detailed faces of PoW from the Ethiopian army as they march to the rehabilitation center.
The Tigray Community in Tokyo
The Tigrayan community members in Japan, mostly students in Japanese top universities and working in technology companies had visited the exhibition that triggered emotions of homesickness and sadness. Many haven’t heard from family members since the beginning of the war. The community is greatly affected by the war as every other Tigrayan. The community already lost a graduate student of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies-GRIPS, a top policy school in Japan to the Tigray genocide. Others have lost family members to a lack of medicine from the siege.
The general understanding of the Tigray genocide is low in Japan. AFP and Japanese affiliate AFPBC News supported the free exhibition which was open in Tokyo from Feb 2 to Feb 21 and then in Osaka from March 16 to April 4. This helps in raising awareness about the Tigray situation in Japan, a country that is a major partner and major donor of Ethiopia.