Seatle-based Seifu, a physician, and of Tigrayan descent, has just returned from a visit to his family in central Tigray. He spoke with us about his trip, mainly about the least-reported devastating impact of the war on the people in villages and small towns. The interview, which can be watched here, is in Tigrinya. Here is a summary of the points he raised.
Worries flying to Ethiopia as a Tigrayan
He says he had worries that security officers might detain him on arrival at Addis Ababa’s Bole airport but that nothing unusual actually happened to him. (Note that up until recently Tigrayans were invariably ethnically profiled at the airport, with some of them barred from flying, some of them detained, and others made to bribe their way in or out.) He says the general atmosphere at the airport and indeed in the city is now markedly positive.
Flying to Tigray from Addis Ababa
Flights from Addis Ababa to Mekelle and vice versa have resumed following the Pretorial deal, although fares are unreasonably expensive. Seifu tells us that although Mekelle and Bahirdar are equidistant from Addis Ababa, the Mekelle ticket price is more than twice as much as the Bahirdar ticket. (Mihret Berhe, a Tigrayan journalist, had previously told us the same thing.) No official reason is given for the unusual price hike but the understanding Seifu, and indeed Mehret, has is that the airlines is exploiting the desperation of Tigrayans to go visit their beloved ones regardless of the price. Seifu also tells us that the airline is nonchalant with luggages and that you’ll be lucky to receive your luggage in Mekelle in time. He advises people who’re planning to fly to Tigray to buy return tickets in advance because it’s tricky to find tickets in Mekelle.
Life in Mekelle
Seifu tells us that Mekelle has returned to what could be described as relatively normal. He observed people going about their normal business. He says prices have started to come down although there was still shortage of supply – there still is no open land channel for items to get in to Tigray; roads remain blocked off, and those not totally blocked off, such as those via afar, he says armed people on the way charge money to the tune of 300,000 Ethiopian Birr for a single truck. He told us – off the record – that hotels in Mekelle are unusually cheap, perhaps because there’s no demand due to the siege.
Trip from Mekelle to Nebelet
He rented a car in Mekelle and set about driving to Nebelet, a small village town in central Tigray, not far from Hawzien on the way to Adwa. His first stop was Wukro, about 50 km north off Mekelle. He says it’s in Wukro that the magnitude of the devastation of the war started to sink on him. He saw the scars of war everywhere – ghosted roads and buildings, damaged buildings (he recounts asking residents why the windows of some high-rising buildings were smashed and being told that the Eritrean troops climbed up the buildings, entered into rooms and shot at the windows just for gratuitous fun); and a generally gloomy atmosphere. He and his company had to drive around corners to find a place to eat breakfast and when they eventually found one there was little on offer. They ordered scrambled eggs and the owner dashed out to buy eggs – a clear sign that the restaurant wasn’t expecting patrons. Before the war Wukro was a bustling town.
Seifu tells us that although he’d expected to see a lot of destroyed military hardware on the way from Mekelle to Wukro, there was actually barely anything. Neither were there any security checkpoints.
Trip from Wukro to Nebelet
Seifu tells us there were checkpoints at regular intervals by the road from Wukro to Nebelet. They’re manned by TDF personnel, whom he describes as friendly and obliging. Other than that and reminders of the war, such as general quietness along the way and damaged houses here and there, he says there’s not much noteworthy along the way. People he spoke to on the way told him that the Eritreans had taken even damaged trucks and other military hardware that used to be there.
Stories from Nebelet
Seifu cautions us that it’s difficult to capture in words what the Eritreas and, to a lesser extent, Ethiopians have done to the people of Nebelet. In one afternoon, he was told, the Eritreans came marauding to the town and killed more than a 100 people. Because it’s a small town where almost everyone knows everyone else, not just the news of the killings but also of who had been killed, reached everyone and sent shockwaves everywhere. People ran away to the gorges and mountains but, recounts Seifu repeating stories he heard from his relatives, the Eritrean had a unique ability to reach areas that “even a beast wouldn’t be able to reach”. Through time, Seifu tells us, people devised innovative ways to evade the Eritreans and protect their properties. Apparently the Eritrean troops had a proclivity to steal socks but not shoes. Seifu’s father’s solution to this problem was to wear all his socks. Mobile phones were a fair game for the Eritreans. Seifu’s mother buried her phone to save it from the Eritreans and ran away to save herself. When she returned she found the phone but was rendered useless from having stayed under the ground during rain. (She might have saved it from Eritreans but not from rain. One wonders if she is happy that she has at least outsmarted the Eritreans.)
He tells us that during the Eritrean’s stay in Nebelet, they slept at the houses of farmers in the villages, sharing food with the households. In some households they looted the grains that the farmers had stored up. Slaughtering goats, sheep, chicken and even cattle was something that the Eritreans did without any hesitation or any scruple that it might be wrong.
The overall result, Seifu tells us, is a broken community without any means of livelihood. No aid had as of yet reached Nebelet and people were getting by support they received from their relatively abroad. Asked how people who do not have support from outside were getting by, Seifu couldn’t tell.