Welcome to Ethiopia’s theatre of war. Abiy Ahmed Ali, the country’s Prime Minister and Nobel laureate, is the conductor of this orchestra.
At the centre stage, Ahmed directs the tempo of the Tigray-Ethiopia conflict. With a baton in his right hand, he commands his soldiers to commit genocidal acts against the people of Tigray, and the symphony that comes out of this score by Ahmed is a harmony of hunger, tears, pain and blood.
For over 640 days and counting, Tigray, a state in the northern part of Ethiopia, has been engaged in an unending conflict with the Ethiopian government. The war broke out in November 2020, and while at it, Abiy Ahmed and his soldiers have committed war crimes and ethnic genocide, a report by Human Rights Watch revealed.
The horror in Tigray, which has claimed thousands of lives and displaced over 300,000 people, began on November 4, when the prime minister ordered a military invasion of Tigray after the state held its elections against his orders.
This violation of Ahmed’s orders would open the lid off the brewing feud between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Ethiopian Soldiers. Photo Credit: Tigray Times
The Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) gained momentum in the early days of the war and, at one point, almost gained control of Addis Abba, the Ethiopian capital. This was, however, averted by Ahmed with the help he received from countries like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran.
Apart from other levels of support, these countries also assisted Ahmed with armed drones. As the war continued, the TPLF army could no longer withstand Ethiopia’s sophisticated approach and, subsequently, they were forced to retreat into the mountains of Tigray. The action gave the Ethiopian government the window to cut Tigray out of communication, banking, healthcare and humanitarian aid.
Paula Gil, the President of Médecins Sans Frontières Spain, was in July denied entry into Tigray. Paula was on a mission to find out who killed three of her MSF colleagues.
“I was not granted permission from the authorities to visit Tigray, which meant that I could not pay tribute to the families of Tedros and Yohannes,” Paula said in her statement posted on the MSF official website.
“I was also unable to meet any representatives from the federal government to continue the discussion about their investigation into the killing of our three staff, despite requests sent to the ministries of foreign affairs, justice, and defence.”
Despite the continued blockage of access to communication, FIJ spoke with victims of the Tigray-Ethiopia war with the help of a fixer in Tigray.
FIJ spoke with three victims of the conflict, who are currently contending with illness, grief, and hunger. We also obtained a letter sent in by a doctor in Tigray. This letter and interviews give perspectives on the plight of Tigrayans, as the world awaits the restoration of access to the country.
Our objective findings showed that the continued blockage of humanitarian aid has left hospitals in Tigray stranded.
A LIFE OF TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
“This story belongs to Mr. Ashenafi Girmay Walika, who was born in January 1987 in Enticho, northern Tigray province, Ethiopia,” Dr. Erem narrated in his letter to this journalist on July 29.
The life and times of Ashenafi were one of trials and tribulations, such that even at the point of his death, misfortune befell him. Ashenafi lived in Mek’ele, the capital city of the Tigray region.
He attended school until grade 10, after which he discontinued and travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he got married, had two kids and lived as an immigrant for eight years.
“In 2018, he was diagnosed with kidney failure and he had been on haemodialysis for the past three years with twice weekly sessions. He was diagnosed with hypertension four years before the diagnosis of kidney failure but he was not on medication for the high blood pressure, calming just on lifestyle modifications,” Dr. Erem wrote.
In 2019, Ashenafi, alongside his children, travelled back to Mek’ele, leaving behind his wife in Saudi Arabia. When Ashenafi was diagnosed of his kidney illness, he could no longer work.
He had to sell his 250m2 house in Enticho, central Tigray, in 2019 to cater for his kids and pay for dialysis. The only dialysis center in the region of Tigray was a journey of 148 kilometres from his home. As a result of the change in fortune, he was forced to rent a house nearby Mek’ele city, leaving behind his two children with his grandmother in Enticho.
According to Dr. Erem, when Ashenafi started receiving the dialysis treatment, his health status improved remarkably. The challenge he faced after the dialysis started was mainly a huge financial shortage, which led to him and his family depending on funding from friends and the community.
Ashenafi later also told his doctors he was suffering from psychological stress as he was unable to work so he could raise his children himself. He did not have the opportunity of a kidney transplant as he had no close relative who could act as his donor.
Things got worse for Ashenafi as the war in Tigray led to the non-functioning of the dialysis centre in Aydar Hospital, where he was receiving treatment. Services were seriously disrupted, as there were no consumables for the dialysis machine to function.
At a point, the dialysis unit had to make a tough decision to reuse single dialysers as a desperate measure to save lives.
In the end, as revealed by Dr. Erem, Ashenafi’s health deteriorated because of the inefficient or suboptimal nature of dialyser re-use. Meanwhile, the ongoing war in the region had negatively affected his well-being. The blockage of the delivery of humanitarian aids, medicines and dialysis materials into Tigray complicated the situation for Ashenafi.
Ashenafi during dialysis Photo Credit:FIJ
He later became critically ill with fluid accumulation in his lungs. On January 28, 2022, he was admitted to the emergency department, where he was kept overnight in case the supplies arrived.
“The next day I received a shocking news from the emergency team that he signed his discharge note against medical advice, claiming that he was just becoming a burden to the health care professionals for a service which would not help him as there was no dialysis service,” Dr. Erem said.
“Very unfortunate enough, the dialysis supplies brought from the capital city, Addis Ababa, through the ICRC flight, arrived on the same day of his discharge, just an hour later. When we received the dialysis supplies right in our hands, we really wanted to search and bring him back to the dialysis centre, but, all that remained just a wish, simply because we couldn’t even phone him due to the absence of telecommunication service,” Dr. Erem’s letter read. Mr. Ashenafi died on his way home.
Map of Ethiopia Showing Tigray. Photo Credit: Google
This story of Mr. Ashenafi is just one out of the many unfortunate stories that have befallen Tigrayans since the war started.
Speaking with FIJ, Dr. Reiye Esayas, a surgeon in Tigray, said the conflict had reduced the number of functional hospitals in the region to eight from 14.
The region’s 24 primary health centres have also been reduced to 12 functional ones, 225 health centres to 111 and 720 health posts to 213.
Parents in the region now ration meals for their children. These parents do this in order to avoid a situation where their children begin to imagine and draw meals like children caught up in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Tigray has consumed both the rich and the poor. It has brought the regional state into a chaotic equilibrium where patients who are sick but can afford to travel abroad now find travelling a luxury.
Dr. Reiye told FIJ there were several patients due to be flown abroad but stuck at the hospital because of the blockage.
“Even people who have the money can’t use the money,” he said.
Dr. Reiye said the blockage have made patients arrive at the hospital at critical stages of their illness. He also revealed that the blockage has given rise to an acute shortage of healthcare materials and finance.
According to the doctor, patients who are discharged often return due to lack of food supply.
“We have no anaesthetic or morphine. Our patients just feel the pain. We hear them feel the pain but there are no anaesthetics. We’ve run out of basic healthcare materials and consumables. We see patients die every day. I don’t know. We have no words to explain this,” Dr. Reiye, who describes himself as one of the lucky few, told me via a WhatsApp message.
“It is very painful for a physician to see patients who need at least oxygen and you can’t afford to give them. Most of the diagnosis machines are not working.
“Even when you diagnose them, the medications are not available. There are only a few medications and they’re all expired. This is the most traumatic experience I have ever faced.”
Dr. Reiye expressed his disappointment in the international community for turning a blind eye to the siege in Tigray.
‘WE HAD A GOOD LIFE’
Roman Gebregiziabhair before and during the war
Roman Gebregiziabhair, who used to work in the media in Adwa city, a region in Tigray, before the Tigray-Ethiopia war, has become not just a shadow of herself but a dying body begging for hope.
“We had a good life,” Roman told FIJ.
Blessed with a set of twins aged seven and a hardworking husband, life indeed used to be good for Roman.
“We lived as well as others. But now, we don’t have an income. It’s been close to two years since I received a salary. My husband too, there’s no work, so he’s had to close his business.
“We have no income now. We have become dependent on others, on aids, and I’ve added illness to all this. I’ve become so ill that all my hair has fallen out,” said Roman in Tigrinya, the language of Tigrayans.
When asked what type of medication she was taking, Roman said she used to take a drug that helped with her haemoglobin levels, but due to the war, she could no longer have access to it.
“I don’t have the word for it really; its all so terrible,” Roamn said.
“All I can say is that this should happen to no one; you can’t wish this to happen even on your enemies. I’ve never been ill in my life; it started just after the new year. I’ve been bed ridden ever since.”
The situation has also affected her twins, as she only feeds them one piece of bread a day.
“They eat when we can find food, whatever is available. They’ve always been kind children,” Roman said, describing her children as very understanding of the challenge.
A recent picture of Roman Gebregiziabhair
Her husband is not spared the damages. To survive, he has taken up a new profession of begging on the streets. Roman has so much suffered the collateral damage of war that she prays it happens to no one. She resorts to God to save her.
“I’ve never been ill in my life. It started just after the new year – the Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11 or 12. I’ve been bedridden ever since,” she told FIJ.
Roman said she went to the hospital where she was told she was malnourished, and that her haemoglobin level was low from stress.
Confirming what Dr. Rieye told FIJ about malnourished patients, Roman said her condition had worsened because of food shortage in the region. “There are many like me as well. So many are suffering,” she said.
“There are so many that have sold all their belongings just to survive. And so many of them have money in the bank. They just can’t access it.
“We once spent three nights and two days without food. We bought our children one piece of bread each to help them get by. My husband used to be well built, but now, he looks like a child. He has lost so much weight. He is as bad as I am, but just not yet bedridden. So many are suffering. I wish for peace to come.”
As Roman continues to wish for peace, her hair continues to fall out, her body gets weaker and her legs and feet get swollen. She awaits a miracle still.
UNITED BY BLOOD, SEPARATED BY WAR
Teku Hailu, a 16-year-old sixth-grader, was born in Feres Mai, Central Tigray, where she lived with her parent. Two of her siblings are based in Saudi Arabia. The other two, one male and one female, went to join the resistance (TPLF) after the war broke out. Teku is the last child.
A former student of Enda Michael school, Teku was at a place called Ha Hayle when the conflict began. It was at the place that she last saw her parents. Her faith in reuniting with her parents made her return to Feres Mai to see if she would meet them there.
She, however, was unable to achieve this objective as the poverty level in the community made her leave quickly.
“I couldn’t stay there. People were poor, no one was able to help me, so I came to Adwa,” Teku said.
“I’m ill. I have Tuberculosis; its made me like this. I don’t leave my home. You see the door doesn’t close from outside as well. You can only close it from inside so I just leave it open like this when I got out to beg.”
Teku said she begged for food and slept in bus stations and on the streets on her way to Adwa.
When she got to Adwa, she also begged. Her income from begging was invested in renting a makeshift apartment. It was from this dilapidated apartment that Teku spoke with FIJ.
The house was not in good condition. Its roof also leaked when it rained. According to Teku, the bed was always cold and she had no blankets or extra clothes.
Teku Hailu in her makeshift apartment
But for the war, Teku’s face would not have taken its present day shape.
Eritrean soldiers inflicted injuries on her neck and legs when she ran into them.
Often called The Shabia, the Eritrean soldiers formed an alliance with the Ethiopian army to show support for the Ahmed-led government.
Ahmed had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his role in mending the once broken relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Both countries endured animosity for close to two decades. When FIJ reached out to the Nobel Academy for a statement on this story, the Academy directed us to its statement released on January 13, 2022, where the Nobel Committee urged Abiy Ahmed to “end the conflict and help to create peace”.
Eight months after this statement, Tigrayans are still praying for peace.
“There’s no one to help me here. I go hungry every day. I don’t have anyone to help me get medical treatment. I’m ill because of my cold at night. I don’t also have a blanket. I’m really in a difficult situation,” Teku told FIJ.
“I don’t know what to do. My siblings have joined the resistance and I don’t know where I can find my parents. I’ve been here in Adwa for long.”
Teku makes use of her scarf to cover her mouth. She told FIJ that her mouth was shattered by Eritrean soldiers during the assault on her.
Teku pointing to bullet wounds
“They asked me where the Tigrayan forces were, and I told them I was Tigraweyti, yes, but that I didn’t know where Tigrayan forces were. But they didn’t believe me, so they beat me until blood started coming out of my mouth and nose, and my leg too,” said Teku.
“I was at the hospital there and was getting food. But then they said I had healed and discharged me. I was left with no good options. So I started sleeping and begging on the streets again.”
Teku’s comments confirmed Dr. Reiye’s comments on malnourished patients.
An injury on Teku’s neck
At the beginning of Teku’s arrival on earth, she experienced peaceful times. Today, Teku is separated from her parents, ill with Tuberculosis. Her sad situation has restricted her to the confines of her makeshift home. The home has no assets and the door knob is bad. As a result, she leaves the door open whenever she goes to beg.
“I beg and ask the owner of the house to help me. I beg at the bus station and give it to him. No one would give me a house for free. I beg for money and spend it on rent while I have nothing to eat. But then I decided it’s better to have a home,” Teku said, sobbing.
“I thought it better to go hungry. I have eaten what I can find. Whether it is bread or injera. So people helped me with items here. I only had the bed at first. I begged someone for that as well.”
In his blog post on Thursday, Joseph Borell, a high representative of the European Union on foreign affairs and security policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, called for peace, saying it was time to stop the forgotten war in Tigray. Crisis Group told FIJ the restrictions on aid and services had cut Tigray away from the rest of Ethiopia.
“A tragic part of this war has been that an entire region of Ethiopia has been largely cut off from humanitarian aid as well as trade and vital services like banking. This means that a region with about six million people has not had a normal trading relationship with the rest of Ethiopia,” Crisis Group said.
“It’s had a tremendous impact on its agriculture and the rest of Tigray’s economy, partly because federal and allied forces allied destroyed health facilities and agricultural equipment. It seems to have been part of a federal and Eritrean strategy to constrict Tigray and put pressure on the leadership. This resulted in a devasting humanitarian situation inside the region, although, due to its isolation, we don’t know the extent of the suffering,” the international group said via Zoom.
We reached out to the Ethiopian government, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the head of the African Union-elected mediators of the Ethiopian crisis, for comments, but none had replied at press time.
This story was produced with support from AwaCountry, under its Conflict Resolution Initiative.
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