By Qiyana Tekeste
War is destruction; it costs the lives of children, women and youth and it also destroys the economy of both sides. Time, money, energy and attention are spent on the war, leading to humanitarian, social and economic crises. The two-year-old deadliest war in Tigray has caused a huge damage to the people. In addition to the civilian and combatant casualties, it has caused a long-term health and economic crises. Many have left their homes (eg. Western Tigray) and it has been two years since they started living in makeshift camps and schools, depending, for their daily necessities, on their relatives, the residents of Mekelle, and occasional humanitarian aid. These people had regular income, were owners of big farms, merchants, dairy farmers and laborers. Their houses, properties, crops and money had been looted by the Eritrean and Amhara forces.
Mama Tsega, a 62 years old woman, came from Humera two years ago. She fled when her town was attacked by heavy artillery shelling. For a part of the road, she traveled on top of a tractor and the rest on foot. She said [crying] “I have seen mothers, children and youth falling down due to artillery shelling. We came here stepping on my relatives and neighbors’ bodies. It took us more than a month to arrive at Mekelle. ‘A blessed city’; the residents of Mekelle have a kind heart. The first weeks, they used to come here so often carrying food, clothes, shoes, mattress, blankets and cooking materials and everything. We are still alive because of the residents of Mekelle. They are still sharing food with us even though they don’t have enough for themselves. I am really grateful! I still grieve for the dead ones and for my relatives whom I saw 2 years back for the last time. I don’t know where they are now, wether they are alive or dead or detained and being tortured by the demons. I can never imagine their situation.” She keeps crying. “If the peace is for real, I can’t wait to see my relatives, house and hometown.”
The peace agreement has given hope for some people. However, it has also caused fierce debates among the people of Tigray, especially in the Tigray Diaspora. They are expressing their doubts and concerns on social media. In Mekelle, I observed people debating with friends over tea, in taxis and in barber shops. Some also feel betrayed and cheated by the TPLF because it has failed to explain the agreement. Some are still waiting to hear about it from the Tigray government due to the shocking points like ‘disarmament’. They ask questions like “what is the fate of the people of Tigray? How could the government of Tigray ensure a sustainable peace? How can we ensure that this war is not going to happen again after five, ten or twenty years?”.
Upon hearing the news of the peace agreement, I have seen smiley faces among many people. The deaths of civilians due to air strike, artillery shelling, starvation, lack of medication and cash are unforgivable. Similarly, the youth who died and were injured in the battlefield are always in the people’s heart and mind. Since the agreement has been signed, there is some decrease in the daily terror and uncertainty. This is due to the respite from airstrikes. But this is only in Mekelle. in other cities and rural areas, there has been mass artillery shelling and airstrikes targeting civilians. Due to this, many families are killed in their houses and IDP centers. One week ago, a mother with her two children aged three and five, who fled from Humera to escape death, was killed by artillery shelling in Adigrat. Massive number of people have been fleeing to Mekelle on foot and by bus.
The impact of the war on the children and mothers has been devastating. Starvation, rape, lack of infant milk and medications and airstrikes have killed and terrorized mothers and children. The airstrike that targeted a kindergarten and children’s playground on 26 August 022 killing over 19 children in one day is a case in point. Mothers of the victims are still grieving.
Mama Silas is a petty-trader and her grandson Abel (12) lives with her. Abel used to spend his time playing with his friends around his place. ‘That cursed day’ said Mama Silas, “I was in the market and we heard a sound of jet aircraft and a commotion ensued, and then the jet dropped bomb causing a heavy explosion. It was very scary and we were in panic. When I asked where the airstrike was, people told me it was around my place, I didn’t even collect my stuff and didn’t realize when I arrived there. I saw many bodies, cut in pieces, here and there.”
Mama Silas had to break down as she told her story. I had to wait and calm her down. She resumed “then I saw my grandson’s piece of cloth”. Again she broke down and sobbed. “…I wish I was in his place, my only grandson. For God’s sake… I wish I had died before him. He was the only son of my daughter. Why did God allow this carnage? They were all innocent children with pure hearts, they were just playing there. Abiy, the devil has our children’s blood on his hands. I don’t believe he wants to make peace with us; he has never been a man of peace, rather a butcher and never gets enough of our blood, flesh and agony. But I did not understand why the world gave us a deaf ear. Aren’t we human beings like them? We demand justice.”
The peace agreement signed in Pretoria has rekindled hope. I see children playing outside. I have heard children say ‘there will not be jets and drones coming to kill us, and we can play without fear’. One child said “we will wear uniforms and go to school’. But they are also easily scared by the sounds of vehicles, motorbikes and even carts. Upon hearing those, they run to their houses and hiding places
Genet, a mother of three said,
“One day, we were having lunch with my children in my house and we heard the sound of a drone. The eldest boy was in my parents’ house, and I was at home with a three-year-old boy, Zema and a one and half year old daughter. I just tried to hold my children but I panicked. I started worrying about my eldest son, my husband and parents. I wished to know where the drone could have struck? Who is fated for death? I felt death was near me. I was frozen for a few minutes and couldn’t figure out where to hide my children. Then my son, Zema said “mama, mama, please let’s run to Micky’s [his friend] house; They have a big house and we can hide there. The drone will not hit us. Though he doesn’t know what a drone does to us he learned what we always do and talk at home to escape from the attack. Then we went to his friend’s house and stayed there until it finished bombing. But I couldn’t stop crying and worrying about my son, husband and parents.”
“If the peace deal is real,” Genet continues, “it will be like a rebirth for me and my family. I can’t believe we escaped the death that knocked at our door. I can’t believe we are going back to life in peace. When I think of the youth who died defending us and the civilian casualties, it breaks my heart. I really miss going to the office, receiving my salary and buying fruits, food items my children love to eat. We don’t do that because my husband and I haven’t received our salaries for the last 18 months. If peace comes, two of my children will be going to school. The eldest is now 17 years old; he was supposed to have taken 12 Matriculation examinations and be a 1st year university student this year. But schools have been closed since 2020. First due to the pandemic and then the war. He was a good student but now he doesn’t have an appetite for learning. He says, ‘mom, let’s say schools are open. Can you imagine attending class together with children 3 and 4 years below my age? This is a shame, they will insult me!’ I want to see the opening of the social services such as banking, telecom, electricity, water and internet that we have been denied.”
Many families have been separated since the beginning of the war. Family members who went abroad or to Addis Ababa for work or medical purposes could not return, or family members who went to visit their relatives have not seen their families ever since. A child who is eager to see his father said “my dad will come home, he will bring me biscuits, chocolates and clothes.”
Semira, whose husband went to Addis Ababa for a medical reason, said her second child was born after her husband left. ‘I talked to him just once by begging one of the NGO workers. But I didn’t go there a second time because there were a lot of people begging and crying to speak to their relatives. I was a housewife and we had a big rented house with my husband, and we had a beautiful life. But now I am living in a small house. I sold out my properties like couch, TV, refrigerator and also my precious jewelry because I had no money [crying]”. This was not enough and currently I am selling tea and coffee on the street to survive. I am also worried about my husband. How is he surviving? Maybe he is detained because I have heard Tigryaans have been arrested because of their ethnicity. I have never imagined this kind of life [crying]. My children have experienced and seen a lot of ugly things due to the war. I haven’t properly slept since I heard about the peace agreement. I am eager to see my husband and get our family’s beautiful life back. My second child is now one year and five months old and he hasn’t seen his father except on his photo. His father hasn’t seen him either.’
In taxis, people talk about peace. Some say “May God say ‘you have suffered enough!’ and end our suffering”. A woman said, ‘May our children return safely!’” Then she called the assistant driver and said, “Here 60 birr, I will pay for the TDF member too”. The assistant refused and replied, “TDF members don’t pay”.
Before the war, we used to pay a maximum of 2 birr for one way and now it is 30 birr. Due to this, almost all travel is on foot, by bicycle and sometimes by mahindra. Mahindras are relatively not expensive (they charge from 15-20 birr for one way). But they are risky because they are crammed with people.
Mini buses are also crammed. I was in a mini bus crammed with 21 people in a 12-seat taxi. Beside me was a man who came from Nebelet, Central Zone. He said, ‘my mother’s prayer seems to be coming true. She will have the feast of Selassie (Trinity) after two weeks. Last time she said, ‘my feast of Selassie will be celebrated in peace. My younger sister who was a 12th grade student joined the struggle last year. Let this peace be for real; I hope the government of Ethiopia is not joking this time. Our brothers and sisters joined the struggle to defend their parents and people. Shaebiya (EDF) bombard the cities first and then kill the people including the young and the old. This is an evil and very costly war. All of our fighters are students, teachers and engineers and this always keeps me awake all night. Let my mother’s prayer work this time, for the sake of our children and our youth. But, I haven’t heard about the withdrawal of the Eritreans troop from Tigray in the peace agreement.’
When we got off the taxi, I talked to a TDF member. He got hit by shrapnel in the western front a month ago. He was injured on both arms, and one leg, but says it is not a big deal, saying “I rarely feel the pain”. When I asked him how he felt about the peace agreement, he said
“I was happy when I heard about the peace agreement. We went to fight to bring peace to our people. We are not anybody’s military, we are the keepers of our people. Peace is above all. So many heroes and heroines sacrificed their lives and dreams and many are still sacrificing. In peace, we had jobs, I took care of my mother and siblings. When the enemy came and killed civilians and raped our sisters and mothers I joined the struggle. When peace comes, I will go back to my work. My family is in a rural area. I don’t know if they are safe or alive or not because the village is under enemy’s control.”
Then he continues “I have a problem with ‘disarming.’ The enemy must not set foot on our land! The enemy slaughtered my brothers and raped my sisters. How can I let them in and look them in the eye? We can’t trust each other. I asked questions about the disarmament. I was told that it was also about the integration of the TDF into the ENDF and about security militias. But how can I serve the country that declared genocide upon me and my people? I can’t sit next to someone wearing the Ethiopian military uniform. How can I trust my enemy who killed my people?”
There have been heavy battles in Zalambessa and Edaga Arbi fronts and the war is mainly being operated by the Eritrean Defence Forces. This is either to break the peace deal or to loot properties from the areas, commit mass atrocities and rape women. They are still looting properties including cars and household items and transporting it to Eritrea. They are also burning crops in the territories under their control (Adwa, Shire and other small cities).
On Saturday, a victim who came from Edaga Arbi to a hospital in Mekelle said the town was being bombing until Friday, November 4. Since both the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Force) and EDF (Eritrean Defense Force) had been fighting jointly, it is not clear whether the ENDF is also violating the agreement. There was artillery shelling on Abyi Adi (Central Zone) until November 04. People who fled Adigrat say there was artillery shelling in the city on November 3. People are still fleeing from there.
Although most people in Tigray seem to have put some hope in the peace agreement, the continued shelling and attacks, the lack of progress in humanitarian aid and medications cause them to doubt whether this is another ploy.
Apart from this, according to data from Mekelle Zonal Office, almost half of the residents of Mekelle received food aid this week after several months of no aid. This has created some stability in the market for some days. Following the news of peace, prices of some household items and groceries have decreased. However, hospitals are flooded with patients but they can’t treat them because they have no medication.
Qiaya Tekeste (Pen name) is a university lecturer and researcher in one of the universities in Tigray.