“They were knocking door to door. To rape the women and kill the men. They took my cousin Hadush, who was 24 years old together with 72 other young men. They took them to the mountains and killed them all.” – Goitom, on the Mahbere Dego Massacre. In a time where polarization thrives and where we all identify in boxes and ranks common points are harder to find. What do a humanitarian aid worker, two students and a legal agent have in common? All have been tangled up in a long journey in their mother land. They were forced to flee to a new country on a new continent where they don’t speak the language far from their families and friends. They’ve faced prison, torture, shootings, and bombings. All for speaking a certain language, for looking a certain way, for having certain names, for carrying a certain identity. The identity of a Tigrayan in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 succeeded in his hunt for Tigrayan civilians and together with his allies managed to kill at least 600.000 Tigrayan civilians in two years’ time.
I meet Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie for a coffee in Amsterdam, The Netherlands on a Friday morning in March 2023. Gebrekirstos is Tigrayan and the founder and chief editor of Tghat. The platform Tghat documents the destruction that has been taking place in Tigray, the Northern part of Ethiopia, since November 2020. The platform was created as a response to the lockdown of the region, including all media and telecommunications by the Ethiopian government since the beginning of the war. Gebrekirstos: “I truly don’t understand why there is so little attention for this conflict in the media and so little interests by educational organizations such as The Africa Institute in Leiden. The only reporting from the Netherlands that I see is with so-called experts who had ‘once’ been to Ethiopia, but no accounts from Tigrayans themselves. This is completely incomprehensible to me. There are so many Tigrayan people who can and want to tell their story. There have been many Tigrayan refugees arriving the past month in the Netherlands. People who lived the war, who have seen it with their own eyes and can tell their story.”
With this message in mind, I contacted four refugees from Tigray in the Netherlands who are open to share their story with me. I first spoke with Goitom, 23 years old in a public library in the Netherlands. Goitom loves studying and finished his bachelor’s degree in engineering in Addis Ababa during the war. Seldom I’ve seen someone’s eyes light up like Goitom’s when talking about university. His siblings also studied in university and now Goitom wants to follow their path and become an engineer. However, he does not know if his siblings or his parents are alive. He has not heard from them since the war.
A few days later I meet with Atsbha, 38 years old at the emergency refugee camp, which is located in a hotel nearby Schiphol Airport. Upon arrival Atsbha welcomes me at the entrance. The hotel looks busy and chaotic. When we walk down the hall, there is a renovation on the left and on the right, it is filled with corporate people in suit drinking their lattes and discussing business deals. It is hard to find a place where we can sit down and where Atsbha feels comfortable to tell his story. I don’t see any other refugees which seems strange to me, I guess they’re somewhere on the other side of the hotel, at least not close to the corporates at the entrance. Atsbha tells me he has been staying in this hotel for the past eleven months. His wife and children are in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He fled the country almost a year ago and is still waiting for information from the Dutch Immigration Office. In his home country he was an active humanitarian aid worker, leading all humanitarian response programs at an international humanitarian aid organization. Atsbha: “I was helping internally displaced people and refugees from poverty and hunger. It is strange to be on the other side. Now that I’m the one depending on the Dutch government for receiving my meals, and the roof over my head.”
The next week I meet with Robel, 24 years old in the public library of Amsterdam. Robel is waiting for me in front of the water, he arrived by bike from the refugee center. When we greet each other, he gives me a big smile and tells me he is quite amazed by the enormous library. Robel graduated in software engineering in Addis Ababa and has been living in the Netherlands for the past nine months. He has two sisters of 28 and 18 years old. He recently learned they are alive in Ethiopia but hasn’t heard from his parents since he fled the war.
One week later I take the train to meet Selam in a public a library in Wageningen. Selam is 29 years old and has been working as an assistant transmitter and legal distributing agent for a shoes factory in Addis Ababa. She appears shy at the beginning of our conversation, guarded. Selam has a brother and sister of 31 and 21 years old. From the last information she has they are in Mekelle the capital of Tigray and her dad must be somewhere in Ethiopia. Her brother has a degree in journalism and fled with her sister to Mekelle during the war. Selam’s sister was supposed to go to university but had to stay in High School since educational facilities were destroyed. Selam doesn’t know if her siblings are safe, or even alive. She hasn’t been able speak to them since July 2021. Selam’s mom is in a refugee camp in Sudan. She is a nurse and was in Sudan for work when the war broke out and had to seek refuge in the country. Selam is extremely worried about the safety of her mom, especially since civil war broke out in Sudan: “She is all by herself, I don’t know if she is safe, I can’t talk to her because the network is extremely bad.”
Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in Africa and the only country in the continent that has not been colonized. Ethiopia distinguishes more than 90 different ethnic groups with their own distinct language spread out over the country. Its population counts more than 126 million people. The biggest minorities are the Oromo who make up for about 43 million people, with its capital Addis Ababa, in the southwest of Ethiopia. The second minority is the Amhara population who make up for around 34.4 million people, in the northwest of Ethiopia. The third minority are the Somali with around 7.8 million people in eastern Ethiopia. The fourth biggest minority are the Tigrayan who’s population make up for 7.6 million people, with its capital Mekelle, in the north of Ethiopia.
Richard Reid, Professor of African History seeks to place the recent war in a deeper historical context. Ethiopia has never been colonized contrary to its neighboring country Eritrea that became an Italian colony under fascist rule from 1890 till 1941. On the map of Ethiopia, you can see that the Tigray region borders Eritrea. The territory of the Tigrayans however did not limit its borders to Ethiopia. Tigrayans have been living in Eritrea as well. The colonization of Eritrea left a complex and ambiguous relation between Tigrayans on both sides of the borders. While Eritrea was colonized by the Italians, Ethiopia was living under the Monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie who annexed Eritrea in 1962. Haile Selassie was eventually ousted in both countries in 1974. This resulted in both countries being ruled under the military rule of the Marxist and authoritarian Derg regime, supported by the Soviet Union.
This is a graduation work for a degree in journalism. To read the full work, click here.
Nan Cao Blokhuis is a journalism student from the Netherlands. She is also a freelance journalist interested in conflict, corruption and humanitarian crisis.