In what was the most horrific experience of my life, I witnessed the death and suffering of many, including close family members.
I used to be a strong believer who clung to the idea that there is nothing that holds people back from whatever they want to achieve. Now, experience has taught me otherwise. As events have unfolded in the destructive war in Tigray, I started appreciating the words of wisdom from Paulo Coelho: “At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.”
Over the past three years, in contrast to much of Ethiopia, Tigray has been a safe region. It was this mindset that deceived most of us not to think that things could change at any moment. As the CEO, co-founder, and one of the trainers at TigraiCodes (a non-profit organization that teaches high schoolers to code), I had a plan to stay in Aksum for one month (starting early October) along with my comrades. We were on a mission—teaching computer coding to Aksum high schoolers. Just one week prior to the end of our program, the government of Tigray declared a state of emergency. To our dismay, Ethiopia declared war on Tigray!
After about 20 years, war had again become inevitable, and the unfortunate Tigray was once more destined to be a battleground for the warlords. Starting on Wednesday, 4 November, 2020, everything was completely shut down; banks, telecommunications, electric power, potable water, and every means of transportation were suddenly halted. The people knew these were done deliberately by the Ethiopian government.
The ongoing war in Tigray is devastating in its destruction, irresistible in its ferocity, and appalling in its cruelties. It is piercing a hole in so many hearts, which no amount of time can heal. I lost my younger brother—the little one whom I treasured as my own life. My younger sister is also heavily wounded, and many more of my friends’ whereabouts are yet unknown.
Let me elaborate on what has happened to my brother and my sister.
After graduating from Aksum University in Animal Science, my sister had been working at a newly opened milk factory in Humera for about a year. My brother was in his junior year of high school, and he wanted to be an auto mechanic. We had the idea of helping him find an internship opportunity at Mesfin Industrial Engineering in collaboration with a friend that works at the factory. But, he found out about a technical/ vocational college in Humera that gives short training courses in the area of his interest and decided to go to his sister in Humera.
After a month, the ugly war started. On 10 November, Humera was shelled heavily by the Eritrean forces from their camp in Omhajer, Eritrea. This unexpected attack created mayhem in the city of Humera and its surroundings. Many residents fled to Sudan while many others migrated to Shire, Aksum, and Adwa. Along with their neighbors, my brother, my sister, and her husband (a total of about 10 people) left their house behind in search of a safe haven to shield themselves from indiscriminate shelling.
My sister’s husband ran around searching for landmarks and caves they can hide in. After he thought he had found a good hiding place where he could take them all, he returned to where they were. Sadly, however, artillery hit the group and killed almost all of them. When my brother-in-law saw what happened to my sister, he rushed and took her to their home. Afterward, he came back to check on my brother and the others. With the help of other people, he took them (including my sister) to Kahsai Abera hospital. All of them were pronounced dead at the hospital, except my sister. They registered their details and buried them.
The Eritrean forces and the Ethiopian forces continued shelling the city. A few hours later, they attacked Kahsai Abera General Hospital. The nurses and doctors started to leave the hospital. My brother-in-law took my sister out of the hospital and fled to Adebai, 78 km southeast of Humera. After few hours, he met some friends who lent him around 2000 ETB. This meant a lot since they left home with no money. They continued their journey to Shire in search of a safe haven. Since my sister needed urgent treatment, they went to a hospital in Shire. Unfortunately, after a few days, shelling began in Shire.
On 14 November, they fled to Aksum and joined us. It was at this time that I learned my younger brother has been killed and that my sister is wounded. I was devastated and heartbroken. I hadn’t had the chance to meet and talk to my brother in person for a year or so. We only spoke over the phone. I promised him that I would give him the laptop I brought to him from Sweden. I regret not celebrating the Meskel Holiday with them, for he was in Aksum for the holiday. At least I could have had a farewell talk with him. Had it not been for my brother-in-law who survived that artillery, my sister would have faced my brother’s fate. He saved the life of his wife and the three-month-old baby in her womb.
I lost my brother, my sister is wounded, and my work was disrupted. At that desperate moment, I felt Tigrians were being betrayed by Ethiopia! I tried my best to comfort my family and keep up their morale. It was not the proper time to grieve. I didn’t waste time grieving as I felt I had a cumbersome assignment awaiting me.
I borrowed 1500 Birr from the hotel owner (originally, this was supposed to cover my travel expense) and gave it to my family. I am grateful for his generosity. I was only able to pay him back after I arrived in Mekele and withdrew money from my bank account.
At the time, I was under the assumption that youths in Mekele, including the team I am a member of, were going about their businesses while I was in devastation and blockaded in Aksum. Later, I learned that I was wrong.
TigraiCodes team members had permission to use one of Aksum University buses. We were scheduled to travel to Mekele on 19 November, 2020. But, that did not happen as no bus showed up and everything was in chaos. Since then, finding transportation that takes you to Adwa, let alone to Mekele, was almost impossible.
In Aksum, death was waiting for us at our doors. I spent two horrific months in Aksum. Let me narrate, as an eyewitness, what has happened during those two horrific months.
On Thursday, 19 November, around 2 pm, Aksum and its surroundings were shelled heavily and randomly by the heavy artilleries of Eritrean and Ethiopian troops. It appeared to me that their intent was nothing more than creating havoc and terror, just like they did a couple of days before their arrival in Aksum in Western Tigray cities such as Humera, Sheraro, and Shire. The entire city was in turmoil. Everyone, including animals, was in complete shock.
However, as there were heavy tensions from the battle in Selekleka (around 37 kilometers west of Aksum) that had been going on for a couple of days, we had a feeling that the enemy would give in Aksum. Immediately, thousands of civilians, including friends who were staying with me in the hotel, fled to nearby villages, to the monasteries, or to Mekelle (on foot) to escape the attack. Many more civilians also fled their homes and spent the night at St. Mary of Zion church and took refuge at similar other shields, many crying out to God.
I had no clue what to do or where to go at that moment. I just looked up to the sky, but there were no answers from above. In despair, I went back to my hotel room, and when I could see no way out, the humanity inside of me started being swallowed by my mind-blowing thoughts. All the energy I had vanished in a heartbeat. At that point, it felt as though I was being crushed by fate. As Paulo Coelho said: I became the slave of fate without realizing it.
The Tigray army left the city without any trace. It was risky to go outside after the enemy conquered the city. There were soldiers scattered on every corner of the street, and everyone got scared and stayed inside. We were under virtual house arrest for several days. Everyone was locked in. It was especially hard for the needy people who live on charities at the churches, and the stranded people who had nothing to eat and drink in the absence of cooking supplies such as charcoal and gas stoves. The only ones who did not go hungry were the soldiers.
For almost a week, the Ethiopian army stayed, while the Eritrean troops continued marching to Adwa, where they were reported to have robbed government offices, killed civilians, and searched well-known persons’ and investors’ houses. For instance, they destroyed a famous hotel named Brana Hotel.
Exactly eight days later, on 27 November, around 50 to 80 Eritrean soldiers came back to Aksum and started patrolling the city, the nearby mountains, and the churches. Around 6 pm, spotting through the window in my room, I saw them trekking to Mt. Mai-Khuho after taking some pictures at the monuments and St. Mary.
Then, they camped atop of the mountain, putting their stuff in Mai-Khuho College. Later, I heard from the teachers that around 80 percent of the college’s possessions were completely destroyed by the Eritrean soldiers. The whole community was provoked and angry at their return and warily watched their activities. Yet, it was obvious that they were back for something even worse.
The next morning, around 7 am, a battle broke out between the Eritrean soldiers and about 30 Tigray militias who came from the nearby villages. The youth residing in the city stood in support of the militias in what was an inevitable life or death scenario. The combat was difficult for the Tigray militias as the Eritrean soldiers were able to fire bullets from the top of Mt. Mai-Khuho and easily shoot at the youth and militias who were advancing up the mountain to dislodge the Eritrean soldiers.
The militia covertly withdrew from the battle and went back to their villages later midday. The youth, however, continued the fight. The battle lasted until 5 pm. After 5 pm, the whole city was surrounded by additional thousands of Eritrean troops that arrived in the city. Then, the Eritrean soldiers began firing bullets at every civilian who happened to be found on the streets.
Some of the newly arriving Eritrean troops wore the former Ethiopian Army uniform from the EPRDF regime, which made some of us think that they were our troops. Tricked by this, many people went to the streets to seek help and lost their lives. Assuming they were Ethiopian troops, Eyob, a guy who was with us in the hotel I was staying at, went outside to tell them that the Eritreans troops went to the other corner of the street which leads to St. Mary, and they immediately killed him with three bullets fired on his chest.
The mountain trails along which I hiked and camped out with my friends from Tigrai Hiking Group a year ago became the scene where hundreds of civilians lost their lives. It felt like I was watching a horror movie; never have I imagined I would see such ruthless killings in the city where I spent half of my life.
It is hard to estimate the exact number of people shot dead by the time the one-day battle was over, except that the number of corpses buried at the church of St. Marry of Zion was claimed to be around 720. This number does not include the farmers murdered in their homes in nearby villages.
The morning after the horrors, 29 November, many corpses lay strewn about on street corners. I saw more than 10 dead bodies lying in the street as I was going to the church to attend Eyob’s funeral.
The Eritrean army knocked on every door found around St. Michael’s church, and they had a well-organized team to do the robbery and murders. That day, they killed hundreds of youths and looted many households in broad light, including jewelry from women’s necks.
I heard that, in some of the houses they looted, they asked the women to make them coffee saying, “We, Eritreans and Tigrayans, are brothers and sisters,” in a teasing manner.
30 November was ‘Hidar Tsion’ (the annual celebration of St. Mary’s day). Before the war started, the city had been making grand preparations to celebrate the holiday colorfully, as that time is a high season for residents. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what took place. 30 November is registered as a black and bloody day in the history of the Hidar Tsion celebration.
On 1 December, the Eritrean troops began looting private businesses on the main street. This went on for three consecutive days. As luck would have it, the only house that wasn’t searched and robbed in those days was the hotel where we stayed.
After the Eritrean troops had massacred the townspeople and robbed every property they deem valuable, they loaded up trucks and took everything they stole through the Adwa-Rama and Wukro-Chilla routes. Once they had finished doing this in Aksum, they moved to the rural areas to do the same.
I would say the catastrophes in the villages were more awful. They would conduct house-to-house searches for militias. If someone was recognized as a militia, they would immediately kill that person, burn the house and crops, and kill all the livestock. In some houses, they kept the women and kids locked in a house for days without food and drink. Stolen cattle, sheep, and goats became the main sources of food for the troops during their stay in the nearby villages.
So many households, governmental offices, hospitals and clinics, public institutions, private business facilities were systematically robbed and demolished. Scores of people with chronic illnesses died in their homes as there was no medication available in the city’s pharmacies.
I cannot fail to remember the two solid days of uninterrupted horror: a boy around the age of twelve, with no option but to defend himself from the door-to-door killings, carrying two guns, one in each hand, joining the battle on 28 November; a young lady raped by Eritrean troops going house to house searching for anti-pregnancy pills; a group of helpless men walking along the main road carrying a pregnant woman on a wood pallet on their shoulders looking for a midwife; veterans of the 17 years struggle against the Dergue regime, including my uncle, forced by the Eritrean solders to kneel and walk bare footed on the harvested lands; St. Mary’s hospital gate used as a camp by the Ethiopian troops; stolen Red Cross ambulances serving as transportation vehicles for the Eritrean Army; a guy whom I knew in the hotel gunned down with three bullets in the chest as we stood on the street outside the hotel; a mother who found her son lying dead on the street being forced by the murderers to jump ten times back-and-forth over her son’s lifeless body; two-wheel carts drawn by horse laden with corpses going to the church for burial.
Regarding the Ethiopian troops, we had no idea what happened to the soldiers who had been there before. Maybe they all died in one of the battles. The Ethiopian government brought new heavily armed troops and let them camp at Ezana park, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Ethio Telecom, and at Atranos Hotel. Later, we discovered that most of these reinforcements came from the Southern region of Ethiopia and that they had no clue about what had happened in Aksum during the previous days. For about two months, it has been common to hear the sound of gunshots every night, followed by the tragic news of murdered people the following day.
While all these atrocities were unfolding in Aksum, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was telling the parliament that “Not even one civilian got killed.” In a similar fashion, some priests who had come from Addis Abeba with their special commandos to celebrate ‘Hidar Tsion’ attempted to show the world that the holiday celebrations were conducted peacefully.
But for all Tigrayans, and residents of Aksum in particular, that was a dark and bloody day. To compound their crimes, the gun-toting Ethiopian troops on the streets were chanting, “TPLF is dead once and for all, no more Woyane!” as if all the civilians murdered and intimidated were pro-TPLF.
Two futile months have since passed as I sit in this hapless city, Aksum. I long for the freedom to travel freely at a time when Tigray is free of Eritrean and Ethiopian troops. I hope that this will happen soon. But, there has been no sign of it in the past months.
In fact, since 19 November, I don’t think I have seen members of the Tigray Defense Forces. We hear bits of energizing rumors about their activity from people coming from the villages. There were rumors about the readiness of Tigray forces to come and free Axum very soon. At first, it was said this will happen on Hidar Tsion, then on Christmas, and then on Epiphany.
When I eventually managed to travel from Aksum to Mekelle, I saw an overwhelming number of enemy troops. I said to myself, “if God exists, why would he unleash such horror on Tigray?!”
I arrived at Mekele on 09 January, and I was able to finally meet my family members.
War crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity have become an everyday occurrence in Tigray. And yet, the world is not responding in an apt manner. The silence hurts, and in the words of Martin Luther King jr., “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I now know that we have lost everything. Many things have been destroyed by the atrocities that span from Mai Kadra to Mariam Denglet in Edaga Hamus and from Aksum to Bora-Slewa. Now we are aggrieved and having a bumpy ride. Nevertheless, we are well prepared to accept all the wounds and face all the challenges until we realize a nation we can proudly and confidently call ‘motherland.’ Things will change for the better!
Alas, we will never give up. Tigray will prevail!
(This is an extended version of the piece published on TGHAT.)
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: The Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum; Amnesty International
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