Ethiopia: Reporter's Notebook - Breezy Regional Capital Belies Horrors of Tigray Conflict


The breezy, cool markets are moderately crowded on Wednesday afternoon, and blue tuk-tuks whiz through the streets. Sidewalk juice and coffee shops are busy, in what appears to be a relaxed regional capital.

But it is not long before we notice glimpses of how much this city is not relaxed. War has permeated every aspect of life here, from mundane activities to unspeakable horrors, such as children being shot at and knifed.

Mobile phone data doesn't work, and only a few hotels and organizations have Wi-Fi. In our hotel lobby, one of the lucky few with a connection, the bar area is packed with college-age men and women, and soldiers with their AK assault rifles on the tables. Most eyes are glued to mobile phones.

But they are not just catching up on emails and Facebook. Everyone seems to be worrying about someone who is out of contact and possibly displaced, injured or worse.

An evening curfew begins at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m., depending on whom you ask. Either way, they say, getting home before night falls is preferable because the streets are dangerous after dark.

Only last year, Mekelle was run by an entirely different government, and when the federal government took over last year, the police just left, many presumably to fight with the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which formerly controlled the city.

"Every night we have to take everything we have in our store back home and bring it back the next morning," a tailor in the market tells us as he closes up shop, adding that he doesn't want his name or picture in the press for security reasons. "It's not safe."


The next morning, we visit the newest displacement camp in the city -- it is only a month or so old. It is one of 26 camps in this city, where 200,000 people are displaced. Across Tigray, about 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes since last November.

At first glance the camp looks quaint and comfortable. It is an adapted school campus, with ample trees and stone buildings painted with things like maps and microscopes.

But we soon learn that the more than 7,000 residents are not enjoying the views. The camp is overcrowded, with as many as 100 people sleeping in a classroom about 10 meters by 8 meters. What's more, there is very little food. By midafternoon, almost no one we speak to has eaten yet.

Less than a year ago, this region was at peace. Displaced families here now mourn their thousands of dead and missing, along with their homes, farms and businesses.

"I had my own kiosk in my hometown," says Merchawit Kiros, a 27-year-old mother of one, who is six months pregnant with her next child. Merchawit was stoic when she described the violence of displacement, but when her shop comes up, she bursts into tears. "When the soldiers came in, they looted it and took everything. I used to sell many things, like sugar, coffee, candles and matches."

Another camp in town also looks like a tiny village. It is a converted campus, with English lessons dangling from the ceilings of the classrooms. It is smaller than the first camp, and a Catholic charity provides food for the residents. It's still crowded, with 35 to 45 people packed in a room, and there is a monthslong waiting list to get in.

On a bench in what once was a play yard, we meet Gebre Gebreslase, a 70-year-old former cattle farmer, as he waits for news of his place in line. Right now, he is staying with family in the city, but it is crowded and his family is poor.

He wears a fraying cowboy hat and a black mask against coronavirus, one of the few to be seen in the yard. Tigray is unsure of how much COVID-19 is present -- they started testing only about a month ago, according to local hospital workers.

Like others from his community who are sitting on the bench, Gebre cannot imagine ever going back to his home, which he fled as gunfire blasted through the town. He says he is certain that his properties and animals have all long been confiscated by the controlling forces.

"I had 130 cows, 70 goats and a villa," he says. "Now I am a beggar."


As dismal as the camps are, nothing could prepare us for what we see at the hospital later in the day. Dozens of children with missing limbs, broken bones and gunshot wounds fill room after room, with quiet parents by their side. The children are also mostly silent.

"The only noise she makes is crying or asking for her mother," says Gabre Hiwet, a young father, speaking of his 4-year-old daughter, Samrawit, who winces at the metal bars stuck in her broken leg.

Gabre then goes on to describe how he wasn't home on March 30, when eight members of his family were killed, including his wife. Little Samrawit was the only survivor, after being knifed in the leg and shot through her left hand.

"She was bleeding so badly, we thought she was dead," Gabre says. "We couldn't believe she survived."

It's a story so gruesome, we might not believe it, if it weren't for the fact that displaced families and refugees from Tigray have told us stories like this, over and over, from every corner of the region.

We meet other children wounded from sniper fire, point-blank shootings, artillery fire, planted mines and other explosives. A 15-year-old girl, Beriha, was hit in the face by a bullet that exited through her left eye. Her doctors say she will survive, permanently blinded, but hopefully one day with less pain.

Downstairs, the cheerful hospital garden belies the facility's lack of medical supplies.

"There is a shortage of everything," says one medical student, briskly explaining the snowball effect of substandard medicine that allows the patients to get sicker and puts them in need of even more advanced treatments that the hospital doesn't have.

Around the corner, a military truck of injured soldiers reminds us there is a war still going on, and hospital workers say more wounded fighters arrive almost every evening. Much of the region is closed to reporters and, more tragically, aid workers, leaving 90% of the people in Tigray in desperate need of emergency food.

At the hospital, there are no battles and hardly any noise. No one appears to be starving. Just a stark view of the horror that families in Tigray are facing.

"Forget the bang-bang," says Yan Boechat, our photojournalist. "This is the real war."

The war in Ethiopia's Tigray region has claimed thousands of lives and displaced as many as 2 million people

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