Fleeing War – A Personal Experience
I planned on spending 3 weeks in Tigray, mainly in Mekelle, but I had a desire to see other parts of Tigray. The purpose of my trip was to lay the foundation for a move later this year. I was eager to start a life in Tigray; to make a tangible contribution to my homeland.
The atmosphere in the city in the weeks leading up to the war was invigorating as people were going to southern Tigray, Raya, to help farmers with the locust outbreak.
The following week, the news reported that an Army General was allocated for the Northern Command, and he flew into Alula Aba Nega Airport, Mekelle. Everyone was confused, what could’ve prompted this? Looking back, that was probably when they intended to wage war on Tigray. Nonetheless, the General was sent back.
The night of Tuesday, November 3rd, I had dinner with a friend. It was a beautiful night, and after dinner, we walked the streets of Mekelle. Once I got home, a friend called to say he could hear shooting and that war had been declared. It’s very difficult to describe the thoughts that ran through my mind as I struggled to comprehend what he was saying. He gave me clear instructions: sleep on the floor, stay away from any windows, put my bed in front of the door, switch off the lights and charge my phone.
I kept asking if he was sure–I was just walking outside and hadn’t heard anything. I called my friend to ensure he got home safely, but he said he couldn’t hear anything. I called a friend in Addis, friends in London, but no one answered. I decided to call my cousin in the United States, I told her what was happening; she panicked. I asked her to see if she could find anything on the internet on what was happening, but 20 minutes into the conversation the phone lines disconnected. Electricity cut off, and we were truly in the dark.
The following day, I went to my aunt’s house, and we began sharing stories from the night before. She said she heard shooting just after midnight. The message going around the city was that 500 commandos arrived at Alula Aba Nega Airport under the pretext of bringing new notes to Tigray. But with the intention of assassinating TPLF officials. Our militia was alerted of this, and within an hour, ‘it was handled’. Nothing had changed in the city except – banks were closed. I had heard there was limited petrol in the city, and over the next couple of days I did notice there weren’t many taxis or bajajs around.
Three days later, I was with my aunt when we heard the harrowing sound of the first of many fighter jets that would terrorize us in the coming weeks. The jets fly low to remain undetected by radars, it was deafening. I peeped my head out of the living room to see it, it was incredibly low, circled us then left. We sat in complete silence, we were in shock as we slowly accepted our new reality of war.
We remained disconnected and completely unaware of what was happening outside of Mekelle. I remember thinking things would change after this so I took a picture of my grandmother’s house, to remember it in its current state.
After that day, I had trouble sleeping. I was constantly on guard. I began journaling to cope and pass time during my sleepless nights – I was convinced that I was in Tigray experiencing this for a reason; perhaps this was my chance to put my love for my ancestral land to use.
One night I heard three loud blasts – I felt alone so I contemplated going to my aunt’s house. As absurd as it sounds, I was anxious that I’d be taking death with me so I decided not to go. I thought it’d be better to die alone than potentially witness others dying.
Life was a continuation of such events, and aside from the occasional airstrikes, Mekelle was relatively safe. Ironically, we still had agency to do as we pleased. I remain awestruck imagining how I witnessed a revolution begin like the ones my parents and grandparents lived through and spoke about during my childhood. The psyche of Tigrayans is truly mind-blowing to witness – I felt shielded by the resilience that surrounded me. I would often listen to old war songs and be moved to tears that history was mockingly repeating itself and yet simultaneously reminded of our unshakeable courage. The women in Tigray spoke love and protection over me. Without intending to romanticize conflict, it was truly remarkable to be around such power and strength.
The journey to Addis Ababa and my time spent there – was a glimpse into how layered this conflict was. Not only were Tigrayans being attacked by fighter jets, we were also being subdued by more insidious measures of suppression.
After 2 weeks, the United Nations worked with our individual embassies to evacuate us. The journey was chaotic and frightening. We passed through the Afar region and were made to stay in its capital, Semera, for 4 days. The Afar sun is scorching and suffocating. Our time there was largely spent at the Police Commissioner’s office – confused, hungry, thirsty, fatigued and scared. Infants were wailing, and the elderly were near collapse. Despite the adversity, it was remarkable to see Tigrayans extending compassion and help to one another.
The only available toilet was a latrine thinly covered by metal. The entire four corners were covered in feces. I was on my period, I hadn’t used the toilet since leaving Mekelle the day before. I wanted to burst into tears, I didn’t know what to do. A young woman saw me pacing back and forth to the latrine in distress and showed me where she and her sisters were praying. She advised me to use that space, discreetly. My spirit and dignity were shattered as I changed my sanitary pad while people watched me.
The security checks in Semera were intense and excessive. We were taken to the middle of nowhere, a desert. We were instructed to get off the bus, open our suitcases and prepare for interrogation. I anxiously awaited my turn. When it arrived, the federal officer emptied the entire contents of my luggage onto the dusty ground. He purposefully picked up a single piece of underwear in an attempt to belittle me– as if the whole ordeal was not distressing enough.
On our third day in Semera, a UN member of staff told us, ‘‘there is some good news and bad news: the good news is some of you will be leaving Semera today – the bad news is some will remain for further questioning.” Immediate panic ensued. We gathered in groups asking ourselves who would be remaining? He then said we were returning to the Police Commissioner’s office to be provided with more information. Once we arrived, we gathered around him in anticipation, a member of staff whispered something to him – he changed his mind and decided we would go to Semera Airport.
The scene at the airport was complete lawlessness. People were pushing anyone, including children, in an attempt to get to the front of the queue. UN staff told us to form queues by our nationalities, after some time they began calling nationalities – they started with Indian, Sri-Lankan, Sudanese, Somali and then Eritrean nationals. We were in complete shock that Eritrean nationals would be called before Ethiopians. Only Ethiopians were remaining at this point, so we prepared ourselves. They called US citizens, Eritrean born; UK citizens, Eritrean born etc. I’m unable to describe the depths of our despair – some cried, others were enraged. Ethnic Tigrayans sat outside the airport waiting to be called. It was yet another insight into the treatment of Tigrayans in Ethiopia.
Eventually, we were allowed to go. Many of us had lost any hope of leaving that day. We sat outside the airport for five hours and watched a plane take off – we were later told the plane left with only 75 people on board.
By our fourth day, we arrived in Addis Ababa. Getting onto that plane was probably the single most distressing point of my life. In anticipation of the departure doors opening, a friend turned to me and said ‘The minute these doors open, I need you to run. If I fall, leave me behind. Just run!’ I tried to explain that any capacity in me to fight was drained. I simply could not do what he was asking of me.
When the departure doors opened complete anarchy descended. I was pushed onto the floor. I saw a man carrying his son, both pushed – the child hit his head on the door. I could see everyone in front of me, I couldn’t move. I was stuck. My bag was stuck between people. I tried to wiggle free. Once outside, I began running, but didn’t feel like I was in motion. A friend ran over to me, took ahold of my bag, stood in line, and waited for me. I was out of breath and overcome with tears. I couldn’t believe what my life had become.
The flight to the capital city took forty minutes, but once we arrived, further questions awaited us:
‘‘Why were you in Tigray?”
‘‘Do you have any family members that are fighters?”
“Where do your parents live – what is their occupation?”
“Do you know any politicians?”
“Give us the names and addresses of your family members in Addis Ababa.”
Ethnic Tigrayans were instructed to report to the Airport every two days or face imprisonment. From the moment of our arrival in Addis Ababa, we were harassed and humiliated. It was clear, we were to be treated like criminals.
Tigrayans were then told we would have to go to the UN grounds in Kazanchis. Again, all other nationalities were allowed to leave the Airport but us. Once we arrived, we spoke to our embassy representatives. I was asked about my well-being. It was the first time we were spoken to with compassion and kindness.
The representative told me that ethnic Tigrayans were facing difficulty leaving the country, and those of us that’d recently left the region would probably be denied entry into the airport. He advised me to arrive at the airport hours in advance of my flight, and when taken for interrogation, to comply with demands and wait for another officer to switch shifts. There was truly nothing to be done and no one to safeguard us; our passports meant nothing.
I informed security officers once I had booked a flight. During the night of departure, I was taken off my flight and accused of lying. I was explicitly told I would not be able to leave the country. An officer turned to me and said, “I’ve told you, you’re not leaving the country, be quiet and stand over there!” gesturing to stand away from them. I had so many questions, I didn’t know what they were referring to. I faced another round of questioning, but I was eventually allowed to board the flight.
Humiliated, demeaned and powerless, I cried as the plane took off. It was the first time I was still. I was forced to confront everything I had suppressed from November 4th.
Omna Tigray Contributor 01/26/2021