From Shadows to Light: Mekelle’s Journey Back – A Story of Resilience

From Shadows to Light: Mekelle’s Journey Back – A Story of Resilience

On November 4, 2020, an unexpectedly gruesome genocidal war turned Tigrayan lives into hell on earth. Tensions between Tigray’s elected regional government and the Ethiopian federal government, along with ethnically targeted measures, had been escalating since 2018. However, no one could have predicted that the federal government, with help from Eritrean forces, Amhara regional militias, and some Somali soldiers, would encircle Tigray and launch such a brutal all-around offensive. Their goal and intent was total destruction and annihilation, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and devastating Tigray’s infrastructure. The war was launched during harvest time, compounding the suffering of the Tigrayan people and creating an immense humanitarian crisis. 

Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, is strategically, politically, and symbolically crucial, representing the administrative heart and the resilient spirit of Tigray. In late November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces captured Mekelle, a significant event declared a major victory by the federal government. Atrocity crimes across Tigray ensued. However, Tigrayan resistance persisted. Having retreated to Tigray’s mountains, Tigray’s regional fighters regrouped, and thousands joined what would become the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). In June 2021, the TDF launched a successful counter-offensive, recapturing Mekelle after months of guerrilla warfare on the 28th of the month. The TDF taking control of the region’s capital showcased Tigray’s and the TDF’s resilience and significantly altered the conflict’s dynamics. 

This change in control of the region’s capital ushered in widespread jubilation and hope among Mekelle’s residents and Tigrayans around the world. Personal testimonies revealed a mix of relief and joy, from residents feeling a profound sense of security as familiar faces returned to shop owners witnessing the reopening of businesses and what they thought might bring a return to normalcy. Survivors expressed resilience and unity. These accounts underscored the deep connection between the TDF,  its cause, and Tigray’s population, reflecting a shared determination to restore stability and rebuild Tigray amidst a backdrop of adversity and hope for a brighter, peaceful future. 

That said, TDF’s remarkable victory led the Ethiopian government to shift its genocidal strategy. The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire, citing humanitarian reasons; however, what ensued was a complete siege of the region and a de facto humanitarian blockade while about more than 40% of Tigray remained occupied by Eritrean troops and Amhara regional forces.

From July 2021, Tigray was completely sealed off from the rest of the world. While 91% of Tigray’s population needed emergency humanitarian aid, the Ethiopian government and its allies ensured aid did not reach the starving people of Tigray, who had just suffered through unimaginable war crimes and crimes against humanity.  In September 2022, the United Nations’ International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) determined that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that the denial and obstruction of humanitarian access to the Tigray region by the Federal government of and allied regional State governments was committed for the purpose of depriving the Tigrayan population of objects indispensable for its survival, including food and healthcare.” 

In November 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa, a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) was reached between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray’s elected regional government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Despite this deal signed to alleviate the immense suffering in Tigray, a drastic change in humanitarian conditions did not occur. Some aid did resume, but the humanitarian blockade largely continued, hidden under the veil of the CoHA. To this day, the humanitarian situation remains severe, as the CoHA remains largely unimplemented. Starvation continues across Tigray, while crimes against humanity ensue in parts of Tigray that remain under the brutal occupation of Amhara and Eritrean forces. Though the international community, through the African Union, helped broker the CoHA, its commitment to ensure the Ethiopian government upholds its end of the deal has been lackluster and half-hearted.  Achieving peace and stability in Tigray remains very complex, requiring sustained efforts and genuine commitment from all parties involved. 

As we mark three years since the TDF’s triumphant return to Mekelle and what was thought to be the beginning of a Tigray free of genocide, brutalization, and oppression from the Ethiopian state, we are reminded of the resilience of Tigray’s people. This is a resilience and innate strength that is required now more than ever. Thousands struggle to survive in displacement camps across the region, Tigray’s social fabric is destroyed, and much of Tigray is still occupied. The Tigray government must ensure the sacrifices of Tigray’s martyrs are not in vain. They should be reminded of what it means to be Tigrayan and fight for Tigray’s future. 

Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2024

All images were sourced from AFP.