This report is important, but yet again it is from the Ethiopian/Amhara perspective. No international journalist has recently reported from the Tigrayan side of the lines.

Source: The Guardian

‘We have to prepare’: Tigray’s neighbours on war footing as peace remains elusive

Militia at the Epiphany of Saint George celebrations, Lalibela, Amhara. The region was the focus of fighting in recent months

Ethiopia’s government has declared a new phase of reconciliation, but a cycle of atrocities on all sides has left a legacy of mistrust. War is far from over, say those on the groundGlobal development is supported by

Reporter in Lalibela Wed 2 Feb 2022 07.30 GMT

At first sight, it could have been any normal year. Pilgrims, shrouded in white shawls, smiled as they walked the winding cobblestone streets, shaded from the glare of the midday sun by a sea of colourful umbrellas. Young men and women danced and sang, thrusting wooden sticks joyously into the air, as priests blessed onlookers beside a church carved into the mountainside.

The Epiphany of Saint George, an ancient Orthodox Christian tradition, was celebrated in Lalibela on 26 January just as it has always been. The northern Ethiopian town, a Unesco world heritage site renowned for its dazzling rock-hewn churches, is coming back to life after several angst-ridden months on the frontline of Ethiopia’s devastating civil war. “It is a day of double joy for us,” says Father Tsige Mezgebu, the archbishop who officiated the ceremony.

Yet beneath the surface of normality are telltale signs of a conflict that rumbles only a few hours’ drive away: soldiers slumped in cafes, armed police bristling behind the rows of priests, militiamen in faded uniforms, rusty Kalashnikovs at the ready. For those who thought the war was over, Father Tsige has a different message: Pray again for the fighting to end, and do not celebrate before it has.

His words are a subtle riposte to the central government of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. In recent weeks it has pledged there will be victory over rebels from Tigray, the region to Lalibela’s north led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and that, after more than a year of war, Ethiopia is entering a phase of reconstruction and national reconciliation.

At the start of the year, on Ethiopian Christmas, the government released several high-profile political opponents from prison, including senior TPLF officials, in an act it described as “victor’s mercy”. On 26 January, it announced the lifting of a draconian state of emergency, imposed in November last year as Tigrayan forces fought their way to within 100 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa, before being pushed back by government forces abetted by newly purchased armed drones.

“The whole world has accepted and recognised that we are indomitable and undefeated,” Abiy recently told triumphant supporters.

Yet Lalibela, like much of Amhara, the country’s second most populous region and the focus of fighting in recent months, remains on a war footing. Several schools and some of the town’s hotels remain occupied by troops, as well as many of the fields and mud-brick homes lining the road from the airport.

Tesfa Habte, head of the local branch of the ruling party, says authorities will continue to train people for battle in case Tigrayan forces overrun Lalibela again, as they did twice last year. “If the TPLF terrorist group is given time, they will reorganise and return to Amhara,” she says. “So we have to prepare ourselves.”

The day before the Epiphany festival, at a military camp stationed in a kindergarten, volunteers known as Fanos took part in marching drills, shouting nationalist war cries and occasionally weeping with emotion. Those preparing to head into battle the next morning say the conflict is not over, and they are ready to fight to defend Amhara against what they see as a war of aggression waged by the TPLF.

Volunteer fighters known as Fanos take part in regular marching drills and say they are ready to defend Lalibela.
Volunteer fighters known as Fanos take part in regular marching drills and say they are ready to defend Lalibela

“The purpose of the TPLF is to destroy Ethiopia,” says Workeye Zenebe, a 21-year-old who left her home near the eastern Amhara town of Kobo soon after it was captured by Tigrayan forces last summer. Still lacking a gun, but soon to be dispatched to the frontline after just a month of rudimentary training, Workeye says she enlisted to avenge the rapes and killings she had seen in her village. “The TPLF is the worst thing,” she says. “They must be eliminated from the earth.”

The TPLF, which dominated the central government before Abiy’s became prime minister in 2018, says its forces marched south into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions to break what the UN has called a “de facto blockade” of Tigray by Abiy’s government. Obstruction of aid delivery into the region, as well as ongoing fighting, has left millions severely hungry. More recently, the TPLF said it was withdrawing its forces from neighbouring regions to allow for a “decisive opening for peace” and to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid.

But fighting on several fronts has since continued unabated, with government forces conducting regular air assaults, including drone strikes on Tigray. On 8 January, at least 56 people were reportedly killed in an airstrike on a camp for internally displaced people, prompting aid agencies to suspend their work. A fortnight later, Ethiopia’s deputy army chief, in an apparent disavowal of official government policy, threatened that federal troops would return to “eliminate” the TPLF imminently. Then, on 25 January, the TPLF claimed they had been provoked into launching a new round of “robust” military operations in Afar.

The vengeful cycle of atrocities and possible war crimes inflicted on civilians from all sides of Ethiopia’s civil war has left a poisonous legacy of mistrust. In Lalibela, though spared the worst, people reported cases of rape as well as looting of hotels, shops and homes during the four-month rebel occupation. Though they all expressed a strong desire for peace, most viewed the idea of negotiations, which the TPLF has called for and which the federal government is said to be considering, with suspicion.

One such resident is Girma Sora, a Fano fighter with a uniform decorated with the Ethiopian tricolour flag, which was sewn in the tailoring shop he established after his release from prison four years ago. On returning to Lalibela alongside the advancing Ethiopian army last month, he found all his clothes had been stolen, along with the cement and construction materials he had been using to build a workshop next door. “I have to start all over again now,” he says. “The TPLF are terrorists, so the government has to destroy them.”

As for Father Tsige, he applauds the government’s release of TPLF officials from prison, arguing that it was an important step toward making peace. But he too doubts the war is nearly over. “War is like football,” he says. “It swings one way, and then back the other.”