A rare insight into life inside the blockade
Dec 12th 2022Share
By Tom Gardner
As a teenager Kibrom dreamed of America. His older brother had lucked out in the green-card lottery in 2010 and Kibrom longed to join him. His mother died when Kibrom (a pseudonym) was three; his father drank himself to death a year later. Raised by his uncle, Kibrom studied hard, winning a scholarship to high school and then going on to university. He used a bank loan to open a garage in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. He still thought of America – but he shrank from joining other young Ethiopians who were making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. He concentrated on building his business: within a year he’d paid back the loan. Then came war.
When the gunfire started in November 2020, as government forces clashed with local Tigrayan fighters, Kibrom cowered at home with his sister. He had been pleased when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018, inspired by Abiy’s promise to create jobs for the young. But Kibrom soon found himself pulled in different directions, as Abiy started whipping up animosity towards ethnic Tigrayans, who make up 6% of the population. He tried to quash the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (tplf), a political party that had dominated national politics for decades and remained the regional power in Tigray.Two of the three friends Kibrom was travelling with turned back, spooked by tales of angry Amhara militiamen roving the borderlands
As the civil war escalated, government troops took control of Tigray’s capital and Tigrayan forces fled to the mountains (soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea also flooded the region in support of Abiy). All communications were cut off. The regional border was sealed. The 6m people of Tigray, most of whom are ethnic Tigrayans, were banned from leaving.
Two years on, the siege has ravaged Kibrom’s family. His six nieces and nephews have been stuck at home as schools closed and teachers went off to fight. The family has tried to eke out their savings; with banking services shut down, Kibrom’s brother in America could no longer wire money.
Kibrom saw patients turned away from the only hospital in Tigray still functioning; people died for lack of food or medicine. Starving refugees from remote areas of Tigray streamed into the capital. At one point Kibrom took in a refugee, but by this spring he was running out of money and realised that he was becoming more callous. “When you give to one and not to the other”, he told me, “you learn cruelty.”
Though a tentative peace deal was struck in early November, parts of Tigray have still received no aid. Most people have little idea what happened inside this besieged region of Ethiopia during this time. One of those who does know is Kibrom, because he managed the near-impossible: he got out.
Late last year officials in Mekelle began forcing civilians to enlist in the Tigray Defence Forces; parents were threatened with jail if their children didn’t sign up. (Tigray’s authorities deny enforcing conscription.) As a wiry 20-something, Kibrom was liable to be called up, so he went into hiding by day. He returned home only after sunset, almost as scared of his own people as he was of government and Eritrean forces.“It was horrifying. They told us it was a camp, but really it’s a prison”
In April, with 4,000 birr ($75) in his pocket, Kibron boarded a bus headed south towards the region of Amhara. In normal times the open plain between Tigray and Amhara was easy to cross but, with Tigray under siege, the border was crawling with government soldiers and local militia. Two of the three friends Kibrom was travelling with turned back, spooked by tales of angry Amhara militiamen roving the borderlands. Kibrom gave them his phone and id card, which would have revealed his birthplace and ethnicity.
Kibrom and his friend Haile each paid 1,000 birr ($19) to a teenager from Amhara to guide them across the border. As they stepped quietly through a short stretch of bushes, Kibrom fixed his eyes on the silhouette of the smuggler and mouthed a prayer. At midnight, when the soldiers took a short break, the man led them to a safe house just over the border. An Amhara farmer welcomed them with injera (flatbread), shiro (chickpea stew) and home-brewed beer; in a traditional gesture of hospitality, he offered to wash their feet.
The men had chosen their crossing date carefully. It was Easter and they expected most people to be in church when they left the safe house the following day. Instead, local police picked them up almost immediately. Kibrom found himself penned in with thousands of other destitute exiles behind barbed-wire fences, a refugee in his own country. “They told us it was a camp for internally displaced people. Really it was a prison,” said Kibrom.
In the camp, you had to pay money to eat, even to use the toilet. Bribing the guards was unaffordable – Kibrom would need at least 25,000 birr ($475) – but jumping the fence and trekking for miles through the inhospitable landscape seemed equally impossible. He spent hours each day praying with an elderly Amhara church deacon whom he recognised from home and who shared his food with Kibrom and his friend and gave them a mattress.Kibrom found himself penned in with thousands of other destitute exiles behind barbed-wire fences, a refugee in his own country
The world beyond the camp was forbidding. There were rumours that the Fano, an Amhara militia that was aligned with the government against Tigray, were digging a large grave outside the camp. A young Tigrayan woman who’d escaped returned with terrifying tales of six fellow runaways who’d been captured by Fano fighters. Even the soldiers were prisoners of a kind: sometimes they’d join inmates to talk and pray.
In May, within weeks of Kibrom’s arrival, three men came to recruit fighters for an armed Tigrayan movement hostile to the tplf. They promised a phone to new recruits, even the possibility of a government job in Tigray. Kibrom and his friend took up the offer. So did another 90 detainees.
A bus took them to a military hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. As soon as they arrived, Kibrom pretended to help an elderly man who was leaving the hospital. Then he slipped out of the gate and melted into the flow of pedestrians on the street.
For days he hid. Eventually, with the help of his brother in America, he was able to buy a ticket to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Officials at the airport accused Kibrom of being a member of the tplf. They started to ease up when he showed them his university diploma proving that he’d studied in southern Ethiopia, far from Tigray. He spoke some Wolaita, the native southern tongue of one of the officials. Finally, he was waved through the gate.
Imet Kibrom in June, three days after he arrived in Nairobi. Sitting in a loud mall surrounded by middle-class Kenyans enjoying croissants and flat-whites, Kibrom was still on edge: rumours of Ethiopian and Eritrean spies abounded among the community of Tigrayan exiles in Nairobi.
As soon as he arrived in Kenya, Kibrom applied to a university in America, but he then found out that it might take a year to get a visa appointment at the American embassy. He kept coming up with new plans – to go to Uganda, to Britain, then elsewhere. He realised there were only two ways out: bribe the guards or jump the fence
Kibrom had left behind his friend Haile when he escaped, so Kibrom was ecstatic to discover that Haile had later fled too, via Sudan. In early November, after government troops captured large parts of Tigray, the tplf finally signed a controversial agreement with Abiy to end the war. But it wasn’t all good news. Despite the supposed lifting of the siege, Eritrean troops remain in Tigray, putting the truce under strain. There is still no phone service in most areas, no banking, no freedom of movement.
Kibrom remains stuck in limbo, unable to realise his dream, unwilling to return home. In November, he heard from his family for the first time in months. No aid had reached them yet and one of his close relatives had died recently, because she couldn’t get the insulin needed to treat her diabetes. These past two years his family has thought only about food, he said: “Tigray has become hell.”■A
Tom Gardner is a correspondent for the Economist