More than half a million people are said to have perished in northern Ethiopia, in a war that the world has never been interested in. Now there is peace. And for the first time, you can talk to those who are left.

Source: Suddeutsche Zeitung

By Bernd Dörries and Ben Heubl

10 January 2023 – 11 min reading time

Ariam had saved to please herself, and her brother Bereket too. For weeks and months, she had saved one birr a week, or sometimes two, until it was enough for a visit to the Res Kids Paradise a few hundred metres up the paved road. There was a slide with Mickey Mouse, a trampoline and a small merry-go-round, and sometimes a clown came by and made faces. By the end of August 2022, Ariam had the twenty birr entrance fee together for herself and her brother. On 26 August, Birhanu Hishe, the uncle of the two, saw the children leaving the house. Excited, he wished them a good time.

When the uncle came back from work at the office in the afternoon, he heard the bombs and then the jet. He heard screams and ran over to Res Kids Paradise, which was now hell. The slides broken, the bouncy castle exploded, blood on toys, Bereket on the ground, hit by steel pieces. “I lifted him up, he wasn’t breathing, we went to the hospital, the doctors said it was too late.” His sister survived, she was six years old at the time, her brother ten.

Mekele, capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, early January. Birhanu Hishe is sitting in his sister’s courtyard, his niece Ariam is running around. Be careful, says the uncle, think of the splinters in your head and legs.

At the back of the house, the mother is working in the kitchen, in the living room next to her, two cuddly bears lie on the sofa blanket, above them hangs a picture: Ariam and Bereket in the traditional dress of Tigray, white linen, colourful patterns around their necks.

At night, says the uncle, it is worst, when Ariam cries and screams for his brother. “If the world had paid more attention to this war, it could have been stopped, but everyone was only talking about Ukraine,” says Birhanu Hishe.

Ukraine was seen by many as a turning point in world politics, the war in Tigray as one of those African wars that are difficult to understand. Nothing can be done. Two months ago, the parties to the conflict made peace after two years, since the end of December there have been flights to Mekele again, the internet is working again and more aid is arriving. On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her French colleague Catherine Colonna will travel to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to get a picture of the situation, as they say. It is a visit that looks forward rather than back: How can we turn the hitherto fragile peace into a stable one?

When Baerbock came into office a little over a year ago, she announced that she wanted to pursue a feminist foreign policy – in Ethiopia, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of women were raped, some had metal parts inserted into their genitals, sometimes they were abused in front of their relatives. This is how survivors reported it. Throughout the conflict, Baerbock did not speak about all the deaths and suffering, not about the rapes, not about the attack on Res Kids Paradise. Only twice did she make very general statements on Twitter that the country should find peace; in a speech in Nigeria she praised the peace efforts of the African Union.

Baerbock will not travel to the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government is doing a lot to ensure that as little as possible of what has happened there in the past two years gets out. Journalists do not get visas for the conflict region, for months no one came to Mekele. Nevertheless, it was now possible to travel to Tigray and talk to victims of the war on the ground and collect evidence about who might be responsible for crimes like the attack on the Res Kids Paradise children’s park, for which both parties to the conflict blame each other. It is a first look at a war that was fought in secret.

Beiry Gebreyohans has been standing in a long queue in downtown Mekele for about two hours. Small three-wheeled taxis race past, a cool wind blows. The town is in a cauldron, many low and angular houses, the streets have flower boxes in the middle. Beiry Gebreyohans says it is a great feeling to wait here, the best perhaps in the past two years. In front of her, about a hundred people are still standing in front of a branch of Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telephone provider. The offices were deserted for almost two years, that’s how long the internet was shut down. “I am so happy that peace is here,” says Beiry Gebreyohans. Who will she call first? She smiles, she has already borrowed a mobile phone from friends in the past few days and called the sisters in Addis Ababa and the relatives in Adigrat whom she has not spoken to for two years. She does not need the new sim card to call anyone, but to be reachable. “My brother has been lost in the war for two years, if he is still alive he will get in touch,” says Beiry Gebreyohans.

They are the kind of stories you hear everywhere in Mekele. It is as if a whole region is awakening from a trauma and reconnecting with the world. Banks are opening, planes are landing, there is beer in the bars again. Parents hug their children returning from the front, relatives hear from the family, people hug each other at the airport and in the city. Some tell of what it was like in a city where almost no cars drove because there was no more petrol, where suddenly everyone walked. And where they constantly had to run away when the drones came and the bombers. How solidarity grew, people helped each other when the supermarkets ran out of food and money. There is a lot of beauty in these days – and a lot of sadness when you learn who is no longer there.

How many deaths were caused by this war cannot yet be determined. Statisticians at the University of Ghent in Belgium estimate that between 385,000 and 600,000 people may have died. It is probably not so much the war itself that has brought death to many through bombs and gunfire, but the hunger that has arisen because farmers could not harvest their crops, no food came to Tigray and the health system collapsed.

Tigray is located in the very north of Ethiopia, in a country whose inhabitants are proud of never having been colonised, at least not by the Europeans. At Mekele airport stands the statue of General Alula Abba Nega, on horseback. He put the Italians to flight in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, which is still celebrated every year in Ethiopia as a symbol of the fact that the giant empire has fought off every conqueror, even if Mussolini did manage to win decades later with poison gas. His dream of a new Roman Empire fizzled out with defeat in the Second World War. Which is not to say that in Ethiopia the present is not also shaped by those ghosts of the past that complicate nation-building in so many of Africa’s former colonies, where different ethnic groups were forced into national borders against their will.

Modern Ethiopia is a creation of the emperors from the Amhara region, who struck down other peoples such as the Tigray and imposed their language, script and religion on them. The result was a giant empire with 120 million people from more than 80 ethnic groups. Ultimately, however, only three have left their mark and have been fighting for dominance for decades: the Amhara, the Oromo and the Tigray.

The latter were the dominant force for decades from 1991 onwards; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was once a rebel movement that was instrumental in liberating Ethiopia from a communist dictatorship, after which the TPLF itself became an authoritarian regime. They invented the concept of ethnic federalism, created ten federal states for the major ethnic groups and dominated the others. They usurped the most important positions in politics and the economy. After years of protests, the young Oromo Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, promising reforms and democracy. The TPLF retreated into the mountains, held elections themselves, and the conflict escalated. Perhaps both sides wanted the war, at least they accepted it, Abiy probably even more than the TPLF.

Yet Ethiopia and Eritrea had only recently made peace. The neighbouring country had long been part of Ethiopia. The Eritreans fought alongside the TPLF against the regime in Addis Ababa and for the independence of their country. Eritreans and Tigray speak the same language, have the same roots and yet became enemies after Eritrea’s independence in 1993 because their leaders fell out, on one side the TPLF leader and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, on the other the Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, it was about access to ports, about a tiny piece of land on the border. The clash of egos turned into a civil war that probably cost tens of thousands of lives from 1998 to 2000. It was only in 2018 that the two countries made peace, for which Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. For the Eritrean Isaias Afewerki, the new conflict was above all an opportunity to take revenge on the TPLF.

For two months now, a fragile peace has prevailed, the representatives of both sides have been meeting again to talk about the future. Sometimes it seems as if nothing has happened, the smiles, the mutual embraces. The elites of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often shown astonishing flexibility when it comes to turning enmities into alliances because it serves their own power. The others have to fight and die.

What the war meant for the population can be seen in the Ayder Hospital, a building complex just outside the city: socialist-looking architecture, a blue neon sign on the roof, palm trees in the courtyard.

The hospital is part of the university, there was a cardiology ward where catheters were inserted, a degree of specialisation that is rather rare in the region.

“About two years ago, this was a hospital full of hope, we were training doctors, cultivating partnerships with foreign countries and were about to open a new cancer ward,” says Abraha Hailu, 37, the hospital’s clinical director.

He leads us through the corridors and shows us what is left of them.

The new equipment for the cancer ward is stored in containers in front of the building, which are rusting from the outside. The cancer patients lie on simple beds, eight to a room. They tell how their relatives had to sell their oxen and goats in order to at least get drugs on the black market. Even after two months of peace, too little help arrives in Mekele, says Abraha Hailu: “Some of our nurses and doctors have left the country, some have gone to the countryside in search of food.” And some have been shot. Some wards have lost half their staff, and no one has been paid for sixteen months.

At the moment, they have maybe five to twenty percent of the material and medicines they need, says Abraha. Disposable gloves are washed and reused, the floor is mopped with the traditional linen cloths that are usually worn on religious holidays. During the war, many injured people never made it to the hospital. Now, makeshift amputees and wounded people would come from the province and still not make it because basic things like blood thinners were missing. “We are not supported as we had hoped. The world has forgotten us,” says Abraha Hailu. Also because the government in Addis delays the approval process.

They have set up a small ward in the clinic for women who were raped in this conflict in which sexual violence was used as a weapon. Women come here who tell how their son bled to death in front of them during the rape because the rapists shot him in the stomach, says Kokob Gebru.

She had just finished her Master’s degree in “Mental Health” when the war started in November 2020, now she works as an employee with its victims. She had no experience with victims of rape until then, she learned in practice, through the war. Sometimes the conversations alone help the victims, she says, sometimes she prescribes a medicine, which then does not exist.

Some women tell how bad it is for them that the world has forgotten them. Some tell how they have asked rapists why they do what they do? “Because you are Tigray, because you gave birth to terrorists. Because your blood needs to be purified.” Those, they say, were the answers. Some women even find comfort in this, “Because at least they know it happened because of their identity, they don’t blame themselves.” Like so many other abuse victims who would think they could have prevented it by behaving differently. These are stories echoed in reports by Amnesty International and the UN. Very few women talk about justice, which they hope for, about punishing the perpetrators, says Kokob Gebru. Possibly because it seems so hopeless.

Amnesty International criticised that the peace agreement “does not provide a clear roadmap on how to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity”. It is also possible that both sides are not too interested in solving their own crimes. The Tigray are not only victims, the Tigray Defence Forces are also accused of serious crimes, although less than the other side.

When little Bereket died on 26 August between the Mickey Mouse slide and the merry-go-round, his death also became politics. The world took note for a brief moment of what was happening in Ethiopia. The major news channels reported, the UN condemned the attack. The TPLF accused the government of Abiy Ahmed of being responsible for the death of Bereket, another child and five civilians. The government in turn accused the TPLF of killing the boy, of using his death as propaganda. According to SZ research in Mekele, there is strong circumstantial evidence that a Mig fighter dropped three bombs on the Res Kids Paradise and a neighbouring building.

The turquoise wall of the property was completely blown outwards at one point. Videos taken immediately after the attack can be found on the web. It shows lifeless torsos. Extremities lie scattered in the grass.

According to experts and UN Security Council documentation, it could be an OFAB-100 loaded with 43.5 kilograms of TNT. It usually causes a crater about three metres in diameter and a good one metre deep, which coincides with the diameter of the crater at the scene. Letters can be found on the remains of the bomb, “TONA” on one, “NEST” on the other. According to the experts, the lettering could stand for “detonator nested”, meaning that an explosive device is built in.

The OFAB-100 is a Russian bomb, but was also manufactured in Serbia and Bulgaria. They are also said to have been supplied to Ethiopia. Satellite images before and after the attack at the end of August show that fighter jets of the Ethiopian military changed their position at the military airport in Bahir Dar, which suggests that they also flew missions. In addition, the TPLF has no fighter jets.

The attack would be a possible war crime. Only, who will investigate it? The TPLF and the government argue about many details of the peace plan, about how to get the Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia. But there is hardly any talk about investigating the crimes.

Therefore, peace means nothing to him so far, says Birhanu Hishe, Bereket’s uncle. And what does it mean to find peace? Every day he walks past the place where the bombs hit Res Kids Paradise and tore his nephew apart. His little niece Ariam cries for her brother almost every night.


Text Bernd Dörries, Ben Heubl

Digital Storytelling Karin Steinberger

Final editing Ralf Steinbacher