The coffee was good. The company was better. Brhane (not his real name) and his friends were relaxing in an Addis café last Friday.
They were Tigrayans, and a long way from home, but at least they were together.
Then it began.
An Eritrean joined the conversation. At first the chat continued as normal. The Eritrean showed them his ID – he was from Asmara. It was all cool.
Then things started to go wrong. The Eritrean left the café and made a phone call. The next thing – the police arrived. Everyone was arrested and bundled into a van.
They were taken to a police station. On the way Brhane and his friends asked why they were being arrested. No reply. “Shut your phone off. No-one moves. Don’t call anyone,” the police instructed them.
“Why are you arresting us?” “We will tell you at the station,” was all they were told.
At the station the friends were registered and everyone had to show their ID. The Eritrean who phoned was immediately released. Another Eritrean – a refugee – was also freed within a few hours. They were not.
“All we were told was that we were under arrest. No reason was given. The police station was so crowded there wasn’t even anywhere for us to sleep. That night we were forced to sleep outdoors. It was windy and very, very cold. A hard night for us all.
On Sunday we were released, but not before we were told we had to find someone with an Addis ID. They had to come and pay what we were told were guarantees of our good conduct. The police asked us for between 5,000 and 6,000 birr each.”
When people came to stand surety for us, they had to hand the money over, but no receipts were issued. Why not? There were more than sixty of us who were rounded up.
“We have heard of hundreds, maybe thousands who have been imprisoned. For what?
It makes me feel like a second class citizen.”
Brhane was in his home town of Axum, the beautiful northern Tigrayan city that is sacred to many people. He was there when the Axum massacre occurred last November.
This is what Human Rights Watch said about the atrocities.
On November 19, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shelled Axum, killing and wounding civilians. For a week after taking control of the town, the forces shot civilians and pillaged and destroyed property, including healthcare facilities. After Tigray militia and Axum residents attacked Eritrean forces on November 28, Eritrean forces, in apparent retaliation, fatally shot and summarily executed several hundred residents, mostly men and boys, over a 24-hour period.
“Eritrean troops committed heinous killings in Axum with wanton disregard for civilian lives,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopian and Eritrean officials can no longer hide behind a curtain of denial, but should allow space for justice and redress, not add to the layers of trauma that survivors already face.”
Brhane remembers it vividly. He saw young men killed in front of him. “I saw a young Muslim shot 150 metres from me. I just ran into a private house to survive.
The Ethiopian troops were killing and raping, but the Eritreans were worse. We couldn’t even talk to them. They were so angry – killing on the spot.”
Brhane decided to flee the city. He travelled to the regional capital, Mekelle, buying food and taking it back to his family before moving on to sanctuary in Addis.
He is there like so many other Tigrayans. Most live in the suburbs of Haya Hulet, Gofa and Gergi. Brhane does not. He has a house with five others in an area he hopes is safe.
The menace of Kiliti maximum security prison
The real fear Tigrayans have is that they will be rounded up and thrown into Kiliti prison, just South of Addis.
“I know three or four people from Axum who are being held there. We cannot even go and visit them. They take you to Kiliti if they think you are a spy – but how do they know? Some people have been held for over three weeks.
Now we stay at home when we can. If we meet someone who speaks Amharic we just avoid them and go home.
I used to have a good job in tourism, now I am surviving on my savings. People send money, but there is real fear.”