“We thought Eritreans were our brothers” – Gidey’s story
Gidey is a Tigrean mother who just arrived in Britain.
She was in Mekelle when the Tigray war erupted. Her family is now scattered. Some in Mekelle, some in Tigrean villages, some in Addis Ababa. Physically and psychologically traumatised by what she has experienced, Gidey has no idea when she will see them again. But it was her confrontation with the reality of what Eritrean troops could and would do that has hurt her most.
This is her story – only her name has been changed to protect her identity.
We live close to the centre of Mekelle. On 4th November the fighting began. It started with the arrival of planes. We thought they were carrying new currency to change for the old notes. But then a second plane arrived. Our troops had been tipped off that soldiers were on board – it was an attempt to take out the leadership of the TPLF.
Firing began. Initially the fighting was near the Northern Command army base. I was left shake and frightened. But our Tigrayan soldiers said ‘don’t be frightened. We have the situation under control. Settle your hearts.’ People became a bit more confident.
Soon after the Northern Command divided in two – those with TPLF and those with Prime Minister Abiy. This wasn’t just in Mekelle. In towns like Adigrat and Shire there was fighting. The troops in Adigrat wanted to destroy everything. They threatened to use heavy weapons to attach the city, but the commander was married with to Tigrayan and they have children. They pleaded with him and he relented. Finally he was captured by the TPLF, who handed him to the Red Cross. This I heard from my relatives, who are scattered across Tigray.
After a few days the bombing of Mekelle began. The first attack was on a church while a priest was teaching. Deacons were there and some were killed and others injured. Those who survived asked: “how can we be attacked where we are serving God?” They became very angry. Some decided to go and join the TPLF fighters.
After the bombing came the troops. The city was surrounded. The first we knew was that elders and priests called local meetings in district halls. They told the people that the TPLF had left confidential messages with them. The leadership explained that they were pulling out of Mekelle to prevent it from being destroyed in fighting. They left for the mountains to continue the struggle.
I understand why they did this, but it was a terrible moment. I felt helpless. Vulnerable. Alone. Some people panicked and left the city.
I refused to leave my home, but then the bombing began. The Ayder Referral Hospital was hit. A bomb exploded close to us.
Our house shook – it was literally moving because of the explosion. I just started running, with my family. We tried to leave the city. My father in law lives in a neighbouring area and we could stay with them. But they had no food. They had nothing. So I went back home and backed some bread that would last well.
By the time I tried to return the area was too dangerous. There was fighting between the government forces and the TPLF. Many people died in the village they had fled to. So we stayed at our house.
The government soldiers told us to stay at home. They warned us that if we were outside the city roads will be closed and you will not be able to return. We were left with no water, electricity or food and the banks were closed.
Then they came and started interrogating people. Especially young people. Some children and teenagers were killed in front of their parents. Girls were raped in front of their parents.
They shouted at us: “All Tigrayan people or Tigrayan speakers are TPLF. All of you are the same. All of you need to be killed.” The Eritrean troops were the worst. They even murdered pregnant women.
We said to the Eritreans: “Are you not our brothers?” Yes, we used to be, they said. Then the looting began, mostly by Eritrean troops. They asked us: “do you have a lighter?” We gave them a light and cigarettes. It didn’t matter. They took what they wanted: looting, killing and raping. What astonished me is that non-Tigrinya speakers – perhaps Oromo soldiers – were really upset. One I saw was crying. “Don’t do this to these people,” he said. They took no notice.
People believed that when the border was opened between Eritrea and Tigray two years ago, these kind of things would be impossible. People were meeting each other, some of whom were seeing their relatives for the first time in years. They were crying, hugging.
But the Eritreans were amazed how Tigray had developed. They saw people who had left Eritrea who now owned cafes and hotels. Some of the soldiers knew them and their reaction was one of envy. They they were jealous because back in Eritrea, under Isaias, they had nothing. So they attacked – even people they knew.
The Eritrean troops took the doors from houses, cookers, roofs, even children’s clothing drying on the line. Everything was loaded onto lorries. They even seized ambulances from Mekelle and drove them back to Eritrea with the loot they had stolen.
Finally, I decided to leave. To reach the airport I had to dress up like an old woman, looking shabby. I didn’t want anything to draw any attention to me. I thought they might shoot me, or rape me. Nine times I was stopped and searched at roadblocks. It left me feeling second class; it felt as if I had been deprived of my citizenship – that I was like a foreigner, a non-Ethiopian.
Once we landed in Addis we were warned to stay at the addresses we gave the authorities. We were told we could be in trouble if we did not. And the security police warned us not to say anything about what we had seen in Mekelle.
I had great difficulty at Addis airport after being stopped and interrogated seven times. Each time I heared the security people talking about me. They said ‘she is a “T”’; and of course meaning she is from Tigray.
I was told no one from Tigray is to leave Ethiopia on a visit abroad. One of them actually said, “How did you ever manage to get so far in the security check up?” I cried and pleaded with him to consider my compelling dire reasons to travel and show some compassion. Through some divine intervention, I finally managed to board onto the plane and fly to Britain.
I am pleased to be here, but I am confused and fearful. What will happen to me? What about my children, my family? I know they are left without food, clean water or medication. I am so worried about the future.