By Martin Plaut
Two young women – Tigrayans with foreign passports – found themselves trapped in Mekelle when the war broke out on 4th November. This is their story. For their security and the security of their families I am calling them Nay’na and Mary.
Nay’na is British. She was born in Addis, with parents from Mekelle and Irob. She flew into Mekelle on 19 October to see her Tigrayan family.
Mary is Australian. A student, she took a year off to travel. She arrived in Tigray in March, visiting family in Adwa and Mekelle, but taking time to see remote villages and re-connect with her cultural roots.
Arriving in Mekelle
Mary: In September, around the time Tigray held its election (something the Federal authorities tried to prevent) I was in Mekelle.
The atmosphere was exciting – a chance for our people to take a stand.
It was a beautiful time.
I read the international media. There were some warning signs, but none bad enough for me to want to leave.
Nay’na: After spending time in quarantine, I was with my family in Mekelle. It was amazing: so positive. I went out to the farms; helping farmers fight the locust infestation.
November 4th – the outbreak of the war
Nay’na: We were in a restaurant the night before – until 11.00 pm. I got home around midnight, when a friend called: “sleep on the floor; put your bed against the door; charge your phone.” He was near the centre of town and said there was shooting. We could hear nothing – it was very worrying.
I didn’t want to phone my parents and alarm them. Instead, I called my cousins in Mekelle, only to see I had missed a call from my dad. As I was trying to call him, the network shut down. Scary.
Mary: We heard nothing overnight. In the morning – no signal on my phone and no electricity. We went around the neighbourhood. Everyone was confused. My cousin and I went to the centre of town to try to draw out some money. Something felt very different.
On the main street there were traffic officers advising people to go home. In the centre it was chaos. Everyone was listening to the radio on their phones. At the bank everyone was trying to get money and there were long queues.
The Ethiopian airlines flight centre was opposite the bank. I walked over and asked an attendant if flights would resume and I could get to Addis. I was told – sure; come back in a few days.
But no-one thought a war was about to break out.
Nay’na: The next day (4th November) I went to see our family in the centre of Mekelle.
A story was going around: of a plane arriving at the airport with 500 commandos from the federal army, apparently bringing money, so we could change our currency. But the Tigrayan militia were alert. Within an hour the commandos were dead. “It was handled,” we were told.
I went to the ticket office. I was expecting to go home via Addis, but it was shut. I was told it was expected to be open in a few days. Other businesses were continuing as usual, even though banks were closed.
Mary: On the way home, I stopped in at the main hospital to see a relative who was suffering from a brain tumour. I could not get in – suddenly security was really strict. I tried to get to the pharmacy to buy him some medicines. Already stocks were running low.
I went back home and packed my bags – just in case.
Over the next few days there was no news; no communications. Nothing unusual happened until the weekend.
But a militia camp was established next to our house, with lots of soldiers. It became a big, busy base. Everyone felt safe with them around.
Sunday 8th – Jet fighters overhead
Mary: I was at home with my family. We had lunch and coffee, but we were cooking without electricity and there was no TV.
Suddenly we heard a very loud sound – you could hear it coming from a distance. Everyone panicked. People ran onto the streets; they were out on the roof tops. The noise seemed slow, but came very fast. Then it disappeared.
That first week there were a lot of emotions. It was a hard time. I could not contact my embassy or my family and I didn’t know what to do.
I left Ethiopia when I was just four and was in Sudan and then Australia. But I have been raised in the West. I only learned about war from parents or in school. I never thought I would ever be in the middle of a conflict – it was such a foreign concept.
It made no difference that I had a foreign passport. No-one knew what was going to happen, so, the first week was tough.
The reactions of Tigrayans were very different from mine. As a helpless westerner I didn’t know what to do. They were confident and resilient: they were not shocked.
Nay’na: I heard the fighter jets. It felt like they were right beside my house. At first, I thought it was an ordinary plane. But Aunt screamed “come inside, come inside!”
Then I realised it wasn’t an Ethiopian airlines plane. No bombs were dropped that day, but I was so frightened. We hoped they were just looking at things, but we were in shock; sitting in silence.
Then electricity came back on. One day I could even send texts for just 10 minutes. We were trying to find out what was happening in rest of Tigray.
The Second week
Mary: I began to accept the situation. I was calmer. I was preparing myself for a bomb, or gunshots.
There was still no electricity. People were running out of money. I could not withdraw cash from banks – so the money I had needed to last me.
The prices of food rocketed. Bread and injera were very scares.
The pharmacy ran out of medicines. I went to the hospital. Insulin and basic pain relief medication was no longer available. Doctors at Ayder hospital were forced to wash and re-use the surgical gloves they were using. Soldiers were arriving with wounds that needed treatment.
My cousin was meant to have an operation on his tumour, but it was cancelled. They discharged him – even though he was so desperately ill. They gave us a prescription for medicine, but we were under no illusion: we knew he might die.
Nay’na: Food became difficult to find. Potatoes and tomatoes became very expensive. Teff and berbere had completely run out in my neighbourhood. Taxis changed extortionate prices and any transport was difficult to find.
Planes flew overhead, dropping leaflets, calling on us to surrender. Prime Minister Abiy appeared on television saying – “do not leave your homes.”
I was in my room one night, unable to sleep so I started writing a journal. I could hear missiles going off in the city – three loud blasts. It was so surreal hearing the blasts and not knowing what to do. My life had become someone else’s; my grip on reality became difficult.
Days would pass by, but I felt perpetually confused as the events unfolded.
Sunday 15 & Monday 16 November – Jets again, then the bombing starts
Mary: We were together outside our house with our neighbours. We were having coffee – sharing rumours and news. All that we knew was coming from the radio or television. People were desperate, waiting for any news.
Then same sound: it felt like a UFO. It was so loud: you could feel it right inside you. But when you looked up it wasn’t even near you.
Everyone tried to hide under the trees. Should we run or hide? We didn’t know what to do. It felt like a lifetime, but was only a few seconds.
Nay’na: I was with my cousin. We heard another fighter jet coming and we went outside.
It was coming in low. I felt: “I am staring death in the eyes”. It circled, then suddenly tilted and four objects fell out of it – right in the middle of the city. We waited for the impact. Four bombs exploded. An eight year old girl died and suddenly sentiment in the city changed.
We were getting daily updates from the TPLF leadership, since they were still in Mekelle. But things were getting tight. Banks opened and people queued along the street and around the corners to try to get money.
Then on Thursday our military appeared TV with an update: we had re-taken the town of Raya on the 19th. Morale in Mekelle went sky-high. Music was turned up in the cafes all over the city.
I was near the monument to the martyrs – then my cousin’s phone rings, then stops again. Suddenly the ground shook. Something had been dropped. It was as if it was a punishment for Raya.
Mary: I was facing the market place when I saw was a jet. It looked so close – I felt I could jump up and touch it. I was shaking, as my heart dropped, waiting to feel the impact of the bombs. Many things went through my mind, in what felt like was an hour. It was probably no more than 5 minutes.
We thought it was targeting the market – all the women at the market were screaming. A few seconds later it was back; weaving from side to side. It did nothing – as if it was playing games with us. Then a church near us was hit.
I went running home. Everyone was on one of the roads. People were coming from the market screaming – looking frantically for people. We were running in the opposite direction. An old woman stopped me and asked “what happened? Did people die?”
Registering with the United Nations
Mary: The next Wednesday I ran into a family friend in the town centre who worked at Mekelle university. He thought I had left the country. He told me the UN is taking people with foreign passports out and explained where to go.
On Thursday I went to the UN centre, but I had so little money. I didn’t know what to do. Some people already had luggage with them. People told me to go to the UN door. I knocked and a person looked out and I told him I had a foreign passport.
He told me I to get a copy and come back at 8.30 in the morning to see if my name is on a list to get on a bus.
On Friday 27th I was there – standing alone. A UN man emerged from the office with a list. If your name was on the list you had to come back at 5.00 pm. A bus would take you to Semere (in the Afar region) and from there you would get a plane or a bus to Addis.
I went home and packed. My family – my aunt and uncle – were so happy that I could leave. But I was caught in conflicting emotions. They were pushing me to leave. But it was such a difficult position – it felt so unfair. They would be left behind. But they were so selfless. I was crying, but they were clear and firm. “You must take the way out – there’s nothing you can do by dying with us. When you are out then you can help us.”
I was hysterical, but packing my bags at the same time. I had a free ticket to escape. I had to take it, even if it was so unfair: leaving my family in a war zone.
There were so many goodbyes – the whole street, crying and kissing. With my last 200 birr I took a taxi to the UN compound.
The journey begins
Nay’na: At 4.00 pm buses arrived and we each got on one – 15 per mini-bus and 60-70 on the larger busses. One woman – an Eritrean also got on. But she had no documents and the driver told her to get off. Everyone was checked all over again. They looked for bombs everywhere. Finally, we left, but there were countless stops along the way. At the Tigray – Afar border we had to change busses and take another that would take us to Semera.
We got out of the busses from Mekelle and were instructed to whisper and show no lights. We thought we we might die. Some Somali guys were playing music on their phones. No-one told them not to. Then I heard footsteps and turned round. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. It turned out it was our own militia. They asked us for nothing.
Around midnight the bus to Semera arrived. We had to take our luggage to the second bus and ran. People were shoving and pushing children out of the way. I thought I would be left behind, alone in the mountains. Finally, I managed to get onto the bus, but I was sitting next to the driver. I was told not to speak Tigrinya – and speak English instead.
At 8.00 am we reach Semera. It was unbearably hot, with kids screaming. We had to line up and be registered at the Afar police station for 3 – 4 hours. Slowly we were ticked off a list. We were taking turns to sit in the little shade that was available. The latrine was covered with metal, which was boiling hot and there was fesses everywhere. Girls were praying and we felt as if our morale was breaking.
Mary: When we finally got to Semera we stopped and saw the soldiers. We were told to get off the road. It was so hot I thought we would pass out. I was feeling nauseous and ill – we had had nothing to eat for twelve hours. Finally, the locals brought us injera in a black plastic bag, and people huddled around to share the food.
We had to take our luggage off the bus for yet another search. We were repeatedly searched. Everything we owned was touched, shaken and probed. They questioned us about anything suspicious. They even insisted that a little stone that I had collected as a souvenir was thrown away!
Nay’na: The police looked through all our luggage – picked up my underwear and waved it in my face before dropping it in the sand. They opened my laptop. In my purse I had credit cards and receipts. “This is too much; they said and threw them away. They asked why I had a UK passport but a US provisional driving license. “Why? You are lying!” they shouted at me. I said it was a UK provisional license – pointing to the flag on the license. Finally, the policeman agreed, but he took my tampon box and threw it away. All my clothes were in the sand and they were shouting at me.
We were finally taken to a hotel and allowed to eat for the first time in a day, but we had to pay. We only had the cash we had drawn in Tigray – I had 800 birr. So, we helped one another. An hour later we saw a UN officer who told us we will stay at the hotel overnight, but had to be ready at 6.00 am and come to the lobby.
We got there on time and had to wait again. At 12.00 the UN official called everyone to gather round. “There is good news and bad news. Good news: some can fly – we are overjoyed. Bad news: Some will not be allowed to leave Semera.” Panic.
The airport saga
We had to get our passports photocopied – again. Then the same UN man took us to the police station. “If I call your name you are not going – so keep quiet,” he told us. We prepared ourself mentally. We were taken to the airport, but our hearts were dangling on a string. At the airport we were told to queue by nationality.
Indians, Somalis, Sri Lankans, all in a long queue. They go inside. Then they calls for Eritreans. Then UK born Eritreans. Finally, mainly Tigrayans remained. We were in shock and some of the woman among us were sobbing. We sat on the ground, while the others could enter the airport.
Then they announced: everyone can go inside.
But we were at the end of a long line and there was only one plane, so I thought we can’t possibly get on. We were told “you can’t take anything but your passport.” I stood in line with my laptop, passport and phone. That was all.
But we saw the plane door close and then the plane taxied and took off. We felt so hopeless – we thought we would be left behind.
We were told we would have to stay in a hotel again and then our luggage was searched yet again. We were not taken to the hotels but to the compound of the Afar police. Everyone was panicking. Finally, the UN told us the police wanted yet another passport check and they took another copy of our passports.
Mary: The next morning – Monday 23rd – we got up early. This time there were not just Afar police in beige uniforms but federal police too – in blue uniform. The federal police told us to just sit and wait outside the airport. We stayed for 3 to 4 hours. Then, finally, we were allowed in. There were more security checks and it was extremely hot. We were in a departure room which was so hot it was difficult to breath.
Nay’na: At the airport the Afar heat was unbearable. No ventilation; kids screaming. At 3.00 pm they finally issued us with some juice.
By this time, we looked like refugees. We took turns to sit on the chairs.
There were two exit doors. A man said to me: “when the door opens – just run for it!” I was so tired – but he said: “just do it!”
When the plane finally arrived and the door opened there was chaos.
Children were pushed out of the way. Some fell; I fell. Someone punched me.
The rest of my group had run, but I just could not. Eventually I got out, but by this time so many people were ahead of me.
A girl kindly helped me. I was sobbing and out of breath. I was in disbelief.
In Addis at last
Mary: By the time we got to Addis it was quite late – 6.00 or 7.00 pm. But instead of being taken to the normal arrival’s terminal, we were taken to an old, dilapidated building. The local security officers were called and they scrambled to collect tables and chair. People were again sorted according to the nationalities of their passports. Luckily, we were near the front – with passports from the UK and Australia.
Two men interrogated me. They began by asking basic questions – name, where I was born, where I was staying in Addis, etc. The embassy told us to give us the address of the embassy, but they demanded other details. They asked us why we were in Mekelle, why we were there for so long, and so on.
Then we got odd questions about whether we attended rallies or had politicians as relatives. I said no, which was true. We had to wait until everyone finished. We were called over by the senior official. All the other nationalities were allowed to go. Everyone left behind were Tigrayans. I had never seen such direct, overt discrimination. We thought because we had foreign passports, we would be ok, but no. It was shocking.
The man started speaking in Amharic. Insisted we had to check in with the authorities every 2 days. Mandatory. We were shocked. Why? When does this stop? “If you don’t come and sign in, we will come and arrest you. If you are not there, we will harass your families,” he said. Then we knew what was going on. We had to get permission to leave the country and had to inform them in advance.
Instead of going to our families in Addis, the UN sent busses to collect us and take us to the UN compound. There we each met our embassy representatives. I spoke to Maddie and she kept apologising for the way we were being treated, but there was nothing they could do. They took down all the details of what happened – just the same as I gave them to you.
The embassy staff explained what would happen next and suggested that we left Addis as soon as possible – it was not safe for us to be in Addis.
Tigrayans are being discriminated against – in their own country!
Nay’na: We were told we can’t leave Addis and must report every two days. We could not leave country – or else we would be arrested.
This is within an hour of arriving in Addis! Not great – shocking.
The flight to London
Nay’na: At the UN offices I talked to a member of the British embassy staff. He was the first person who was kind to me. He asked about other British people in Mekelle. In the end warned me that I might not be able to leave the country. Others have been forbidden to leave, so please go to the airport early, when your flight is due.
I did this and finally got a flight on 3rd December. But even then the ordeal wasn’t over.
Despite countless airport checks, when I was finally standing next to my seat on the plane itself, an officer came and called me to come with him. They had a list, he said. I asked, in Amharic, if there’s an issue. He said I had to wait and I was taken off the plane.
Another person went through list. He said there were fighters in my family. I was accused of lying. I said “no I haven’t lied!” He told me I was lying – again. Finally, he said: “OK. You can go.”
By this time my emotions were uncontrollable. I was in floods of tears when I finally got on board the Ethiopian plane – and to my huge relief, took off for London.
Mary: I left Addis on Saturday 28th for London, but even getting out of the Addis Airport was hard – there were three interrogations, despite the Australian embassy being represented there. In London, my family were there to meet it. It was such a relief!
My family in Mekelle? I called them – they are alive and OK. But food has become a huge issue for them, with prices so high and still they have no access to their money in the banks. Medicines are very scares.
There are gunshots during the day as well as at night. They can only eat once a day. Jets still fly over the city and my family have to hide. Of our the family in Adwa we hear terrible things, but we don’t know. We are very scared for them.
Nay’na: About the war? I haven’t even begun to come to terms with it.