Tigray today: Travel notes of a theologian

Source: Beaman Netsere, 15/03/21

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Beaman Netsere is a pen name. He has written a famous book on comparative theology within the context of Ethiopian Orthodox church doctrines (Welta Tsidk). He is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church scholar educated in both traditional and modern theology and has a wide following among those believers of the church affiliated with Mahibere Kidusan. His identity has not been revealed.


From my travel notes: What I saw and heard in person when I was in Tigray

My view is limited to what I saw in passing in Mekelle, eastern and central zones, i.e. in the cities and rural areas from Mekelle to Shire during my stay there for a few days due to work. During my stay, I used both my eyes and ears. I heard, I saw. I will speak about the following topics based on what I heard and saw: movement, charity, Eritrea, looting, media, north command, interim administration, TPLF, living conditions, churches and believers. I speak only as much as I had the places and events I heard and saw.

Northern command

I have never met residents who deny that the north command was attacked by Tigray Special Forces. I was told many hypothesis and pretences for the attack; but my conscience, which is tuned by law, though it heard to the political analysis with patience, couldn’t allow me to accept its legality. The attack on the north command is an injustice. I haven’t found an evidence that de-emphasizes the idea that the place and instance when the attack was undertaken is one of the main causes to the damage that befell the people of the region. I observed and became sad because the work of collecting and placing in one place the corpses of the victimized soldiers hasn’t been undertaken to a meaningful extent. The victims, who fell where they had not thought they would, should rest in honor!

Tigray Special Forces

Among all the Tigray residents I met, the arrival of Tigray Special Forces and its leadership are awaited and longed for. There may be people who will criticize TPLF but I have never met anyone who didn’t support them. The acceptance of the party is nearly 100 percent. There aren’t few who say they are astonished that the (Tigray) special forces was even still alive (in existence) even though it was fighting with five forces.

Movement

There is movement in cities I saw including Mekelle. Mekelle has movement close to ‘normal’ while Shire and Wukro follow it. Adigrat and Axum have not recovered from their shock – especially Axum. The fact that its airport was damaged, that its regular in-pouring of Tourists has dwindled, because its sheltering many refugees, the panic resulting from the repeated visiting and massacre committed by Eritrean armed units has altogether made it a city covered with sadness; the same with Adwa too. Its true! There may be differences in the numbers, but a massacre of civilians indeed took place in Axum. Eritrean armed units still come and go in the area; when I arrived there, I saw them as well as the people anxious because of their presence with my own eyes. But there is no damage on Axum Zion church building and its compound; the massacre happened outside the church compound – according to the account of one widow. I was able to enter and see the inside of the church as well as its surrounding using the eastern door which was the only one opened for the believers; I also kissed (and prayed) inside; there is no damage. According to the widow “the city residents have been massacred though!” There is public transportation service from Mekelle to any part of the area. The shortage of fuel in Mekelle is not as is feared; there is supply of fuel. The searches (on travellers going) in any direction are repeated and thorough! Public transportation, Badjajs, Jebena coffee – these barely struggle to voice that Tigray is alive. Even though more than five of the main asphalt roads connecting (the different areas of the region) have been damaged by jet bombings and by Tigray Special forces , for military strategic reasons, they have been filled back temporarily; and transportation has not stopped. In Mekelle, several private banks, including Commerical Bank, have started work. Banks have opened in Adigrat, Axum and Shire. But the long lines one faces in all places is exhausting. Since there is none that withdraws but only that deposits only, there is shortage of money. ATM machines don’t function at all. Those which I saw outside of Mekelle have more or less been robbed. Old and new books are laid out and sold as usual on Romanat square. How strong are those who read books in such an atmosphere!

Charity

The main source of charity in Tigray is the people itself. The concern and support they showed for one another during the time of suffering, when water, electricity, telephone services have been discontinued for month, is heard from the mouths of all. When one hears it, one is filled with sadness, but also with awe. Be that as it may, now innumerable aid agencies have not only entered but (better to say) poured.  But those which I saw practically go down to rural areas and mobilize there are – WFP, Samarithan, UNICEF, MSF, and aid agencies of German, Denmark and Ireland. I especially encountered repeatedly WFP and MSF. But I have felt that the remaining ones only park their vehicles, on which they put their flags,  in hotels and ‘Jebena’ coffee (houses), move around from Adi Hawsi to Romanat and hang around and blow their cigars on the porches of hotels – perhaps writing false reports. I am hopeful that there will be a body that follows up on them so that they may not waste their budgets in the name of administrative costs and live off of victims. I have seen the federal government disseminating aid in small towns; but I have not been able to confirm that the aid has widely covered the rural areas. I have been told that the urban residents repeatedly take aid supply but it is important to sufficiently follow up to make sure it is also reachable to the rural people. The efforts and engagement of the Ethiopian Red Cross ought to be acknowledged and supported.

The interim administration

The interim administration of Tigray is able to carry out its duties partially. But it is not possible to believe its claims regarding its success in establishing 70 percent of the system of governance. I don’t think it is true. The offices in Mekelle barely work. They work half a day, then spend a quarter of it for meetings. The offices have not been made suitable for work. I have heard that the office furniture, vehicles, operational budget, that has been promised by the federal government have not been delivered. I was also able to confirm it by going there in person. They only receive their salary. It would be great if efforts are expended to make civil servants return back to work. I observed that great deal of effort is being spent, in collaboration with the federal police, to establish the security system and that police are reporting for duty. But the court has not started work apart from going to office and returning after signing for the day. The region’s supreme court (building) has incurred partial damage. The fact that Tigray Special Forces made use of the militia and police network for the war made it difficult to re-establish the security system as well as the efforts to control city criminals. The residential militia that were stationed in project sites have gone to (battle) fields. This has turned the efforts to protect property and neighborhood watch into relying one’s hopes on the almighty. The good thing is there are no ordinary bandits! The banners which show that gaps in bureaucratic practices have been tagged as ‘anti-resistance’, slogans commemorating TPLF’s yearly celebrations, logos, ‘Woyin’ magazine, are still present in (government) offices. The hardware of TPLF is still intact. It has not been replaced by the interim government. The guest room of Tigray regional state’s presidential office steal bears the photos of only two of its former presidents – Aleka Tsegay and Gebru Asrat. The very secure search checkpoint on the building’s gate, where Athlete Haile Gebreselassie and co had been searched when they were sent to negotiate a settlement can now be gone through with a single search. Even though the interim president is not adequately accessible, there is better work engagement and output from his office. Whenever the interim president is available, there is additional searching conducted by federal police commandos at the office entry. I have seen and confirmed that his office is open to all. But I have not confirmed that it is as effective in providing solutions (answers) as it is open. Mekelle’s cleaning service is one which is actively engaged and is serving the people. The cleaners ought to be honored. Efforts are underway to undertake inventory of damages and undertaking maintenance of federal institutions like road authority, electricity, telecommunications and higher education institutions. The support the interim administration and the command post are giving to this activities are in the words of cadres ‘encouraging’. There is still a long way to go before labeling the interim administration as regional state government. The good men working within it (the interim admin) who are trying to solve the day to day problems of the people are not getting sufficient help from the federal government. They are also seen as bandas (treasonous) by pro-TPLF sides. Yet their efforts to lessen the burdens of their people with whatever capacity they have made me put myself in their shoes and feel sorry for them.

National defense forces and federal police

The relationship the people have with the national defense forces and the federal police cannot be called bad. I have met people who called Tigray defense forces as well as the national defense forces (ENDF) as ‘ours’. Both are not seen as anti-people. I have found concrete evidence that portray singular events wherein “TPLF waited on the road and killed people; ENDF inflicted on the youth this and that …”. But the evidences were not to me representative of the wide and concrete truth on the ground. They are singular incidents, not everyday occurrences. I have observed that, as huge consumers, the defense forces and police have contributed towards returning the city’s service sector back to work. The emergency proclamation (curfew) is thoroughly implemented. Searches are very rigorous and IDs are a must. But though I heard about the checking of (the contents inside), I haven’t experienced it. Regarding reports of rapes, since I didn’t have the opportunity to get information on that, I can’t say anything about it. Based on their looks and their accents, I can confidently say that there is fair mixing regarding ethnic composition of the armed forces. Regarding my argument that ‘it is wrong to choose and organize one ethnic group and attack the national defense forces’ I was given the response that ‘there were large number of Tigrayan soldiers who fought against Tigray Special Forces in Adigrat area’.

Eritrean armed units

The ones who are inflicting extremely disgusting and inhuman as well as destructive actions on humans and properties are Eritrean armed units. Based on its overall features, it is difficult to label the Eritrean armed forces as ‘army’. They mercilessly kill civilians, loot, everywhere it pushes boundaries and put on its flag. Central and eastern Tigray is more or less under merciless armed forces whose actions are reminiscent of 17th and 18th century outdated looting and robberies.  Here, there’s nothing that’s hasn’t been done, only what hasn’t been heard! The looting of Eritrean armed units (again I will call them armed me; They are never ‘professional’ soldiers; they don’t even qualify as sensible bandits) has covered individuals, investors, the regional government’s developmental organizations, federal government institutions, from Mekelle area to Axum. The cities I was able to visit personally – Wukro, Adigrat, Adwa – have experienced the extremely evil fists of the armed units.  Among the giant industries on which the evil sticks of Eritrean armed units have landed include Adigrat University, Adis Pharmaceuticals, Goda glass factory, Saba marble factory, Almeda garment factory. All these harm was inflicted days after the Tigray Special forces was defeated and left these cities. Whenever the federal forces arrive before property gets looted or if they make supervisions upon being informed, the looting lessens. But people repeatedly told us that they (the federal forces) have not been seen stopping already looted goods from being transported. The looting ranged from mere fence wires to industry machinery. It is revenge based ‘professional’ looting carried out by unprofessional armed entities and  supported by mechanics, drivers, electricians and similar other professionals. For anyone who still doubts the entry of Eritrean soldiers, I am a witness who can confirm by placing my hand on a bible and calling the name of God! The are very much there indeed! They are now turning their route of looting from cities to rural areas, so before we are embarrassed further as a nation, it is better to send them message from the leadership to make them leave, if possible, but if not to at least to try to make themselves more like an ‘army’! If, from now on, a response is given (by government) claiming ignorance of the entrance of Eritrean armed forces, it is lying to the people! It is being negligent on national honor! The dreadful action taken by TPLF on north command should not enthrone vengefulness that forsakes national honor! I trust only my eyes! Here it should not be forgotten that, for the sake of my country’s honor, there are things which I passed (without mentioning) saying ‘all that is seen shouldn’t be told’!

The media and information

Internet has not been re-established. The media that are seen (followed by people) in Mekelle are Tigray Media House, Assena TV and Erisat – which are administered by Eritrean opposition – Mereja TV (especially one called Ethio360). Most audience have not turned its ‘satellite dish’ to Ethio-Sat not to lose these TV stations. But bigger hotels have paired up both Ethio-Sat and Nile-Sat. While I was there I followed these media on one hand for lack of options and on the other hand to better follow the situation of the region. The bad thing was that all the people I meet tell me word by word what I had heard the previous evening (from these media) as if they had personally seen and heard it. The gap in information and the pressure encouraged vague word of mouth information and village gossip like political analysis. It would be advisable for residents not to take verbatim the information they receive but instead to evaluate the proximity of the media they follow with the information and deeds they are reporting. I am filled with anxiety when I see teenagers watching media filled with political tinge and intensity. Uncharacteristically I long for ETV reports of ‘some Addis Ababa residents’ (of EPRDF era). I feel the deep content of these media is to ‘birth Tigray from indignation’. There are signs that the feeling has dissipated among the city’s residents. The influence of the media is very huge! It is advisable if they use the opportunity to go beyond the political and military agenda and add some moral angle and work on educating the evilness of crimes, sustaining communal support and enabling the civil services to resume work. They seem to have forgotten supporting subtly the social and economic aspects and sustaining the lives that are not lost. Their language is centered only on military and diplomatic resistance and call to arms. I have found that the term ‘law enforcement’ is most hated and seen offensive among the people in Tigray. The prime minister’s speech in parliament where he said ‘no civilian has been killed in relation to the law enforcement operation’ has made many disappointed and was indeed untrue. The fact that the media of the central government has not reflected the suffering of the people has damaged their acceptance. It has created an audience that is laced with hostility. The situation in Tigray testifies to the fact that the mass ‘relations’ media of both the right and left have become diverging rather than converging. There is widespread resentment and feeling of alienation among residents that, beyond the war, the rest of Ethiopian people have not understood their suffering. For these the one primarily accused are the local media. The tragedy was I had learned that 42 Amharas were killed in Wolega area three days after the incident when I arrived in Addis Ababa from Mekelle. It amazed me that the death and suffering of some of us is not heard by the rest of us in such a magnitude. It also made me sorry!

Living conditions

I am surprised that I haven’t heard of shortage of fuel and high cost of living as has been propagated. I complained for having paid 80-120 birr for a ‘shiro’ meal. But they are grateful. They don’t complain. I haven’t seen shortage of food and fruits. Tigray has not withheld its smile from guests – even today! I haven’t seen enmity there though it has become fierce in digital media. But it manifests after long conversations and during teasing games. The farmers till the land sparingly. But where Eritrean armed units are found in large numbers, the continuity of farming is questionable because the farmers (hide) for fear of being robbed of their oxen and because the (Eritreans) force people to carry what they looted. Because no matter how much aid is provided, it won’t be able to replace the farming, there needs to be support and campaigns by all sides so that the farmers won’t abandon farming and the lands become left untilled. Not only has school not started but teachers have not been paid their salaries for months. There is still shortage of money (in circulation). There are plenty of woreda towns where banks have still not been opened – especially private banks. The trust the people has on the security situation is low. Their concerns have not been alleviated.

The church

It has brought on me shame, which I can’t hide, because, in Mekelle where all the aid agencies are abundant and constantly moving around, I wasn’t able to find one vehicle belonging to aid organization of Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I also felt a bit of envy by the active participation of the Catholics. The faithful rush towards churches early in the morning. The clergy make prayers of mercy every day. Women – from children to widows – make circles barefoot and participate in the prayer ritual called ‘Mihlela’. The ones who are much older kneel in the middle of the circle and make prostrations. The ones who can go around the circle. Besides hearing them call out the name of the Lord and our Blessed Virgin, they make prayer songs in sad sounding Tigrigna words, whose meanings I don’t know, and move around while beating their chests and knees. At intervals they stand and make collective prayers of ‘Lord have mercy’. Then they continue their rotation. The songs, the rotation, their faces have made my tears to wrestle out of control. I have kissed (and made prayers) in 4 churches. Church services has not been stopped in any of them. The Abnet school education(traditional clerical education) there has not been stopped. The people have still not withheld their hands (of charity) to the students (they live by begging food). I have been able to observe that “Gibi Bubae” – a Sunday school service for university students – service for Mekelle university, Adi-Haki campus that’s given in St. Gabriel’s church, has continued. I have seen at a distance Amanuel’s church, which was near Al-Negashi Mosque and which was damaged along with the mosque. Its damaged roof can be seen from a distance. It has not been repaired. Its embarrassing! The church has not said a word about it till now! The massacre at Mariam Dengolat is true! It is credible! Its embarrassing! Again the church said nothing! The massacre that took place at Axum city and the one near Axum Michael is true! Again the shepherd has said nothing about his sheep! There is a saying “the thirst of a winter’s water and the injustice of a mother is not noticeable”. The fact that the church has not spoken out even in a whisper for its children in Tigray is embarrassing. It causes anxiety. But the faithful has not denounced their religion. I have met someone in Adigrat whom I heard saying – in a voice filled with anguish – that the fact of Doctor Binyam and co appearing on Mahibere Kidusan TV and spoke a bit about has eased his pain. I also encountered a man who said ‘this incident has made it clear for me that clerical service is a vocation on which one makes ones living instead of being pastoral service’.

 

What I understood and hoped from my observation

 

Peace is a huge gift whose true meaning is understood when we lose it. Ethiopia has many heroes in wars. But I don’t think it has heroes of peace in numbers that we’d like to have them. Ones who understand that heroism is beyond victory and defeat, mothers who are engulfed with hopelessness, children who have missed out on chance to go to school and are roaming aimlessly, youth wasting their hidden potentials going about from one ‘Jebena’ coffee house to another, adults afraid to pair up oxen and begin tilling … ones who do not want to see these and bury their pride to open the doors of peace – these are true heroes. Even more – they are holy! I hope to meet one day with my friends for whom I expressed my wish that the misery I saw in Tigray will pass.

May the prayer and pleading of Mary keep our country, Ethiopia, from the wrath of her Son!

 

Beaman Netsere, 15/03/21

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