Forty years after the mass famines of Ethiopia, the region has reemerged in the news. On November 4th the Federal government stationed its military in the northern province of Tigray. Violence has broken out and refugees are crossing the border to Sudan seeking to survive this new wave of conflict.
Before moving to New York, fortune or fate had taken me to Ethiopia to carry out my Master’s research six years ago. I lived in Tigray between the capital Mekelle and the village of Abreha we Atsbeha. The news says that the internet has been shut down and I watch closely, trying to see if I recognize any of the refugees on the screen. I think of the people I came to know there and ask myself: Are they OK?
I remember his condo on the fourth floor of downtown Mekelle: Sparse, dusty, filled with light, and scattered with his paintings and art supplies. He was an anarchist art graduate free political thinker type.
I remember joining his college friends for sweet frothy macchiatos on the charming cobbled streets of Mekelle, plastic stools set out neatly with fresh-cut reeds to decorate the floor. They engaged in exciting afro-centric political debate, questioning pedagogies while switching between Tigrinya and English to accommodate me. In his condo, posing and painting at the same time, we would practice painting.
And when our conversations ran dry we would settle into silence, sitting side by side, enjoying the window’s light.
After days of silence, he replied:
“Most people you know in Mekelle are alright. The village is probably a war zone right now. I still paint sometimes.”
I am shaken, “Why do you say it’s a war zone? I thought they were just attacking Mekelle?”
“The war is all over Tigray,” he responds.
I remember the village of Abreha we Atsbaha. I am taken back to the shade of the old man’s hut, sitting on the smoothed over dusty floor, sharing popped chickpeas from his fire. “Our Meles was even greater than your Mandela,” he said to me with a soft and knowing smile. “Your poor people are still poor. Whereas Meles took care of us, the farmers.” I had to agree, fascinated that this rural farmer in the north of Ethiopia knew so well of the political turmoil back home in South Africa, I wondered why no one knew of Meles. Was it because heroes like Mandela and Gandhi overcame white oppression? Whereas Meles Zenawi and his political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), overcame oppressors of their own?
“The Italians tried to conquer Ethiopia, but their mistake was that they came through Tigray,” another old man said to me. “They did not know that we are fierce fighters and no one knows our mountains like we do.” Ethiopia is a proud anomaly in the continent, never colonized and said to be protected by the notorious Tigrinian warriors in the north and their steep mountainous homeland. This guerilla-style military know-how formulated the TPLF in 1975, who then overthrew the bloody and oppressive communist Derg. Composed of women and men, I recall the old photos of a proud son’s mother, dressed in camouflage, rifle in hand, and a thick afro crowing her head. Years of civil war showed up in international news as the world’s worst famine, images of starving children populating international media campaigns.
The TPLF became Ethiopia’s governing political party for almost thirty years. They put in programs to regenerate rural agriculture: To help the poor farmers. Through reforestation, terracing, and livestock management, they were beginning to invigorate their lands after years of conflict and abuse. Abraha we Atsbaha was making strides towards sustainability and was named a global example, awarded by the United Nations.
The news today says that the TPLF has taken to the countryside, and my heart sinks as I wonder what is becoming of all the work of the poor farmers.
One of the downfalls of the TPLF was that they prioritized their own people in Tigray and after I left, the country voted in its first leader from the Oromo region, Abiy Ahmed, in 2018. The youngest leader in African history who made quick strides for peace with Eritrea, neighboring Tigray in the north. A formerly hostile relationship between two neighbors turned over with a brisk handshake, cameras flashing, Chinese businessmen smiling. I was hopeful for peace when this happened, still ignorant of the deep mistrust between the neighbors in the north. Tigray and Eritrea are like bitter siblings. They speak the same language, share the same culture, but are deeply divided.
“Oh, it’s political nonsense,” Uncle Tesi had told me “These politicians just want power! So they fight and remove families from one another.” Uncle Tesi loved Eritrea having grown up in the beautiful capital Asmara. “I haven’t seen my sister since the war separated us,” he had said to me, him in Tigray, Ethiopia, and her in Asmara, Eritrea.
Today, he replies quickly over Facebook: “Now all is coming to normal. Day by day,” he reassures me. I recall the Ethiopian proverb: Slowly slowly the egg begins to walk. Day by day he said. Kess be kess. Slowly slowly. And I wonder how he is able to be so patient with war, the second occurrence in his lifetime.
My friends in the village barely had cellphone connection let alone the internet. After I left my neighbor connected with me on Facebook and would call often: “Salam my sister!” his cheerful voice cutting in and out over the shaky internet as we repeated our same set of jokes. I stopped prioritizing his calls, and slowly slowly they were replaced by occasional picture messages. I texted him: “Zehowey, my brother, are you OK?”
A few platforms: Nothing.
A week later my professor responds: “I do not have any news about Abraha Atsbaha, and may not be safe to travel there currently.” I think of the children, the little girl whose sweet face visited my dreams only weeks ago. The young man pursuing his dream to be a bus driver and move out of the village.
“I am in Addis.” He said. Anyone I was able to hear from was safely in Addis.
“I’m really glad you weren’t there,” I say.
“It feels bad in its own way though. When I think of my friends,” he responds,
“It’s been building up for more than a year. We got used to the tension and took it for the new normal. Millions are in risk of death from famine unless humanitarian aid is made accessible asap. The whole world including the majority of Ethiopians don’t seem to give a fly about it. Some on social media are actively calling for genocide by starvation.”
Starvation is not a new tactic in Ethiopian warfare. During the famous war-induced famine of the 1980s, the Derg, in their Scorched Earth Policy, burned fields of farmland in order to overcome their enemies.
“Am not telling u this to depress you but the world should know.” He says.
I think of the news story today and the refugee saying they left everything behind, including their harvest. And what of their seed for a new season? Subsistence farming is so tenuous: one lost harvest is a matter of life or death. I fear that a genocide of the Tigrinian people is taking place in Ethiopia through mass hunger. And today, the world is too preoccupied with the pandemic, and US politics to look.
“I want to know,” I reply. I ask myself how far will it go this time before the world pays attention.
“I never thought it was all this fragile.” He responds.
“Yes, I thought we were making progress,” I type, thinking of the young Oromo prime minister shaking hands in the north and winning a Nobel peace prize. How quickly it turned into another war.
“Same here,” he says.
And quietly, on opposite sides of the world, we settle into silence again.
*About the author: Nava Derakhshani is a New York based artist and writer. Born to Iranian parents in Eswatini, her work explores themes of identity, belonging, and gender. She holds a BA in architecture from the University of Cape Town and practiced in South Africa and India in low-cost eco-housing and urban design. Her Masters in Sustainable Development took her to rural Ethiopia researching the spiritual and historic ties to farming and conservation. A graduate of the International Center for Photography, her creative practice draws on her geopolitical observations to center on stories from the margins.