Deadly clash: Ethiopia’s war is now a year-old - GulfToday

Deadly clash: Ethiopia’s war is now a year-old


A destroyed tank lies on the side of the road south of Humera, in an area of western Tigray annexed by the Amhara region during the ongoing conflict, in Ethiopia. Associated Press

Cara Anna and David Keyton, Associated Press

The man who counts the dead sees them everywhere.

They’re in the handwritten lists of names smuggled out of a region cut off from the world by war. They’re in the images of people shot and tossed off a cliff, tortured and pushed into a river, left unburied for days. They’re announced by grieving families in social media posts.

They are the first thing he sees in the morning when he checks his messages. They are the last thing he sees at night, when they enter his dreams.

He has been living with the dead for a year, since war erupted last November in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Tigrayans, a minority of some 6 million, were encircled as a falling-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned deadly. It became an ethnic clash when Amhara fighters from a neighboring region allied with Ethiopia’s government poured in.

Many Tigrayans joined the fight. But the man who counts the dead is in Sweden and could not.

So he quickly decided what he could do to help. In his small, neat apartment at the end of a metro line in Stockholm, Desta Haileselassie would apply his computer science background and research skills to compiling a list of Tigrayan victims, name by name.

It is slow, difficult work. Almost all communication with Tigray has been cut off, and foreign media is banned. Many in the diaspora have waited for months to know whether loved ones are alive, terrified to receive messages from home even as they yearn for news.

In the confused first days and weeks, Desta issued pleas on social media for help. He told anguished families that a list of the dead would be a memorial of a war Ethiopia’s government seemed determined to hide. He made dozens of phone calls, then hundreds more.

The work took over his life. He stopped hiking, swimming or going to the gym, and he sleeps poorly. The guitar and keyboard he once played sit in his Stockholm apartment, untouched.

He has collected handwritten testimonies and photographs that make him feel sick or bring him to tears. He tries to calm weeping family members from afar, never meeting them in person. Months of exhaustion have collected under his eyes.

“There are days when I end up crying the whole evening,” Desta says softly. “A very, very hard job to do, but I have to do it ….This is the least I can do to help my people.”

Now, a year on, he has confirmed 3,080 names of the dead. The Associated Press has verified 30 of them chosen randomly, speaking with families and friends.

Victim Number 2,171 was Gebretsadkan Teklu Gebreyesus, shot dead by soldiers in the presence of his two young sons, the AP confirmed. Victim 1,599, Zeray Asfaw, was a bridegroom pulled from his wedding party and killed along with his best man, his friends and the father of the bride while the women screamed. Victim Number 2,915 was Amdekiros Aregawi Gebru, an ambulance driver gunned down while driving a woman in labor to a clinic, making it there before bleeding to death.

Desta has another 1,000 names he’s still trying to verify.

“It’s very, very disturbing, I’m very sorry,” he says as he shows photos of corpses on the ground.

His list does not include ethnic Amhara, who are some of the war’s latest victims after Tigray forces started moving toward Ethiopia’s capital.

The Amhara Association of America has its own list of the dead, starting with the killing of hundreds of Amhara in the Tigray community of Mai Kadra in the earliest days of the war. The list has reached 1,994.

The two ethnicities are separate even in death. The United Nations says that while war crimes may have been committed on all sides, the most atrocities have been reported against Tigrayans by Ethiopian soldiers and their Eritrean allies.

One thing all agree on, including experts: The lists represent just a fraction of the dead.

Desta is certain that every Tigrayan has lost someone, whether to fighting or to house-to-house massacres or to starvation under an Ethiopian government blockade. To emphasize the shattered connections, he often mentions when a victim is a parent, or is killed alongside one. The word “mother” appears 43 times.

“His mother alone had to cry over her son’s body all day long,” one entry says.

Desta too has lost loved ones, 19 of them. The self-contained 36-year-old gently deflects questions, saying every victim on his list is like family.

But the thought of adding one name especially close to him is too much to bear. It brings him to tears when her name is mentioned. The single photo on display in the room where he works shows him embracing her as she smiles.

He calls her Amlishaway. She is his mother.

Victim Number 51: Haben Sahle

Desta’s list includes 102 children. The news of the death of a 15-year-old boy was among the first to reach him.

Haben Sahle was a top student in the border town of Zalambessa and an only son. When the war engulfed Tigray, connection with him was lost.

In faraway California, the boy’s uncle, Angesom, received the first word in a phone call weeks later, in December. It was a well-intended lie.

Relatives in neighboring Eritrea told Angesom that family members in Zalambessa were fine. But Angesom knew that in their culture, the death of a loved one usually wouldn’t be shared over the phone.

A trio of Ethiopian Orthodox priests broke the terrible news in a surprise visit the following Sunday.

“When priests come to your house without warning, something’s wrong,” Angesom says.

The priests hadn’t known the boy. They didn’t know how he died. It took five more months for Angesom to reach his sister by phone for details.

She told him Ethiopian soldiers, and allied ones from Eritrea, were seeking out and killing men and teenage boys. Decades of rivalries and resentments over Tigray leaders’ long, often repressive hold on power had turned into slaughter.

As the soldiers approached their home, Haben Sahle’s mother said no one was there but her. But the soldiers fired at random and shot her son hidden inside.

As she recounted the killing, Angesom could finally begin to grieve.

“For six horrible months, I didn’t eat normal, sleep normal, work normal,” he says.

The distance was made worse by fears that Ethiopian authorities were monitoring phone calls. You could only ask loved ones vaguely if they were OK and had food and water, Angesom says.

Now silence has descended again, and he hasn’t reached his family in Tigray for the past four months. If he could speak with them again, he would tell them this: He will be their voice forever.

“If this is not genocide,” he says, “there will be nothing that will be labeled as genocide.”

With Angesom’s confirmation of the teenager’s death, Desta added him to his list. More than 90% of the names there are of men and boys, reflecting survivors’ accounts that they were often singled out for killing. His work had barely begun.

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