By Sehin Teferra
There is beauty that my father never got to see. Not his golden grandchildren, or the gray in my mother’s silken hair, his children’s graduations or our weddings. He didn’t get to grow old, and a man who genuinely loved life missed out on much of it.
My father was a family man, but the great love of his life was Ethiopia, the beautiful, beaten and resilient land that we were taught to serve no matter what.
When my father passed away, there were no mobile phones, and my parents were among the first Ethiopians to buy bank shares. I look now at the proliferation of private banks, and I wonder what he would have made of them. I think of him one evening as I help my mother apply to renew her passport online, and smile in marvel in the ways in which Ethiopia has made life easier for some of her residents. There are many new things that I have seen take root in Addis Ababa in particular, from the small miracle of the taxi hailing app RIDE, and our world-class airport, to our tentative steps towards democracy that I deeply wish he was around to experience. He would have thrown back his head and laughed with child-like joy if one of us had had the honor of zooming him down the Addis-Hawassa Expressway, because my father was of that generation whose frequent travels abroad as a young man only brought on a feverish wish for economic growth, peace and the respect of human rights in his homeland.
There is much that I wish he had got to see, and so much that I am glad he has been spared.
I went to Dessie at the beginning of October 2021, one of those unprepared-for trips that my mother has learnt to accept, and that my aunt, originally from Dessie, simply asks to not be told of. Dessie is the capital of South Wello Zone, although my father never managed to get used to the new designation under ethnic federalism. He never learnt to be of the Amhara Nationality that the EPRDF-constitution said he belongs to, and remained a Wolloye, Ye Dessie Lij – a child of Dessie – until the day that he died. My father did not raise me to value some Ethiopian lives over others, and I can’t say that the report of one hundred youth slaughtered in Kombolcha town as the TPLF entered the city in early November hurt me more because the victims, God rest their souls, were from Wollo, made of the soil that my father once walked on. However, I am glad my father is no longer here to witness such barbarity imposed on a people that he loved. After all, family lore has it that my dad responded to the Wello famine of 1984 by piling his beat-up Citroen with rolls of bread, and with tears streaking down his face, drove the 400 km to his hometown of Dessie to distribute his small offering.
At the time of my visit, estimates put the numbers at 300,000 people to be internally displaced in Dessie only, sheltered in a town with a population of 400,000. That estimate more than doubled to 700,000 in two weeks time. The women and men that I spoke to were, until recently, professional government employees, business owners and respected community members. A woman with three small children and pregnant with her fourth, described leaving their large home in Kobo, North Wello, with two sets of clothing because they planned to be gone ‘for a few days at most.’ At the time of my visit, they have been sheltering at Tossa Middle School in Dessie for the last three months, and the school was a temporary home to 492 women-led families and 13 families led by men. Fifty of the women were pregnant, and more than half of the residents were below the age of 18. A few of the residents had serious health conditions or physical disabilities.
A young woman I spoke to described escaping Woldia as the fighting erupted, traveling to Dessie by Bajaj and on a truck, and then going back into the fight zone at night to bring back her seven-year old son. She said her mother risked her life to help deliver her child to her. Many of the women I spoke to had sheltered with extended family members in Dessie initially but made their way into the camps within a few weeks, with relatives struggling to support them. I heard stories of loss and bereavement but what struck me the most from the stories were lessons in dignity and survival. The women I spoke to expressed dismay not only at the larger loss of home and community, but also at the seemingly small slights of donations they found to be unfitting. Some of the women described gifts of worn clothing in unwearable conditions and of food items insufficient for sharing for such a large group of people. Several women told me with some anger, that they were not used to asking for handouts. I repeatedly heard, ‘እኛ ችግር አናውቅም’ – ‘we are not people who are used to being poor.’ Listening to the women reminiscing of their lost homes, perhaps only 80 or 100km away but already imbued with nostalgia, I was reminded of Orhan Pamuk’s quip in his novel: *Red*, ’Every woman would have married the Sultan, if she didn’t marry you.’ I understood the urge to glorify what slipped away so easily, and when a young woman, Hanan, told me: ‘Enkuan Abbate Mote: Yihenin Alaye’, ‘I am glad my father is dead, I am glad he didn’t see this.’ I replied, ‘Enem: Yene’m.’ Me too, mine too.
Back in Addis, and carrying around my meagre store of stories that none of my friends want to take off my hands, I moved about with profound sadness for the slow death of my country. I kept a careful face in front of my children, who nevertheless continued to ask, ‘Mama, are you ok?’ and gave in my evenings to a slow mourning. I grieved, and wondered at my own sense of doom. I asked myself, ‘Am I over-reacting? Will Ethiopia not survive this just as she has survived decades of war, a famine that became synonymous with her name, and several brutal regimes? If we are not resilience itself, then who is? When a well-meaning but disconnected Ethiopian-American friend calls to tell me to ‘lighten up’, I screamed inside my head, ‘Ager Aydel Endae Yemotechibign?’ – ‘Isn’t it my country that is dying?’ – but found that I have no words to say out loud at all. I retreated into myself and wondered, ‘I mourned for my father for half my life, will I mourn Ethiopia for the rest of it?”
A few weeks after my return from Dessie, and on a cold November morning in Addis, I woke up to a piercing cry from the neighborhood: ‘Abbattaee!’ The wailing went on for a good fifteen minutes until the woman was quieted down. She has obviously been told that her father had died, and I resigned to a few days accompanied by the same faint rise-and-fall of wailing as relatives come to pay their respect. I wondered if the Elder had died in the war. In all the Ethiopian cultures that I know, adults are told of the passing of their loved ones at dawn. There is a solemnity to the process that acknowledges the depth of the loss, and that centers the bereaved, the daughter, in the case of my neighbor, in the grieving process. Opening my window to listen closer to the raw sobs of a woman that I don’t know, I reflected with sadness how even proper mourning has become a luxury. The displaced women I spoke to in Dessie had been robbed of this simple act of centering as they learn of various losses. Wardia, a mother of four, had told me in tears, ‘በየአጥሩ ነው የምንረዳው’: ‘we are told of the deaths of our loved ones leaning against fences’. Our respect for death was the among the first of our norms to die in this nightmare of a war, and the social fabric unravels quickly as we tear Ethiopia apart.
December found a warm and vibrant Addis, whose stress level was not obvious on the surface. When a dear friend from another African country asks if dinner plans would be a good idea, I told him that we don’t need to die before we are killed. I only realized I was translating an Amharic saying when he said that he’s heard the expression several times lately. I get emails full of concern from old Professors and new colleagues based in peaceful countries, and I blank on the response, as I watch my kids play in one of our new parks under a sparkling blue sky. As the traffic outside inches forward, so does my anxiety: what exactly are we missing here? I listen to the few Ethiopian radio stations that I trust, and their weekly programs offer economic analysis and soccer goals, while other, region-based stations are on all-our war footing. Patriotic songs and songs recalling the love of country are ubiquitous – hasty hash-ups produced for the season interspersed with the classics of my childhood, while the lovely Zeritu Kebede implores that Ethiopia may remain a home, and an address, to ‘our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.’ 
Addis folks have jokes, they always do. ‘So, coffee on Tuesday? ያው ካልገቡ’ (‘if they haven’t arrived by then’), we banter, without much mirth. I make a point of checking on Tigrayan friends and colleagues, even ones that I am not close to. A significant portion of Ethiopia is hurting, but their challenges are deeper. I am touched when a Board Member of my organization calls to check on me and tear up when she invokes an Islamic prayer that we may all be united with our relatives ‘with none missing’. It would be disingenuous to claim that I have been close to my extended family beyond a few uncles and aunts in Addis. However, I know that my cousins, second cousins and many relatives on both sides of my family have been living in combat zones for the past few months now. My mother continuously tries to call them, knowing there will not be a signal, and after a while, I stop telling her that we will know when we know. Many Ethiopians are redrawing their families, just as we are all aiming to understand changing borders. We learn, as did the displaced women in Dessie, that the soil under our feet can shift very quickly. I try to be gentle with my mother as I sit in mournful silences with her. After all, she has done this for longer than I have, and each generation has had its share of human-inflicted and wholly unnecessary violence. I suppress a smile when her trauma-infused stories bleed into each other:
Ema, were you nursing me, or hiding me under the bed?
When, as a young medical school student, you worked to save rebel fighters while a soldier held a gun over your head, was I a new-born or a teenager?
Do you mean at the time of the Red Terror, or the fall of the Derg?
And the evening that I held you as you cried scanning the television set for confirmation that a man you called brother must have been executed for his alleged role in a coup? I was about 12, I remember.
Mama, has serving Ethiopia ever brought you joy?
And now that I am grown, is it my turn to hide my children under the bed as soldiers barge in without so much as a knock?
Does anything ever get better in this beaten golden land of ours, or do we just repeat the mistakes of your generation?
On my last day in Dessie, I took a Bajaj to Medhanealem, and found a cold bench to while a few hours on. A church dedicated to ’The Savior of the World’ – Jesus Christ – by King Mikael of Wello, the church is something of a landmark in the small city. It’s also a few steps from the house where my father grew up, in a compound that is just up the street from the historic Woizero Siheen School. My father named me Siheen in honor of his school, and of its founder, the daughter of King Mikael, who was also the mother of Etege Menen, the last Empress of Ethiopia. I never visited Dessie while my father was alive, courtesy of another brutal war . However, after he passed, I went a couple of times per year until his mother died when my daughter had just turned one, and there was no more reason to. Back now after several years, I reflect that I had forgot the humble charms and quirks of a city that still seems to regard itself as an oversized village.
If I can claim any soil in Ethiopia, it would be from this church. Sitting anywhere in the neat compound, I have a view of the traditional Octagonal shape of the old church that my great grandfather, Abba Gebreab, came from Shire, in Tigray, to administer in the time of the King. Abba Gebreab married a woman from Gondar called Tirunesh, and they had thoroughly Welloye children. My paternal grandparents, as well as an uncle who died young, and many of my relatives are buried on the grounds. On that rainy Sunday in the compound of the church, I tried to visualize my father as a child running around in the compound some fifty years ago, while I reflected on what I saw in his beloved town. I felt completely powerless to help the displaced women in just one camp. I said out loud: ‘Bicha, Alakeskuachew.’ I came all this way to cry with them – that is all I did on that heavy trip that felt like a farewell. TPLF forces were 30km away when I visited, the airport was closed one week later, and I gave up on the fundraising effort soon after as my contacts from the camp were displaced once more.
Before Dessie was occupied by TPLF forces, a Tigrayan friend teased me about how quickly the rest of Wollo, unequipped and ill-organized, fell to the occupying forces, and I replied: ‘You know we are lovers, not fighters.’ We will go back together, we said to each other, knowing that will probably never be possible again. My friends and I don’t know what we have become, so we limit our conversation to compassionate checking-in. ‘You are well?’ we ask. ‘Abro-Adege’: ‘The one I grew up with’ is a special assignation in Amharic. We are all unwilling citizens of a slowly unfolding nightmare . An Oromo friend, who is as Welloye as I am, tries to make me smile with wise-cracks about ‘our people’ resisting armed aggression with incense smoke, a nod to Wello’s enduring love for long coffee ceremonies, and for incense in particular.
Ethiopians are learning to laugh around the painful edges. I have teenaged cousins in Dessie, and I don’t want to think of the dangers that they are in, from all kinds of men, in all kinds of uniforms .
I’m increasingly quiet and picky in who I’ll discuss the slow death with. I am sensitive with Diaspora Ethiopians or non-Ethiopians with short attention spans who want the to-go version, but I’m extra erudite on interviews that all seem to be naked in their aim. The government media has been having a field day with the latest Amnesty International report that outlines the atrocities of the rebel forces, but the organization suddenly loses credibility when I point out that the previous Amnesty International report outlined almost identical abuses by the government and allied forces in Tigray, so I share the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report. An interviewer on the BBC Focus on Africa tries to put my organization on the defensive: how come we don’t receive direct reports of gender-based violence? Women running for their lives do not access hotlines, but the reporter knows this, and I ask her if she has ever lived in a war zone.
I get irritated with religious platitudes. ‘ብቻ እግዜር ያውጣን’ – ‘only God can save us now’. Tigray is home to both the oldest mosque in Africa, built in the time of the Prophet himself, and to the Ark of Covenant, and its sacred soil has been defiled. Monks in Lalibela, a UNESCO heritage site and a sacred location for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in northern Wello have gone hungry, and the airport was completely wrecked.  Leave God out of this one. This is on us, on my generation of Ethiopians. A few weeks ago, I saw priests being arrested as I picked up my son from school, in the center of Addis. I repeatedly asked my child about his day as my mind wandered off at the absurdity of it all. Never a dull day in a war zone. The Prime Minister joining to war himself.  A revolution tweeted and retweeted into a massive movement of protest against the biased reporting of International media, and the clearly dishonest brokering of the US government .
Is anyone documenting these hazy, heady days, I wonder, and make an attempt at keeping a journal. I laugh at I find myself talking into my macchiato cup. ‘Eshi, Anne Frank’, I tease myself. ‘Are you going to document the end of a way of life?’ To report on how the very soil shifted below our feet as Ethiopia unravels?
I’m no hero but I have friends who are its embodiment; who have stood up to the repression of former years and been beaten and jailed for it, and with the slow march of the TPLF towards Addis, I worry for their re-traumatization. I ask if they are not frightened. There is so much opposition to the expansion of the TPLF because it’s not a new rebel force that we can give the benefit of the doubt to; we know what it is made of, and that it does not mean well for Ethiopia or for Ethiopians. A friend of mine who is a survivor of the infamous Maekelawi holding cells put it simply, ‘ከመጡ: ለበቀል ነው’ : ‘they are only coming back for revenge.’ As the renowned Ethiopia historian, Bahru Zewde put it, 2021 is not 1991, and the TPLF has faced a stiffer and more united opposition than it probably expected . When the rebel force, enigmatic and highly disciplined, ‘liberated’ Dessie the first time around, the forces entered the city after some fighting on the edges but largely unopposed afterwards.
When my father called my grandmother to check on her, she had made coffee for the soldiers and was chatting amiably with them. When the TPLF forces made it to Addis a few months after, and a week after Mengistu HaileMariam had fled the country, the TPLF tanks entered Addis Ababa with little resistance. As soon as it was safe to go out, my father went to check on his office, and came back home with tales of women fighters who had offered him tea as they sat in a makeshift cafe and he had a pleasant conversation with them in Tigrigna.
TPLF, the rebel force, morphed into the EPRDF coalition, wrote a controversial constitution  that booby-trapped Ethiopia, and driven more by Marxist loyalties than love of country, went on to divide and rule to an exceptional degree. Ethiopia grew economically in the 27 years of EPRDF rule with record investment in infrastructure, healthcare and education, along with a deep disregard for quality and for human lives. Addis Ababa grew at exponential rates and has changed in ways that my father would not recognize, from a small and quaint metropole to a mega-city of chronic traffic and high-rises. The EPRDF was well-known for its investments but also for corruption . The unraveling of TPLF dominance started with the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 in his 17th year of Prime Ministership , while the tenure of his successor, HaileMariam Desalegn was marked by regular protests and uprisings, which after several years, resulted in a political solution that brought a relatively unknown member of the EPRDF, Abiy Ahmed, to the Prime Ministership. There was a thread on social media a few months ago on how all us urbanites never fell for the Abiy Ahmed magic, but the truth is that we were all in bewildered awe at the selfie-taking, public-hugging young Prime Minister who appointed a woman President, a gender-equal cabinet, a woman President of the Supreme Court and a woman Chair of the Election Board all within a few heady few months. Three years into his Prime Ministership, his new Party won a convincing victory at the first democratic elections held in June 2021, even while localized conflicts with brutal reports sexual violence and mass killings took place in several regions. How we got from that point of cautious hope for a democratic shift, to this space of serious debate on whether Ethiopia will continue as a state, defies an easy explanation.
No war starts with the first bullet, and the TPLF declaration of war with the attack of the Northern Command on November 3, 2020 was only the last straw that broke the camel’s back . Ethiopia changed irrevocably that evening, but the unraveling was decades in the making, aided by the haphazard Reform Process of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that cobbled together an un-negotiated peace with Eritrea, the repatriation of several armed groups under a generic amnesty, and a highly populist and uniting national agenda that was misconstrued as a hark back to hegemonic rule . As in all wars, highly effective ‘us versus them’ narratives, the sheer egos of men too long used to power, politics of divisiveness that labeled some Ethiopians as outsiders in the lands of their birth, and a culture of suspicion and a zero-sum game came to a tragic boil that has cost thousands of lives and subjected women, girls and boys to horrific levels of sexual violence, committed by all actors in the war, and often in revenge for similar abuse of ‘their’ population .
Ethiopian colleagues and friends from all ethnic backgrounds agree that the Ethiopia of their fathers is long dead. We mourn that fact. However, in the last days of December, I have come to feel a slow shift. I don’t know what is changing, but something has to give. Ethiopia has to survive this war and I sense a slow hopeful energy in the air. The beaten gold forged into something unbeatable. I go to a Ministry resigned to an unmoving bureaucracy, and when I am instead met with eager offers to help, I take it as a good omen. Offices are functioning – it is obviously going to be okay. The war has reached a stalemate that I fervently hope can translate into a negotiated peace. My mother has finally heard back from her cousins in Sekota town, on the border of Tigray, and ‘none are missing.’ The evening that the fighting reached their town, my aunts sent ten of their children, some still in pajamas out on a vehicle bound for Bahir Dar, the capital city of Amhara Region, and another aunt there took care of all of them on her civil servant’s salary.
Back in Addis, a family friend, a Tigrayan single mother with a chronic illness was arrested on a tip, and let go after two days with no process. Others have not been so lucky, and we hear of gross human rights abuses at the centers that were not designed to serve as prison sites. If the government disappoints us by falling back on old patterns, we look to the sprouts of institutions for a semblance of hope. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has spoken out on ethnic profiling of Tigrayans , and small groups of civil society actors continue to call for peace. The organization that I serve has publicly requested that women’s experiences of violence not be political bait on either side of the conflict . If these voices get drowned out in the nearly complete absence of appetite for compromise or negotiation, we console ourselves with well-placed thoughts of readiness for the work that awaits us.
The war has taken a toll even on those of us who were not in the direct line of threat, and I don’t place blame when friends say that they are giving up on Ethiopia. The magnitude of what we still face is not lost on me, but I hold on. I dream of mass forgiveness, of women’s circles from all communities coming together to heal first their bodies, then their communities. To un-defile the sacred soil of this beautiful land. I dream that a resolution is close. That is it right there if we can just make it past these terrible days. We will rebuild, I tell myself. We will recalibrate with those who have chosen the new Ethiopia. Our generation has paid the final price, all the bad blood has been let, and we can look forward to survival if not prosperity.
My father was spared what he couldn’t have borne to witness with this horrible war, but when I see him again, I will tell him that I chose as he would have. I will say that we danced too close to the fire over the last three years, that we dreamt of democracy, of institutions, and that we stood in the rain for five hours to cast a vote and dared to imagine a new Ethiopia with room for all kinds of Ethiopians. Our highly fallible Prime Minister won a prize that he perhaps now wants to give back . We dreamt and ran too fast, and not all Ethiopians got on board. We fought a war that burnt the soil under our feet, but we found a unity that hasn’t been in place for a long time, if ever.
I will make my dad laugh with what one of his best friends, an Afar former Navy Commander, called to tell my mother a few days ago, ‘Women from Gondar in Amhara region are now saying that they want to marry the nomadic Afar men who are fighting so bravely for Ethiopia!’ Together, we will reflect on what this war cost us, and on what it has taught us.
I will tell my father, ‘Babi, after you left us, Ethiopia died. But Ethiopia lives.’