‘A dead man walking’: Ethiopians wait in agony for news of relatives from Tigray region

The conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front has raged for three weeks, with thousands fleeing the region

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When Kidus Gebre-Gzabiher last spoke to his father two weeks ago, he begged to give part of his kidney to save his life. The 60-year-old, living in Mekelle in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, said he needed time to consider the offer and asked his son to call back the next day.

That was the last his son heard from him.

Shortly after they hung up the phone, the Ethiopian government shut down phone lines and internet access in Tigray, leaving thousands with no way to reach family and friends as a deadly conflict erupted in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia.

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Ethiopia's Tigray crisis

Sightline with Tim Marshall - Ethiopia's Tigray crisis

From his home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, the 25-year-old computer scientist has watched the latest conflict in a nation of more than 110 million reach its third week, killing hundreds and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes for neighbouring Sudan.

"My father is sick. All his supplements are regularly shipped from Addis Ababa and with all transportation interrupted… I worry for his well-being and whether he has made it," he told The National, adding that he has been unable to send the medication for his father's kidney failure by mail.

The telecommunications blackout in Tigray has made it practically impossible for people to contact their family members

“I am close to my father. He ensured I received a good education so that I follow in his footsteps and have a career,” he said, adding his father retired from his position in public service earlier this year.

“At his time of need and in retirement after serving for long and becoming a grandfather, he certainly does not deserve such fate.”

UNHCR has warned of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis unfolding” after more than 30,000 people crossed the border to neighbouring Sudan to escape the fighting. Many others, including elderly people and young children, are stranded in the region as Ethiopian forces march on the capital, Mekelle.

The conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front began on November 4, after the country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the TPLF state government.

The federal government accused the TPLF, a political party which controls Tigray, of holding an illegal election and attacking a military base. The TPLF has said that Mr Abiy lacks a mandate to lead the country after he postponed elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Henok Tsegaye, a 33-year-old teacher came to Addis Ababa from Axum in Tigray a day before the conflict began to pick up a wedding ring; he is now stranded in the capital with no information on the fate of his family.

"I feel hopeless, every sound and ending reminds me of my mother and fiancée. I cry and pray but I always come to the dead-end that I cannot help them," he told The National.

His mother depends on him financially and after being cut off for more than two weeks, he does not know whether she will try to reach Sudan and find refuge like so many others.

He has also been unable to contact his fiancée, whom he hoped to marry early next year. He lost his father in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war two decades ago.

Ethiopia was governed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front under which the TPLF were a dominant force for 27 years. But one-time chairman of the EPRDF and Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did away with the old structure and created a new political party, Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to be part of.

TPLF leaders have since complained of being unfairly imprisoned and blamed for Ethiopia’s difficulties for present and past.

Kidus Gebre-Gzabiher is struggling to get his father in Tigray the medication he needs. Samuel Getachew for The National

“As fighting continues, we are seeing a devastating humanitarian crisis unfold, not just within Ethiopia but across its borders, the head of the International Red Cross delegation to Ethiopia, Katia Sorin, said.

“Thousands are crossing into Sudan seeking safety, and an untold number are displaced from their homes inside Ethiopia. The telecommunications blackout in Tigray has made it practically impossible for people to contact their family members, causing fear and anguish on the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones.”

Ethiopia’s military said it was planning to surround Mekelle on Sunday and warned civilians to flee.

"Save yourself. A directive has been communicated for you to dissociate yourself from this junta, after that there will be no mercy,” military spokesman Dejene Tsegaye told state broadcasters.

Mr Tsegaye continues to live in fear of the outcome.

“I have always wanted to protect my mother from harm, from the moment she lost her own husband and my father and my beautiful fiancée whom I hoped I would start a family with.

“With their fate unknown, I feel like a dead-man walking”.