Grim Legacy of Tigray War Haunts Mekelle A City of Despair, Dreams of Escape

Once a bustling capital, Mekelle now wears the scars of Tigray’s brutal conflict. Its unfinished buildings and neglected shops whisper of lost opportunity, while cheap beer and quiet pubs offer solace from the harsh reality. Young people yearn for a brighter future elsewhere, fleeing to Europe or fearing jobs and famine.

The war’s economic wounds are deep. Infrastructure lies in ruins; businesses are largely looted, and unemployment soars while inflation reaches the rooftop. Hospitals struggle with staff shortages and non-payment, driving skilled doctors away in mass exodus. The spectre of famine is looming while the regional government cries for funds. Tourists, once plentiful, now stay away, deterred by images of hunger and instability in the region.

Indeed, Mekelle grapples with its new reality – hosting internally displaced people with meagre resources.
EBR’s Samuel Getachew visited Mekelle to understand how rough the road to recovery will be. He reports that it will take a concerted effort of international donors, local and federal governments, and citizens for Mekelle to rise again from the ashes and for its people to rebuild a brighter future.

It can be an easy task to experience the legacy of a brutal civil war in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Within its signature dotted but partially finished buildings, neglected architectures and endless pubs serving cheap beer and roasted grain, there is collective grief about what transpired in this volatile territory.

“I have no opportunity here and I want to travel elsewhere, live in peace and improve my economic status”, a 27-year-old Yohannes Hagos, an engineer driving a three-wheel taxi (popularly referred to as Bajaja, a name of the manufacturer in India) said as he waited for a customer near Northern Star hotel, once frequented by people working for charity organisations.

His friend, Sirak Hagos, shares the same sentiment about what the future holds for their generation.

“I love Tigray and this is where I was born and lived all my formative years. But I hate to stay idle and not make any progress in my life, financially and personally”, the unemployed young man said as he sipped a soda drink.

Many youthful residents have relocated elsewhere. Many young people are still contemplating a life far from their native region. Some even take the dangerous route via Afar, then Djibouti and Yemen and off to Europe and Saudi Arabia for greener pastures.

“We are like dead people walking”, 31-year-old Senait Mehari, a former waiter at a local hotel, explained as she served a bottle of beer to a customer.

Senait says she hopes to make the dangerous journey to Europe soon when she can pay a go-between despite knowing the risk. She disclosed that most of her friends had taken the same route, paying go-betweens the equivalent of 500 USD, but they have yet to make it to Europe. Many have been stuck in Yemen; few came back midway with the assistance of the United Nations migration agency, IOM, while a close friend lost his life.

As for Senait, that is the only way out of her misery, she said, explaining the difficulties of living in a region grappling with famine and the brutal aftermath of civil strife.

With the suspension of aid and many humanitarian workers from Addis Ababa, the hospitality sector is witnessing shrinking business activities. Many aid agencies have been forced to lay off local staff members, pushing unemployment in the region to a record high.

The civil strife in the three states, Tigray, Amhara and Afar, saw thousands killed; millions displaced, and limited infrastructures destroyed. While the federal government estimates losses of more than 20 billion USD after northern Ethiopia’s conflict in November 2022, a mere presence in Tigray shows that the social, economic, and infrastructure losses are far more than what numbers can explain.

Like in most parts of the country, unemployment is at a record high, inflation overwhelms the state, and there are scarce foreign exchange shortages in Mekelle, affecting the state’s economic lifeline relentlessly. Many local investors have been forced to abandon their enterprises, including the once-profitable export business.

Henok Tesfaye, 57, used to import designer footwear from Turkey, but the war devastated his business, and he was forced to close his store in downtown Mekelle. The father of four could no longer acquire foreign currency and enough customer base amid recurrent conflicts.

Tesfaye currently works as a taxi driver ferrying customers who, on most occasions, prefer to either walk or take the three-wheel taxi that is more affordable for the average resident.

Even the non-governmental organisations that shouldered the region’s burden are nowhere to be seen, even though the United Nations estimates that 91 per cent of the population needs emergency aid while famine looms.

There is still the spectre of a future conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the right to use the Red Sea.

“There are no jobs, no tourists coming, and no adequate income to withstand the despair of what we are and we have been through”, Yohannes Hagos, 23, a tour guide, informs EBR with a substantial ton of complaints.

Like Yohannes, most of his youthful peers are increasingly upset and worried about the future. These disillusioned youths dream of taking their dream far from their local state, which might look weird; however, a closer look at the new reality of Tigray now justifies why they dream about fleeing the once-vibrant state.

“What future do we have? Our only prospect of renting our vehicles to United Nations agencies and driving them around or even hosting tourists is now a far-fetched dream than a reality”, Yohannes, a father of one, said as he sipped a beer, near Habesha Hotel, a fixture for the dwindling middle class and visiting dignitaries.

One of the war’s most invisible impacts was its impact on medical institutions and health professionals. With many on the horizon and many suffering from non-payment of salaries for the duration of the conflict, many saw fit to apply for visas for Western nations. They left the state– an exodus of doctors already happened in many Western countries, preferably to the United States.

“Many of our young doctors survived on nothing, ate less but heroically served a population that was suffering and too poor with no pay and little benefit to themselves and we are sad to see them leave our state”, an executive of Ayder Hospital said.

There are more stories of the war in Tigray.

Mekelle is hosting an increased influx of internally displaced people from across the region with no state funds to help, and neither they nor aid agencies are willing to shoulder it. The regional state’s government continues to cry that it has no funds allocated to do anything but accept that famine is its reality and watch as its populations suffer and its economy gutted.

The tourists that once donned Tigray are staying away despite a call to visit Tigray by both the local and federal governments.

Last month, the Tigray Tourism Bureau announced the commencement of the state for tourists to come after suspending leisure travel due to the war’s aftermath. However, several tour organisers witnessed brisk business while few tourists had previously visited.

A German tourist thinking of heading to the mountains of Tigray and Axum abruptly cancelled the trip, fearing it was too soon to visit, with images of famine carpeting her social media pages.

“It would be sad to be a tourist in a region grappling with hunger and fear of the unknown. I wouldn’t want to be trapped there during the ongoing war talk. This is a ‘your own risk’ endeavour that I fear I might not be able to accomplish,” said the German tourist.

That is terrible news for Atsbeha Gebreegziabher, the head of the region’s tourism bureau, who had hoped to visit Ethiopia’s second most populous region and translate needed resources to an area that still does not have a state budget for some of its pressing concerns.

“We want tourists to come back to Tigray”, he had announced.

The bulk of scenic attractions the bureau hopes would lure tourists are broken, including the famous Axum Obelisk, which has been neglected for years, while the renowned mosque, Al Nejashi, is not in good shape.

Indeed, the War in Tigray, which erupted in November 2020 has cast a long and devastating shadow over the region and its people. The human cost of the war has been immense, with thousands killed and millions already displaced. But beyond the immediate human suffering, the war has also inflicted deep wounds on the local economy and society, with consequences that will be felt for many more years to come.

The war has inflicted severe damage on Tigray’s infrastructure. From roads, bridges, communication networks, and irrigation systems to individual houses, they witnessed the adverse effects of the war. This has crippled transportation, disrupted essential service provisions, and hindered agricultural production.

Because of the war, businesses have been looted and destroyed, crops burned, and livestock stolen in many parts of the state. This has decimated livelihoods and plunged many people into poverty and food insecurity.

The conflict has further disrupted trade and market access, leading to shortages of essential goods and services while inflation in the state is rooftop. This has further eroded the local community’s purchasing power and exacerbated the worst economic hardship.

The uncertainty and instability created by the war have deterred domestic and foreign investment. Industry parks have been vacated, and many industries have also halted production because raw material supply and market connections were lost during the war. This has hampered economic recovery and offers, indeed, limited opportunities for job creation. The reason the region’s youth now want to flee is a direct consequence.

The war has displaced millions of the local people internally and forced others to flee to neighbouring countries, primarily Sudan, as refugees. This has broken up communities, strained social ties, and inflicted lasting psychological trauma.

The two-year war has indeed fueled ethnic tensions and mistrust between communities. This has created a climate of fear and insecurity. At the same time, there is no active war, making it challenging to rebuild social cohesion and reconciliation in the region more complex and daunting.

In today’s Tigray, schools have been damaged or destroyed, and teachers have fled because they have not been paid salaries for over two years. This has disrupted the entire education system in the region with millions of children, jeopardising their prospects and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

More badly, the war has severely weakened the healthcare system. Hospitals have been filled with victims of the battle where medical supplies are scarce, and healthcare workers are often unable to reach those in need. This has led to preventable deaths taking a toll.

The road to recovery for Tigray will be long and arduous. It will require sustained support to address the immediate humanitarian crisis, rebuild infrastructure, and revive the economy. Equally important is the need for lasting peace and a commitment to reconciliation and justice. Only then can Tigray heal its wounds and rebuild a brighter future. EBR

12th Year • February 2024 • No. 126

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