Wello Livelihoods Lost in Fire

Wello: Livelihoods Lost in Fire

Ever since federal troops left Tigray in June 2021, the battleground of military engagement between the federal government and regional powers in Tigray has shifted. As Wello, particularly North Wello Zone, of Amhara Region has become the new stage for war, tens of thousands of livelihoods have been lost while economic activities in the various towns is nothing but bleak. EBR’s Trualem Asmare delves into war-induced shattered hopes of small and medium businesses.

Mengiste Desalegn, a young man in his 20s, used to live in Sekota town of Wag Himra Zone in northern Amhara. He dwelled with a family of farmers and school-age siblings. As an employee for Food and the Hungry – Ethiopia (FHE), a nongovernmental organization working around gender and youth, Mengiste used to make a monthly wage of about USD249. Alongside, he had an electronics shop capitalized with ETB180,000 and supported family members.

“Business was going great, until it was not,” Mengiste recalls the upending period when he was forced to flee his hometown.

On the 9th of September, 2021, as forces of the outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) controlled Sekota town, he and his family had to flee to Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara Region. Leaving elderly parents who lacked the energy or will to escape, the family of six moved to the lakeside city carrying what little belongings they could afford.

Bahir Dar received the family in a refugee camp, except for Mengiste’s sister who had just given birth 40 days prior and for which they were forced to rent out a place.

“I had a career that was going great; a business that was blooming. I had high hopes for my would-be future,” he revealed. “I supported my family and paid for my younger siblings’ tuition expenses.”

Mengiste worries if things could ever go back to the way they once were. He fears his shop’s landowners could sell his belongings to make ends meet as they were surviving off of the rent income. Or even worse, his place could be looted or vandalized by warring forces or by opportunistic raiders. “I just have no words regarding what is going on.”

Such experiences are numerous. Getahun Wodaje, a middle-aged married man and father of three, used to live in Woldia, a major business town in North Wello Zone. He had a business selling window and door mirrors with an investment of around ETB500,000 whereas his wife owned a boutique worth around ETB400,000 by the time they had to leave the town.

The couple paid around ETB60,000 in annual taxes and employed four workers and family members. It is all history now following the takeover of Woldia by TPLF forces, designated by Parliament as a terrorist organization in May 2021. Getahun had to move his family to Addis Ababa, abandoning his businesses, employees, and their families.

People like Getahun are the source of revenue for more than ETB233 million collected by Woldia in the 2019/20 fiscal year and part of 2020/21’s plans to collect ETB300 million. The plan, however, was cut short after only collecting ETB15 million, according to Abate Assefa, Auditor at the Woldia City Administration Revenue Authority.

“My wife was pregnant in her ninth month,” said Getahun, sharing the immediate cause behind his decision. “Nearby hospitals were damaged and closed. I wouldn’t have had anywhere to take her if her water broke.’’ He and 16 other family members who fled Woldia are now living with his aunt in a home previously only occupied by her and her husband.

“I paid only ETB7,000 when my wife gave birth to the first two children. Now, I was charged more than ETB40,000 in Addis,” laments Getahun, feeling the cost of living in his new and supported life.

Dependence was unacceptable for Getahun just a few months back, as he was the one supporting some of his extended family members. His other aunt, whom he had to abandon back in Woldia, was one such person that he took care of. He covered her medical expenses and would frequently see her. Perhaps lacking his helping hand, his aunt passed away in September, just weeks after his evacuation.

“We are demoralized. My children are not going to school as we cannot afford the tuition fees here,” said Getahun. “I was hoping I could be able to work here and support my family. Now, all I think about is when this war will end so that I can go back home.”

Going back home may not be the same for Getahun, however. The Ministry of Education has reallocated the students of Woldia University, of which his business depended upon. Damage inflicted on other related public infrastructure could mean starting from scratch even if and when he can go back.

“The war will leave a scar in our livelihoods from which we won’t be able to recover from anytime soon,” says Getahun, fearing the wound will be on the entire town of Woldia—surrounded by a chain of mountains and on a strategic intersection between Tigray, Wello, and Gonder.

The town has recently seen improved investment and economic attention owing to the construction of the ETB500-million Woldia Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al-Amoudi Stadium as well as railways infrastructure connecting it to Mekelle and Awash.

The stadium, featuring seats and a roof, was expected to host international matches and be a center for budding small and micro-enterprises. Further, a railway line linking Woldia south to Awash was nearing completion, whilst the line northwards to Mekelle was inching closer towards its building phase.

The national railway plan even shows another line eastward towards Afar and onward to Djibouti. Woldia was expected to be the northern hub for Ethiopia’s railway infrastructure, connecting over a third of the country’s population with the capital and seaports.

The USD1.7 billion 390 km-long Awash – Kombolcha – Woldia/ Hara Gebaya railway project is being constructed by the Turkish construction conglomerate Yapı Merkezi as a single track starting from the northeast of Awash town, extending north through Kombolcha and eventually reaching Woldia.

The project is highly important as it establishes a connection between northern and eastern Ethiopia and offers strategic support to passenger and freight traffic, including facilitating import and export via Djiboutian sea ports. The completion of the project is expected to be a game changer to the entire economic life of Woldia, and the nation at large.

Founded in 2011, Woldia University also had an awakening effect on the town, running with a budget of ETB770 million and 940 million in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Students numbering around 5,000 studied in 24 academic fields in a campus resting over 196 hectares. Now, the condition of these infrastructures is mostly unknown but the damage is expected, especially on the stadium.

Woldia was counting down the days to experience its own version of economic fireworks before it was set on a fire that dismantled lives and livelihoods. The economic costs are immense. “The war-damaged infrastructures like schools, clinics, bridges, and countless others. This will have long-term consequences,” says Wasihun Belay, Economist and Business Consultant.

The war will also deprive investments in the near and far future. Woldia is at the center of tourist flows towards Lalibela, Axum, Al Nejashi, and other religious tourist attractions—once the forerunner in fetching foreign exchange for the country.

The implications of the military engagement on the economies of North Wello and federal and regional governments at large, and Woldia in specific are yet to be studied.

“70Pct of the food aid is being delivered by the Ethiopian government; imagine how else we could have invested that,” says Wasihun. He is also worried about disturbingly dwindling investor confidence and also blames the military engagement for the insurmountable nationwide inflation. “I see no end in sight, so that makes it difficult to set a time frame for rebuilding.”

Indeed, no end in sight is really bad news for Mengiste, Getahun, and the more than half a million people displaced from North Wello, who have seen their livelihoods lost in fire. EBR

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