Addis Abeba — The Tigray regional state in northern Ethiopia where war has been raging for two years has been under a communications blackout since the Tigrayan forces took control of regional capital Mekelle in June 2021.
The communications blackout that came along with interruption of electric power supply, banking services, aerial and ground transport, have left millions of families and relatives effectively disconnected both with their relatives who are in different parts of the regional state itself, in remaining parts of Ethiopia, and with their family members in diaspora after the take over of most parts of the region, including its capital Mekelle by Tigrayan forces.
For Kiflom (name changed for security reasons), 30, a Tigrayan who lives in Addis Abeba, the last two years have been intolerable as he haven’t heard from his family who are living in village near the town of Adigrat, Tigray Region.
He used to speak to his mother four times a week before the communications blackout but now he says he “don’t even know her well-being.” Speaking to Addis Standard, Kiflom said: “I met my family in person two weeks before the war broke out on November 4, 2020.”
“After the war broke out, my father was once able to speak to me from the mountains of Tigray, we didn’t even talk properly due to the poor network in the area,” he said.
Some families from central and other parts of Tigray who could manage to travel to Alamata, paying unacceptably expensive prices for transport and accommodation, have been able to connect with their relatives using almost non-existent cell network from bordering areas.
The other only means was by sending recorded voice messages that often take several days to reach the recipient family members after the facilitators manage to get the very limited satellite internet access that was reserved mainly to humanitarian organizations in Tigray.
On 25 October ICRC said it helped families in Northern Ethiopia remain in touch through more than 185,000 free phone calls and text messages over the period of nine months starting from January 2022.
“when families live apart during a humanitarian crisis, there is the fear and uncertainty of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones or how they are doing.” ICRC
The Communications blackout has not only separated families but affected the people in Tigray socially and economically.
ICRC said “when families live apart during a humanitarian crisis, there is the fear and uncertainty of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones or how they are doing. This can have long-term psychological, health and social consequences. Children, especially those who find themselves alone, face unimaginable suffering and remain without the care they need”.
In July when athlete Gotytom Gebresillassie won the gold medal in the women’s marathon at the 18th World Athletics Championships in US, Oregon, her mother, Berekhytu Kasa said that due to the lack of communication services in Tigray region, she could not meet her daughter, athlete Gotytom.
“Seven months ago, I went to Alamata and contacted her on the phone. But after that, what we could do is to send her a voice message through people,” she said.
Kiflom is an employee of a public organization in the capital and recalls that he used to support his family back in Tigray. “I used to send money for my mother but, now due to the shutdown of banking I couldn’t send and help my family, I don’t know the current situation whether they are alive or not,” he said.
“The blackout turned my life upside down. It affects my daily activities, I couldn’t work properly and I have depression because I always think about my family. My entire life has become miserable. I used to speak to my family about my future dreams, they used to guide me but, now my dreams are rather turned into nightmares.”
“my family never tried to reach me via the Red Cross because they are far from where the limited services are given.” Kiflom
Thousands of people knock on the door of the Red Cross every day and wait for their turns to meet their beloved ones through few available satellite phones.
A short video from ICRC in Tigray shows people bursting into tears of longing, and smile with laughter of joy after speaking to their family members on satellite phones, while some of them feel safe and secure from hearing voices of their loved ones. On the other hand, others find themselves in sadness learning some bad news.
Kiflom, however said, “my family never tried to reach me via the Red Cross because they are far from where the limited services are given.”
“I am extremely worried about the well-being of my entire family. I am the only one out of Tigray from a member of my family. My parents and my six siblings are all kept in darkness, day and night, I always think about them. I can guess from here difficulties they might have been going through,” he said.
Unlike Kiflom, Meseret Berhe, an employee of a private organization, is a resident of Mekelle, capital of Tigray. He traveled to Addis Abeba for a training a week before the war broke out. He hasn’t been able to return to his home nor connect with his family members ever since.
“I came here for training one week before the war starts, then after I couldn’t go back to my family, to my real job. I survived working whatever job I could get here,” Meseret said.
Another Tigrayan, who is currently living in Addis Abeba and asked no to be named and is a father of two, said he has been disconnected with his kids, who are in Mekelle, since the war broke out and doesn’t know the condition they are in.
All of the three individuals Addis Standard spoke to said they are very much optimistic to connect with their families soon following a peace agreement reached between the Ethiopian Federal Government and Tigrayan regional authorities in South Africa last week.
“I am so glad more than anyone about the agreement. If it is implemented on the ground quickly, it will spare my family from dying of hunger and lack of medications,” Meseret said.
“This agreement is a big hope for me to get back to my family and my profession. I am so eager to hear voice of my family again,” he added.
“I am overjoyed [by the peace agreement], I really miss my kids and I hope they will be okay when we meet again,”
But he said he has fears that “the war may still continue” despite the agreement, and urged the warring parties to give priority to civilians rather than “focusing on their own political interests”.
“I am overjoyed [by the peace agreement], I really miss my kids and I hope they will be okay when we meet again,” the individual who asked not to be named said.
“Both parties decided well but, I have concern that external warring party might disturb the agreement made between the two sides,” he added.
On 02 November, two days short of the two years after the war broke out, diplomatic efforts to kick off peace talks came to pass when AU-led negotiation between the federal government of Ethiopia and the TPLF has come to fruition inking an agreement on permanent Cessation of Hostilities.
Although, further details of its implementation are yet to come by, the joint statement of the two parties has indicated that the interrupted services including communication services are to be restored in Tigray.
This has brought a new hope to all affected in the war, yet especially people suffering in the agony and separated with their family member without noticed, leaving them with no clue of their well-being or whereabouts. AS