November 14, 2022

Amanuel Sileshi’s awarded photographic documentation courage of the Ethiopian conflict

City: Addis AbabaArts/Culture

Amanuel became the winner of the 2022 World Press Photo Contest with his storytelling photographs about the war in Northern Ethiopia.

Avatar: Kalayou Hagose
By Kalayou Hagose

Kalayou Hagose is a law graduate and reporter at Addis Zeybe.

Amanuel Sileshi’s awarded photographic documentation courage of the Ethiopian conflict
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Credit: Amanuel Sileshi (Amanuel with some of the photos he took in the war zones)

A boy walks through mist near the village of Chana Teklehaymanot, 95 kilometers northeast of the city of Gonder, in Amhara region, Ethiopia. This child is walking, his horse ahead of him, abandoning life in the conflict-ridden region, where the federal government is waging war with TPLF - the Tigray People Liberation Front. 

This is an image of a young boy who is forced to leave home and everything that is familiar to him. This is not just a story of one teenager, but one shared by many in this war zone. 

This photo tells the world how the civilians in the war zone are suffering unspeakable evils and traveling everywhere in search of peace.

The above picture was taken by a young aspiring Ethiopian photojournalist, Amanuel Sileshi.

Amanuel was born in 1996 in the capital, Addis Ababa. He graduated from Addis Ababa University with a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. 

“While in the middle of my study I fell in love with photography. A photo taken in Paris in 1989 by Elliott Erwitt was my first inspiration,” Amanuel tells Addis Zeybe. 

After graduating in mechanical engineering, he chose not to work in that particular field. He instead pursued photography. “I wasn’t interested in mechanical engineering anymore once I knew photography was my way to go,” Amanuel says.

Remembering how he got into the field of photojournalism, he says, “I was researching many categories during my early times. I was trying out wedding portraits and documentaries but I was researching photojournalism and started my journey there and I knew I wanted to document the change and effect that humanity brings regarding conflicts, wars, political and economic reforms.” 

When war erupted in November 2020 between the Ethiopian federal government and TPLF, Amanuel went to North Ethiopia with the view to tell the world about the agony being exacted on civilians. 

Amanuel traveled to the conflict zone after he started working as a stringer for Agence France Presse (AFP).

“I researched what international news clients wanted and then with proper pitching I started working officially with AFP in July,” added Amanuel. 

He was able to take the photos passing through immense challenges.

Here, Abeba Tseganeh gazes at the ceiling of her house, allegedly torn apart by pro-TPLF fighters in the village of Zarima, 140 km from Gonder in Amhara regional state. 

Abeba looks at the sky through the battered opening of her roof, a lone figure in her destroyed home. She seems to be asking the heavens for the reasons she is paying for.  

This picture, taken by Amanuel, is of a member of the Afar militia group. Afar is one region dragged into the North Ethiopia war that has been going on for the past two years, with the peace deal being secured recently. 

When the war between the federal army and TPLF forces escalated and reached its peak and the latter took control of Shewa Robit on November 21, a town close to the capital, Addis Ababa, the Afars were among the forces that fought alongside the federal troops.    

The man in the photo is covered with dust allover his face, clothes, and hair, revealing the devastating effects of the war. The photo also shows the courage, hope, and defiant spirit of the militia. 

Searching for peace amidst chaos  

This talented photojournalist captures the pain and suffering of the people in the war in Northern Ethiopia through his pictures. However, the angles he chose to depict are of hope and courage. 

Amanuel says the title “Searching for Peace Amidst Chaos” is what he chose for his photos as he set the theme to accomplish that. "I selected the title based on the people's reactions to the war. People were fleeing their homes and their herds to other unknown places; they have never been there, and this showed me that people want to live in peace and finally select the title."

The aspiring storyteller Amanuel got the opportunity to tell and document the stories of the pain and suffering of innocent civilians in the war areas.  

His works have been published in international media like The Economist, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Financial Times, and others. 

Amanuel says: “Photojournalism has a huge role in telling what’s happening on the ground in real-time and documenting stories.”  

He became the winner of the 2022 World Press Photo Contest with his storytelling photographs about the war in Northern Ethiopia. The jury decided to award an honorable mention to the photographer to highlight his bravery and determination in covering different angles of the Tigray conflict. 

He was also able to get the International photography honorable mention 2022 award and first place in the East Africa award 2022. 

“It feels great to be recognized by your project and this helps and encourages me to do more projects in the future,” said Amanuel

He also mentioned that the rewards were a Canon camera and a photo printer machine. 

A young man here reads a book inside a classroom allegedly looted by TPLF forces in Zareme. As the photo reveals, the classroom has almost been destroyed and some books have been thrown on the ground. 

Despite being in a life-threatening war and his house being destroyed and stolen, he is seen reading a book. Amanuel tells us through this photo about an amazing and saddest story of a young boy in the war zone. 

It has been reported that in the conflicting areas, a lot of people have been displaced, extrajudicially killed, and disappeared. This young boy is in trouble, his life is in danger, and he is still expressing his love for education and his hope for a future of peace.

Amanuel took this captivating picture on September 17, 2021. The woman escaped the fighting in Tsemri and she took shelter in a temporarily built camp in Dabatm, 70 kilometers northeast of the city of Gonder. 

“I experienced  unimaginable and unbelievable stories”

When he speaks about the horror of the war on civilians Amanuel says: "Since it was my first time documenting such a story, I was experiencing many untold saddest experiences. I saw many people die, many unimaginable injuries, a lot of stories with violence, and people going through a lot. To be honest, I felt responsible to shoot my best picture so that I could represent what really was happening on the ground." 

Due to the ongoing fighting and the people's fear of commercializing their photos, shooting was not easy, added Amanuel. 

Amanuel said that to overcome these challenges: “I opted to spend time with my subjects before I shoot so that they can be comfortable, but one way or another, challenges are inevitable and there is no free environment.” 

Heroes of the ghost war 

Hero of the Ghost War is another great project by Amanuel that focuses on telling the story of brave medical teams confronting the pandemic. It also speaks about the brave stories of the COVID-19 patients and survivors. 

Amanuel designed this project to tell the world about the fight of the doctors, nurses, cleaning staff, and patients against the pandemic, which became beyond the capacity of expertise of anyone in the world. 

Amanuel took this photo at the time when COVID-19 was spreading and many people were dying. But without fearing this disease, Amanuel traveled to Saint Paulos Hospital in Addis Ababa to shoot and document the story of doctors, cleaning staff, and other workers in that hospital. 

The above photo reveals cleaning staff in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) carrying boxes in a line to minimize contamination after collecting personal protective equipment used by doctors who treated patients infected with the coronavirus in the intensive care unit at the Hospital. 

Here is one of the astonishing pieces of work of Amanuel during COVID-19. Shooting photos while putting one’s life at stake is difficult, but Amanuel did it. This shows his determination to document various social, economic, and other changes. 

The photo itself speaks a lot about the story and the commitment of the nurse to save the life of the young man at a critical time. 

The name of the nurse in the photo is Sophia Alemu. As Amanuel stated on his website,  she said: “I am working as a frontline in the ICU section at Millennium Covid Center. There has been an enormous change in my life. I have a few challenges I worry about, especially my family. The concern they have for me is too much so I stay as safe as possible so they don’t have to worry.”

This is Zinash Taye who was assigned to St.Paul's Hospital to treat patients who were infected by COVID-19. 

COVID-19 had by this time become a cause for the death of tens of thousands of people in the world. It was at that difficult time that Amanuel went to St.Paul's Hospital in Addis Ababa to document the story. Zinash said: "It was a really hard task and also wearing PPE every day is really challenging but the motivation I get is from the patients, the love they have is very heartwarming and that keeps me in a good mood to treat my patient with my full capacity.” 

Amanuel took this picture of Lijalem, 76, getting released from quarantine, and reuniting with his family at the gate. Lijalem talks about the fear and experience he encountered while staying at the COVID center. 

“One day I was tired of sitting at home. So I decided to take a taxi and go visit one of the parks that were open at the time. When  I got home later that day, I started having some irritation in my throat. But I didn't make a big deal out of it, let alone consider that it was COVID-19. After three days, the symptoms started showing. And I started to cough heavily.”

Lijalem was taken to a clinic and diagnosed with a simple allergy. But when he was on the way home, he started having difficulty breathing. 

“Luckily my daughter and the rest of my family tested negative for the virus. But when I got admitted to Millennium Hall (a temporary quarantine center), I felt sad and cried. I thought it would be the end for me.”

Lijalem was on oxygen for the next nine days. He said he counted 12 deaths when he was inside the center. He recalls that stressful time as grim because the patients who died were mostly of his age. However, Lijalem recovered after a few intensive weeks of treatment.  

“I called my family and told them that God has given me a second chance. I told my daughter to come and pick me up at 9 am the next morning. But they came earlier. They were excited. I truly think I saw death but God gave me a second chance.” 

During the time when Ethiopia was going through turbulent times of horrific war which was conducted behind closed doors, Amanuel took the bold step of going to the war zones to document history. There, he managed to capture the terrible faces of the bloody war fearlessly. For his courageous professional venture, he was awarded the 2022 World Press Photo Award with an honorable mention. 

“The jury decided to award an honorable mention to the photographer [Amanuel] to highlight his bravery and determination in covering different angles of the Tigray conflict. The story provides an inside look at the impacts of conflict on a local population from an insider perspective. In a context where gaining access is a challenge, the body of work highlights the importance of allowing local photographers to cover events taking place in their regions in order to give voice to silent genocides and political conflicts,” reads the statement of the award committee.