The war between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) marked one year last Nov 2021. At the end of June 2021, following a Request from the Provisional Government of Tigray, the Federal Government of Ethiopia declared a unilateral ceasefire and pulled out its troops from most parts of Tigray stating It is essential that the planting season ahead should not be disrupted since missing it will bring grave livelihood consequences.
Thereafter, the TPLF forces had been advancing southward towards territories in the Amhara and the Afar Regional States. As the expansion of TPLF forces gained more ground in the Amhara region, many believed the capture of strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha of the region would give a higher ground for the rebel forces to enforce the government to the negotiating table. Pressure from the international community intensified as the capture of the two strategic towns meant they were getting closer to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. In this context, TPLF eyed capturing Dessie as a must-accomplish mission.
Dessie, a town located in the South Wollo Zone of the Amhara Regional State is home to more than 600,000 people and sheltered as many Internally Displaced People (IDPs)s from the fighting in Northern Wollo and Afar region.
Fall of the strategic town
The fall of Dessie to Tigray People's Liberation Front(TPLF) on Oct 30, was confirmed by the FDRE Communication Services, more than four months after PM Abiy Ahmed announced that Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) had evacuated from Mekelle, Tigray. The town remained under the control of TPLF fighters for more than a month until it was recaptured by the ENDF and the Ethiopian allied forces on Dec 6. While hundreds of thousands returned to Dessie after the liberation, those who stayed had stories to tell.
A few days before the capture of Dessie by the TPLF, a press statement video of Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD.), Chairman of TPLF, was released in which he addressed residents of Dessie saying, “Though late, There is still time to make a decision. The war is over. You no longer have a city to save, don’t die in vain. Surrender or leave, just like the others”
The aftermath of the capture of Dessie and Kombolcha was followed by diplomatic and international pressure calling for an entreaty of ceasefire and negotiation between the belligerents. The Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency effective on Nov 2, a few days after the capture of the two towns.
Ahmed Seid, a resident of Dessie, recollects the grim conditions of Dessie under the rebel forces during those 37 days and nights. “We could hear the exchange of gunshots from the battle on Oct 28 & 29. They fired heavy artillery over the city starting from Oct 29. They entered the city from the north and the fighting continued around Wollo University and stopped over the night. The next morning, on Saturday, Oct 30, the fighting resumed and at 12:00 pm they were in control of Dessie. They marched through the streets firing guns to celebrate their victory.”
Seid Oumar, another resident of the town, recalls the day TPLF seized the city. ”There was gunfire all over town the previous day. It can be said that they had entered the city without confrontation. We realized that later. The military left the city before their arrival.”
Local news and to some extent international organizations have been covering the extent of the destruction, looting, and pillaging committed by TPLF in areas it occupied in the Amhara and Afar regions. A joint investigation report published in early Nov 2021, implicated TPLF in systematically committing large-scale looting and destruction of public and private properties.
“Their first targets were the groceries. They drank the alcoholic beverages in the groceries. As they got drunk they started shooting frantically. From the day they entered the town to the moment they left they fired guns day and night nonstop. We had no sleep. We were always on the edge of fear. They also broke into hotels and shops, eating and drinking whatever they found and later trashing the streets of our city,’’ says Ahmed.
Sister Wosen stayed with her elderly mother when TPLF entered Dessie. “The first few days they controlled the city, they would break into groceries, get drunk and fire their weapons the rest of the day. Another day, while they were going from house to house and knocking, two brothers started running away and they got shot and killed.”
Amnesty International published a report on Nov 9, 2021, stating that 16 women from the town of Nifas Mewcha and other towns in the Amhara region were raped by TPLF fighters during its attack on the town in mid-August 2021. Sister Wosen says she had to send her children away with their father. “I heard TPLF raped women and girls and I couldn’t bear the thought of watching my children get raped. My oldest daughter stayed with me and her grandmother. She wouldn’t leave us. I used to lock the house on her to keep her safe.”
Seid also shared Addis Zeybe that many women were raped and their stories are not being told to protect the morale of the women.
During the 37 days, Dessie was under TPLF’s control, residents of the city experienced sheer hardship following the disruption of electricity, water, telecommunications, internet, transportation, and banking services.
“On Oct 29, a day before they seized Dessie, around 5:00 pm, TPLF shot down the electric power station located at Hote, and lights were out.” Ahmed recollects. “Without electricity, we weren’t able to cook food, so we had to go back to our traditional ways such as using firewood and clay pans for baking injera. It was even difficult to find wood. The farmers were the suppliers and they no longer came into town. People should go to the Tosa and Azoa areas to collect wood, leaves, and branches.“
In the absence of a tap water supply, residents of Dessie depended on the natural resources the city has. “On the outskirts of Dessie, there are 78 natural spring water sources. Children, women, and men would go to one of these streams and fetch water using a 25-liter jerrycan. There would be very long queues and because there were too many of us the water supply wasn’t adequate. Especially those who couldn’t carry weight long distances felt the burn. A 25-liter jerrycan of water was sold for 25-60 Br. The problem was getting the money to pay for that much. There was no bank access, we didn’t have that amount of cash because we weren’t prepared for it,” Ahmed says.
As reflected in a number of news reports, looting, especially of valuable private & governmental properties, was the fashion of the day during TPLF’s occupation. Dwellers of the occupied towns also recount how the soldiers harassed and stole from them searching their homes and themselves. This was also the fate of Dessie during those days. Seid says life was hard with no money at hand, and to even freely buy what they wanted with the cash they had. “We couldn’t even take our money that was in our hands anywhere. When we have to leave our home to get anything, we hide our money in our socks, and put 10-20 Br in our pockets to give it to TPLF soldiers when they search us to avoid the expected intimidation or killing at worse. The soldiers spend the night going house to house. They came to a neighbor’s house one day and took all the gold jewelry she had.’’
“They moved in groups, carried their weapons with them. They will search you and take whatever they find, be it mobile phones, gold, or money. They won’t leave you alone even after taking your belongings. They would harass anyone for no reason as simple as disliking the color of your eye. We wore torn and old ragged clothes so we wouldn't attract their attention. They would also come to people's houses to search. If you don't answer they will break in or jump over the fences. If they find women they raped them.”
A deserted town
The residents say that, during the occupation, the streets were empty, as if everyone was ordered not to leave their homes. Life was hard, street markets were no longer available. They were scared to go out. No one was leaving their house.
“It was like a house arrest. The only way we get information is through the radio, even this was very scant information. We were also afraid to even speak with people we knew, we couldn’t trust anyone. We were only able to move for about eight days after the TPLF entered the city. We had to go out early in the morning to move around, fetch water, or do other things,” says Seid.
As the conflict got closer to Dessie, residents who had kins in nearby towns and the capital were leaving Dessie looking for a safer place to shelter their families. “There was no telephone service, which means people can't reach out to their loved ones and hear from them. As TPLF approached Dessie, residents were fleeing the town in many directions; to Northern Shewa, through DebreSina, Merabtie, and Eluha to Addis Ababa; and through Borena & Debre Markos to Debre Berhan,” says Ahmed. “Families were separated; parents from their children, husband from his wife. And because there was no telephone network, each family member worried about the other on the other side. Around Nov 4, we heard there was phone service around Bokokesa, an area near Bati, 170 km away. People would go there and try to contact their loved ones. The lucky ones heard from them and others didn't.”
Sister Wosen remembers the anguish families have been through, “We got our information when we went out to fetch water. We heard that the telephone network works at a place called ‘Werbabo’, which is far from our town. Everyone gave the contact number of a family or friend, whom they want to inform about their safety, to people who came from Worebabo. We gave them the numbers and some money so that when they go back to their place they will let our family know we are alright. We worried they might be troubled thinking that we are dead since people simply get killed,”
The hijacked market
The price of everything skyrocketed in Dessie. People were afraid to go out and shop, street vendors were not selling and the supply chain was disrupted in towns controlled by TPLF.
“After a week, they told residents to open their shops, if not they would break in and let the local people rob you. My daughter was a pharmacist and the first day she opened the pharmacy, they came knocking at night to take what she earned that day snooping information from the pharmacy guard. At a flour mill the community uses, they forced the workers to charge us twice the regular price and take half of the collected money for them. However, because the workers insistently complained that they cannot charge their customers as such, the mill got closed with the disagreement.” Sister Wosen recalls.
The World Food Programme suspended food distribution in Dessie and Kombolcha on Dec 4, 2021, after mass looting of food supplies including nutritional items for malnourished children. Consequently, as days went by, the shortage of food supplies became apparent.
Seid recalls those days when the basic food was precious, “In their final days when they learned that the government army was approaching and had no way out to transport the looted food supplies, they started selling us what they had stolen with a very high price. They sold us a quintal of flour for 8000 Br., which was previously sold for 3000-4000 Br. They were also selling a kilo of Berebere (Ethiopian chilly pepper) for 800 Br., but now the price has fallen back to 300 Br. At that time I wished I had joined the military. We had no hope that we would survive.”
The price of everything rose sharply, says Ahmed, a kilo of sugar was being sold at 180 Br, flour at 5,000 Br. while a liter of Kerosene was sold between 150-170 Br. and three liters of cooking oil was sold at 1000 Br. There were no candles at the shops, so when the night came people would be coerced to sit in the dark.
Looting & Destruction
Organized looting and destruction are reported in various areas that were under TPLF’s control. Hospitals, banks, governmental offices, universities, public service institutions, and private properties were mercilessly looted and demolished to intentionally incapacitate the public facilities
Ahmed is a witness to the looting that took place in Dessie by TPLF fighters. “They brought hundreds of trucks, mostly empty ones, on which they loaded machines, generators, loaders, excavators, vehicles, coming back again repeatedly until they made sure they had enough. They took our resources and property. Launching such a campaign on people who have lived together was so heartbreaking. All the facilities in schools, telecommunication offices, colleges, and hospitals were all loaded on their trucks, and let their followers take what was left. They also burned and destroyed what they couldn’t carry.”
Wollo University is estimated to have sustained 10 billion Br worth of destruction and looting undertaken by TPLF. The Amhara Regional State reported that over 279 billion Br (about $5.8 billion) property was damaged by TPLF in the areas recently liberated by the Ethiopian army. Some of the residents also participated in the looting by the order of TPLF forces.
“Seeing people we knew being an aid to TPLF’s theft and looting was painful,” says Sister Wosen.
On Dec 6, the Ethiopian government announced it recaptured the towns of Dessie and Komblocha. Ahmed remembers the day the Ethiopian and allied forces entered Dessie. “When the military came in, people were on their knees, some in tears, and a few dancing on the streets.”
Dessie’s glow is returning slowly. Telecommunication service and electricity are restored. Concerted governmental and public initiatives are being organized in an effort to support and rehabilitate the community. Dessie hospital is being reconstructed. Children have returned to school since Dec 27. As life is reinstating to Dessie, exiled people are going back home.