Eighty-one mothers gave birth in Dessie while the town was in the midst of a battle in Nov 2021. There was only one health center working in the town during that time. Like every other place that had seen the wrath of open conflict in the rest of the country, its health centers had been left decimated.
The town, 400 km from Addis Ababa, was won over by the federal government after nearly a month under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Dessie Health Center remained standing in the dust after the withdrawal of the TPLF, a lone refugee from over 40 other hospitals and health posts that had been closed down, looted, and deserted by its staff.
“I kept hearing of women having miscarriages, and bleeding at home because there was nowhere to go,” said Amelewerk Kassahun, who was pregnant with her second child at that time. “I was scared because I was due in a few days.”
Amelework didn’t have many options at the time. With a 4-year-old and a sick husband at home, she wasn’t able to leave Dessie. Roads were blocked and telecommunication services were shut off. When she heard priests spreading the word about Dessie Health Center to pregnant mothers in the town, she was elated.
“I was between life and death when I heard of the Health Center,” she said. “I was able to give birth safely because of it.”
The religious leaders in the town used the opportunity when people gathered for sermons to disseminate the information through networks of people that come to churches and mosques.
"We were preaching about the importance of delivering at the health center,” said Sheik Imam Ali, Secretary of Dessie People's Mosque Assembly. “We were checking on the services of the center every day, making sure they received support.” The call for support, made across churches and mosques, was answered, in part through material contributions, and in part through volunteers. Others helped with carrying water to the health center from the only source of clean water 3 km away.
"It was a horrible time for everyone,” said Hiruy Tessema, head of the Legal and Education Department of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, South Wollo Diocese, and one of the priests involved in rallying the community. “But this time was especially difficult for pregnant women and we were concerned for them.”
One of those who answered this call for help was Eskedar Azmeraw, a 27-year-old woman who had come to Dessie to visit her mother. In the middle of a full-fledged siege at the time, she had lost contact with her elderly mother and walked 40 km to Dessie to see her.
"Transportation was interrupted, so I walked on foot to meet my mother,” said Eskedar. “On arrival, I heard the call from the priests to volunteer and decided to help pregnant mothers deliver.”
A professional midwife, Eskedar helped deliver 30 babies during that month.
"We didn’t have the necessary equipment for delivery”, she said. “But we came together and supported each other.”
Dessie, like many other towns caught in the trail of the war, came out the other end unrecognizable. Dessie Referral and Specialized Hospital, eight health centers, six health posts, the town’s blood bank, and the Health Science College, as well as an oxygen factory and 18 private health institutions were damaged or stolen.
Dessie’s pharmaceutical medicine and equipment provider, PHARMID, was left barren, incurring a loss of 6.6 billion Birr.
Delivery Stitching was particularly difficult, as there was no medicine, sanitizing equipment, even gloves, according to Eskedar. The health center provided its service during that month with four other staff.
“Eskedar took good care of me,” said Amelework. “I gave birth to a healthy daughter. I named her Netsanet, (freedom).”