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Australians are desperate to be repatriated from Ethiopia as armed conflict between the government and separatists escalates in the country’s Tigray province, cutting off access to basic supplies, transport and the internet. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Australians stranded in Ethiopia

Mary* remembers the morning of November 4 starting off like any other. She woke up and checked her phone but, strangely, she had no signal. Soon she realised the electricity in Mekelle, the city in northern Ethiopia where she had been staying since February, had been cut off.

“I went out to the street to speak with the neighbours and speak with the people around to see what was going on, and that’s when we saw some local police officers were turning cars back on the main street,” she recalls.

Phone and internet access had been cut across the entire Tigray region – the capital of which is Mekelle – after an attack on a military base, which the Ethiopian government claimed was carried out by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Despite the group’s denials, the government launched a military assault on the region on November 4.

Mary had travelled from Melbourne to Ethiopia, where she was born, to visit family in February, but her return to Australia was delayed by Covid-19.

Although she moved to Australia at a very young age, this was not Mary’s first trip back to Ethiopia. But she had never seen political violence during her trips, or experienced military conflict.

“The only time I really heard about war or conflict was when there were stories from my mum,” she says. It was these periods of political unrest, war and famine, which began in the 1970s, that saw many Ethiopians flee the country as refugees.

In the past month, tens of thousands more have fled across the border into Sudan, after the Ethiopian government – led by its Nobel peace prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed – sent troops to the country’s north, targeting the TPLF. According to the International Crisis Group think tank, the violence in Tigray has already claimed thousands of lives.

The conflict is an escalation in long-running tensions between the government and Tigray’s political leaders. Abiy, who assumed power in 2018, has pushed for unity and sought to centralise state powers by dismantling autonomous regional governments, of which the TPLF is one.

Soon after the government began its assault on Tigray, Mary says that basic supplies – water, telecommunications, electricity – were cut off in Mekelle, as well as access to local banks and airlines.

“I immediately just panicked. I obviously had no way of contacting my family and touching base with them or speaking to anyone back home,” she says. “Trying to get information was out of the question.”

The worst was yet to come. Just a few days later, she would witness an airstrike – the first of what would become a regular occurrence.

“It was Sunday,” Mary recalls. “We were at home having lunch and after lunch my aunty had made buna [an Ethiopian coffee ceremony] and we were all drinking coffee with the neighbours.”

Suddenly, she says, they all heard a strange noise.

“It sounded almost like … I imagine what a UFO or some kind of strong aeroplane would sound like. It just hovered over our heads. You could hear it coming closer and closer…

“My heart immediately dropped.”

It was in that moment Mary realised the seriousness of the situation in which she found herself – thousands of kilometres from home, stranded in a small regional city that was descending into chaos.

“As soon as that first airstrike hit,” she says, “it really hit us that we were legitimately in a conflict.”

Tesfahun Wubneh, a grandfather from Melbourne, similarly found himself caught up in the strikes on Tigray. At the start of November, he had travelled to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to renew his passport at the Australian embassy, but upon his return to Mekelle the military assault had begun. He says the city was under “heavy bombardment”.

There were “people running everywhere”, Wubneh recalls, adding that he saw planes bombing the city.

Beryihun Degu Temesgen, an Ethiopian diplomatic representative in Canberra, says things have returned to “normal” in Tigray. But while the Ethiopian government says it has taken control of Mekelle, the TPLF claims to be mounting an insurgency.

On Monday this week, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said he was “very concerned about the current situation in the Tigray province”. And despite the fact the UN struck a deal with the Ethiopian government to grant humanitarian access to the region last week, recent reports suggest aid convoys have been unable to reach the hundreds of thousands of civilians in need of aid due to the ongoing fighting.

This week, UN workers trying to enter Tigray were shot at and detained by Ethiopian security forces. Meanwhile, the government rejected calls for independent investigators to be allowed into the region, saying the country “doesn’t need a babysitter”.

The exact number of Australians stranded in Ethiopia is unknown. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed it is providing consular assistance to Australians in the country.

A spokesperson said DFAT “is working with international agencies to assist Australians understood to be in Tigray, including for those who wish to return to Australia, facilitating onwards travel where possible”.

With the assistance of the UN, Mary and Wubneh were able to get out of Tigray and travel to Addis Ababa, where they met with Australian consular staff. Both say that in the capital they met other Australians looking to evacuate.

Wubneh could afford the flight out of Ethiopia and hotel quarantine back in Australia only because of a Covid-19 relief grant. But there would be one last hurdle. He recounts sitting on the plane, ready to take off, when Ethiopian federal police halted the plane’s departure. “They pulled us – four of us – me and three other guys from Perth, they took us out from the plane and seized our passports,” he says.

The men’s passports listed their place of birth as Tigray, which raised suspicions. “I still managed to contact my consular [official] because she was in the airport,” says Wubneh.

Eventually, he was allowed to leave the country and has been in quarantine in Brisbane for the past two weeks. But not everyone has been so fortunate.

Mahtut Yaynu says her mother, an Australian citizen, remains stranded in Tigray.

“I haven’t spoken to her for 33 days because of the communication blackouts,” says Yaynu from her home in Melbourne. “I’m not sure what’s happened to her. I’m not sure what’s happened to my grandparents.”

Yaynu contacted the Australian embassy in Ethiopia to help find her mother, who she says was registered on the Smartraveller website.

“The messaging they have provided is that because of the communication blackout they are also having issues contacting anybody that’s there,” she says.

Yaynu believes the Australian government could be doing more to help Australians caught up in the escalating conflict in Ethiopia.

“We’ve had meetings with DFAT where they had no idea how many Australians are there; they had no evacuation plan in place and there was no discussion about it,” she says. “It was just, ‘We’ll take these questions on notice and we’ll get back to you.’ We haven’t heard back.”

Mary says she understands the difficulty Australian diplomatic officials face in tracing Australians in a warzone. “We were just giving them updates if anything was to happen,” she says. “We knew that they had no power to get us out of any situation.”

But she says the government could be doing more to financially support its citizens seeking to evacuate. Because access to local banks in Tigray was barred, Mary didn’t have any money on her when she fled to Addis Ababa, and no means to afford the flights out of Ethiopia.

Eventually, she was also able to access a Covid-19 loan, but the amount she was eligible for – $2500 – was insufficient to cover her flights back to Australia and the quarantine costs. Instead, she went to stay with family in England.

“If I didn’t have family here [in England], I don’t know how I would have actually gotten out as quickly as I did,” she says.

Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong says the Australian government should be doing more to address the crisis in Tigray. “The government should also be engaging with and providing support to the Ethiopian community in Australia,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

A DFAT spokesperson said the Australian government has “contacted the Ethiopian government regarding the need to respect human rights, protect civilians and allow full access to humanitarian agencies to those impacted”.

But while the United States, Britain and Canada have condemned the ongoing violence in Tigray, the Australian government is yet to issue a public statement on the crisis.

And for those Australians who have been able to get out of Tigray, such as Mary, there is a feeling of obligation to ensure the safety of the people left behind.

“I feel a sense of responsibility,” she says, “to do what I can to get the world to listen and to get the world to pay attention to what’s happening in Tigray and to the people in Tigray.”

* Not her real name.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Stranded in Ethiopia".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.