Beniam Yetbarek didn’t even know his cousin was alive when the phone rang on Christmas Eve, and a voice he hadn’t heard in two years came to him from Tigray.
Calls to relatives in this region of northern Ethiopia had been virtually impossible since November 2020, when telephone and internet services were largely cut off at the start of the war.
But after a ceasefire was signed in November 2022, the phones started ringing again, bringing joy but also sorrow and anger as Tigrayans like Beniam reconnect with loved ones who suffered from one of the deadliest in the world.
“My first reaction was thank God you’re alive. I don’t know how he survived the past two years, but I’m just glad he’s alive,” recalls Beniam Yetbarek, a 30-year-old Seattle-based photographer.
But his relief was short-lived.
fear and hunger
Beniam’s family was hanging on to every word of the cousin’s story about the fear and hunger that tore the population in Aksoum, the presence of Eritrean troops in the streets or the state of health of a diabetic uncle unable to find medications.
In the middle of the conversation, the family learned that a great-aunt had died and another cousin was missing. And presumed dead.
“It beat us all down,” Beniam recalls. “My aunt cried, two of my cousins were silent… We all tried to pull ourselves together (…) but once he hung up, we prayed in silence”.
Telephone services were briefly restored to parts of Tigray, a region of six million people, in early 2021 before being cut again in June of that year.
Phone lines came back to life in December 2022, a month after a ceasefire ended a conflict that has claimed between 100,000 and half a million lives.
In Mekele, the region’s capital, many residents flocked to phone shops to reconnect their old numbers. “My mother cried after hearing my voice after so many months. I also cried,” a 42-year-old man in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
Not everyone was lucky enough to receive good news.
“They killed him right in front of his house, ” said Meharit Gebreyesus about his uncle, one of the seven members of his family executed, according to his relatives, by Eritrean soldiers near Adwa at the end of October.
The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, of Tigrayan origin, had himself said that he had lost an uncle, killed by Eritrean soldiers.
As the access to Tigray is restricted, it is impossible for AFP to independently verify the situation on the ground. But all the belligerents in the conflict have been accused by independent observers of committing atrocities.
For Beniam Yetbarek, the hardest part was not knowing the fate of his family in Aksum, where hundreds of civilians were massacred in November 2020.
“I wouldn’t wish (what I’ve been through) the past two years on my worst enemy,” he says. “Anxiety burns you slowly”.
A 25-year-old Tigrayan woman, who requested anonymity, told AFP she was “speechless” when her sister called her out of the blue from Shire, a town heavily bombed in October, to say that the family was safe.
“I can’t believe that today I’m reduced to dreaming of being able to talk to members of my family (just to know) if they are still alive or not,” she says.
Two months after the peace agreement, telecommunications are still in their infancy, even in the big cities, and calls often cut off after a few minutes. Or even not succeed at all.
“Without exaggeration, we must have tried to call more than 100 times, and only one phone call came through,” said a 40-year-old woman who spoke to her parents on January 3 for the first time in 18 months.
The national electricity company announced on Tuesday the return of power throughout Tigray within two weeks.
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told AFP that critical infrastructure had been repaired and telecommunications services restored in 51 towns but did not mention a timetable for the full resumption of services.
Contacted, Ethio Telecom, the public operator, did not respond to AFP’s requests.
Meharit, meanwhile, still cannot reach her 65-year-old father and six sisters in Negash, southern Tigray, and prays that they will drop out. “I don’t even know if he’s alive or not,” she laments.