Saturday, April 20, 2024
In DepthKombolcha to Lalibela: a stifling voyage through conflict-torn Wollo

Kombolcha to Lalibela: a stifling voyage through conflict-torn Wollo

The federal government’s heavy-handed approach to a state of emergency declared in response to the violent clashes in the Amhara Regional State since last year has had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Ethiopians in the region.

A recent journey through the state reveals a region on edge, cloaked in a palpable sense of fear, uncertainty, and economic hardship. The bleak atmosphere and general nervousness are readily observed on the drive from Kombolcha, once a bustling commercial center, to the historic Lalibela. No less than 25 security checkpoints are dotted on the 310-kilometer road, manned by federal troops, regional militias, and police.

The town of Kombolcha itself, which once housed a thriving federal-run industrial park specializing in apparel and textiles, reflects the region’s malaise. Its shops and restaurants are either closed or empty, and the youth idling on the roadsides are the only sign of life in a town straddling one of the country’s key roads.

The empty streets, shuttered hotels, and listless youth paint the grim picture of Kombolcha and at least 150,000 residents struggling to get by.

Among them is a vegetable vendor who says her business has been strangled by a drastic fall in traffic. The town used to serve as a transit hub for people traveling between Addis Ababa, Tigray, Afar, and the Amhara region.

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“Even the politicians and the high-level officials seem to have vanished; gone to better, safer places,” she told The Reporter, speaking anonymously. “They’re afraid of attacks from rebels.”

The fighting between rebel groups and federal troops has all but closed supply routes, making it difficult to transport goods into the region from Addis Ababa. More recently, traveling to and from the capital has become a challenge for many as fighting intensifies in the region.

The hardships are an everyday reality in Dessie, seat of the South Wollo Zone administration. Though the cafes and restaurants lining its streets remain open, a sense of unease hangs heavy in the air. Transport restrictions and a curfew mean the town is dead silent at night.

Jemal Ahmed is a resident of Dessie, where he runs a kitchen and home appliance store. The goods on offer at his store have seen hefty markups in recent months due to transport disruptions. Trucks have been forced to take the longer route, via Afar, to reach the region from the capital instead of the usual route through Debre Birhan.

The shift, owed to security concerns, has had a broad impact on businesses in Dessie and beyond.

Limited production, soaring youth unemployment, and “a general sense of uncertainty that is stifling investment” are among the problems observed by Jemal. He added that limited transportation options and a general lack of confidence among consumers have severely impacted the flow of goods and services.

The conditions are no better further north. In fact, the general sense of fear and the weight of the conflict becomes even more palpable on the 120 kilometer stretch between Dessie and the town of Woldiya.

While the writer of this article was traveling to Woldiya on public transport last week, a young male passenger was briefly taken off board by security personnel, allegedly on suspicions of illicit trading. What gave rise to the suspicions? Three pairs of shoes neatly packed into a box he was carrying with him, combined with a lack of permits and licenses.

The incident illustrates the heightened sense of suspicion that pervades the region.

When the bus finally pulled into Woldiya, passengers scrambled to make it home before the 6:30 pm curfew.

Woldiya is a town characterized by its numerous unfinished construction projects, including roads and private developments. They stand as a testament to lost opportunities and the reluctance to invest in a region gripped by uncertainty. A resident of the town explained that many business owners have fled due to the uncertainty, while others are too afraid to invest in finalizing their projects.

The ongoing violence is throttling economic activity and spurring displacement and migration as people move in search of work, sustenance, and safety. Although the residents of Woldiya appear to have found some respite from the levels of violence that severely damaged their town during the two-year northern war, the present circumstances are not much better.

Lemlem Dinku, a university graduate who resides in Woldiya, says limited employment prospects are discouraging for young people like her. She has been unable to find work in her field of social anthropology since graduating two years ago.

“There are no jobs, and even traveling to other places is too dangerous. Even within Amhara, which we consider our region, it’s difficult to move around,” said Lemlem.

Gashena, a town on the road to Lalibela, is close to the epicenter of the brutal two-year war that ended in November 2022. The situation is particularly precarious here, as Gashena’s strategic location gives rise to increased fears of yet more conflict. Residents here have to contend with expansive fields rigged with landmines, as well as the threat of looting by organized bandits and rebel groups in Gayeynet and Gergera on the road to Gonder, through Debre Tabor.

Kombolcha to Lalibela: a stifling voyage through conflict-torn Wollo | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

“I’d rather kill myself than travel to Gonder,” said Bizuye Kebede, a coffee vendor in Gashena.

She recounted harrowing stories about the tragedies that have met travelers on the road. They face the constant threat of robbery and worse from organized gunmen. Bizuye is one of many who told The Reporter about the dangers surrounding Gashena.

The supply of basic commodities has become scarce and highly unpredictable. The sick and injured have nowhere to go to seek medical attention, and ransom kidnappings are on the rise.

Lalibela itself, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its rock-hewn churches, has become a ghost town. Restaurants and cafes that once bustled with visitors, domestic and foreign, sit empty. Once the poster child for Ethiopian tourism, Lalibela now lies in suffocating desolation.

Zinu Mesfin works as a waitress in one of the historic town’s restaurants. She observes Lalibela is a “pocket city” that sits removed from major transport corridors, and so relies almost completely on tourism to sustain its economy.

Tourism has all but vanished, and the town’s once thriving hospitality industry lies in ruin. Zinu says the deserted hotels and restaurants are a stark contrast to the lively atmosphere of just a few years ago.

Unfortunately for Zinu and tens of millions of residents of the Amhara region, it is difficult to see an end to the fighting in sight. There have been no negotiations between the armed rebel groups and the federal government thus far, and Parliament approved a four-month extension to the state of emergency first declared in August last year.

The residents of the North and South Wollo zones argue that national dialogue or transnational justice efforts are meaningless unless the government engages directly with the armed groups.

Desta, a lawyer in Woldiya whose last name is being withheld, expressed deep concerns about the lack of accountability for war crimes. He observes the plight of women who faced sexual assault during the northern Ethiopian conflict, stating that “many women who were abused and assaulted have never gotten justice, and no one has even approached them.”

Desta emphasizes the government’s silence on these atrocities.

“Neither the federal nor the regional governments have acknowledged the rape, abuse, and harm inflicted on women and children during the conflict,” said Desta. “How can the public participate in national dialogue or transitional justice when the government itself seems to have forgotten its responsibility to deliver justice for the previous conflict?”

The fighting is pushing large numbers of people into hunger and poverty, leading to a rise in the already untenable need for urgent humanitarian assistance. A WFP representative told The Reporter that many areas in the North and South Wollo zonal administrations are still inaccessible because of conflict, even though humanitarian partners claim they are still providing aid.

Although the state of emergency is intended to restore order in the Amhara region, a look at what is happening on the ground reveals the conditions have given rise to a climate of fear and economic stagnation. The human cost of this approach is undeniable, with residents struggling to make ends meet and young people facing an uncertain future. Urgent action is needed to find a more sustainable solution that addresses the root causes of the conflict and allows the region to rebuild and recover.

Until last year, the Amhara region had largely managed to stay out of the vicious cycles of conflict that have been haunting other parts of the country in recent years. This is despite the administration seeing five changes in leadership since 2018.

However, the region has since been transformed into a battleground, and civilians have repeatedly paid the ultimate price. Washington is among the foreign actors which have expressed concerns over civilian casualties and offered to mediate between the federal government and Fano.

There is yet to be any sign of peaceful dialogue, at least officially. The state of emergency is slated to last until June and despite government reassurances that the situation is under control, reports of intensified fighting paint a picture of a region that is becoming more ungovernable by the day.

 

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