Chasing false dreams of success
Located in the far north of Ethiopia, few kilometers away from the borders of Eritrea, Alitena is as remote as they come. A land of mountainous highlands, spacious, almost abandoned and sustained on the mercy of foreign missionaries and not far from Zaleanbesa, a broken city that has endured years of no-war-no-peace rule, the once capital of the Irob people of Tigray is a ghost town.
There are few infrastructures - save an aging basketball court, rundown bars of cheep beers and Catholic monasteries - and it’s hard to know why anyone wants to live here. Some have and many have left to the hopes of Europe, only to perish midway to the seas of the Mediterranean. Families have been forced to bury empty coffins in vein – an almost ritual to a population that is in decline.
All the misery, the untold sacrifice of its youth has not discouraged for many youth to still want to travel to a foreign land, looking for opportunities that seldom exists at home. For many, unless one makes it to Europe and flourish and help change the narrative of their loved ones, it seems, most are looked down and there is a great deal of pressure on the young to escape elsewhere and far from home.
There are always the few dotted success stories, which have made it to western nations and managed to help the families they left behind – have them build homes and move them to Adigrat, for better status and way of life others want to emulate but fail and pay the ultimate price with their lives.
“I am determined to go. I am just looking for resources to pay agents that will help smuggle me out of Ethiopia and I want to be able to help my mother and my young siblings”, said Henok Mehri, a 14 year old. “With little education and little things to do here, all I do is consume alcohol with the little money I have. My dream rests somewhere and I can not wait to depart”.
Those wanting to travel, many are not discouraged by the misery, the misfortune of others bringing much worry and grieve to their family.
Fitsum Afewerk was such a parent. When his son asked to join his cousin and take the dangerous voyage to Libya, he was happy to help. In fact, he sold his cows and belongings to help him trek, in the hope his 23 year old would pay him back and bring him the wealth few families have been afforded with from children sent abroad.
Instead, his son never reached his destination, he died on a strange land and his cousin later died of the injury he endured on his way there. He has heard of stories how they may have died, but that has brought little confront to him and his wife, who has hidden herself from friends and family members as she mourned her only son.
“When my son came up with the idea to travel, I was worried. But I knew there would be a cousin to carry him through. I was too poor to provide him and fulfill his ambition. Nothing satisfied him here in Alitenia and all he wanted was to go”, Fitsum told The Reporter. “I never would have imagined that I would be in a position to not see him again and in mourning, I would also be forced to pay the debt. I am heartbroken and devastated and too poor to pay the money I owe many people”.
Alitena, founded by Catholic priests is a unique town of predominately Catholics in the midst of Orthodox Christians and Muslims. It has been like that since Justin de Jacobis and Guglielmo Massaia converted local residents to Catholicism in 1845 and viewed the area as a shelter to those who many face harm or prosecutions for embracing a Catholicism.
The last census taken here was in 2007 by the Central Statistical Agency and has the city of at a population just less than 5000 and half women. On average, each household is believed to have an average of 5 children and still heavily rely on livestock.
Most of the young have abandoned the dream to be farmers, refusing to embrace the proud legacy of their ancestors.
Speaking in his native Saho, the language of the people of Irob, which means, “welcome to our home”, much of its historical past in from word-of-mouth passed on from a generation past. According to historians, Irobs links their history to Summe, son of Neguse Worede-Mehret who migrated to the area from Tsira’e some 700 years ago.
Despite much of the little attention given to the needs and plights of the Irob people, there have been noted contributions of the community from those who hail from the area, including Emperor Yohannes and in recent years, Tesfay Debessay, the head of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, which was killed during the anti-opposition movement of the Derg Era.
The area and its people have become synonymous with tragedies, of young people dying on foreign lands. Just last month, 16 of its citizens perished on the Mediterranean bringing much focus on it. Among the victims, according to Fana, were 10 girls and some were believed to be as young as 13.
Tewodros Tekle grew up in Alitena, now frail and elderly, he saw his city in many of its transitions. He saw as its population grew and few developments occurred, helped bury much of the youth and refused to depart when all his contemporaries left for the nearest big city, Adigrat for a better future. However, he is the first to acknowledge the area’s dead-end opportunities for many but for him, this is home.
“I am 73 year old. I have always found happiness in the little I have. Most of the young, my own grand-children are busy planning their voyage abroad. For them and to them, unless they make it to Europe, they feel they are inept, not able. Even those with university degrees prefer to find refugee outside of Ethiopia than become a respected and educated person within their own communities. That is my greatest regret as I reach the sunset of my own life and something we have not installed in our children,” he said.
“We have failed them. Our community have failed them. Ethiopia has certainly failed them”, he added.