The Dangers of Broad Generalizations: The Untold Tales of Courageous Ethiopians from Tigray Province: A Personal Reflection.

By Habtamu Kebede: As we stood at Shire Endasilassie Airport, preparing to fly back to Addis Ababa after a week of exploring Axum, Shire, and the surrounding areas, the sun beat down on us. However, my mood quickly shifted as I went through security and was taken aback by the personnel rummaging through our belongings. To my surprise, he even opened a package of shiro, a seasoning made from dried and ground peas, vetch, and chickpeas, pepper (Berbere), ginger, garlic, salt, and spices. This shiro had been given to me by a generous and extremely kind Tigrian elderly lady whom I had met for the first time. She is not a complete stranger, but it was my first time meeting her. The experience left me feeling a mix of emotions that I couldn’t quite process at the time – anger, helplessness, and a questioning of my own innocence. The personnel not only wore gloves, but also used a piece of iron bar to spin it inside the shiro package, checking for any hidden items.

Once he finished with our belongings, the personnel carefully examined our papers and interrogated us relentlessly. He wore a curious expression on his face and seemed suspicious of the purpose of our visit. He bombarded us with intrusive questions and, at one point, even snatched our papers and hastily left the room, as if searching for any possible reason to deny us boarding the plane. As I spoke in Amharic, the personnel’s attention seemed to be solely focused on me. Later, with a stoic expression, he returned our papers, his hand trembling slightly as he did so. After that intense encounter, we were relieved to finally board the aircraft.

I was shocked by the scene I witnessed at and around the airport. Burnt military vehicles and tanks were scattered about, and various types of livestock were roaming freely on the unpaved runway. It was clear that the airport was being used as a grazing area for cows, goats, and sheep, which were wandering around without any restrictions. The rough and unpaved runway posed a challenge for the plane’s landing. As the aircraft descended, a group of armed police officers suddenly appeared on the runway, frantically shouting and waving their arms to scare away the grazing animals. This experience at the airport was far below my expectations for Shire Endesilassie, one of the oldest counties in Tigray. It was especially disappointing when compared to Axum, one of the popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia.

During our visit, the Axum Airport boasted modern facilities and advanced technology. The well-paved and maintained streets to and from the airport made transportation a breeze. Our hotel, with its grand architecture and luxurious furnishings, left a lasting impression. It offered numerous amenities, including internet access, to ensure maximum comfort for its guests. One important issue that must not be overlooked is the hotel’s policy of retaining guests identification cards and travel documents for the entire duration of their stay, and only returning them upon check-out. It is assumed that this policy is consistently enforced for all guests.

As we were visiting the Axum Obelisk and Tsion Marian, a group of photographers approached us with their friendly yet assertive demeanor. One of them convinced us to take our picture at various locations and then delivered the printout to our hotel the next morning.

In all of this, it is impossible to overlook the professionalism of Ethiopian Airlines crews. During my visit to Axum, I had the opportunity to witness their exceptional service as they graciously showed young travelers around the cockpit. I was particularly touched when one of the crew members placed his hat on the youngest traveler, a heartwarming gesture that exemplified their kindness and warmth.

In contrast to Axum, the streets in Shire Endasilassie were unpaved and the overall appearance reflected the economic challenges faced by its inhabitants. During our stay, we resided at a newly constructed three-story hotel with a spacious courtyard. Although the rooms were equipped with toilet seats, there was no access to running water. The only source of water was a well located within the hotel’s compound, which was used for bathing, dishwashing, and cooking. Guests had to request water from the hotel staff in order to shower and were provided with a bucket of water for their room.

Our trip to Shire was filled with exciting events, but one of the most unforgettable experiences was our visit to the open-air market. As we strolled through the market, we caught sight of a light-skinned foreigner dressed in a military uniform. This sight immediately piqued our interest. Upon further inquiry, we discovered that the military man was stationed at the demilitarized zone on the border, a consequence of the 1998 war with Eritrea.

Our week-long visit to Tigray took place several years ago, and I assume things might have been different before the recent destructive conflict and deadly war that claimed over a million lives and caused staggering financial costs. The traumatic experiences of civilians, especially women and girls who were subjected to horrific acts of violence and inhumane treatment, cannot be overlooked. The conflict between the EPRDF factions was not only heart-wrenching, but also a disastrous phenomenon that should never have happened in the first place.

During our time in Tigray, we had the opportunity to meet with individuals from diverse academic, socioeconomic, and cohort backgrounds. Our conversations were incredibly engaging, covering a range of topics including politics. We also noticed that printed media was not permitted in Tigray during this period. Additionally, we observed cadres using vehicles and loudspeakers to make announcements and mobilize people, similar to the practices during the Derg era in other parts of Ethiopia.

The elderly woman who kindly gave me a bag of shiro was actually a distant relative of my spouse. I am incredibly grateful for her warm hospitality and generosity. On the third day of our visit, she graciously invited us into her home and prepared a delicious spread of traditional Ethiopian dishes that are not commonly found on restaurant menus. After we finished our meal, she insisted on personally feeding each of us by hand until we were too full to continue. She even had a crate of beer ready for us. This level of kindness and hospitality was evident throughout our entire stay, truly showcasing the unique culture and warm hospitality of Tigray.

Initially, I was hesitant to discuss political matters, unsure of how they would be received by the people in the region. However, to my surprise, the individuals I spoke with were friendly and open to sharing their thoughts. They were also highly critical of the Tigrian People Liberation Front (TPLF), the most powerful political group in the region. One high school teacher, in particular, spoke passionately about the impracticality of the TPLF’s education policy. He explained that while the idea of expanding vocational training programs for struggling students who couldn’t pass the 10th grade seemed promising, the implementation was flawed. According to him, the vocational training centers were not adequately prepared to begin training, rendering the policy a failure in practice despite its potential on paper.

I had the pleasure of meeting an elderly man who exuded energy and had a strong paternal presence. He introduced himself as a former member of the House of Representatives representing the region. He shared that he frequently traveled back and forth and had hoped to make a positive impact in his role. However, he became increasingly frustrated by the constant pressure and micromanaging from the TPLF ranking cadres. He explained that they often coerced regional parliamentarians to vote in favor of the positions that the TPLF wanted to promote. Despite bringing up the issue to high-ranking party officials and suggesting that parliamentarians should be allowed to vote freely and independently, no action was taken to stop this undemocratic practice. This ultimately led him to resign from his seat and start his own small business.

The young people I spoke with were incredibly respectful and eager to communicate in Amharic, which I found to be very welcoming. Many of them expressed their willingness to embrace new ideas and bring about political change, emphasizing the fact that the TPLF prioritized the interests of its members and political party over those of the people. These youths were no different from the youth you would encounter in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, or Gondar.

After all, Tigray is the birthplace of two remarkable individuals: Dr. Tesfaye Debesay and Gaim Gebregziabher, both of whom are unsung heroes. Dr. Tesfaye Debesay was a visionary leader of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) who made the ultimate sacrifice for the Ethiopian people. He bravely jumped off a skyscraper to avoid being captured by the Derg henchmen. Commander Gaim Gebregzebher was a gallant fighter known for his unwavering determination and courage. He was surrounded by TPLF killers in his residence in Addis Ababa, where he refused to surrender and fought back until he was struck multiple times and succumbed to his wounds. Commander Gaim was a true hero who gave his life for a unified and democratic Ethiopia. Dr. Tesfaye Debesay and Commander Gaim Gebregzebher were the twilight and pinnacle of Ethiopian politics and they were role models for their generation and will remain as such.

However, Tigray is also home to millions of voiceless people who aspire to live in a unified and democratic Ethiopia. That is why we should avoid making sweeping generalizations, as they can be counterproductive to our unity of thought and our future.

Let’s not consume ourselves with lone wolves, such as the security personnel at Shire Endesilassie airport who mistreated us by attempting to deny us boarding the flight. Instead, let’s focus on building bridges and protecting our beliefs, rather than building walls and guarding our views. By doing so, we can work towards a better tomorrow for all of us, including future generations who will benefit from our efforts.