Aida travelled from Melbourne to the Tigray region of Ethiopia earlier this year to reconnect with her roots and meet family members for the first time.
Little did the 23-year-old know that by November, the region would be a war zone, leaving her family in Australia thinking she was dead.
“I had grown up hearing stories from my mum about the war that she fled from, and just her experience and everything she’d gone through,” Aida said.
Now safe in London, Aida recounted her escape from Ethiopia to the ABC and provided images from the journey from Tigray — a region made inaccessible to journalists since at least September.
She asked that her identity be concealed to protect the safety of relatives still in Ethiopia.
‘I knew things were starting to heat up’
After graduating from a social work and international development degree in Melbourne, Aida said she decided to spend a year in Ethiopia to “rekindle with family”.
She arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in February, where she spent a month before making her way to the capital of the Tigray region, Mekele.
Coronavirus began to spread locally in Ethiopia in April.
“That didn’t really give me a reason to leave, only because the situation in Melbourne was quite bad as well,” Aida said.
“So I decided to stay.”
Then in September, the Tigray Government held elections in defiance of a national ban on elections due to COVID-19.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
At the start of November, however, he ordered the national army to launch airstrikes against the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — the ruling party in Tigray.
He has since accused the TPLF of high treason and terrorism.
‘It’s not going to be safe anymore’
Aida was in the Tigray capital, Mekele, when the shooting began. On the morning of November 4, she woke up and there was no signal on her phone.
“It felt like I was kind of back in time, where people had the radios up against their ear.”
The airstrikes led to telecommunication blackouts — cutting off mobile networks, fixed-line internet and landline services.
“I think it’s time for me to actually leave Tigray because it’s not going to be safe anymore,” she thought.
That didn’t happen.
Travel agents told her there were no flights running. The region had been effectively sealed off — even to humanitarian aid organisations.
‘Nothing that you can do’
Aida said the first week of the conflict was “very difficult” and emotional.
“You’re just at home, very helpless, there’s not much you can do,” she said.
About a week after the conflict began, Aida’s uncle’s family was doing a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony when an airstrike went over their heads.
“There’s absolutely nothing that you can do in these situations. You’re just standing still, honestly, waiting to feel the impact,” she said.
Aida’s account correlates with that of UN officials and other witnesses who described airstrikes on Mekele in mid-November.
Days later, she ran into a family friend, who relayed that the UN was evacuating foreign citizens from Tigray.
“Up until then, food was very scarce,” Aida said.
The UN has said that “dire shortages of the most basic supplies, including food, water, fuel and cash affect the whole region, leading to a looming humanitarian catastrophe”.
There were no taxis running, so Aida walked for more than an hour to the UN compound.
She gave officials her passport and registered to be evacuated from Mekele.
The next day, she was told her name was on the list.
‘She had accepted the fact that I was dead’
Four buses left Mekele carrying 300 people who were “all foreign passport holders”, with a handful of Ethiopian nationals, according to Aida.
The convoy was led and tailed by white UN vehicles.
Upon crossing the border into the neighbouring Afar region, Ethiopian security forces searched people’s luggage on the side of the road and checked their identification.
“All the luggages were flipped upside down, mind you, this is in the middle of the desert,” Aida said.
Being in Afar meant Aida’s mobile was working again. She spoke to her mother for the first time in weeks.
“My mum literally screamed my name when she answered the phone.
“It was obviously such a relief for her and my family to hear my voice again.”
Aida’s cousin Dellina, whose father remains in Addis Ababa and also requested her identity to be protected, told the ABC from Melbourne that her family lost contact with Aida for two weeks.
The telecommunications blackout has meant verifying information about the situation on the ground in Tigray is near impossible.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the detention of at least six Ethiopian journalists, arrests thought to be linked to the conflict.
“Unfortunately, this pattern of arresting journalists and holding them for weeks without charges is one that we have documented in Ethiopia several times over the past one year,” Muthoki Mumo, a spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the ABC.
“It is particularly concerning given that people behind bars are at higher risk to contracting COVID-19.”
Beryihun Degu Temesgen, Chargé d’Affaires at the Ethiopian embassy in Canberra, said journalists were denied access to Tigray in order to protect them.
“This is mainly for the safety of the journalists,” he said.
‘It wasn’t safe for us to be in Addis Ababa’
After a days-long journey through the desert, Aida arrived in Addis Ababa.
Having been born in Tigray, Aida said she was asked by Ethiopian officials what she’d been doing there, where her parents were born, if she knew any politicians, and who she had been staying with.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has said it is “monitoring complaints of ethnic profiling of Tigrayan origin”.
Aida said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) informed her there was an Emirates flight to Brisbane via Dubai, with tickets costing around $3,500.
But she said she didn’t have money to pay for the flight as well as hotel quarantine upon arrival in Australia.
“Luckily for me, I have very close family here in London,” she said.
Other members of the Ethiopian community in Australia have told the ABC that ethnic Tigray people in Addis Ababa have faced discrimination, harassment, and arbitrary detention by authorities.
Ethiopia’s Attorney-General, Gedion Timothewos, told the New York Times that there had been “isolated incidents” where security forces had “acted out of line”.
Mr Temesgen of the Ethiopian embassy, however, told the ABC allegations of discrimination were “unfounded”.
“They are brothers. They are Ethiopians … we don’t consider them ‘other’,” he said.
“No kind of discrimination is done. Only those who have been suspected of crime were taken to custody.”
Upon leaving the country, Aida said she was again grilled by Ethiopian authorities, this time in the presence of DFAT officials.
“After the third interrogation, I was allowed to go to my gate.”
A DFAT spokesperson said in a statement its embassy in Addis Ababa had been providing consular assistance to a number of Australians, including facilitating their return to Australia where requested, but that it would not comment on individual cases due to privacy obligations.
“Australia has expressed its deep concern to the Ethiopian Government about the conflict in the Tigray region and the humanitarian impact,” they said.
“We have called for de-escalation, respect for human rights, humanitarian evacuations and consular access to Australians.”
The ABC has approached the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for comment.
‘I know what they’re going through’
Now, in London, Aida has finally been able to call her family in Mekele after almost a month without contact.
“They are safe [but] they didn’t have electricity or water for about two weeks,” she said.
Internet is still out in Mekele, and Aida has not been able to contact family in other parts of Tigray at all.
Since the conflict began, the UN says more than 50,000 refugees have fled across the border to Sudan.
At least four aid workers have been killed, according to not-for-profit organisations.
And earlier this month, the Government confirmed UN staffers were shot at and detained by the Ethiopian military.
Ethiopia’s Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement it “takes its responsibility to citizen safety and well-being seriously and is committed to ensuring that vulnerable communities in Tigray region are provided the necessary humanitarian assistance”.
But aid organisations continue to express frustration with limited access to Tigray.
“Some 2.3 million children in Tigray, Ethiopia, remain cut off from humanitarian assistance amid continuing violence since the beginning of November,” UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said earlier this month.
Mr Temesgen said provision of aid had improved “day to day”, and that the Ethiopian Government was “well aware of the dangers of UN staff being shot”, which was why access had been restricted.
Aida said she couldn’t help but feel “guilty” to have left her family behind in Ethiopia.