That August afternoon, Father Tsige Mezgebu was leading the prayer in one of the Lalibela churches when the Tigré rebels entered the city and asked the faithful to shout: “God save our city!”
The worst was feared for the eleven thousand-year-old monolithic churches that make this city in the Amhara region (northern Ethiopia) a holy place for tens of millions of Orthodox Christians in the country and a great tourist attraction.
The rebels of the Tigré People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were preceded by a terrifying reputation. Federal and NGO leaders had accused them of mass murder and rape during their offensive in Amhara in July.
Father Tsige urged his faithful to remain calm and not flee the city. “I believe in God, I had faith that nothing would happen in a holy place,” he explains now.
But the next four months brought only deprivation and violence.
The rebels looted houses and health centers. Without transportation, electricity, banks or communications, the inhabitants found themselves isolated from the world.
This situation ended last week when the army reconquered Lalibela in a counteroffensive that was the latest script twist in the conflict that has faced pro-government forces and the Tigré rebels for a year.
AFP was the first independent media to enter the city since then.
– Churches intact –
The Ethiopian war didn’t have to last that long, it didn’t even have to reach Lalibela.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, promised a swift and surgical military operation when he sent the army to the northern Tigré region in early 2020 to overthrow local TPLF authorities, accused of attacking military bases.
But in late June 2021, the TPLF retaken much of Tigré and advanced into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.
Lalibela is one of many Amhara towns where pro-government forces preferred to flee rather than fight.
Local authorities followed suit, leaving Father Tsige and other religious officials alone to run the city, which was militarily controlled by the rebels.
The ecclesiastics asked to remove the mortars and other heavy weapons installed near the churches.
The TPLF fighters, many of them Orthodox Christians, agreed and promised to protect the site. They also made a habit of leaving their kalashnikovs outside before entering to pray at Biet Ghiorgis, one of Lalibela’s iconic cross-shaped churches.
The eleven buildings, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, were left intact.
But in the rest of the city, the rebels were less compassionate, knocking on the doors of houses at all hours and demanding telephones and food, residents recall.
“You couldn’t ask them to return things. They had guns, they said they would kill us,” explains Belaynew Mengeshaw, a tour operator.
The rebels looted administration offices, banks and the airport, now covered in ripped power lines, shattered glass and thrown boarding passes.
– Medicines loaded onto donkeys –
The city’s hospital, which cares for a population of 20,000, took in all the humanitarian misery caused by the rebel offensive.
The residents’ food reserves were depleted and he had to care for 290 malnourished children, 90 of them seriously ill. Six ended up dying.
“We couldn’t cure them because the (food) supplements had been taken by the TPLF,” laments Temesgen Muche, a social worker at the hospital.
Doctors had to improvise to do their job: they secretly delivered drugs, carried by donkeys, from the town of Meket, 40 kilometers to the west.
During the dead of night, they administered them to patients with diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis.
But they were only small victories in the unrest that they lived in the last weeks. The oxygen reserves were depleted, allowing only 30-minute interventions.
Because the banks were out of service, the doctors were unable to collect their salaries, thus relying on food and money distributions organized by the Orthodox leaders.
Returning from their night watch, some discovered that their homes had been looted and their families beaten by the rebels.
– Enraged fighters –
The arrival of the army, the Amhara special forces and a militia called Fano brought some relief.
Again, the shift in power occurred without any real fighting, although soldiers described violent clashes in the surrounding area.
The TPLF denied a military defeat and claimed that it had made a tactical withdrawal.
Patients are now arriving at the hospital from the surrounding area, where the rebels are accused of having bombed and shot civilians in their retreat.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented sexual violence and killings in other parts of Amhara.
For Father Tsige, the most difficult thing was living deprived of basic services such as banks or communications.
This generates a certain empathy for the civilians of Tigré, who have lived in the same conditions for much of the last year.
“I am devastated for them as a human being and as a believer. We have suffered during this short period, but for them it is long,” he says.
For their part, the pro-government fighters, enraged, say they want to continue their advance until they reach Mekele, the capital of Tigré.
“I was very happy when I learned that we had taken Lalibela, even though he was wounded,” says Aliyu Ahmed Eshete, a member of the Amhara special forces whose skull was grazed by a sniper bullet two weeks ago.
“I want to be active again and serve my people.”