‘You can’t even cry loudly’: Counting Ethiopia’s war dead

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Desta Haileselassie sits at his desk in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Cut off from Tigray due to a communications blackout, Desta has been compiling a list of Tigrayan victims of war. He is one of many in the Tigrayan diaspora who have waited for months to know whether loved ones are alive. (AP Photo/Nat Castaneda)

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) — The man who counts the dead sees them everywhere.

They’re in the handwritten lists of names smuggled out of a region cut off from the world by war. They’re in the images of people shot and tossed off a cliff, tortured and pushed into a river, left unburied for days. They’re announced by grieving families in social media posts.

They are the first thing he sees in the morning when he checks his messages. They are the last thing he sees at night, when they enter his dreams.

He has been living with the dead for a year, since war erupted last November in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Tigrayans, a minority of some 6 million, were encircled as a falling-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned deadly. It became an ethnic clash when Amhara fighters from a neighboring region allied with Ethiopia’s government poured in.

Many Tigrayans joined the fight. But the man who counts the dead is in Sweden and could not.

So he quickly decided what he could do to help. In his small, neat apartment at the end of a metro line in Stockholm, Desta Haileselassie would apply his computer science background and research skills to compiling a list of Tigrayan victims, name by name.

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This story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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It is slow, difficult work. Almost all communication with Tigray has been cut off, and foreign media is banned. Many in the diaspora have waited for months to know whether loved ones are alive, terrified to receive messages from home even as they yearn for news.

In the confused first days and weeks, Desta issued pleas on social media for help. He told anguished families that a list of the dead would be a memorial of a war Ethiopia’s government seemed determined to hide. He made dozens of phone calls, then hundreds more.

The work took over his life. He stopped hiking, swimming or going to the gym, and he sleeps poorly. The guitar and keyboard he once played sit in his Stockholm apartment, untouched.

He has collected handwritten testimonies and photographs that make him feel sick or bring him to tears. He tries to calm weeping family members from afar, never meeting them in person. Months of exhaustion have collected under his eyes.

“There are days when I end up crying the whole evening,” Desta says softly. “A very, very hard job to do, but I have to do it ….This is the least I can do to help my people.”

Now, a year on, he has confirmed 3,080 names of the dead. The Associated Press has verified 30 of them chosen randomly, speaking with families and friends.

Victim Number 2,171 was Gebretsadkan Teklu Gebreyesus, shot dead by soldiers in the presence of his two young sons, the AP confirmed. Victim 1,599, Zeray Asfaw, was a bridegroom pulled from his wedding party and killed along with his best man, his friends and the father of the bride while the women screamed. Victim Number 2,915 was Amdekiros Aregawi Gebru, an ambulance driver gunned down while driving a woman in labor to a clinic, making it there before bleeding to death.

Desta has another 1,000 names he’s still trying to verify.

“It’s very, very disturbing, I’m very sorry,” he says as he shows photos of corpses on the ground.

His list does not include ethnic Amhara, who are some of the war’s latest victims after Tigray forces started moving toward Ethiopia’s capital.

The Amhara Association of America has its own list of the dead, starting with the killing of hundreds of Amhara in the Tigray community of Mai Kadra in the earliest days of the war. The list has reached 1,994.

The two ethnicities are separate even in death. The United Nations says that while war crimes may have been committed on all sides, the most atrocities have been reported against Tigrayans by Ethiopian soldiers and their Eritrean allies.

One thing all agree on, including experts: The lists represent just a fraction of the dead.

Desta is certain that every Tigrayan has lost someone, whether to fighting or to house-to-house massacres or to starvation under an Ethiopian government blockade. To emphasize the shattered connections, he often mentions when a victim is a parent, or is killed alongside one. The word “mother” appears 43 times.

“His mother alone had to cry over her son’s body all day long,” one entry says.

Desta too has lost loved ones, 19 of them. The self-contained 36-year-old gently deflects questions, saying every victim on his list is like family.

But the thought of adding one name especially close to him is too much to bear. It brings him to tears when her name is mentioned. The single photo on display in the room where he works shows him embracing her as she smiles.

He calls her Amlishaway.

She is his mother.

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Victim Number 51: Haben Sahle

Desta’s list includes 102 children. The news of the death of a 15-year-old boy was among the first to reach him.

Haben Sahle was a top student in the border town of Zalambessa and an only son. When the war engulfed Tigray, connection with him was lost.

In faraway California, the boy’s uncle, Angesom, received the first word in a phone call weeks later, in December. It was a well-intended lie.

Relatives in neighboring Eritrea told Angesom that family members in Zalambessa were fine. But Angesom knew that in their culture, the death of a loved one usually wouldn’t be shared over the phone.

A trio of Ethiopian Orthodox priests broke the terrible news in a surprise visit the following Sunday.

“When priests come to your house without warning, something’s wrong,” Angesom says.

The priests hadn’t known the boy. They didn’t know how he died. It took five more months for Angesom to reach his sister by phone for details.

She told him Ethiopian soldiers, and allied ones from Eritrea, were seeking out and killing men and teenage boys. Decades of rivalries and resentments over Tigray leaders’ long, often repressive hold on power had turned into slaughter.

As the soldiers approached their home, Haben Sahle’s mother said no one was there but her. But the soldiers fired at random and shot her son hidden inside.

As she recounted the killing, Angesom could finally begin to grieve.

“For six horrible months, I didn’t eat normal, sleep normal, work normal,” he says.

The distance was made worse by fears that Ethiopian authorities were monitoring phone calls. You could only ask loved ones vaguely if they were OK and had food and water, Angesom says.

Now silence has descended again, and he hasn’t reached his family in Tigray for the past four months. If he could speak with them again, he would tell them this: He will be their voice forever.

“If this is not genocide,” he says, “there will be nothing that will be labeled as genocide.”

With Angesom’s confirmation of the teenager’s death, Desta added him to his list. More than 90% of the names there are of men and boys, reflecting survivors’ accounts that they were often singled out for killing.

His work had barely begun.

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Victim Number 70: Sibhat Berhe Desta. “Killed with other civilians by the Eritrean soldiers near Goda Bottle and Glass Share Company.”

On Dec. 23, a phone connected.

It was Desta’s brother in the Tigray capital, and he was in tears. Nineteen of their family members had been killed.

They were cousins and uncles from their mother’s birthplace. Desta knew some of them well. He had grown up with them, played with them as a child during visits to the village.

“I have a strong attachment to that place,” he says. He recalls Sibhat Berhe Desta as “a very protective and generous uncle. That’s what I vividly remember about him.”

His brother told him that on Dec. 2, Eritrean soldiers had forced their relatives to do manual labor while they stripped down a glass factory and carted the pieces away, part of widespread looting. Then the soldiers killed them.

Family members were forbidden to bury the bodies for 20 days, a grotesque practice widely reported in the war and meant as further insult to the dead.

“I was shocked, but over time I got so emotional,” Desta says. His voice wavers, then steadies.

He has not yet grieved. First, the fighting must end, he says.

Until then, as he counts the dead, he worries about his mother.

“She’s a very brave woman, and she’s my best friend,” Desta says. He covers his face and cries. “She’s always been there.”

In December, he was excited yet terrified to see a social media message from a friend about his mother. It said that with no other way to communicate inside Tigray, she had walked more than 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, from her home to the regional capital, Mekele, to see whether relatives were still alive.

In her late 50s, she hiked through mountainous terrain, sometimes sleeping in caves, taking part in a perilous migration by many Tigrayans searching for loved ones in the chaos. Walking along roads patrolled by hostile forces meant almost certain death.

She could have been killed any second, Desta thought.

On Jan. 4, or 62 days after the war began, he finally reached his mother by phone. She confirmed that she had gone to Mekele on foot twice and kept both journeys a secret from him. She didn’t want him to worry.

He was angry at her risk-taking, then relieved.

As they chatted, he decided not to mention his work counting the dead. She didn’t need any more stress.

But as they slipped back into daily conversations, he hit “record” each time, and saved the digital files.

He feared each call might be their last.

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Victim Numbers 333 and 334: Meaza Goshu and Kalayou Berhe. “Killed a few days after their wedding.”

Victim Number 933: Mariamawit Alemayo, 6 years old. “Killed from heavy artillery shelling in Shire by the Eritrean soldiers. She was the only child to her mom.”

Victim Number 1,577: Aba Gebreselassie. “He was an Orthodox Christian monk.”

The death toll is one of the biggest unknowns of Ethiopia’s war.

Among the world’s most successful projects in counting the dead is The Kosovo Memory Book. It is a near-comprehensive, well-funded list of people killed in a war in a small geographic area that lasted for less than two years in the 1990s. But the Kosovo Memory Book is still updated even now.

Determining Ethiopia’s death toll will be considerably more difficult, says Michael Spagat, chair of the nonprofit Every Casualty Counts, which focuses on how to count the dead in conflict.

The group discovered Desta’s efforts as well as a parallel project by researchers centered at Ghent University in Belgium. Their lists are similar, Spagat says, but they capture “a relatively small fraction of it all.”

The Belgian researchers fear that, too.

“If they’re killing 10 people per village, then it’s easily in the tens of thousands,” says Tim Vanden Bempt, whose wife is Tigrayan. For months, he was tweeting a name from the list of dead every hour. That ended when a renewed government blockade on Tigray cut off the flow of information.

Spagat, an economics professor, calls the work ahead in Ethiopia “challenging in the extreme.” With communications links severed, it’s impossible to conduct even a standard sample survey of households to estimate the dead.

It’s likely that Ethiopian authorities will never help, a stance he describes as common among governments in similar situations around the world.

“In many cases, they have done the killing,” he says. “They’d rather it stay as buried as possible.”

The warring sides have claimed tens of thousands of deaths among fighters alone.

Spagat’s hopes are with the network of Ethiopian Orthodox priests in communities who traditionally are informed when residents die. But Tigrayan leaders in the church say scores of priests and other clergy members have been killed, too.

Despite the painstaking work to bring Ethiopia’s dead out of the shadows, Spagat puts the chances of reaching a final toll at “possibly never.”

The war has not just taken lives. In a nation that takes vast pride in its 3,000-year history, it has also ruptured Ethiopia’s culture of honoring the dead.

It is usually the responsibility of the elderly to announce the death of a loved one. Now many families are scattered, with members missing or unreachable. With Tigray cut off from the world, people often don’t know whether to mourn.

“When we’re mourning, we’re not even together,” says a Tigrayan woman in the diaspora, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for loved ones still in Ethiopia. “You can’t even cry loudly because of what’s going on.”

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Victim on the Amhara side: Mekonen Girma, a farmer

The victims on the Amhara list are arranged by community rather than by number. While Tigray forces say they are fighting to pressure Ethiopia’s government to end the blockade of their homeland, some Amhara have described house-to-house killings and other atrocities against civilians as revenge in communities like Chenna Teklehaymanot.

Once again, no one knows how many people have been killed. Tewodrose Tirfe, the chairman of the Amhara Association of America, is trying to find out.

“The numbers are probably much higher. We just don’t have the bandwidth to investigate every atrocity,” he says. But knowing he’s drawing attention to victims means he “at least can feel at peace.”

His team seeks out Amhara survivors like Zewditu Tikuye, who says her husband, farmer Mekonen Girma, was killed in the town of Kobo in July as Tigray forces swept in.

Zewditu fled her home as her husband stayed behind with their cattle. She heard about his death from people who buried him.

“Someone told me he was killed in a very cruel way,” she says. “I wish I died with him.”

She is bewildered because she says her husband had no interest in politics. Now she raises seven children alone.

“I have no idea why this war is going on,” she says. “I don’t even know if my relatives are still alive.”

Amhara and Tigrayans had lived peacefully for many years and even intermarried, she says. But she is not sure they can coexist in the future.

The war has also split Ethiopia’s diaspora, estimated at more than 2 million people. Horrified Tigrayans distance themselves from Amhara friends who cheer advances by Ethiopian forces, and vice versa. Once-favorite Ethiopian restaurants, a taste of home, are now avoided.

Tewodrose had not known of Desta’s efforts to count the dead. He believes as many people as possible should document the horrors of the war.

But his group only counts Amhara. And Desta only counts Tigrayans.

“I have to prioritize my people,” Desta says.

A red-and-yellow Tigray flag is displayed on his computer rather than the Ethiopian one. He says he no longer feels Ethiopian and is ready to throw away his passport at any time.

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Victim Number 3,081: Yet to come

It’s impossible not to fear the worst.

Starvation is sweeping Tigray, and even basic medicines are running out under the blockade. The government has again bombarded the region with airstrikes. Residents say they kill civilians, including children.

Tigray forces, which one of Desta’s brothers has joined, are approaching the capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s government calls this an “existential war.”

Desta hasn’t spoken with his mother since June 26. The phone no longer rings through in a new blackout. Every day’s attempt meets silence.

Their last conversation was a normal one, much like the chats many Tigrayans had until a year ago. Sometimes, to escape the dead, Desta tries to feel that sense of normalcy again.

Alone in his apartment, he turns to his dozens of recorded calls with his mother in Tigray.

He presses “play.”

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Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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Ethiopia coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/ethiopia-erasing-ethnicity

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