The Tigray regional state in northern Ethiopia where war has been raging for two years has been under a communications blackout since the Tigrayan forces took control of regional capital Mekelle in June 2021.
The communications blackout that came along with interruption of electric power supply, banking services, aerial and ground transport, have left millions of families and relatives effectively disconnected both with their relatives who are in different parts of the regional state itself, in remaining parts of Ethiopia, and with their family members in diaspora after the take over of most parts of the region, including its capital Mekelle by Tigrayan forces.
For Kiflom (name changed for security reasons), 30, a Tigrayan who lives in Addis Abeba, the last two years have been intolerable as he haven’t heard from his family who are living in village near the town of Adigrat, Tigray Region.
He used to speak to his mother four times a week before the communications blackout but now he says he “don’t even know her well-being.” Speaking to Addis Standard, Kiflom said: “I met my family in person two weeks before the war broke out on November 4, 2020.”
“After the war broke out, my father was once able to speak to me from the mountains of Tigray, we didn’t even talk properly due to the poor network in the area,” he said.
Some families from central and other parts of Tigray who could manage to travel to Alamata, paying unacceptably expensive prices for transport and accommodation, have been able to connect with their relatives using almost non-existent cell network from bordering areas.
The other only means was by sending recorded voice messages that often take several days to reach the recipient family members after the facilitators manage to get the very limited satellite internet access that was reserved mainly to humanitarian organizations in Tigray.
On 25 October ICRC said it helped families in Northern Ethiopia remain in touch through more than 185,000 free phone calls and text messages over the period of nine months starting from January 2022.
The Communications blackout has not only separated families but affected the people in Tigray socially and economically.
ICRC said “when families live apart during a humanitarian crisis, there is the fear and uncertainty of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones or how they are doing. This can have long-term psychological, health and social consequences. Children, especially those who find themselves alone, face unimaginable suffering and remain without the care they need”.
In July when athlete Gotytom Gebresillassie won the gold medal in the women’s marathon at the 18th World Athletics Championships in US, Oregon, her mother, Berekhytu Kasa said that due to the lack of communication services in Tigray region, she could not meet her daughter, athlete Gotytom.
“Seven months ago, I went to Alamata and contacted her on the phone. But after that, what we could do is to send her a voice message through people,” she said.
Kiflom is an employee of a public organization in the capital and recalls that he used to support his family back in Tigray. “I used to send money for my mother but, now due to the shutdown of banking I couldn’t send and help my family, I don’t know the current situation whether they are alive or not,” he said.
“The blackout turned my life upside down. It affects my daily activities, I couldn’t work properly and I have depression because I always think about my family. My entire life has become miserable. I used to speak to my family about my future dreams, they used to guide me but, now my dreams are rather turned into nightmares.”