Meet Ethiopia's Most Wanted Men

June 27, 2021
The following is an English Translation of a June 26 YLE article published journalist LISELOTT LINDSTRÖM.

A man is sitting on a small stool with a tiny Ethiopian coffee cup in his hand. "Sure honey, of course, that's great! he says and hands out a teaspoon. In the middle of the small table is a large bowl of fresh honey. 

The man is Getachew Reda. He is a former Ethiopian communications minister and current rebel leader and one of the most sought-after men in the country. Now he sits in a mountain village with his satellite phone and plans how the war will continue for the rebels. 

The war in Tigray began last November when the armed wing of the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, attacked a federal army base in Tigray Province. The central government's response was supposed to last a few days or weeks according to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Eight months have passed now and the fighting in the Tigray War is the fiercest since November.

Getachew Reda is a member of the TPLF, and the goal of the entire war is to find him and other leaders and hold them accountable. Prime Minister Abiy calls Getachew and his colleagues "junta" and criminals.

Getachew Reda is one of the most sought after people in Ethiopia. Yle journalist Liselott Lindström met him in the mountain village of Tigray. Photo: Yle

The TPLF ruled Ethiopia for nearly 30 years in a violent way. Party forces managed to overthrow the country's communist government in 1991. The TPLF then led a country where human rights violations and the imprisonment of the opposition were part of the basic toolbox. 

The TPLF's term ended after massive protests, with Parliament electing Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in 2018. On Monday, Ethiopia held its first democratic elections in decades. Abiy is expected to handily win these elections.

Now Abiy Ahmed and TPLF are arch enemies.

Young people are now joining large numbers of TDF rebels. Photo: Yle

One reason for that is Abiy's policy of trying to centralize power away from the regional states. When Abiy decided to postpone the election last August, Tigray decided to hold regional elections anyway. The TPLF received almost all the votes, and the central government did not approve the result.

"We are fighting for the absolute sovereignty of the people of Tigray. But our enemies will not surrender until they have destroyed the entire Tigrayan people", Getachew says. 

Getachew gives an interview in the yard. Next to his leg is a large pile of bullshit. He is constantly on the move so that the government will not find him. Now he is staying in a small village with a farming family. TPLF soldiers depend on the help of the people, and they have a lot of support here.

Soldiers move mostly on foot. In the mountainous terrain of Tigray. Photo: Yle

The mother of the family says the Eritrean soldiers took everything from them and stayed in the village for weeks. He especially misses his solar panel.

Now there are only TPLF troops in the village. Or really, they now prefer the acronym TDF, or Tigray Defense Forces. The armed wing of the TPLF is trying to re-brand, and a record number of young people are involved.

TDF appears to have strong support in rural Tigray. For many civilians, war has become a struggle for survival and the survival of the entire nation. Tehras Tsega Berhan, 20, interrupted her studies to join the rebel forces.

"I am really sad about this war. I want to fight those who have done this to us. Young people are really inspired and are now joining forces."

Tehran Tsega Berhan joined the troops as early as the age of 18 because she felt the hatred of the Tigray was unfair. Photo: Yle

The TPLF may well be blamed for blasting a powder keg with a blow to a military base in November. But the backlalsh from government forces has been really fierce. There are also Eritrean forces involved in the fight, accused among other things of massacres and the use of rape as a weapon.

As many as 90 percent of Tigray's residents need food aid, and the UN has warned of a man-made famine in the region. Soldiers have been accused of deliberately trying to starve Tigrayan residents by looting and destroying crops and farming opportunities. 

Warnings have also been given about ethnic cleansing. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto received sharp criticism last week when he spoke of the war as a genocide.

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry strongly criticized Pekka Haavisto's comments as "irresponsible and undiplomatic". 

TDF troops have solid support in rural areas, where people give them food and space. Photo: Yle

Word choices are a sensitive issue for the central government. In the capital Addis Ababa, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Dina Mufti, is outraged when the word war comes up. "It's not a war, it's a law enforcement operation. If someone has broken the law, they should be punished for doing it", he says.

He says the operation is already over, and now the focus in Tigray is on reconstruction. Just days earlier, dozens of people were killed in a government airstrike in the village of Tigray. I will tell you that in Tigray, many said they were starving and Mufti interrupts before the question is asked, "I can't verify the information you've come across there because I wasn't there and I didn't see it, so don't ask me questions like that, okay" he says.

In the town of Hawzen, food aid was distributed to hungry people. Photo: Luke Dray

I ask exactly what the TPLF is being accused of and whether the war is the price the central government is willing to pay for capturing the TPLF leadership. That question led the spokesperson to conclude the interview.

In the mountains of Tigray, there are sounds of heavy warfare. The fighting takes place about 15 miles away, Getachew says as we walk to look at his troops. Snipers lie on the ground and stare across the valley. Tehran Tsega Berhan receives soldiers returning from fighting.

A young soldier has had a gunshot wound to his shoulder in battles against Ethiopian government forces. Photo: Yle

A bullet has passed through the young man's shoulder, and he is lying in pain under the tree. A bullet also hit Tehran in December but the injury to the hand has already healed. TDF field hospitals have almost no supplies, Getachew says. 

He calls the country's Prime Minister and Nobel Prize Winner Abiy Ahmed "semi-illiterate and power hungry". 

Getachew is particularly irritated by the fact that Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, the TPLF's arch-enemy, has sent troops into the country.

Abiy wants to become a similar regional dictator to Isaias. But this war means destruction for the Ethiopian state as we know it, he says. Getachew admits the TPLF made mistakes while in power. However, he definitely insists that the good economic development of Ethiopia has been entirely thanks to them.

"We are not criminals, but if someone has accusations, we will be happy to answer them", he says.

The war is mostly about waiting. Some have not used their weapons for a couple of months. Photo: Yle

The sounds of battles echo across the valley. 

"This, what you have seen, is the first chapter of the end. The next chapters are coming fast and we cannot be stopped. This will soon be over".

TDF troops have reportedly taken over several towns in Tigray this week. 

Intensifying fighting does not scare 20 year old Tehran. "I'm fighting for my Tigray. I can very well sacrifice my life for it. Many are fighting in foreign countries without any purpose. I have a goal and that's why I'm not afraid of death", she says.

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