Amid Ethiopia war, stranded Indians unwilling to return over job concerns

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Written by Neha Banka
| Kolkata |

Updated: November 26, 2020 6:00:09 pm


Ethiopia Military, Ethiopian Army, Ethiopia Tigray ConflictEthiopia: Federal troops have been fighting with forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling political party that has now been designated a rebel group. (Ethiopian News Agency/AP)

When armed clashes broke out earlier this month in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Preeti Mishra (name changed) said her father had dismissed it as yet another socio-political disturbance in a region prone to outbreaks of conflict. Tigray has been home for Mishra’s father, a professor of Sociology at Adigrat University, for close to a decade and his family back home in Varanasi were accustomed to hearing his accounts of developments in the region.

Twenty-three days ago, Sanjeev Mishra’s family (name changed) lost contact with him after the Ethiopian government blocked telephone lines and cut off internet access in the region. “We thought there was some problem,” Mishra’s 21-year-old daughter told indianexpress.com. “We tried contacting his friends at the university but we couldn’t get through them. Then we contacted his friends’ families in India but they were in the same boat.”

After days of no communication, the Mishra family began searching for news reports and leads on social media; anything that could give them an indication of the situation in Adigrat. “We searched on Twitter and Instagram and realised that the situation was bad,” said Preeti. The festival of Diwali came and went, but this year for the family, there was only concern for Mishra’s safety.

Read the story of a Tigray evacuee | She fled Ethiopia’s fighting. Now she warns of ‘catastrophe’

Then earlier this week, Preeti desperately called the Indian Embassy in Addis Ababa to ask about her father’s whereabouts. “They only said they were monitoring the situation.”

Map locates Eritrea and the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (Source: AP)

It is unclear how many Indian citizens live in Ethiopia but interviews indicate that most work in factories and in similar commercial enterprises and teach at institutions of higher education across the country. According to conversations that Preeti had with consular officials at the Indian Embassy in Addis Ababa, some 30 Indian citizens who teach in various capacities at Adigrat University were evacuated to India last week. Ten more Indian faculty members at the university remain in Ethiopia, including Preeti’s father, but their circumstances are not known.

Explained

How Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis is impacting the Horn of Africa

With Ethiopian civilians escaping in large numbers to Sudan, the country may find itself inadvertently drawn into the war. Earlier this year, in the midst of Ethiopia’s long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile, Sudan had already found itself forcefully involved in the spat

“We heard from the embassy that some Indians in Mekelle were waiting for their salaries,” Preeti said, explaining how the embassy had indicated that there were people unwilling to take evacuation flights to India because that would involve forfeiting their salary for the month of November. The Mishra family hopes that Sanjeev is not among those unwilling to return.

Rishabh Singh, 24, last spoke to his uncle, a professor at Wukro Agricultural Polytechnic College in Tigray, on November 4. “Then we didn’t get calls from him. After that, we learned about the situation on BBC.” Singh declined to provide his uncle’s name, but said that his uncle had lived and worked extensively in East Africa and was familiar with the region. Ethiopia had been home to him since 2016, with short stints in Addis Ababa and the town of Wukro. “He liked it,” Singh says of his uncle’s experiences in Ethiopia. “He used to say it was peaceful.”

On the day the clashes intensified and communication was cut off, Singh’s uncle was returning home to Wukro from Addis Ababa, an approximately 14-hour car ride, and subsequently found himself stuck in Tigray. Three weeks later, he along with 69 other people were evacuated to Addis Ababa and the family was finally able to talk.

Tigray refugees who fled a conflict in the Ethiopia’s Tigray region, run at Village 8, the transit centre near the Lugdi border crossing, eastern Sudan, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

These evacuations have been conducted by the Indian embassy in conjunction with the United Nations, said Amar Kavathekar, who has been trying to assist his brother in Ethiopia. Kavathekar’s brother was posted in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, two months ago by his employer in the garment industry. Sitting at his Pune home, Kavathekar first learned about the clashes when his brother’s employer alerted him during a phone call.

“When I got the news, I was totally blank,” he said. “We had no contact for 10 days.” Kavathekar tried contacting India’s Ministry of External Affairs who directed him to the embassy in Addis Ababa. “I got the number of the second secretary at the embassy to ask for help.” Some 300 people, including workers from other countries like Bangladesh, were stranded in the garment factory in Mekelle where his brother worked.

Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region prepare to cross the Setit River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdait village in eastern Kassala state, Sudan November 14, 2020. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

Three days ago, Kavathekar learned that his brother had been evacuated from the region and was at the airport in Addis Ababa, leaving the country. The Indian Embassy in Addis Ababa did not respond to indianexpress.com’s requests for comment.

According to Singh, his uncle is likely to stay on in Ethiopia and continue to teach online, but he acknowledges that the circumstances may be challenging because it may just be a long-drawn conflict, one that will last for several months. In the three-week-old war, thousands of Ethiopian civilians in Tigray have been displaced and the UNHCR reported that thousands of refugees had been crossing over the border and arriving in Sudan since fighting started, sparking concerns of a humanitarian crisis.

On November 24, Reuters reported that Ethiopia’s state-appointed rights watchdog had accused a Tigrayan youth group of killing hundreds of civilians as the war between federal government forces and Tigrayan forces intensified, but the news agency said that this could not be independently verified.

Also Read | Ethiopia govt forces close in on Tigray capital after ultimatum

This week, the war spilled outside Ethiopia’s borders, after Tigrayan forces fired rockets into neighbouring Eritrea claiming that the Ethiopian government was using an Eritrean airport to attack Tigray.

Ethiopia: Government forces 'capture Tigray's second-largest city' The Tigray region has been facing a rebellion since earlier this month. (Ethiopian News Agency/AP/picture alliance)

A Reuters report said that members of the UN Security Council had expressed concern about the situation in Ethiopia in a meeting on Tuesday, but Niger, South Africa and Tunisia have appealed for more time to attempt to resolve the situation through efforts by regional powers.

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed rejected international calls for dialogue and a halt to the fighting in Tigray, calling it “unwelcome”, insisting that his country will handle the conflict on its own.

Despite the rapidly deteriorating situation, employment has played a significant role in the lives of Indian citizens stuck in Ethiopia, for whom the families say the choice between remaining in the country and returning to India is a matter of their paycheck.

“There were a lack of opportunities here so he went to Ethiopia,” Preeti said of her father. “He was thinking of remaining there long-term because of the favourable job circumstances.”

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