War wounds cast a shadow over Ethiopia’s Epiphany festival

Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories of his youth are of the celebrations his father prepared for the Timkat festival of Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany, when he would make the family sing while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep. But those memories are painful now

Arega’s father, a militiaman of the Amhara ethnic group, was shot dead last year when he was fighting the Tigray rebels along with thousands of others who died in the war that has bled the second most populous country in Africa for 14 months.

Arega didn’t want to spend this year’s Timkat with her grieving family, so she celebrated it alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where villagers say the war has overshadowed the usually joyous holiday.

Gondar, the former imperial seat in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, has been the best place to celebrate Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.

Clad in white robes and dresses, worshipers march each year in a raucous parade that culminates in an all-night prayer session, followed the next morning by 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water.

But this week, the festivities were tainted by the scars of war: Gondar’s hospitals are full of wounded combatants while families like Arega’s suffer the absence of their dead.

“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know of a house where six or seven people died,” Arega, who is also a militia fighter, told AFP.

“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths,” he said.

– Moment for peace –

The war in Ethiopia began in November 2020 after months of hostility between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the ruling party of the northern Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

After many twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive managed to gain the upper hand and drove the rebels back to Tigray.

Foreign powers hope the two sides can now reach a deal to end the fighting that has displaced millions and, according to the UN, left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine.

But any attempt at reconciliation by Abiy will meet resistance in Gondar, where fighters, politicians and villagers celebrating the Timkat told AFP the TPLF must be destroyed.

The very idea of ​​dialogue is “an insult to the Amhara people,” said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official with the Amhara National Movement, an opposition party.

“Does anyone want to negotiate with IS (Islamic State)? Does anyone want to negotiate with Al Qaeda? Does anyone want to negotiate with Boko Haram? For us, the TPLF is equal to these terrorist groups,” Mekonnen said.

Similarly, Baye Kenaw, commander of the Amhara Fano militia, said that “this is a different Timkat for me. Mothers are crying for their dead children.”

He saw so much pain in his recent visits to the families of the victims that he became convinced that the only way to deal with the TPLF is with arms.

The only combatant who expressed any enthusiasm for the peace talks was Arega, the militiaman who lost his father.

“I only wish peace for my country,” he said as the parade began in Gondar, with floats carrying a wooden cross and a replica of Noah’s Ark through the city’s cobbled streets.

He acknowledged that the people of Tigray “also lost loved ones.

Meanwhile Abiy, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019, keeps his plans for a national dialogue secret.

His Timkat message extolled the virtues of “humility” but did not provide details of the next step.

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War wounds cast a shadow over Ethiopia’s Epiphany festival