My mother, just like her name ዐለም Alem meaning “world,” is just that to our family and community.  She is the champion, the root, and stem, the strength of our family.  When mama walks in, the room lights up.  She has this captivating smile that stays with you and makes you feel safe.  I remember my uncles used to tell us that it was not only her hair or her height but the radiance you feel through her eyes and presence that captured my dad’s heart.  She has this vibrant personality and is known for her hearty laugh, which makes you just want to know and be connected to her.  My mother started school after she got married and soon had children.  She boldly completed elementary through high school while her kids were also going to elementary school.  This was not that common, especially for women and young mothers, during those times.  Her desire to serve and build community was also showcased through her leadership in the local women’s community groups.

My father on the other hand is a soft-spoken man.  He is easy to talk to and a very liberal parent who always created encouraging space to voice our ideas as kids, have the freedom to speak openly, and simply be our most authentic selves.  My dad, who is a teacher and educator true to his core, loves to tell stories and believes in the essence of family.  I remember as a child he would bring the folding chairs and table to the front yard (mereba) so he could sit and watch us kids play while Tarzan, our dog, sat next to him as he prepared his lesson plans.

Our house was a vibrant, noise-filled home.  There were always activities, conversations, and intentional excitements happening.  It was a home filled with love, compassion, and encouragement.  My beautiful parents created a childhood we all cherish and because of it, we all remain extremely close as siblings and with our parents.  As adults with children of our own, my siblings and I sometimes gather and reminisce about the great memories of our childhood. While we are all dispersed across Ethiopia and the U.S., it remains a favorite past time.

Our tradition is our parents come from Tigray to visit us at least three times a year in Addis Ababa or alternatively we would visit them for holidays.  The last time I saw my parents was at the beginning of 2020 before I moved back to the U.S.  Like all families and the world, COVID — 19 in 2020 made it difficult to travel and connect with family, but we have managed it through phone and virtual calls.  We call my parents 2–3 times a week, with Sundays holding the longest conversations.  On these calls, the last two minutes always were reserved so my parents could bless us with a prayer, praise, or reassurance of God’s hands in every walk of our lives.  A few of my mom’s blessings I would—almost always—hear include:  ተባረኪ “Tebareki (be blessed); tsinue rigesti, ብደቅኪ ፡ ተሃጎሲ bideki tehagosi (may you find joy bc of your kids); ወፊርኪ ፡ ዕተዊ wefirki etewi (may you always make it safe home); ክፉእ ፡ አይርከበኪ kifue ayerkebki (may God always bring only good your way); እንታይ ፡ ይሳንኦ ፡ መድሃኒአለም ፡ ኩሉ ፡ ናቱ entay yisano medhanialem kulu natu (everything is in God’s hand and there is not nothing impossible for Him), አጆኪ ፡ ከይትሀምቂ ajoki keytahmki (be resilient and strong, never be weary).”

Sunday, November 1, 2020 was a normal day as any other beforehand.  I talked to my parents about the kids, life, and about how my mother’s yearly going to Axum Tsion in the coming few weeks would be different due to COVID-19.  We ended with our traditional prayers and blessings.  Then, I called her the next day, Monday, November 2, 2020, to remind her of safety precautions and tell her to double mask if she had to go to church that day.  She reassured me and said, “Please don’t worry, zagualey (my daughter).  I will be careful.  But know that corona doesn’t enter a holy place.  God is with us.”

Little did I know that would be the last time I would hear my parents’ voices and my last conversation with them.  In just 24 hours, Ethiopia would be going into a war penetrating the Tigray region.  My heart stopped and my mind whirled.  I did not know what to do.  I felt confused.  I just did not understand what it meant to no longer call, text, or speak to my parents.  The very thought and experience of not knowing what was happening in Tigray is and continues to be painstakingly agonizing.

Every day since and every hour, I try to call in hopes of magically getting through.  Like many in this same position, I watch the news endlessly to hear new development and pray that my parents and family are safe.  Since November 4, I have not slept properly, I cannot focus, I cannot think straight and at times, I have to remember to breathe.  There are so many “what ifs” or “I wish that” thoughts creeping across my mind.  A flood of thoughts goes running through:  I wish they would have stayed in Addis in early 2020.  What if my dad runs out of medication and dies?  What if they run out of food?  Will they even have cash?  They don’t have access to a bank.  I wish they have withdrawn money.  Even if they have cash at hand, where do they go to buy food?  I am consumed with these thoughts that I can barely sleep.  There have been more sleepless nights than not…nights filled with terror and nightmares leaving me exhausted and on edge during the day.

When news broke that the war on Tigray was over in December 2020, I felt a brief sense of relief.  This was quickly disrupted by the reality of the situation at hand.  I still cannot get any information on how they are doing and if they are OK.  There is still no access to the phone, Internet, or communication where my parents live except for Mekele, the capital of Tigray.  The thought of what may have happened to them, especially if they get hit by drone strikes, run out of food or medicine, is agonizing.  I am devastated that in the same way they have always cared for me, I am helpless to aid them in some way.  I have never felt so helpless and distressed in my entire life.  It is over three months now since I have received my parents’ prayers, their encouragement, or heard their voices.  I miss them deeply.

While being distressed over my parents, beyond agonizing is the heart-wrenching, horrendous news accounts and stories of horrific sexual violence against women and girls we are hearing in Tigray.  From the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, The Associated Press reported, “Serious allegations of sexual violence” have emerged in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, while women and girls face shortages of rape kits and HIV drugs amid restrictions on humanitarian access.  Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall, Assistant Director-General for Emergency Response at the World Health Organization (WHO) stated, “Many hospitals and clinics are only partially functioning or had to close” and “healthcare workers have been displaced.” UN warns of ‘serious’ rape charges in Ethiopia’s Tigray

In addition, “There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence,” Pramila Patten states in the article.  It goes on to state, “Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centers have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections.”

Imagine for one minute—as a woman, a mother, as a human being–just think about what these reports are saying is happening.  These reports shook me to my core and continue to tear me and break my heart daily; I know it continues to tear the people of Tigray from everywhere.  I am having a hard time even comprehending it.  I can only pray and wonder about those women who are experiencing it daily.

Politics aside, it is the individual who is suffering—the mother with her children, the families torn apart, the children who fear for their parents, and the women and young people suffering and dying in the dark.  If you look hard enough, there is someone in your community suffering in silence—a friend, colleague, neighbor, or someone in your network tremendously affected, or who has a family member in the current situation in Tigray.  I implore you and ask that you take action in some basic way to be a supporter of human kindness.  You can:

  • Advocate for urgent and unhindered humanitarian access through lobbying and contributing to Aids Assistance Groups
  • Be the voice for women, children, and young people in the Tigray region using your personal networks and social media
  • Advocate for communication and Internet access on behalf of the Tigray people to your local leaders
  • Listen, recognize and acknowledge the pain without judgment; show kindness in person or on social media
  • Share people-centered and humanitarian-focused information on your social media feeds and not misinformation, fake news, or hate-filled rhetoric

If you do not feel you can do any of the above, then I ask that you kindly, silently, and genuinely say a prayer…a prayer for the people of Tigray who are going through this manmade crisis—emotional and physical turmoil—and for all innocent victims of the war on Tigray.

By Sara Tadiwos