San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
‘Look after my babies’ — anguish in Tigray
Gunfire crackled near the home of Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam. He hoped it drowned out the cries of his wife, curled up in pain, and the newborn twin daughters wailing beside her.
War had broken out in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region at the worst possible time for Abraha and his family. Their village of Mai Kadra was caught in the first known massacre of a grinding conflict that has killed thousands of ethnic Tigrayans like them.
Abraha pleaded with his wife, writhing from postchildbirth complications, to be silent, fearful any noise would bring gunmen to his door. His young sons watched in fear.
“I prayed and prayed,” Abraha said. “God didn’t help me.”
Five months after it began, the war has turned into what witnesses describe as a campaign to destroy the Tigrayan minority. Thousands of families have been shattered.
The bloodshed began in November as Abraha’s wife, Letay, enjoyed the final stretch of a seemingly normal pregnancy. Hearing gunfire, she, her husband and their sons, 5yearold Micheale and 11yearold Daniel, hid in the grass outside.
They lay for hours under the hot sun. “Don’t worry, I’m OK,” Letay told her husband. That night, they crept indoors to sleep.
Letay went into labor the next day. She and Abraha decided to deliver at home. An elderly neighbor from the ethnic group fighting the Tigrayans, the Amhara, agreed to help.
Abraha had longed for a daughter. Soon, nestled beside his wife, he saw two. His joy was tempered by anxiety as war raged outside.
But he soon forgot about the babies. Something was badly wrong with his wife. Her afterbirth wasn’t coming out. In agony, she tried to breastfeed the twins, but couldn’t.
“I don’t know what wrong I did to my God for these troubles,” Abraha said.
Four days after Letay delivered, her afterbirth was expelled. But she wept day and night in pain.
By now, the family understood they were trapped in a massacre. Ethnicity had become deadly, with reports of both Amhara and Tigrayans in Mai Kadra being shot or slaughtered. On the ninth day, Letay beckoned Abraha closer.
“Look after my babies,” she said. “I’m going to die. I don’t have hope. I’m very sorry.” She was gone the next day. The burial was short. There were no speeches. The churchyard likely was full of fresh graves, but Abraha didn’t notice his surroundings.
At home, the babies were waiting.
Washing the tiny, wriggling girls terrified him. Without diapers, he rinsed and reused pieces of cloth. And with two babies instead of one, everything ran short. He wondered if he was failing.
For a measure of safety, an acquaintance from a different ethnic group, the Wolkait, got the ethnicity changed on Abraha’s identity card. On paper he became Wolkait, too.
It happened just in time. When Amhara militia members visited, Abraha showed the altered ID. He addressed them in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language, not daring to speak a word of his native Tigrinya.
He also showed them his baby girls. Any suspicions disappeared. The fighters tried to comfort him for his loss.
His family was safe, for now. But he knew they had to leave. They walked to the edge of town, accompanied by the Amhara neighbor. She chatted with fighters there. This family is Amhara, she said.
Sympathetic, the militia unknowingly helped the fleeing Tigrayan family. They stopped a car and arranged a ride to the city of Humera on their way eventually to Sudan.
There, Abraha’s young son Micheale christened the twins himself. One of the girls was named Aden, or “paradise.” The other was named Turfu, or “left behind.”