By Robbie Corey Boulet
Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories involved the feasts his father would prepare for Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany festival Timkat -- the way he would lead their family in song while roasting a freshly-slaughtered sheep.
But those memories are now acutely painful.
Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year while battling ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war ravaging Africa’s second most populous country.
Wary of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead cast a pall over a typically joyous occasion.
A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier spot to mark Timkat, which commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.
Donning sparkling white tunics and dresses, worshippers march in a raucous parade each year that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then leap the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water.
This week, though, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals teemed with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s confronted the absence of the deceased.
“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know one house where six or seven people are dead,” Arega, also a militia fighter, told AFP. “It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths.”
Ethiopia’s war broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancour between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
After several twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive has turned the tide yet again, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.
Foreign powers now hope the two sides can reach a deal to end fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.
The US this week sent its top Africa diplomat and its regional special envoy to Addis Ababa, eyeing what it terms an “opening for peace”.
But any push by Abiy for reconciliation would encounter stiff resistance in Gondar, where combatants, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terrorist group, must now be destroyed.
‘Mothers are crying’
The mere idea of talks is “an insult for the Amhara people”, said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official in the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), an opposition party.
“Does anyone have a gut to negotiate with ISIS? Does anyone have a gut to negotiate with Al-Qaeda? Does anyone have a gut to negotiate with Boko Haram? For us, TPLF is equal to these terrorist groups.”
Baye Kenaw, a commander in the ethnic Amhara Fano militia, spent the days preceding Timkat visiting families of nine fighters slain in recent clashes.
“This is a different Timkat for me,” he told AFP. “Mothers are crying over their dead sons.”
Such outpourings of grief reinforce Baye’s view that the TPLF must be dealt with militarily. “I don’t believe negotiations with the TPLF will work because from the time of their establishment their goal is to wipe Amharas from the face of the earth,” he said, echoing a common belief in Amhara.
Minas Alemayehu, a burly and bearded Fano fighter injured in a mortar attack, also said the TPLF “will always be a threat” unless they are unequivocally defeated, though he described the hostilities as regrettable. “I will never forget the fact that brothers fought each other,” he said.
“Fighting against your brother is the saddest part of all.”
Turning the page
The only combatant who expressed any enthusiasm for peace talks was Arega, the militia fighter who lost his father.
“I just want peace for my country,” he said as the parade in Gondar began, with floats featuring a wooden cross and a replica of Noah’s Ark rolling down the city’s paved and cobbled streets.
Tigrayans, he added, “have lost loved ones as well.”
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has so far kept the details of a proposed “national dialogue” under wraps. His most concrete reconciliation gesture was the release this month of high-profile opponents including a TPLF founder.
His Timkat message praised the virtue of “humility” but offered no details on next steps.
Addressing the faithful Wednesday at the 17th-century baths built by Emperor Fasilides, local officials tried to turn the page on the conflict, declaring the TPLF vanquished and calling for a speedy post-war recovery.
It was a message that resonated with locals like 22-year-old Gebre Ayana, who emerged from the baths smiling widely, drenched in holy water.
“This Timkat is very, very special to me,” he said.
“We have had reason to grieve, but now I can thank the army and other fighters who made this celebration possible.”
Robbie COREY-BOULET filed this piece from Gondar