Long ago I lived a year in Eritrea, in northernmost Ethiopia. With an Eritrean Liberation Front easy to confuse with bandits, we were told to be off the roads by five o’clock and keep a bag packed in case of evacuation. I asked an American who had settled in the countryside, which side did the villagers favor? He said, “They want the fighting to stop and the price of sugar to come down.”
After our departure came drought, famine, and a long civil war. Eritrea won independence in 1991. In Ethiopia, politicians from Tigray—just south of Eritrea—dominated a governing coalition of semi-autonomous regional/ethnic parties for the next 27 years. I remember passing through Tigray on a motorcycle trip to the Blue Nile Falls. The city of Axum, memorable for its ancient stone stelae, was said to hold the Ark of the Covenant, brought there by the Queen of Sheba. A barefoot child guided us through the ruins of the queen’s supposed palace.
In 2018, a new government removed the Tigrayans from power and tried to replace ethnic federalism with a fresh sense of national identity. After the new regime postponed promised elections in 2020 because of coronavirus, Tigray held its own election in defiance. Rising tensions erupted into warfare last November. Amid reports and denials of mass murder, rape, and famine, tens of thousands have fled into Sudan.
Amnesty International reported hundreds of unarmed civilians shot in the streets of Axum. Our little tour guide, if he is still alive, might be a grandfather by now. He may want the same thing Eritrean villagers wanted decades earlier: Security for his family to get on with their lives. Isn’t that what most of us wish, regardless of time or place? For the fighting to stop and the price of sugar to come down?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.