'Look after my babies': In Ethiopia, a Tigray family's quest amid gunshots, ethnic violence
Gunfire crackled near the straw-woven 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.
The violence 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 war that has killed thousands of ethnic Tigrayans like them.
Abraha pleaded with his wife, writhing from post-childbirth complications, to be silent, as any noise could bring gunmen to his door. His two young sons watched in fear.
“I prayed and prayed,” Abraha said. “God didn’t help me.”
He was terrified his family would not survive.
Five months after it began, the armed conflict in Ethiopia has turned into what witnesses describe as a campaign to destroy the Tigrayan minority. Thousands of families have been shattered, fleeing their homes, starved, murdered or still searching for each other across a region of some 6 million people.
Amid the heartbreak, the sight of a tall, silent man carrying a grimy pink bassinet slung around his neck with tiny twin girls would still bring out the kindness of strangers, even from the ethnicity targeting them.
Above: Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam holds his 4-months-old twin daughters Aden, left, and Turfu on 23 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
The bloodshed in Mai Kadra began in November as Abraha’s wife, Letay, was enjoying the final stretch of a seemingly normal pregnancy. She was four days late but untroubled. The number of the ambulance for the health clinic was in hand, ready to call.
But then the sounds of fighting grew closer. The shooting and screams sent Letay, her husband and their sons, 5-year-old Micheale and 11-year-old Daniel, into hiding in the tall, parched grass near their home.
They lay for hours under the hot sun. There was nothing to eat or drink. Letay rested on her side.
“Don’t worry, I’m OK,” she told her worried husband. That night, they crept indoors to sleep.
The next day, Letay went into labour.
The gunfire continued in Mai Kadra, and most of the neighbours had fled. Frightened and feeling alone, Abraha and his wife decided not to risk going to the clinic. They would deliver their baby at home.
An elderly neighbour from the ethnic group fighting the Tigrayans, the Amhara, had not left. She agreed to help.
Abraha had never seen childbirth. Like most men across Tigray, he hovered outside the door, praying. The delivery was quiet and fast, just three hours long. Finally, he peeked inside.
He had longed for a daughter. Now, nestled beside his wife, he saw two. His joy was tempered by anxiety.
“Here something awful was happening in our village,” he said. “I wondered, ‘How can I do this?’”
But in the hours ahead, he forgot about the babies. Something was badly wrong with his wife. Her afterbirth wasn’t coming out.
Letay’s pain grew. She tried to breastfeed the twins, but couldn’t. As she lost herself in agony, the babies began to cry.
The family tried to comfort them, in vain. They kept the exhausted Letay awake because of their belief that otherwise the afterbirth would fall back into her.
Above: Four-month-old twin sisters Aden, left, and Turfu lay on their blankets inside their family shelter, in Hamdayet on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
“I don’t know what wrong I did to my God for these troubles,” Abraha said, starting to cry.
Four days after Letay delivered, her afterbirth was expelled. But she wept day and night in pain.
Abraha despaired. By now, from neighbours’ accounts, the family understood they were trapped in a massacre. Ethnicity had become deadly, with reports of both Amhara and Tigrayans being shot or slaughtered.
“If I took my wife to the clinic, they might kill me,” Abraha said. “It was very difficult to decide.”
He waited until he could bear it no longer. A week after Letay gave birth, he asked the Amhara neighbour to take her for help.
But the clinic could not, or did not, help her. Abraha doesn’t know whether ethnic tensions played a role.
On the ninth day after giving birth, 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.
Above: A photograph of Letay, the late wife of 40-year-old Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam, inside the family shelter, in Hamdayet on 14 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
In Tigray culture, the community gathers when someone dies. Even strangers take part, throwing a little dirt on the grave.
But as Abraha emerged from his home for the first time since the war began, only a handful of people stepped forward to help carry his wife’s body to the church. Fewer than a dozen neighbours were there.
It was daylight. The burial was short. There were no speeches. The churchyard likely was full of fresh graves from the hundreds killed in Mai Kadra, but Abraha didn’t notice his surroundings.
He returned home, where the babies he had almost forgotten about were waiting. Wrapped up in his wife’s final days, he had little idea how the girls were fed or even survived.
Abraha found himself struggling. Washing the tiny, wriggling girls terrified him. Without diapers, he rinsed and reused pieces of cloth. And with two babies instead of one, everything seemed to run short.
He wondered if he was failing. The twins cried most of the time. Trapped in a home just a few paces in size, Abraha got little sleep.
When he broke down and cried, his sons comforted him.
Above: A dress made for 4-month-old twins Aden and Turfu made from the cloth belonging to their mother Letay, the late wife of 40-year-old Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam, inside the family shelter, in Hamdayet on 14 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
“We need you, be strong,” they said.
Abraha didn’t leave the house. His son Daniel tried to visit the market one day and saw some 10 bodies piled onto a vehicle, with another four in the dirt. He never went to the market again.
The Amhara neighbour went out for the family’s food and helped with the children. For another measure of safety, an acquaintance from a different ethnic group, the Wolkait, managed to get the ethnicity changed on Abraha’s identity card. On paper he became Wolkait, too.
It happened just in time. When Amhara militia members came to his home, 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 militia came to the house several times after that. They offered Abraha a little money and tried to comfort him for his loss.
Above: (LEFT) Micheale kisses his 4-month-old sister Aden as his 19-year-old uncle Goytom Tsegay, left, sits with them, inside their family shelter, in Hamdayet on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty | (RIGHT) Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam prays at a church early morning in Hamdayet on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
“They thought I was one of them,” Abraha said.
His family was safe, for now. But he knew they couldn’t stay. The fake Wolkait identity had worked almost too well. Abraha’s brother-in-law, 19-year-old Goytom Tsegay, said Amhara special forces tried to recruit him.
Life in Mai Kadra was more dangerous by the day. Every night, Abraha heard someone else had been killed. A month after the fighting began, he decided to leave.
He didn’t even know where to go.
The family packed light, so the Amhara who now controlled Mai Kadra would not notice they were leaving for good. Abraha, his children and his brother-in-law carried just five pieces of the local injera bread, a tin of milk and two litres of water, plus a change of clothes for the twins.
A woman in the community brought the pink bassinet for the babies. Abraha hid a small book of photos of his wife and children under its mattress, along with his wife’s jewellery. He was scared the militia would find them, but he couldn’t bear to leave them behind.
Above: Five-year-old Micheale tries on jewellery belonging to his late mother Letay, inside the family shelter, in Hamdayet on 14 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
The family walked to the checkpoint on the edge of town, accompanied by the Amhara neighbour. She chatted with fighters there. This family is Amhara, she said.
Sympathetic, the militia unknowingly helped the fleeing Tigrayan family. They stopped a car on the road and arranged a ride, saving Abraha and his children a six-hour walk to the city of Humera near the Sudanese border.
Blinded by grief and nervousness, Abraha hardly looked out the window during the drive, one he had made many times. Other desperate families were fleeing on foot through the lowland farms, trying to stay out of sight of the militia, clutching whatever possessions they had left.
In Humera, also under growing Amhara control, Abraha’s family went to the hospital to ask for milk. Again, one glance at the babies in his arms won new friends.
“All the staff was sorry for me, even the cleaners,” he said.
A fellow Tigrayan, one of the few remaining on staff, quietly took them to her home and suggested they go to Sudan for safety. It was a four-hour walk away.
Abraha had heard that the Amhara youth militia and soldiers from nearby Eritrea roamed the route. Both have been accused of beating or shooting people trying to flee.
“We were very afraid we would be killed,” he said.
The family started their final walk before dawn. They stayed off the roads, crossing fields instead, asking fellow Tigrayans they met for the safest way. They stopped sometimes to hide in the grass and give milk to the crying babies.
The heat quickly grew with the rising sun. The flat expanse of Sudan came into sight, then the narrow Tekeze river.
Frantic Tigrayans jostled for places aboard the boats that would ferry them across the border. Many were waiting. It was loud and chaotic, and the twins began to wail.
The sight of Abraha, the bassinet and what it carried stilled some in the crowd. To Abraha’s astonishment, the family was waved to the front and given a reduced price for the crossing.
He and the babies were ushered to a boat of their own that was lashed together from a dozen 20-litre jerrycans. It was flat, with no guardrail.
Abraha couldn’t swim. But as he settled into place in the centre of the boat and its bottom scraped free of his country, he felt the burden of the past month ease.
“I was 100 percent sure the babies would grow up, that things would change from that moment,” he said. “My stress melted away. There were no more fears for our lives.”
Even the twins had become quiet. He looked down. They had fallen asleep.
Above: Micheale Gebremariam, waits for his father 40-year-old Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam, to bathe him after waking up early morning in their shelter, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
The family arrived in Sudan exhausted, with the twins badly underweight. Megan Donaghy, a nurse-midwife with Doctors Without Borders, wondered what had happened to their mother.
Abraha pulled out a picture and said, “This is my wife.” The entire family smiled as they looked at it.
“And that’s when I cried, when I saw her face,” Donaghy remembered. “She was just this beautiful, vibrant woman, a young woman, who loved her family, and here they were in tattered clothes, run-down, tired, hungry, with these sweet little babies.”
A fellow refugee, Mulu Gebrencheal, a mother of five, came across the family and wept. She has since become an informal adviser on the babies’ care. Abraha and his sons are quick learners, she said, but she mourns for the twins.
“Even the hug of a mother is very sweet,” she said. “They’ve never had this. They never will.”
Months after arriving in Sudan, the twins lay on their backs under tiny mosquito nets on metal-frame beds, gnawing a fist or smiling up at the besotted men who have become experts in infant care. On their tiny wrists, the girls take turns wearing a single protective amulet given to them by a local woman.
But for Abraha, a painful task remained. He had finally managed to reach his relatives inside Tigray for the first time since the war began. His sister picked up the phone, and he asked her to invite other family members to an important call the following day.
He made his way alone back to the border with Ethiopia, where refugees come with their phones for a clearer signal. He forced himself to begin with the good news.
Above: (LEFT) Tigrayan 19-year-old Goytom Tsegay, tries to comfort his 4-month-old niece Turfu Gebremariam, inside their family shelter, in Hamdayet on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty | (RIGHT) Micheale Gebremariam plays with a friend inside his family shelter, in Hamdayet on 21 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
His family, excited, clamoured for details of his wife.
“Did she give birth?” they asked.
“Yes, twins,” Abraha replied. Joyful, his family pressed for more.
“Boys or girls?”
“Who looks like whom?”
“How was the labour?”
Finally, Abraha calmed them, and continued.
“But,” he said, “I couldn’t save her life.”
His family began to cry. He joined them. He worried about what awful things might have happened to his sister and others that they were hiding from him even now.
As the tears calmed, his family tried to comfort him.
“God has his own plan.”
“Try to be strong.”
“Look after the babies, and the boys.”
“You’re all they have.”
Above: Tigrayan 40-year-old Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam, second left, poses for a photograph with his 11-year-old Daniel Gebremariam, centre, his 5-year-old son Micheale Gebremariam, left, his 19-year-old brother-in-law Goytom Tsegay, and his 4-months-old twin daughters Aden Gebremariam, and Turfu Gebremariam, inside their family shelter, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on 23 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
That evening, Abraha returned to what he and his children now call home, thanks to those who helped them get out alive. He picked up the baby girls and again searched their faces for traces of their mother. His family agrees, one of the babies does look like Letay.
In the fear and despair following their birth, the twins were left unnamed. There was no time. Finally, Abraha’s young son Micheale christened them himself.
One of the girls was named Aden, or “paradise.”
The other, who reminds people of her mother, was named Turfu, or “left behind.”
Bleed image: Tigrayan refugee Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam, 40, uses a flashlight to check on his 4-month-old twin daughters, Aden and Turfu, after praying at a church early in the morning, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on 21 March, 2021. Even as Tigrayans ran for their lives or jostled for space on a boat to safety, the sight of the tall, silent, sorrowful man carrying the tiny twin girls made people pause. Photo via The Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
— This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.